An Excursion in Little Rock, North

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Note to casual readers: this post is longer than the explanation for the finale to “Lost,” so embark only if sufficiently interested; otherwise, watch baseball or golf until anything suddenly seems interesting – and then come back to this.

To start, I’d like to say that I don’t feel ill at ease in North Little Rock. Despite its problems, the area near the Wyndham Hotel and the Riverside Trail is simply spectacular with its weirdly-mixed juxtaposition of contrasts. Now that I’m an old codger, I can appreciate the dynamic. For the record, though, I think all towns with extra geographical points are unimaginative: North Toledo, for example, has none of the charm of the actual Toledo. “North” Little Rock implies that it is simply another place North of Little Rock wherein the settlers couldn’t be bothered to devise another interesting place name for the area where they were going put down roots and live their entire lives.

I was up and out of the hotel room fully dressed in less than 5 minutes this morning. I knew that sleep was going to be an unlikely and impatient visitor last night and if truth be told my walk would have started at 2 a.m. had my wife not been with me to disapprove of such a plan. Now that I’m walking and discovering things at strange hours, I find myself anticipating the pleasure of these moments as much as any activity I might engage in later in the day, where the normal people of my day feel more comfortable.

As soon as I stepped out the side of the hotel, the white expanse of the bridge in front of me caught my eye. Although it may sound like I’m inventing details, there was also a Batmobile, complete with insignias parked alongside Riverside Drive. Later, I insisted that my wife look out the window to see it, lest she would once again roll her eyes and assume I was fabricating such a detail for my own amusement. Turning the corner near the main entrance, I noted a large NLR police SUV parked under the canopy. I resisted the urge to see if the driver door was unlocked, lest I become the unwilling passenger, plus handcuffs.

A man dressed in what appeared to be 6 layers of clothing sped past me on a bicycle. Despite his legs being covered in multiple layers, he was flying down the street. The very next person I saw was a solitary man waiting near a bus stop sign, adjacent to an empty parking lot. I went wide to the left so as to not startle the man, who I assumed was waiting to go to work. As I reached the next cross street a couple of hundred feet away, he repaid my consideration by shouting something incomprehensible into the early morning darkness. I looked to see who he was shouting at, but no one else was around. He shouted again, even louder. The words sounded the same as the first shout, although the words still eluded me. Toward Main Street I went, laughing, wondering what that man’s story might be about. I heard him shout a couple of more times before his voice was lost to the empty city streets.

As two buses passed me, running along the trolley route, I looked up and laughed, as I couldn’t help but imagine that the crosswalk silhouettes of a human figure, the ones used to convey ‘safe to cross’ or ‘danger,’ were running in pantomime, as if screaming and fleeing the scene.

Main Street at this hour was a long dual succession of double-globed streetlights, each of them conveying a gauzy white light. The street is so wide and the sidewalks so ornate that walking them absent other people once again gave me pause. With so many historic places along this route, all of it seemed perfectly preserved in the amber of early morning magic.

As I passed Capeo Ristorante, a large orange cat jumped from inside the ornate metal trash holder near the street, it’s morning breakfast within interrupted by my passing. Once out of the trash, the cat ran only a few feet away and sat, looking at me. His ears seemed as large as a rabbit’s, high and large above his head. The ears bent toward me as I wished him well.

As I passed the storefront of Ozark Escape I wondered what I might do if I had peered inside to see someone forgotten and trapped inside, a participant in the last escape scenario from last night. Sadly, there were no moving shadows within. It seemed incongruous to me to have such a business on the historic strip of Main Street in North Little Rock. But what do I know? Our last election proved to me that no one knows anything and even when they do, no one listens.

Without pronouncement or fanfare, the globed street lights ended and I was suddenly walking up an inclined overpass, a long arc of pavement reaching above the commercial industrial district below. The lighting seemed to evoke all the romance of a county jail or a dimly-lit back alley. As I reached the opposite side of the long overpass I realized that the mass of machinery below reminded me of a James Cameron Terminator sequel. The air seemed full of two possibilities: hope or dismal despair. Reaching the end of the concrete railing, I passed someone who looked like DJ Khaled. As big as he was, his body language indicated that he was way more concerned about me than I would ever be around him. I realized in that moment that I was dressed entirely in black, even wearing a black jacket, black shoes, black socks, and black shirt. Honestly, a white man wandering around in the dark dressed in all black does sound like the clichéd beginning of just about every crime novel ever written, or a Johnny Cash hipster revival in Oakland.

