It's all a matter of perspective.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

The Guts of the Delta

Two Aliens Observe Pine Bluff, Arkansas

About three years ago I went on a late February fishing trip with my friend Ray. The weather was cold and a little snowy, and we never did get around to much fishing. Instead we ended up driving across Arkansas, East to West, and back again by a different route. Along the way, we fell into this strange routine: Whenever we would come to a small town, the driver would call out to the navigator, “Which shit-hole is this?” And the map person would say, “Flippin,” or “Berryville,” or “Calico Rock.” But it really did not matter because they were all the same to us.

About a year later I was driving through downtown Malvern with my best buddy Daniel when I realized that they do all look the same. If you were dropped by helicopter on Main Street of any Arkansas town with a population between five and thirty-five thousand, you would have to look at the names of the stores (Bank of Malvern) to know where you were. This will not do. There must be a reason that people continue to inhabit these places. These shit-holes have a soul and I am determined to find it. I must know the stories that set apart each of these otherwise insignificant little villages.

For me, the obvious place to start was Pine Bluff. I have an uncle that lives near there, in White Hall. He is a chemical engineer at the Pine Bluff Arsenal where he disposes of chemical munitions. My dad commuted from Little Rock to work at the paper mill in Pine Bluff when I was a toddler. Also, like Madonna in high school, there is a reputation that I would love to find out the truth about. I have often heard that the city of Pine Bluff has more liquor stores and pawnshops per capita than any city in the US. I did some research and was not able to find any empirical study to back up this claim, but I did discover that it has twice been chosen the worst place to live in the US by national publications. It has an astonishingly high murder rate. The Arkansas Times’ Bob McCord wrote in 1999:
Remember that for two years in a row, 1997 and 1998, Pine Bluff had the highest murder rate in the nation -- 33.8 per thousand population. The national average is 6.3. The prosecuting attorney in Pine Bluff says his town has more guns than people. The New York Times reported that if New York City had the same percentage as Pine Bluff, it would have had 2,500 murders in 1998 rather than 629.

Also Pine Bluff has the reputation as being a polluted, industrial place. A river port and rail hub. A major polluter of the Arkansas River. A generally smelly town.

It was with this information that I picked up Daniel in my old green pickup truck and hit the road. It was Veterans Day. I had my notebook and camera. Dan brought his keen observational sense. We would find the heart of Pine Bluff. We would know its essence. We would need a shower when we got home.

A few days after we returned, I conducted interviews with my Dad and Uncle Mark about what goes on in this fabled city. I probably should have called them before I left, because Mark told me about a Country and Western museum in the convention center where a talking bust of Johnny Cash greets you. That would have made Daniel’s day!

Dan and I started south on I-530 and we quickly realized that a sterile, common freeway was no way to prepare our minds for the economic hub of Southeast Arkansas. I took the Dixon Road exit and we headed for the old highway. I pulled over in the parking lot of an old barn that had been converted into a tavern and turned the wheel over to Dan. I would need to have my notebook handy as I observed the city of Little Rock giving way to the flat delta and then reemerging as urban Pine Bluff.

In the city of Sweet Home, Dixon Road meets what is traditionally known as “The Dollarway Road.” This road dates from the very beginning of the automobile, and was once the longest continually paved stretch of road in the United Stated. Now it is just called Arkansas Highway 365. We were immediately confronted with shotgun houses, old rusted cars on blocks, dilapidated shacks, and barns that were even worse. We passed a man on a riding lawn mower, headed to the store. “Wow!” Dan remarked, “It is like we have been suddenly magically transported to Southeast Arkansas.”

The shotgun house is historically the home of choice (or more likely necessity) for delta farm hands. Long and narrow, with the rooms in succession to each other, it is like a mobile home that does not move. We came to a place on the road where two of the bleak houses stood. Abandoned for years, they had caved in roofs and their yards were waist deep in weeds. In front of them on the road, a government sign read, “2002 Volunteer community of the year.” I said to Dan, “I guess the volunteers haven’ t made it to those houses yet.”

“Nah,” he replied, “The sign was probably stolen from another town.”

