Pico Iyer: The surprising charms of Little Rock, AR

Who’d have thought that Little Rock, Arkansas, would prove so diverting?

Paris, Rio, Kyoto: We know pretty well what we’re going to encounter (or at least to savor) as soon as we set foot in any of those cities; part of their gift, polished over centuries, is for knowing how to play themselves to perfection and how to give every visitor just what she wants and expects. Such places are the equivalent of the traveling world’s celebrities, used to projecting themselves compellingly even off-screen. But there’s a different kind of charm in those lesser-known towns that will never be regarded as stars, but that can take on almost any role you ask of them: the character actors among sites, you could say. They offer you unexpectedness.

Take — of all places — Little Rock, Arkansas (yes, take it, please, as a New York comedian might say). If I knew anything about the capital of the “Natural State” before I went there recently, it was that it was small, forgettable, and, as one distinguished travel-writer had written to me, “intriguingly forlorn and melancholy.” Bill Clinton started his political life there, I knew, but that seemed the exception that proved the rule; like many people, I had driven through it on the huge freeway I-40, going across the U.S., and like most people I had taken pains not to stay there.

In short, Little Rock was perfectly positioned to disarm and entertain me as well-worn Paris, Rio, and Kyoto perhaps never could. The first two people I met after I left my hotel turned out to be serious students of Buddhism, one of whom knew and had studied under the one Zen master I happen to know in Kyoto. A brawny guy from Memphis stopped me on the street, outside the Arkansas Literary Festival, and asked me which of Graham Greene’s novels I thought his best. Most wonderfully of all, the town I saw turned out to be an unlikely center of irony, and even self-mockery; at the stately Old State House, the proud and distinguished building from 1842 where Clinton had held his victory celebrations, one whole room was devoted to the history of “Bubbas and hillbillies.”

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One beauty of a city of surprise is that at first it offers you little at all, or only what you might have feared. I disembarked in Little Rock on a sultry afternoon in early spring, to find that its baggage carousels delivered luggage at a Samoan pace. The person who was meant to meet me was nowhere in sight. I went over to a public phone booth, to see that it had been stripped of its instrument. The same was true of almost every other public phone booth. Finally I did find a phone, but it gave me no dial tone. I found another, and it was equally mute. People were sitting in their molded plastic chairs as if on their stoops along the Mississippi, watching the world not go by.

“Things move slow round here,” said the sweet woman who did at last arrive to take me into town. “Town” seemed at first blush a euphemism: downtown was over almost before we got there. A convention center, a couple of tall buildings and then a wasteland of empty lots and deserted streets, lean black boys in hoodies drifting across the vacancy, past boarded-up stores that suggested that all life was long gone. I remembered coming into Louisville on just such an afternoon two years before; there was the same, aromatic sense of having come upon some broken capital long after the nation’s leaders had absconded with all the cash.

Then, however, I stepped into the Capital Hotel — a gleaming white historical building with an elevator so large that it had once transported Ulysses S. Grant’s horse, it was said (and once the whole state legislature) — and a smooth man in a suit with perfectly waved brown hair approached me. He made me think, somehow, of a saxophonist doubling as a used-car dealer. “I’m Billy,” he said, “and if there’s anything you want…” The next thing I knew, he was showing me around my room as charmingly as if it were his bachelor pad. A walk-in closet. Some Arkansas toffee, free of charge. The menu to the haute restaurant, Ashley’s, downstairs.

I walked out into the night, three hours later, to find the River Market district down the street abuzz. The sound of blues was pouring out of several raucous bars on a single block. Bouncers as wide as they were tall sat on stools on the sidewalk, giving prospective customers the once-over. Good old boys were revving up their Harleys in a nearby parking lot, while teams of young ladies with cheerleader-perfect hair were fingering shrimp in Flying Fish and other of the restaurants with their windows open to the night. The entertainment district stretched across all of five blocks, but it packed into that small area enough tattoos and blasts of metal and versions of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” to keep a stadium entertained for a good long while.

