April 16, 2020 A Walk During the Plague
Somewhere I read we should keep a diary during this pandemic. As I have no aspiration of becoming the next Samuel Pepys the coverage is limited to a twenty minute morning walk about town.
The gym and the walking path at the college are closed leaving only the almost deserted downtown for the walk. No problem parking anywhere on Elm street, only one business is open, a forlorn Hispanic grocery displaying a green neon "Abierto" sign. Across from the grocery is an empty two story building. The first floor once housed W. P. Singleton Gro. There was always a bin full of raw peanuts at the window and I remember seeing a yellow tom cat sleeping on the peanuts. Polk Singleton was the last man in town to wear a Derby. Folks would sometimes park across the street from his store at closing time to watch his ritual. He would lock the double front doors and shake the doors so hard the rattle could be heard for miles. Then he would walk towards his home, down Elm and turn left on Second street, then suddenly he would halt, wheel about and retrace his steps and give the doors a second hard shake. Occasionally he would walk the entire seven blocks home before back tracking to shake the doors. Upstairs in the building there was a doctor's office. The doctor was shot and killed by federal agents during the Second World War. I only know the story second hand, so will not repeat it.
I turn off Elm and walk east on Front Street towards the train station, home of a museum and Amtrak stop. The museum is closed and the almost empty passenger train that stops has long departed. I think you must purchase a ticket for the train online. There is no agent at the station. The train station was once the hub of the town, with Main street running south from the entrance. During the second war I remember stopped passenger trains filled with soldiers and vendors handing up sandwiches and drinks to outstretched arms. My mother said the burgers were made of horse meat. Once I saw cattle cars holding German prisoners on their way to farms in Texas. That once busy station is now a place only for images of city fathers and local memorabilia. An occasional tourist wanting information about the Clinton Home stops in for directions. The downtown was once a container that held most of the businesses. The container was cracked by the much maligned urban renewal program that Lyndon Johnson dreamed up: the streets were blocked and parking was limited, forcing many stores to close. The coup d'etat was the Interstate highway; a magnet that pulled almost everything north to its side.
On the corner across from the station stands the Capitol Hotel building. The second floor is vacant and the lobby is now home to a burger joint (not the one selling horse meat). As I turned from Front to Main street to my surprise there was a pretty girl in a low cut away evening dress, exposing a shapely leg. Her hair was set and she was wearing full war paint. A hulking figure wearing a hoodie walked behind. The two stopped at the burger joint and the girl leaned against the brick wall and posed with the shapely leg fully displayed. I approached and said, "What in the world are you two doing?" The hooded figure, a female photographer, said the senior prom had been cancelled and she was taking pictures of girls in their prom dresses. Sad.
On down Front Street all the old buildings are gone. I try to remember where Lee DeVaughn's Used Clothes was located - a poorly lighted establishment with a strong smell. He also dealt in raccoon and mink hides, as well as pecans and walnuts. We had several pecan trees in our yard and I would gather nuts in a tow sack and carry them to Mr. Lee. He was a white haired bachelor who wore the same black three piece suit every day. He would place the sack on the floor scales and announce "two bits". It did not seem to matter how many pecans I brought, it was always "two bits". Next, I turned right onto Walnut. The building once at the corner is now, yet another, vacant parking lot, the buildings demolished. At the entrance of some vanished buildings octagon floor tiles remain intact, reminding me of mosaics in excavated Roman villas. Across the street the old Collins Cafe building is now home to an unmarked business that keeps the doors shut tight and the shades drawn. I was informed that they engrave guns. The owner has with a contract with major gun dealer who sends guns here to be personalized. There are benches out front where the dozen or so employees take breaks. Sometimes I see them there, smoking and not observing social distancing. This section of Walnut was know as Cotton Row and the ten small offices on either side of the street were once busy with cotton buyers dealing in the famous Hempstead long staple cotton raised in the county. The cotton and the buyers are all gone, the offices shut. The farms that raised cotton now raise beef cattle and grow chickens. Arkansas now processes three billion chickens each year. Tyson has a plant a few miles out of town that turns chicken into McNuggets. The grandchildren of the folks that once picked cotton now eviscerate chickens.
