My Hometown (with thanks and apologies to The Boss)

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
To the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around … this is your hometown

I was born and raised in Little Rock. So was my Dad. I’ve always been proud to be a generational Little Rocker. My upbringing in my beloved hometown knit the fabric of the person I was, the person I lost sight of there for a while and the person I’m becoming again.

My early childhood was pretty idyllic. Our house was on a block full of children. We played Freeze Tag, Swing the Statue, Kick the Can and Piggy Wants a Motion (pretty sure we made that one up) late into the night during the summers.

I was on a first name basis with the pharmacist at the drugstore. He sold me ice cream and put it on my mother’s tab. My best friend and I met every Saturday and walked to Browning’s Mexican Restaurant for chips and dip. Then we squandered our allowance on video games at The Yellow Rocket. We saw movies at The Heights Theater and trespassed at St. John’s Seminary.

I learned politics and religion from my parents. My mother was the creator and sponsor of the Accept No Boundaries student organization at iconic Little Rock Central High. Her students wore t-shirts with a photo of a black child and white child hugging and a caption that read, “Nobody’s Born a Bigot.”

Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I had no idea there were denominations not accepting of anyone and everyone. I grew up under influence of strong female church leadership, including Mother Peggy, one of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. I remember attending an event with my mother where we walked from Christ the King Catholic Church on Rodney Parham to Temple B’Nai Israel to recognize the journey many Jews took during the Holocaust.

My children were born in Montgomery, Ala. My husband and I relocated there in 1997 for his job. I was pregnant with our son when his company closed. We entertained the idea of leaving at that point, but I had a great job. We had good friends. I loved my church. So we stayed.

Every time I’d visit Little Rock with my children, my heart would hurt. I’d spend the days driving the streets of my hometown, fondly recalling growing up in a small Southern town with lots of charm. I’d eat at all the delicious locally owned restaurants. I’d take long walks through the neighborhood, looking at houses and making up stories in my head about living in Little Rock again.

One summer, I sat at the pool with one of my best friends from high school. Our children frolicked in the kiddie pool. Coincidentally, it was the pool where my parents had been members when I was growing up. I learned to swim there. I had birthday parties there. I charged food at the snack bar there. I ogled the older boys. Again … idyllic.

As I sat there, completely content, I had what I have come to refer to as a full-on epiphany. A voice inside me said, “This is where I have to raise my children.” I’ve never believed anything so strongly. Within months, we sold our house, I found a job in Little Rock and we enrolled the kids in school and daycare.

I was home.

Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in Arkansas recently. You’ve seen the headlines, I’m sure. We now have a Religious Freedom Reformation Act on the books. It mirrors the Federal law, but many are still concerned – and rightly so — that it opens the door for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson is considering signing an executive order creating a protective class for LGBT individuals. I truly hope he does, because regardless of the RFRA’s stated intent, there are too many people in the state who will use it to discriminate against anyone they perceive as different.

It breaks my heart that the same state where I learned to be tolerant, loving and accepting is now once again garnering national headlines for its open hatred of those considered “other.” The same state where I steadfastly believed I needed to raise my children is fast becoming the last place I want them living when they grow up.

I told a friend that I am so angry I want to throw things. I don’t know at whom said things will be thrown, but sometimes nothing gets the mad out like pitching a fit and throwing things.

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more

And that’s another thing. When I made the argument for moving home to Little Rock, I told people that I wanted to live in a city my children could make their home after college. I dreamed of them and their spouses finding lucrative jobs and raising my grandchildren right around the corner from me.

But if Arkansas continues on this trajectory – and sadly I think we’re headed for many more years of crazy before it all dies down – there will be no lucrative jobs to be had. I am firmly convinced that no 21st-century companies will choose to set up shop in a state now known as one of the most anti-gay states in the nation. Plus, the businesses that are here now are going to have a hard time recruiting bright, talented, hard-working individuals to move here to work for them. I will have a hard time encouraging my children to stay.

Would the last forward-thinking, open-minded, whole-hearted individual to leave Arkansas please turn off the lights? Oh wait, never mind. We’re already living in the dark.

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around …
This is your hometown.

I asked my children a year or so ago, “Do you feel like this is your hometown even though you weren’t born here?” My son said, “Oh yeah. I don’t even remember Montgomery. This is where my friends are.  This is home.”

The other night, Emily and I were in the car driving east on Cantrell Road. We had just left my dad’s house and were heading to school to pick up Charles after his baseball game.  It was one of those spring nights where it’s just warm enough to roll the windows down.

As we cruised down Cantrell Hill from the Heights to Riverdale, I caught a glimpse of downtown and the Capitol. I looked over at my daughter, happy and content. I thought about how many times I’ve driven down that hill … first as a passenger with my parents, then behind the wheel as a teenager, now with my own kids.

Suddenly I heard that voice again, the same one I’d heard at the pool more than a decade ago: “This is where I have to raise my children.”

It’s not time to leave. There’s still too much good here and too much to be done to make this state better.

I smiled at Emily and turned the radio up. The wind whipped through our hair. We sang loudly to Taylor Swift, as we drove the streets of our hometown.

3 thoughts on “My Hometown (with thanks and apologies to The Boss)

  1. Michele Flynn says:

    Jennifer, Glad you are in our family, even though we are from different home towns. It feels the same in the heart. Love you! Michele

    Like

  2. wesleyhallparker says:

    Thanks for writing this Jenn. This is *exactly* how I feel about Shreveport. So conflicted. I dragged our family back here after 15 years in San Francisco! I needed to be home to raise my children, but some days I think “What have I done to us?” I look around and I see this town I love falling apart from lack of care, leadership, and (most of all) money. The governor is notoriously trashing the state – especially our education and healthcare systems. The economic present is grim, and the future looks worse. And yet…and yet…it’s not time to leave yet, for reasons I can’t fathom with logic. I love my home. We stay busy just trying to make it work for our little family – but I do wonder ALL. THE. TIME. about how to be a positive force for change, how to save our little town, how to help it flower into a shining light in the “New South” where progressive values can flourish. It’s a tall order. I don’t know what to do or if it’s even possible. But just knowing other people like you are out there wondering the same thing in your Southern towns gives me hope.

    Like

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