A Bluelander in Redland Part 2
by Daniel Sherman
What does life look like from the inside of a school bus?
Not the kind of long, yellow school bus you see driving around on school day mornings filling up with the smallest of children staggering under backpacks thrice their weight.
Not the short, yellow school bus specially equipped with a lift for wheelchairs, loading up with young persons for whom nobody can remember the current politically-correct term.
I mean an inhabited school bus a la Into the Wild, parked out in the woods. What does life look like to the people who live in that bus?
If we had been driving through the Ozarks in July the trees would have been thick with foliage and we would have just seen rolling green hills and sparkling lakes in every direction. But as our business trip wended towards Little Rock, Arkansas in mid-February, the trees were naked. At every vantage point you could see for miles. Other than a vast expanse of woods, we saw scrubby little outposts of trailers, or houses improvised with corrugated steel, functional cars parked next to non-functional cars, intact wood-frame houses standing next to the immolated blackened timbers of the previous house, and every so often a school bus parked in the woods. The buses were the centers of a mini-compound of outhouses, 55 gallon drums, and where a pole was lacking, the Confederate flag hand-painted on a wooden pallet. A wisp of rising smoke was proof of life out there.
I doubt they envy me. Yes, yes, there’s injustice and inequality and the long-standing luckless lot of the Southern cracker, the last group in America it’s ok to ridicule in polite circles. These people have been desperately poor reaching far back into the antebellum. At a certain point I have to think they are there because they don’t want to be me, wearing a dress shirt and zipping along highways and through airports to hustle money in a crowded life.
Some people don’t reckon the advantages of construction. You see it in Italy too: when there is an earthquake in the south, people move into shipping containers and decades later they are still there. An earthquake happens in the north, and before the after-shocks have even subsided people are scrounging up bricks and mixing mortar.
At a political level, perhaps there’s an explanation for long-standing rural poverty. In the last edition (http://themoderatevoice.com/bluelander-redland-part/), we talked about the scarce pool of leadership talent in poor, rural states. Let’s look now at the motives of their politicians.
They are big fish in small ponds. A lawyer or judge, a business owner, the possessor of inherited land, whatever. With that kind of money surrounded by impoverishment, they live like relatives of the House of Saud. Princes, if a princely life is defined by a mammoth house, cars, jet skis, boats, motorcycles, and a complete lack of surrounding culture and intelligentsia. In Chicago or New York, that kind of money would barely get you a one-bedroom and the peace of mind to Uber whenever you want.
So why devote politics and energy to enriching the people out living in school buses, when for the most part they don’t want to be enriched? You can rile them up with any sort of pablum, get votes, and spend plenty of time in Washington DC scarfing dry-aged ribeye at the Capitol Grille. “The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundance of the poor,” said Voltaire, a rule I find universal in the US and abroad. Rural states remain poor because it makes their leaders comparatively wealthy.
As we neared Little Rock my excitement grew. We had plenty of time left in the afternoon for the Clinton Presidential Library. It was a visit of particular interest for me. Having lived abroad most of the Clinton years, I could never quite get my head around what, exactly, the Clintons did for America.
Their antagonist, Newt Gingrich, was clearly so far Beneath Contempt, that if Contempt lived on the 96th floor of the tallest residential building in the world, it would have to take a chain of elevators down to the very lowest level, and drill a mine shaft so deep that heat from the Earth’s core softens lead. And there, at the lowest level Contempt can survive traveling to, is Newt Gingrich guarding his troglodytic treasure of crass opportunism, knee-biting, and moral hypocrisy. You imagine him like Jabba the Hut with Callista on a gold chain, the sweat rolling off his fat folds. He burps an order to fax divorce papers to wife #2 as she fights cancer in the hospital. Escaping back up to the air-conditioned pad in the clouds, Contempt now requires a cold shower and a martini to restore a sense of decency.
Now comes Gingrich’s opponent, Bill Clinton. A man born with every possible gift: charm, charisma, prodigious intelligence, political genius, ambition and cunning. Legend has it that his first day as a freshman at Georgetown he knocked on every door in every dorm on campus to introduce himself. That’s the initiative of a young man in a hurry. Convention would have a fellow like that flirt with fillies but settle on a mare. He pulled off the opposite, hitching up the mare he wanted but going on to seduce every filly that would slow to a trot in his field of view. Clearly a man who can juggle a lot, but how did America benefit from his talents?
We rolled into Little Rock, which was a surprisingly clean and smart downtown. If it were a Midwestern city it would have rusting hulks of brick factories and Art Deco offices with broken windows, but in the pre-industrial South the town center was well-kept.
The Clinton Library is an architectural oddity. Situated next to an iron bridge spanning the Arkansas River, it is an elongated rectangle cantilevering out towards the river… but reaching nothing. You get it, a bridge to the future. But a bridge by definition connects points A and B; the Clinton library just winds up hanging in mid-air, not even at the river’s edge. The landscaping leaves off too early as well, turning into an embarrassing mud flat below.