I turn left at Second Street. At the corner is a stone building that was heaven to my eight year old self: Cole's Double Dip. Painted on the side of the building was a large two headed cone, each holding two scoops of ice cream. Mr. Cole, always in a white shirt and bow tie, would carefully hand the cone over the counter to me. On my first visit I was disappointed that the cone had only one head, but forgave with the first lick of chocolate. Just past Cole's (where you now can rent a tux or buy a Jesus Loves You sign) were three grocery stores and the Stephen's Wholesale Gro. The gym where I did walk is in the old Stephen's building. The walking track circles the perimeter of the building. Most of the old buildings had flat roofs. Flat roofs leak. When it rains the manager places buckets along the track and it becomes something of an obstacle course. Most of the walkers are elderly and I sometimes caution them not to kick the bucket. They always laugh. On past the gym are three mystery businesses, all run by Asians. They sell beauty products and wigs to members of the Black community. Usually all three are very busy, but now the proprietors are mostly alone except for several hundred manikin heads sporting assorted wigs.
I crossed the street where Second intersects Hazel. On that corner stood the home of Dr. Lyle. During the second war he was almost the only physician in town. I remember riding my bike to his office on Second for a check-up when I was about nine years old. He handed me a bottle and asked for a specimen. I did not understand what he wanted. He tried again by asking for a urine specimen. I again said, "What?" Finally, a bit red faced, he blurted, "Boy, go pee in the bottle!" Communication at last. The buildings on that entire city block were razed to make way for a bank, a three story brick monster with Ionic columns as large as the ones supporting the Supreme Court Building. The edifice was supposed to announce power, status, and wealth to all who came near. It now stands empty, a white elephant brain child of an inflated ego. The building was recently sold to the county for a fraction of the original cost. The old county court house on the west side of town will be abandoned and the offices eventually moved into the white elephant. I circle the building and hit Third Street, which is also Highway 67, the only road connecting Little Rock and Dallas before the Interstate was constructed. Travelers hated the town because there was a stop light at every corner. The city fathers, somewhat like the robber knights along the Rhine collecting tolls from passing boats, hoped the travelers on 67 would stop, buy gas, eat at a local cafe, and stay the night in a hotel. My friend Rex and I occasionally ate at his mother's cafe,The Southern, on that street when we were in grade school. It was a narrow building with a long counter and stools, no tables. We were not allowed to order, his mom, wearing a waitress outfit and hat, simply plunked down what was on hand in the kitchen. No complaints, it was free.
Across that highway/street were three interesting business. Roger Clinton Buick Agency, the Palace Theatre, and the Lewis Cafe and Hotel. Clinton was the stepfather of Bill, the Lewis Hotel was the only hotel between Little Rock and Dallas that accepted persons of color (as they were called back then), and the Place Theatre was the same. Blacks could sit on one side of the balcony in the Saenger Theatre, but none were allowed inside a White cafe that was not divided. All that seems odd now, but that's the way it was. At the corner of Third and Main was the Checkered cafe, noted for the black and white tiles that covered the side of the cafe that faced Third street. Today the building is brightly painted and is home to Vilma's cafe. Her homemade tamales are pretty good and I look forward to an order après la peste.
On the corner across Main and Third is an operating furniture store. It has been a furniture store as long as I can remember, but under different management now. My high school friend Rufus was awarded a degree in geology from Baylor and returned home to run the store. Next to the furniture store is the economic development office that once housed the police department and at the corner was the Diamond Cafe with the Hotel Henry above. Both cafe and hotel are gone to parking lots. I turn right onto Elm, my childhood street. Our home was on Elm, five blocks north of the train station. I knew everybody on that street. I remember walking to town on V-E day and every house had windows open and radios on full volume - all blaring the same message from Washington. On the west side of Elm is a bank where my father opened a savings account for me on my 12th birthday. He taught frugality - I did not learn. The old bank building was replaced years ago with a larger building and the local owners sold out to bankers in Tupelo. It is still my bank and after retirement I hung out there each week day morning with some other old guys until the plague closed the lobby. I wonder if the old guys will ever return.
Williams Hardware at Second and Elm remains open and busy. Keenan and Peggy work, sans masks and gloves, to help keep the town running. I worry about them, but their sense of duty is strong. Finally, I am back to my parked car, but before driving off I entered the Hispanic grocery and purchased one of the very large Mexican avocados stocked by the elderly proprietor and lone clerk. A pall hanging over the disorderly store is relieved by a TV blaring Mexican music. We exchanged "holas" and he held up two fingers to indicate the price of the avocado. I was the only customer.
My walk about town finished, I drive back to the farm; the back pasture needs to be brush hogged, but I may just take a nap. I'll post this on my web site to read one day.