Saturday, November 14, 2009
I’m leaving from next to the post office in Clarkedale, Arkansas, heading through some small towns and the cities of Marion and West Memphis, and ending the day in Memphis, Tennessee, just on the other side of the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge.
It’s a sunny day with some high clouds, and a fairly strong breeze out of the south. It’s in the low 60s now, but the forecast is for it to get into the mid-70s.
Just down from where I start is the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, with a cemetery out back that looks like Boot Hill. Some homemade stones among the store-bought ones, everything all topsy turvy and leaning at odd angles, the soil hard and dry and devoid of grass around the graves. A slum of a cemetery. There’s Nellie Sledge, Alberta Turner, and Jetel Clemens. You can almost see people digging the graves by hand, with shovels and picks.
The next little village is Jericho, population 184. Jericho, in spite of being smaller than Clarkedale, appears to have more going on in it than Clarkedale did. One place that I at first think is a house turns out to be the True Holiness Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, unlike in Indiana and Illinois, I'm far beyond marveling that churches look like large trailers. In the south, if something is standing, it's generally used, no matter what it looks like or what condition it’s in. There’s seldom any attempt to fix something up once it’s been built, and when it falls down or becomes too dangerous to occupy, it’s simply abandoned. Rarely is a building torn down on purpose out here in the country. What’s the point? Just build something else next to it. Demolition and renovation are the luxuries of those who have more money than land.
Here in the center of Jericho is a brick building, perhaps thirty feet square, painted grey, with no windows and just a black front door. It’s called Da Spot. It looks like it might be a thriving nightclub. Just the kind of place that B.B. King or Howlin’ Wolf would have played at years ago.
Until earlier this year, Jericho had a rather ambitious police force, consisting of a seven police officers. That's a lot of law for a town of 184. Things came to a head on August 27, when one of the officers shot the assistant fire chief in the hip in court after he had appeared twice on the same day to protest traffic tickets given out by the force. Residents had complained that the cops gave out excessive numbers of tickets for frivolous reasons, and that they couldn't account for the extra money brought in from the citations. The force has been temporarily disbanded and the sheriff's department now patrols the area.
After Jericho I come to the community of James Mill, no population given. At the crossroads there is some business, maybe now or formerly a sawmill. Just on the other side of the train tracks it sounds like someone is shooting a gun, probably into the steep embankment by the tracks.
I think I went through a place called Harvard, although I didn’t see a sign for it. Also, at some point, I have gone through Sunset. I think the signs are better coming from the south.
Next comes Marion, population 10,415. Marion is the county seat of Crittenden County, although West Memphis, also in this county, is much larger, with a population of over 27,000. There’s a reason for this. West Memphis was originally three smaller towns, and until the early 20th century was known as Bragg's Mill. It changed its name to West Memphis when people became aware that lumber from the Memphis market commanded higher prices from foreign customers.
By now we know that Marion was probably named for Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, like many early American towns and counties. The Crittenden County Courthouse, closed today because it is Saturday, could use a coat of paint. It’s a brick building, not too distinguished, dating probably from the early 1900s, two stories, with four huge columns in front and a low wooden dome. The brick has been painted a terra cotta color, and the columns and trim are white. Across the top of the front are the words “OBEDIENCE TO THE LAW IS LIBERTY.” That’s a slightly inaccurate paraphrasing of something Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: “Liberty is obedience to the law which one has laid down for oneself.” I think the way Crittenden County has it is a little more the way Orwell might have put it in 1984.
There are several very upscale neighborhoods south of downtown Marion, many with new houses that would sell for $300,000 to $500,000 in the north. This area is evidently becoming a desirable place for affluent Memphians to settle.
A few thoughts on Arkansas, since I will only be in the state for a few more hours. Arkansas and Mississippi usually compete for the honor of being the state with the lowest per capita income, and the highest incidences of illiteracy, obesity, diabetes, and other poverty-related ills. But Arkansas doesn’t get the kind of press Mississippi does, due in large part to the fact that Mississippi was so spectacularly brutal and Klan-ridden during the era of the civil rights struggles. So Arkansas needs to try a little harder.
At a personal level, I found the people of Arkansas to be friendly—to me, at least. No complaints there. I drove through Jericho several times without incident. And considering how poor a state it is, Arkansas has been very generous in leaving a trail of change on the roadside for me to find. I thank the people of Arkansas for that. Even as I speak I continue to stop regularly to pick up pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters.
