Day 6: Little Rock
William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, was once the Governor of Arkansas.
During his tenure, he lived in the city of Little Rock.
Thus ends the history of Little Rock, Arkansas.
I'm being facetious, of course.
I never felt comfortable during my time in Little Rock. Even from the first moment I parked my car and approached the Visitor's Center, something about the city seemed off, somehow. My initial impression was not dissuaded during my first encounter with a couple of the natives of the city.
Entering the visitor's center, I saw two elderly women sitting behind a desk. The one on the right looked tired, and a little disinterested. She was working on knitting something pink.
The one on the left was very cordial and extremely helpful. However, something seemed off about her, too. I didn't figure it out until later.
"Can I help you?" said the woman on the left.
"Yes!" I said, enthusiastically, "I'm passing through Little Rock and I'll be here for the evening. I'm leaving for Memphis at some point tomorrow morning and I'd love to see what the city has to offer."
The woman on the left checked her watch, then exchanged an oddly knowing glance with the woman knitting.
"Well, it's almost 4 o'clock, and most everything closes by 5. But you can still head downtown to the River City Market. That's where they have, well...I guess you would call it a nightlife".
(She "guesses" she would call it a nightlife.)
"Yeah," said the knitter, passively. "There's some stuff there I guess".
The women gave me some brochures and talked me through some of the highlights of the city. I thanked them for their time, and I was about to leave, when the helpful woman on the left offered me a bottle of water.
"It's...uh...complimentary," she said somewhat nervously, gesturing the bottle in my direction, "It's fresh water...right from Arkansas...?"
I took the water happily. But the woman's tone struck me as somehow sad and yet, hopeful. It was as if she desperately wanted me to enjoy her city, or at very least one of it's products.
I thanked the women for their time and went on my way.
It was 4 o'clock, and I thought I would sneak in a visit to the Bill Clinton Library before closing time at 5.
The Clinton Library sits on the edge of the Arkansas River, adjoined by a literal bridge, meant to symbolize the "Bridge to the 21st Century". The bridge did not look new by any means, which struck me as peculiar. The library itself is about five years old. Yet the bridge appears to be a recycled relic from a forgotten time.
The Library showcases artifacts and news clips from Bill Clinton's Presidency, dating from 1992-2000. The problem here, though, is this: the memories from this era are still too fresh. In order to remind exhibit-goers how crazy the 90's were, there were samples of newer versions of Apple Computers, a clip from the Arsenio Hall show, and a reference to the Columbine shootings. But, none of these feel like ancient memories. These all feel like very recent cultural goings-on. It felt like going to a museum and seeing exhibits commemorating the 2008 Presidential Election. It was all too new.
Leaving the library and walking around downtown, I started to notice a trend. Everywhere I looked, I saw the same general idea, the same topic of conversation. Everywhere I went, the name "Clinton" adorned something or another.
It was then that it struck me that this sentence could actually exist in Little Rock:
"In order to get to the Clinton Library, turn right on President Clinton Boulevard, past the Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Museum Gift Shop. The Clinton Park will be on your left momentarily."
The more I looked around, the more it started to sink in: Little Rock is now, and probably always has been, a small, quiet, unassuming town. However, my expectations, and probably the expectations of others, too, was this: a man known for his exceptional charisma, who led the free world for eight years, must have come from some kind of grandiose beginnings and, therefore, Little Rock is worth seeing. It was a flawed assumption. And it started sinking in that this was not the case.
I should clarify, here, that these comments are neither to be construed as political one way or the other, nor should they be seen as an attack on Little Rock. However, the fact remains that my impression of this city is as follows: this is a small town which was once inhabited by a large man. A man of, at the very least, significant political import.
I would imagine that people come to the city and bring in revenue dollars based on that Clinton name. They'll stop in to see the library and then grab a meal downtown. Heck, that's what I did. I can't be the only one, right?
But...is this tragic, or hopeful? Perhaps Little Rock is the proud base of their hometown hero who rose from humble roots to put this city on the map. And maybe this little city will always be proud of her favorite son.
Or, perhaps Little Rock is the lonely city that will be forever overshadowed by the omnipresent specter of a still-living former President, while the citizens spend every day peddling merchandise for the man who, by happenstance, was once their neighbor.
It should be noted that part of my feelings towards Little Rock are the product of poor timing. 24 hours ago I stood in the omni-metropolis known as Dallas, researching the short life of John F. Kennedy. Now, in contrast, I stood in the city of Little Rock, studying the life and times of Bill Clinton. From that perspective, it simply isn't fair.
I concluded that this quiet city wanted simply to be left alone. This city didn't want me here. And I didn't feel comfortable staying.
After a quick dinner, and a scant 90 minute visit, I bid my adieu to Little Rock and continued on the road.
Next stop: Memphis.