At the corner of Main and 13th, the ambiance took an Olympic dive. The large brick building opposite of me looked exactly like Hannibal Lecter’s first home. In front of the building, a large green rectangular sign indicated, “Waste Collection Facility This Way.” In my mind, I thought, “Of course it is.” As I crossed to take another direction, a police car stopped and waited for me to cross. Again, my overactive imagination dared me to take off running, as if running away from the police. Studies have shown that getting tased is much more effective than Folgers in one’s cup in the morning.

A few minutes later, I looked down and saw that I was high above a wide train switching yard, full of parallel silver rails below me. It was mesmerizing. Something my grandpa once told me came to mind. He had mentioned to me that such yards were godsends to those riding the rails to get back home. Switch yards with so many accesses points always were an indicator that wherever you were, that another train was undoubtedly headed towards the hearth you called home. I’m not sure how many times my grandpa hopped a train because I was young when he shared those stories, often against the backdrop of harsh summer sun or as the sun faded, leaving the explosive sound of insects to buzz and hum around us. Several years ago, when I visited my hometown of Brinkley, I ran several miles to stand above single set of train tracks below, the ones which ran under highway 49, close to its intersection with Highway 70. I ran all that way just to try to conjure that feeling of those stories my grandpa shared with me.  It was staggering to me to picture myself with the necessity and freedom to jump on a moving train. Those are the kind of memories which will fade into oblivion.

After the switching yard, I looked down and to the left and got to watch as another police SUV moved slowly along, its searchlight zig-zagging across the dirt and gravel. I look up at the road my feet are traveling and see another SUV parked at the intersection. It was at that precise moment I realized that I was coming up on the downtown police substation. The long canopy carport containing a dozen silent and waiting police cruisers convinced me of it. Never one to be silent for long, my inner monologue thought it would be humorous to pound on the door and demand to confess to someone that I was indeed guilty of some public crime – perhaps that of using mayo on french fries.

At Skinny J’s restaurant, I stopped and took a picture of the overhead neon marquee sign. Despite how suspicious it might look, I entered the recess of the main door from the street and leaned in, cupping my hands and resting my face against the painted glass. Inside, tables and chairs stood guard, waiting for occupants. I imagined that just 8 or 9 hours earlier I had sat along the side wall, eating and laughing with good people. For a fleeting instant, I could once again taste the pungency of the fried green tomato sandwich I had chosen. The overlap of my memory and looking at the dark and empty restaurant this morning created a delightful sensation of deja vu.

I turned and made a long pass around the horrendous Verizon Arena structure. The building looks like what an alien invader would leave after being driven away from this world, much like Verizon and AT&T did to Alltel’s loyal staff back in the day. I imagined that I could simultaneously hear the millions of conversations, concerts, and activities that had occurred in that place. Most people undoubtedly drive past it without much consideration, their minds preoccupied with other ideas and demands – and probably a few daydreams about throwing a deserving co-worker through the window once they’ve arrived to work. Looking at the NR Bank tower sign, the one digitally indicating the time in 3-foot numbers, I wondered how much agony that timestamp might cause. I could only picture some poor soul looking at it each day. “9:53 a.m.,” it would indicate upon the first glance. An hour later, it would indicate, “9:54 a.m.,” and in bright large numbers, too. Hour after hour, day after day. I think I would be shooting out the bulbs of that bank’s sign within a week.

Passing the Verizon behemoth, I watched as a man wrangled a portapotty next to a new drive-through restaurant being built there. He noticed me as I watched and he waved, probably glad to be distracted. I was hoping he’d knock over the portable toilet just to amuse me. Next to the new building, I noted that a branch of my bank was on the corner. It occurred to me that it seemed reasonable to get some cash from the ATM around the back. It seemed particularly wise to do this, as nothing seems safer than using an ATM card, on foot, in the dark, in a strange place. So I took some cash out for the day, as I loudly recited my PIN. (I’m just kidding about the PIN part. The rest is true.)