By the time I get halfway across that bridge over the Mississippi I will have walked a total of 77.6 miles in Arkansas, over two full and two partial days.
Also, I know the people of Arkansas can’t help it if they talk funny and look funny.
And Arkansas, as you’ll recall, is the birthplace of my very own Grandma Smith, and so I have to give it a little bit of deference just on that account. Grandma was a washed in the blood Southern Baptist and a died in the wool Southern Democrat, and looked favorably on the Ku Klux Klan. She would have been one of the first to say that the people of the north just don’t understand how it is down here. But one’s grandmother is one’s grandmother, and she was kind and loving to me.
Having gone under I-55 I'm pretty sure I've entered West Memphis, although I didn’t see any sign. The banners on the lightposts say “Open for Opportunity.” West Memphis had a reputation, early in the last century, for being a wide-open town, where you could get just about anything you wanted. Don’t know if it’s still that way.
As always in these southern cities the First Baptist Church and the First United Methodist Church are the fattest and most prosperous-looking houses of worship, sitting across the street from each other like Macy’s and Gimbels. People obviously left fortunes to these churches, and they have huge wings named after benefactors.
I turn east on U.S. 70 as I head for the Mississippi. In the far distance in the haze of mid-afternoon I can see some of the tall buildings on the Memphis waterfront as I look down Broadway. I walk through a variety of smells as I traverse the downtown. Car wax from an auto detailing place, fried chicken, the hot wet smell of a laundry, garbage, stale beer, burning leaves. But there’s a smell in this city that transcends those. It’s the smell of poverty papered over with Christianity, of instant credit no money down used car lots, of places that specialize in repairing things that most of us would throw away, of motels that rent rooms by the hour, of off-brand supermarkets, off-brand gas, off-brand drug stores, and off-brand churches.
A middle-aged woman in a hot pink shirt and hot pink bedroom slippers carries groceries across the five-lane highway, groaning with each step. Finally, the city tapers off into land that’s too prone to flooding to be developed. But West Memphis doesn’t need any more space for development. They’ve got all the empty space downtown that they could ever use.
At last I reach the entrance to I-55 that goes onto the bridge into Memphis. The problem is that the bridge itself, with its pedestrian walkway, is at least two miles farther, and the only way to get to it by road is to walk along the side of the expressway, with traffic. That seems like a dangerous proposition, so I’m going to bushwhack it, as the hikers say, and try to walk under and next to the interstate for as long as I can, until I’m closer to the bridge itself.
There’s a path of sorts, used for off-road vehicles, over some swampy and very uneven ground. After about a mile, I come up to a dirt road next to a soybean field, which turns into an old paved road for a half mile. At the end of that road, past the barriers, I pick up another pair of rough ruts that takes me across a meadow, through a copse, and over a dried mud flat until I reach some railroad tracks, which I climb over. Finally I see the beginning of the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge. So yes, there is a pedestrian walkway across the Mississippi, but to get to it you must either walk on the interstate with the semis whizzing by or trek through open country for a couple of miles.
I’m finally on the walkway of the bridge. I pause to empty the pebbles and grass out of my shoes and pick the nettles off my clothing. I am now ready to cross. I still have at least a quarter of a mile before I get out on the water. On the bridge I find my last penny in Arkansas, my 36th in just four days. My found money total for the state is $1.91, plus a 1981 English two pence coin. A very respectable total, considering the short time I have been in the state.
At the midpoint of the bridge, out over the water, I pause. Concrete barriers and steel girders are between me and the traffic. The bridge rumbles and shakes. I look west to Arkansas, the Natural State, whatever that means. I look east to Tennessee, the Volunteer State, whatever that means. Then I turn and look south, at Old Man River, the Mighty Mississip. Off to the right the sun is beginning to have its way with the clouds on the horizon. Its bronze light shimmers on the water. In the tranquility of the late afternoon I bid ave et vale—hail and farewell—to these two states, and urinate into the Big Muddy.
I don’t know how much of my offering was received by the Father of Waters. I think I mentioned earlier that there’s a stiff wind blowing from the south today, and up here on the bridge that breeze is even stronger than it is on land. Instantly I am reminded of the scene from The Big Lebowski where John Goodman tries to throw Steve Buscemi’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean. Don’t worry, nothing came back in my face, although the railing and concrete bridge deck received the majority of the libation. But that’s okay. The dude abides.