Letter from Little Rock: Drivin’ (a familiar road) and cryin’ (for lost youth)

Jun 27, 2006 at 7:42 pm

Dear Mark:
I took a road trip to Little Rock a couple weeks ago, and I thought of you. How many times did we burn that road from Louisville to Dallas? You remember Little Rock — heading toward the Big D, it’s the last city with a real skyline, the five-hour mark, the point at which you’re finally pretty sure you can make it on through Texarkana and across that monster Lake Ray Hubbard into the Metroplex, Dallas-Fort Worth, modern suburban automobile-worshipping America at its finest, a 7-11 on every corner for your shopping convenience.
I didn’t even need a map. Go to Nashville and turn right. Go to Memphis and turn right. Turn left at the Little Rock bypass, hit I-30, fire up another baloney sandwich, throw in some more rock ’n’ roll and put your head down.

This time, though, Little Rock was the endpoint, site of the annual alt weekly convention. This time I got to stop and stay a while. It was good.

Texas seems so long ago. Hell, it was the ’80s — the Reagan years. The beginning of the end for FDR’s legacy, the coming out party for modern greed, the robber barons reincarnated. The S&L scandal, Iran-Contra, deficit spending, the military-industrial complex growing faster than the crack epidemic. Shitty music and shittier fashion.

I think about these things often; there’s a story here somewhere. Somehow I got out of Texas, in one piece more or less, and slowly but surely overrode my aimless tendencies into a job I really enjoy. Somehow you got out of Texas, too, more or less in one piece, and kept using your God-given scientific talents to make a living.
Now you’re in Dutch with John Law. I have no way to reach you, really. I hope you don’t mind this “letter” from Little Rock.

photo by cary stemle: It’s not a penis joke and it has nothing to do with the size of W’s brain. It’s just Clinton being Clinton.
photo by cary stemle: It’s not a penis joke and it has nothing to do with the size of W’s brain. It’s just Clinton being Clinton.

I know you find this writing thing about as foreign as I find algorithms. We’re just wired differently. I’m some sort of Rube Goldberg patchwork of irrational optimism and middling cynicism. You’re a supercomputer that never saw a problem it couldn’t solve. I am gullible and yet overly suspicious; you are generous to a fault and not-so-gullible. You used to bring strangers to our cookouts. I used to make sure my valuables were hidden under the bed. If they were scamming, that was on them, not you.

We never saw much of Little Rock, so here’s an overview. The hotel was wonderful. It’s a Peabody now, and it’s fixed it up real nice. There are even ducks swimming in the lobby fountain, just like at the original in Memphis. People are quite friendly in Little Rock — not unlike Louisville. They talk with a lilt in their voice — not unlike Louisville. The weather is swampy — not unlike Louisville, but swampier. A river runs through it.

Our convention included lots of inside baseball stuff — a seminar on writing (doing it magazine-style, and finding info from unofficial sources), a seminar on blogging (alties are taking various approaches these days, from overkill to outright avoidance), and seminars on how to manage people if you don’t really like to manage people. We had a nice party at the understated Clinton Library (no mention of Monica that I could see!), ate a late dinner at a colorful local joint that specializes in insanely tender 2- and 3-pound steaks (we shared), had another nice party and saw some Picassos at an art museum, ate another late dinner at a new four-star restaurant, and heard Wesley Clark and Susan McDougal speak (well, some of the conventioneers heard Ms. McDougal, but I was off to the convention’s annual and unofficial pick-up basketball game that morning, safe under a highway in the pouring rain). I beamed proudly as our boy Stephen George’s name was announced for winning third place in music criticism for papers with under 50,000 circulation. It’s LEO’s first Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award, dammit. We had a nice fish fry and unwittingly walked into a near riot.

The coup de grace, though, the thing that made everyone so interested in making it to Little Rock, was Saturday’s keynote speech by Bill Clinton.

Have we ever discussed Clinton? I fell for him as soon as I saw the group of Democratic hopefuls leading up to the 1992 primary. The man just exuded deep understanding of the world I lived in. How funny that he was the governor of a state we mainly passed through on our way to somewhere else. How odd that his hometown was right along the way, just a stone’s throw from Texarkana (the confluence of three states!). How strange that we had no idea about any of this at the time.

Clinton’s had a few ups and downs since then, no? All the more reason to like him, I think. He’s resilient.
He spent about three hours with us — he gave a speech, he confounded his handlers by taking actual questions from the audience, and he confounded his handlers some more by hanging around to meet and greet.

He actually had a lot to say. He refused to be goaded into making fun of George W. Bush and actually paid him a few compliments. He disagrees with W on just about everything, though, and wonders where this administration’s big ideas are. (Hint: Bill thinks we’re about to start running out of oil and suggests we can create a lot of good jobs if we plunge into alternative energy like we really mean it.)

Bill claimed to not know whether Hillary will run for president and said that if she does (and if she wins), he’ll do whatever she asks him to do. Which means nothing much will change, hey?

When it comes to what’s wrong with modern political society, he framed the issue oh-so-succinctly. It’s that whole “What’s the Matter with Kansas” thing, wherein the political far-right scares the hell out of average folks by talking about gay marriage and flag-burning and other boogie men. Actual evidence be damned, these folks take everything out of context and specialize in creating false dichotomies and painting life in two dimensions. Mark, you and I, more than most, know you don’t have to look far to see life ain’t like that.

Which is why I think the man is brilliant. And even though he probably waived his speaking fee so he could plant some Hillary seeds, and even though he can’t run again and he’s such a whipping boy for the right, and even though he’s arguably the reason things have turned so damned partisan (those people Clinton knows so well couldn’t stand being knocked around by an idea guy who also likes to let his backbone slip every once in a while, so they started going balls-to-the-wall U-G-L-Y), I’d pretty much follow him anywhere. I think it’s his flaws that make him worth knowing, which is a pretty good lesson for both of us.
Yep, Bill Clinton is the man.

I left out of Little Rock on a dreary Sunday morning, as soon as I could wake up, get my wits and get a bellhop to help me pack about 100 alt weeklies into my trunk (I will steal ideas). The weather forecast was for all-day rain, which doesn’t do much for your focus. I could’ve used a co-pilot, but whatever. I got to Memphis and turned left, and soon enough I got to Nashville and turned left, feeling the familiar pull of home, but then (along with lots of Bonnaroo-weary folks going home) lost two hours between Bowling Green and E-town, courtesy of a jackknifed semi. It was another lesson in patience and a reminder that I don’t control much in this life.

The road trip made me think of you, Mark, and me, and the choices we’ve made. I hope this letter finds you well, looking ahead with courage and perseverance and love. Someday, I pray, we can make that drive, together, again. There are things to talk about.

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To read other alt weekly coverage of Little Rock, go to the host paper Arkansas Times’ online section (http://www.arktimes.com/blogs/arkansasblog/2006/06/how_others_see_us.aspx.)