One of the last towns that you pass through on the Dollarway Road before entering the Pine Bluff area is called Dexter. Everyone in Dexter has an RV. Many people lived in mobile homes and still had an RV in the front yard. Other lots had only an RV with full time residents. There was no citizen in the town of Dexter, Arkansas that did not have immediate access to an RV. Dan and I speculated as to the explanation. Was there an RV factory nearby? This was pretty close to the Arsenal; perhaps the RVs were in case of emergency evacuation. Later on, Uncle Mark explained to me that this was a Gypsy community. (He suggested I use the word, Traveler. Sounds too Tolkeinien for my taste.) The citizens of Dexter load up in their RVs every April and travel the country in search of work. One or two stay behind to guard the property. They usually return around September. Dad said that the guys out at the paper mill liked to date the Gypsy girls because they put out.

Although Dan and I saw no sign proclaiming us to be in the city of Pine Bluff, a store advertised as “Pawnshop: Guns and Cars” made us think that we might be close. Daniel and I are both fat guys. We were feeling a bit eleven 0’clockish. We decided that the first order of business would be to find a great local restaurant. After trying the doors of several places and finding them closed, we stumbled on our Mecca: Kribb’s Bar-B-Que #2.

The smell of hickory-smoked meat was thick. Kribbs was tiny inside; there were only two full sized booths and one two-person booth. There was a scarred butcher-block counter where you placed your order. Typical 1970’s paneling covered the walls. A video camera pointing at the register was the only thing in the store of any more recent vintage. On the counter were six huge softball trophies and a big yellow poster advertising a blues concert at the County Line Club. A large black lady took our order, then turned and went to the kitchen to make our food. After a few minutes she peeked at us through a small pass-through window and said, “Honeys, y‘all can have a seat.” Dan and I sat in the two-person booth next to a couple of gumball machines with twenty-five cent temporary tattoos or gold rings.

A steady stream of locals came in the door to order food. Predominately black, working men in dirty clothes with dirtier boots would walk up to the counter and yell out to the kitchen, “Two jumbo pork. Two Fry. Two cuppa tea,” then turn around and walk back outside. In a few minutes they would walk back in and Miss Kribbs would place their order in the pass-through windowsill, walk all the way around from the kitchen, and ring up their food. Finally she came around the corner with baskets for Dan and me. It was worth the wait. In each basket was a large chipped pork sandwich, dripping with sauce and slaw, and wrapped in wax paper. Next to that was a small paper envelope that was overflowing with short, thick, hot, greasy, home fries. The tea was very sweet, and that was the only way it was offered. There were no nutra-sweet packets on the table. When we took a bite of our sandwiches, an equal amount of its contents would spill out of the back into the basket. Paper napkins were no match for this fare. The fries appeared to be hand cut from fresh potatoes and ketchup was an insult to them. Dan and I spoke not a word. The food was quickly disposed of. A deep breath, a sigh, finally Daniel broke the silence.

“You know what would be really good?”

“What’s that Dan?”

“To take two of those sandwiches and stack them on top of each other with about a half inch of pepper-jack cheese in-between. We could call it the Fatboy Special!”

Our lunch was going to have to digest for a little while. Dan and I decided to drive around and get a feel for the town. We traveled the area between downtown and the suburban mall and then back again. We saw the headquarters of Simmons First bank. Ten stories high, it was by far the tallest building in Pine Bluff. Also downtown was a big and tall men’s store called “Pinky and Johnny’s.” We saw the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, one of the few schools in the nation where Caucasian students are eligible for a minority scholarship. There was a strip club with a sizeable Monday lunch crowd. We saw a beauty salon called, “A Touch of Mink” that was next to what appeared to be a downtown grain silo. The silo was the second tallest building in town. We drove past Bad Bob’s Country Nightclub, a place my uncle described as “Take the first shot, and the next two bullets are on the house.” We saw dozens of liquor stores, pawnshops, churches, beauty salons, and florists.

We worked our way out to the edge of town and got on the interstate bypass to circle back downtown. Dubbed a “Scenic Byway,” I-530 offers a panoramic, three-part view: Pine Bluff, muddy cotton fields, and a murky marsh. While driving sixty miles-per-hour on the bypass, a deer hunter on a four-wheeler passed on the access road. Blaze orange vest flapping in the breeze; he was going faster than we were.