As I stopped to take a picture of the ascending trolley car tracks as they ran next to the on-ramp, I looked toward the distant bridge and in the direction of my hotel. I noticed a man dressed in green dart across the sidewalk, stop, and lean over and drop something near the bushes. At this point, he was directly across from the US Bank pavilion. Having seen “The Wire,” I assumed that something loosely described as “illegal” was probably going on. I crossed the street and as I walked, I tried to look with the corner of my eye toward where the man had been crouched. He seemed to have frozen there, perhaps in response to my presence. I turned away just for a second and when I looked back, he was gone, vanished, doing his own “fastest gun in the West” impression. I assumed he was crouched or hiding behind the bushes, probably on the side closet to the pavilion near the riverside. Invisibility didn’t seem like a reasonable explanation.

It was then that I noticed the large turtle sculpture there. My curiosity got the best of me, even overpowering my desire to avoid being bludgeoned to death a few paces from my hotel. I decided to make another pass around the block. It seemed likely that the man in question wasn’t concealing his favorite literary works in those bushes – nor a sack lunch for later consumption. Coming around the block again, I took a chance to walk by the turtle and the bushes again. A large bus waiting opposite the corner pawn shop gave me the excuse of having a witness. I quickly walked by and snapped a picture of the turtle and it was then I noticed what looked like a duffel bag behind it, in the gap of the bushes. It dawned on me that the man wasn’t a criminal, at least not in an interesting way: he was probably homeless and had devised an incredibly clever way to sleep right out in the middle of everything. You’d need to pass by very close or from the other direction, where shadows ruled one’s vision.

Without much thought as to safety or appropriateness, I took out my wallet and the two $20 bills I had just taken from the ATM by the arena. I placed them on the ground in the grass. I picked up a crushed water bottle lying on the edge of the road and placed it on top of the bills. “Mister,” I hollered. “Sorry to startle you. I left you something to do with as you want to. I hope you have a great day – I won’t say anything about you. Peace.”

As I stood up, my phone rang. Although I wasn’t listening to music during any part of my walk, I had headphones on. The ringer startled me, at full volume inside the headphones. It couldn’t have sounded off at a more inopportune time. Later, I discovered that it was my wife, who had called and texted repeatedly. As I had been gone walking a long time this morning, she had begun to allow her imagination to run wild, probably already to the point where I had been abducted by foreign mercenaries.

As I walked away, it occurred to me that if the man didn’t exit his hiding spot to retrieve the money, I was either going to have to go get it myself or leave it, knowing that the unexpected money on the side of the road was going to improve someone’s morning.

I stopped nearby at the corner of the Wyndham, where I was staying. I watched as the man emerged from the middle of the bushes and picked up the $40. He looked my direction and waved his arm high above his head. I don’t think he said anything. I raised my own arm and waved back without interrupting the silence. I’d like to think there was something magical about that moment, even if it was just a simple acknowledgment. What a strange and brutal urban landscape the man had chosen. No doubt, though, that he had chosen wisely.

As for my wife’s concern, she had every reason to be a little worried. Not for my safety, though, but rather for my humanity. In the midst of all this wonder and steel artifices, people were still just people. For me, I was prepared for anything, as long as it gifted me with a story.

Later, when I sat with my wife to eat breakfast, she jokingly told another co-worker about my penchant for giving everything away. It’s important that you understand that I had not shared any of my early morning adventures with her at that point. She didn’t know that I had given the homeless man my ATM gift this morning. As trite as it sounds, North Little Rock had reached inside me a little bit and as always, I changed imperceptibly because of it, even in the most mundane of circumstances.

I thought that it might be incredibly fitting to be remembered with a complaint, one which accused me of being a minimalist and wanting to give everything away, even my last dollar, the one which would have otherwise gone to the tip jar of the reticent man preparing omelets or to the waitress as a tip. My wife didn’t know that I had given a stranger $40, just because he might need it and because it would fuel my imagination for another long set of days.

 

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Later, before going to go eat lunch with my favorite cousin, I wandered some of the same sites, to ‘see’ them with a daylight perspective. In the midst of the bushes behind the sculpted tortoise, I found blankets and detritus from lives lived on the outside. Warm weather will soon turn to cold. I hope that the gentleman I surprised this morning finds a place of rest as the air turns lethal. Standing there, in the daylight, looking at the makeshift home, it was my greater wish that he might remember that not all people are to be measured by one’s expectations.

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