Let’s save time: in the two hours I spent carefully studying everything on exhibit, I could not come up with one lasting, important contribution of the Clinton Administration that was not a consequence of the booming economy. The list of opportunities missed is endless given Bill’s talents.
But I want to take the reader to the oddest and saddest part of the library. Encased in a small plexiglass prison is an analog television, endlessly looping a VHS-quality video of Hillary Clinton in 1995 gamely working through an A-for-effort parody of Forrest Gump. This Chicago-born-and-raised Wellesley woman was bravely putting on Southern accents in what has to be the second-worst thing a First Lady ever had to do. The parody is wincingly, cringingly, oh-the-poor-dear bad. George W. dancing in Africa was Fred Astaire by comparison; it makes Karl Rove’s attempt at rap Kanye-like. That it is not retired to amusing spoof-land on YouTube but playing over and over and over again in her husband’s vanity library is more indignity than any woman should have to bear.
The worst thing the same First Lady ever had to do was balance her political ambitions against the humiliations dealt her by Bill.
Was it worth it?
When I see 1995 Hillary stuck in her bizarre parody video, scratching up every iota of acting ability she can to do something she clearly was not born to do, I see a woman of great intelligence but no genius, with bottomless reserves of grit and tenacity, laboring — as many professional women do — under the illusion that hard work and competence matter in a man’s world.
Sexually insecure men called her a ball-breaker. Gingrich’s mom called her a bitch. But she was neither of those.
Firm, professional, a “work horse” not a “show horse,” she assiduously followed other mens’ rules. I think of that bumper sticker you always see on rusted-out 20 year old Subarus, next to the one spelling out “Coexist” in religious symbols. “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” In retrospect, everything about Hillary was well-behaved. I think we will have a female president some day, but she’s not going to get there out of faesance to men.
After the afternoon at the library we headed out to our hotel in a suburb of Little Rock. Starving after the long day, we went looking for ribs along the way. I’ve found that the more trucks in a parking lot, and the higher the average ground clearance, the better the ribs inside. We found a parking lot populated with diesel Ford F-350’s and Ram 3500’s, not a single one sitting on stock suspension — that’s the spot!
On the way in we encountered a rather amazing truck covered with an air-brushed tableau, a sort of pantheon to every icon of low-brow American civic religion. The Founding Forefathers, signing the Constitution! The 9/11 memorial! Firefighters! The Flag! A prayer! A bald eagle! A wounded warrior! If I didn’t lead this article with the picture you’d think I’m making it up. And of course, a “Hillary for Prison” bumper sticker. Just like the Subaru with the “Coexist” stickers, it’s another of those vehicles driven by a vastly uncomplicated mind.
The ribs were falling-off-the-bone delicious, and as obvious out-of-towners we attracted a string of waitresses coming by to chat. We milked that attention for a few rounds of beer, and then went to the hotel, beat from the day’s adventures.
Early the next morning, I was up early and out the door with my gym bag. Life on the road is a constant cycle of ribs, beer, steaks and stuffed potatoes, and does not really support the struggle on the expanding-waist front of the battle. They say the “dad-bod” is hot these days, i.e. a guy over 40 who lifts weights, but has absolutely no problem killing an entire pizza with four beers for lunch. Having encountered no firm evidence that women do find this attractive, I fairly religiously try to hit CrossFit workouts on the road, and keep lunch to half the pizza and four beers.
The CrossFit box I found, like every other one of dozens I’ve dropped in on, was full of extremely friendly people of all ages. The class got started, and after surveying prospects I settled my eyes on a super-cute Millennial girl with lots of tattoos and piercings. Written in cursive right on the back of her neck was the word “Freaky”.
Unlike most people my age, I like Millennials. They are tolerant and fair-minded, they drink whiskey, they knit things, they are open to meeting different kinds of people, and if there’s chemistry they’ll go straight to porn-style sex on the first date. Sure, they’re entitled and precious, but every generation is perceived that way until they grow up and become the next batch to turn around and look at younger people as entitled and precious.
As luck would have it we were doing a partner workout that day, and I was assigned to work with Freaky. It was a grueling set of exercises: burpees, box jumps, lunges, and finally carrying a heavy ball outside and sprinting up and down a hill while carrying it. We cheered each other on, and at the end collapsed on the floor heaving for air and sweating profusely. As she panted for air I saw she had still other piercings I hadn’t noticed in the first 20 minutes. I don’t think it’s a bridge too far to suppose that a girl full of piercings and ink has, perhaps, a fairly expansive range of delights in her portfolio. We had to leave town that day. Maybe I should have asked for her number, the next time in Little Rock she might show me around?
I thanked her for the workout and went back to the hotel, gormless and numberless.
Coming up the third and final edition of Bluelander in Redland: The Natural Habitat of the Louisiana Male, Noodling Revealed, Cowgirls Thrown off Bulls
All images by Daniel Sherman.
Daniel Sherman is an entrepreneur in the import/export business. He divides his time between Italy and Chicago. He is developing a book, Good Enough, for adolescents on the topic of ethics.
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