Back downtown; with the brick in our stomachs now partially digested, it was time to park the car. We needed to stroll the city’s fair boulevards. Admire its public structures. Read its historical markers. Dan saw an army surplus store.

Dan parallel parked the truck at the foot of Main Street in front of what appeared to be the skeleton of an ancient building. There were long wooden posts and metal pipes tied together with hemp rope and pointing off in all angles. I stepped out of the truck (and into a large spider web, geez . . .) and realized that this was some sort of public sculpture. A very, very bad public sculpture. A sculpture entitled “Bridge to the Future.” It looked more like a giant pre-teen’s aborted attempt at a clubhouse from the scrap materials out behind his dad’s barn. Just as I was thinking to myself, “If this is the future, I ain’t going.” I heard a big squishy splat and noticed that the fountain next to the sculpture had a clogged drain and was regularly overflowing across the sidewalk and down the street. Later on my uncle told me that this sculpture was a major source of discontent among the city residents. Apparently tens of thousands of tax dollars were spent on its commission.

I started across the street (damn, another spider web, yuck!) to read another historical marker. Now I know that Jefferson County was named for Thomas Jefferson in 1829. Right underneath the sign was the rotting carcass of a dead pigeon. Whatever killed it was certainly not a person, because as I looked up and down the sidewalks of Main Street Pine Bluff, I saw not a soul. It was Monday afternoon about 1:00 and no one was around. Perhaps that is why spiders flourish in the downtown. Just as I was about to complain about the third spider web I had walked through in fifteen minutes, Dan said, “Boy you sure can tell this is harvest time in the delta, with all of this cotton in the air.” Oh yeah. I should have thought of that.

Just across Highway 65 from downtown is picturesque Lake Pine Bluff. Now, this being a holiday, I had noticed many people out fishing since we had gotten to town. There were people all along the banks of the Arkansas River and its backwaters. Beautiful Lake Pine Bluff, with its public fishing piers and paved boat ramps, was totally uninhabited. I remembered to ask my uncle about this and he told me a fascinating tale that gets to the essence of the Pine Bluff attitude.

There once was a factory in Pine Bluff that made transformers. The process by which they manufactured transformers in those days created a highly toxic waste known as PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls.) Not having anything else to do with their PCBs, they illegally and covertly dumped them into Lake Pine Bluff. By the time the public found out about this, the company was out of business and the fish in this popular lake were found to contain dangerous levels of PCBs. The lake had to be closed to the public. Unfortunately the only way to clean up PCB contamination in a lake is to drain it, dredge the bottom, and refill it. This is hugely expensive and you still have to dispose of the contaminated earth that is dredged up. The city decided it would be prudent to drain the lake and have the soil tested again to make sure that it was contaminated. Still showing as contaminated, they had it tested again, and again, and again. Lake Pine Bluff was tested over and over by every available private company and government agency until finally one guy looked at a sample and said, “Eh, it’s probably OK.” The lake was immediately filled back up, and restocked. A big ceremony was held in which the mayor ate the first fish caught.

Pine Bluff’s most notorious calling card is its signature smell. Although the smell has recently been sweetened by the addition of a Tyson’s chicken preparation plant, its sulphuric essence has always been the International Paper mill. This would be the last stop on our Pine Bluff pilgrimage.

Located just outside of town on 5200 acres along the Arkansas River, the first thing we glimpsed was belching steam from towering chimneys. As you get closer you see the gargantuan lumberyard. An entire forest of trees stacked about twenty feet high in long rows as far as the eye can see.

I remember the first time I drove through Pine Bluff with my family when I was a small child. Of course, my natural response was to say, “Dad, what is that smell?” My father considers himself a closet chemist and loved the opportunity to give his children a science lesson. He adjusted himself in the drivers seat, turned down the radio, and rubbed his chin.

“Nathan that there is the paper mill; where they make milk cartons. You see, at the mill they take trees and strip off their bark. Then they burn the bark to generate the electricity that powers the mill. Then the trees are sent to the chipper and chopped up into itty-bitty pieces. Next those pieces are sent to this big pot they call the ‘digester’ where they’re mixed with the same sort of chemicals that you have in your stomach to digest your dinner. After the chips sit in the digester and cook for a while, they uncap that mother and it lets off an enormous poot!”

Mmmm, Pine Bluff.