A Day In Little Rock: When Just Visiting Feels Like Home

It’s 11 a.m. as my husband, todd, eases our little car into a parking spot on scott street directly in front of the Scottish Rite Freemason’s Temple.

The car, as my long-dead mother would have said, is “packed to the gills.” We’re headed toward Portland, Ore., later this afternoon to spend the Christmas holidays with our son, Brooke, who moved there from France two months ago, and after that to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I’ve been invited to be the Visiting Writer-in-Residence at a small college for the entire spring semester. But this morning we have reason to be in Little Rock, a two-hour drive from our home in the woods near Mountain View, where we’ve lived for more than 32 years.

We press the buzzer at the office entrance to the temple, and a nice man lets us in. We’re here for an appointment with Gabe Gentry, the young filmmaker who’s creating a documentary about the Porter Prize, the state’s 25-year-old literary award. He’s interviewing each of its past winners in the building’s various rooms. Mine will take place in the stately library with its fireplace and walls of built-in bookcases filled with mostly old books. Gabe and his assistant, Brent Bailey, are running late. Fortunately, I brought exams with me; semester grades are due soon at the Registrar’s Office at Lyon College, where I’ve taught for the past 19 years. I need to use every spare minute to get them in on time.

We know Little Rock — at least we think we know it — almost as well as some of the people who live here. During our early years in the Ozarks, we came to Little Rock for goods not available in Mountain View — whole grain foods at Beans and Grains and Things, or clothing at Target. We got into the habit of making a Little Rock list. Sometimes the list was so long, we stayed overnight at the now defunct Sam Peck Hotel. Brooke was an infant then, and a night in that historic hotel was especially relaxing. If we did spend the night, we’d pick up a paper and check the film listings. After Brooke was old enough, we bought season subscriptions to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Art Spree. We drove to Little Rock for concerts and poetry readings. We joined the Arkansas Arts Center and became regulars at a handful of restaurants. We made friends and spent overnights with them. Occasionally strangers asked us for directions, and we had no trouble supplying them.

Our trips to Little Rock became habitual enough that we witnessed changes in the city — the move of The Rep to its present location, the construction and later demolition of the downtown pedestrian mall, the reintroduction of the trolley line, the renovation of the Capital Hotel, the building of the Clinton Library, the blossoming of the River Market area, the expansion of the Little Rock National Airport, and the stretching of the city farther and farther west.

By the time Gabe is ready I’ve graded a half-dozen exams. It’s taken him and Brent more than an hour to prepare the room, positioning the interview chair, adjusting the lights and camera, and rearranging some of the leather-bound books on the shelves behind me. I’ve had to reschedule my one o’clock annual checkup with my periodontist, Fred Church, but I won’t miss my 2:15 with Harvey Matheny, my endodontist. (Clearly, the years have altered the tone of our Little Rock visits.) Afterwards, Todd and I will grab sandwiches at McAllister’s before we head west on Interstate 40.

When we arrived in the Ozarks from Denver in 1977 — our back-to-the-land enthusiasm courtesy of Todd’s charter subscription to Mother Earth News — we believed we had permanently turned our backs on cities. And for the first few months on our land, we were right. It took all our time and energy to build our first one-room cabin, clear space for a small garden, and plant it. Now we spend at least one day each month in Little Rock — our city — and today is the day.

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