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Another beauty of a place like Little Rock is that all the sights mentioned in the tourist brochures are within a few blocks of your hotel, and may give you what you never thought to ask for. Next to the great glass structure that is the Clinton Presidential Library is a Clinton School of Public Service and, not far from that, a huge place called the Heifer International Center, dedicated to social justice from Rwanda to Peru. A quaint house near the huge Public Library was selling used books and coffee and knick-knacks. A sleek Ikea-worthy café serving up specialty foods was run by an urbane gent from Delhi (“There can’t be many Indians in Little Rock,” I tried. “Oh,” came the answer, “there are so many of us here!”). In a hippie coffeehouse I sampled, the fliers were advertising “Extreme Midget Wrestling,” coming to town very soon.

Perhaps what I least expected to find in Arkansas was a sense of openness and even mischief. I picked up the local paper to read a piece by someone who presented himself as a “born and raised Southern Baptist,” yet delighted in an appearance by Christopher Hitchens, here to argue that God is not great. A stranger who identified himself to me as “born and raised on the front row of the Southern Baptist Church” asked me if I thought, from my travels, that faith was collapsing around the world. When I said no, he looked decidedly disappointed. A young woman in advertising told me she was reading aloud the latest novel by J.M. Coetzee to her husband. He, in turn, was writing a book on Tolkien.

Some places — Britain, Canada, and Australia are obvious examples — win one over, whatever their deficiencies, by their refusal to take themselves too seriously. Others (dare I mention Atlanta, Houston, or Los Angeles?) seem to be lacking all sense of perspective regarding themselves and their limitations. But I never expected to find Little Rock proudly, and impenitently, in the former category. “The corruption of law and justice has often proved a challenge to Arkansas society,” said a sign in the Old State House exhibition, apparently with delight. The state it was celebrating, it went on, with almost audible glee, has historically been “a magnet for the unlawful.” In a nearby room were a pair of Florsheim shoes worn by the current governor and a cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton, in shades and leather jacket, playing his sax on national television. Downstairs, his running shoes from 1982 were in another display case.

Arkansas politics in the 20th century, I read in yet another room in the building, was “a circus hitched to a tornado” (and I remembered that Mike Huckabee, the guitar-playing Christian who had briefly won the nation’s attention as a presidential candidate three years ago and once issued a pardon to Keith Richards, was also from here). Sure enough, not far away, I found Huckabee’s Guitar Pick and his Duck Call in a case.

On a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, two boys with art-college glasses, who looked as if they should have been at an open-mic event in a grunge café, stood at the center of the entertainment district, wearing placards that said, “There is only one Church in the Bible” and decrying every other Christian denomination. Some frat boys scribbled out a sign — “This guy is a moron” — and placed it next to one of the boy-evangelists, and posed for a cell-phone photo. On the other side of the street, two older men sipping Free Trade espresso and munching on no-fat muffins chuckled with delight. Getting into the spirit of theological debate, one cool-looking character in a two-tone shirt and shades stepped forward to engage the placard-wearers in conversation.

“You not talkin’ ’bout the Kingdom! You believe in Jesus?”

“Yes I do, sir.”

“Then why you think those who believe in Jesus are goin’ to Hell?”

“If you read Romans 8, sir…”

“You sayin’ we believe in Jesus, but we goin’ to Hell?”

The challenger’s three friends laughed approvingly. The Buddhists I met took me to a pan-Asian restaurant in a mini-mall serving Thai curries and sushi under beautifully framed pictures of faces from Mongolia and Laos and Tibet. Nearby, a bridge was lit up like the one across the Bosporus in Istanbul.

“It really wasn’t what I expected at all,” said one of my hosts, a stylish woman in her early sixties with frosted-blonde hair (who was working hard to try to eliminate capital punishment in the state). “There are a lot of people from other places who have found that this is a good place to live.” I recalled the friendly young woman, who volunteered her free time to teach adults to read, pointing out to me the condos in one tall building at the center of town, and saying that they were the priciest places in town (the $250,000 price tag she cited for them would have made them cheaper than the cheapest places in my hometown in California).

On arriving in Little Rock, I had wondered how someone as charming, quick, smooth, and intelligent as the 42nd president of the United States could have emerged from here as if from the forehead of Athena. By the time I left, I was thinking that much of the city along the sluggish Arkansas River was no less supple and surprising. Imagine — though this may not be for everyone — Bill Clinton expanded to the size of a metropolis. You can’t find that in Paris, Rio, or Kyoto. Or even in Washington, D.C.

Pico Iyer is the author of numerous books, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

[Photos: Flickr | cliff1066; cliff1066; eschipul; Afroswede; StuSeeger]