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  • Hannah Grabenstein

Arkansas Traveler

August 28, 2019


Watching a late August baseball game, a meaningless one for my team though not for the opposing team (who will win, and who are also chasing a pennant), feels timeless. I mindlessly scratch my thigh, welted with mosquito bites, and clack away at an essay, the bay house ceiling fan spinning frantically overhead, as I’m sure essayists did 70 years ago.


The manager has pulled our reliever. He’s given up three runs in the fourth inning; the opposing starter - a Cy Young candidate, probably - was pulled after surrendering two runs through the top of the fourth. That feels unjust but again, it’s a meaningless game inasmuch as any professional sport actually has meaning.


I’m inspired to prattle away after reading a collection of works by E.B. White, my favorite author. It’s a new collection of old writings on democracy, and it’s brilliant and moving, but as with everything White has written, it feels simultaneously effortless and monumental. It’s comforting and engaging and frightening.


I don’t know what I did today. Early in the evening as I was eating chips and salsa, I stopped to consider how I’d whiled away the day. I drove for about two hours and I’d spent a couple hours on the beach, so ... that must have been it. Other than that, I’m not sure what I did today. Certainly I was not productive. I sat down to rewrite my resume and got this far:


Hannah Grabenstein

JOURNALIST

hannahgrabenstein@gmail.com

301.651.2195

Washington, D.C.


A rousing success.


I need a new resume for the same reason I can’t remember what I did today: I’m unemployed. In many ways I’m enjoying this round of unemployment, which is incredibly my fourth since graduating college. I’ve got a little money (this is not false modesty. I truly have a little money. It’s enough that with some frugality I’ll be fine, but I certainly can’t drive around the country for a month again, lighting piles of twenties on fire). Still, I do want a job. I like my work.


Since I’ve been home, I’ve been to two baseball games, both of which, incredibly, we won. A friend and I spent a gorgeous day in Baltimore eating pizza and ice cream, wandering through the park and chatting on his apartment deck. I went to two friends’ joint birthday party the night I got home, and the following day two more friends and I shared pupusas at a Salvadoran restaurant outside of D.C.


What else?


I opened a CD account, and closed another bank account, and was told twice that my credit union couldn’t issue me a new debit card because their system was down but I could try back later. At the library (I got a new library card), I couldn’t find the books I wanted, but I did bike around a lake as a detour on my walk to the library. I saw an old friend absolutely murder some blues and rock, in the best way, at a Baltimore bar after buying a bouquet of mums and a tiny little succulent at a farmer’s market earlier in the day.


All in all it’s been exceptionally pleasant to be jobless, except for brief and intense moments of pure fear.


Leaving Little Rock was emotional but also surprisingly easy. I cried (I always cry), but I was able to untangle my emotions to clarify that I was mostly acknowledging the closing of a chapter, which is always fraught.


I defend Arkansas constantly, and out of the other side of my mouth I identify, shall we say, constructive criticisms of the city and state where I spent the last year.


On the one hand, I’ll miss the river. I’ve lived on or near rivers most of my life - the Patuxent, the St. Mary’s, the Potomac - and the Arkansas River, which flows down from Colorado through the middle of the country, halving Arkansas and meeting the Mississippi in the Delta(s), is just as lovely. I whiled away many afternoons and evenings by the river, reading an abandoned copy of the Wall Street Journal in a park, strolling across the biggest pedestrian dam bridge in the country, aptly called the Big Dam Bridge, or just watching it from the roof of my apartment building.


It flooded in late May, and that destroyed many people’s lives, but as disasters are wont to do in journalism, it also provided me with the opportunity to cover the flood. I spent two days in Fort Smith, during which I hopped in a family’s boat and cruised around a neighborhood with them in the middle of a thunderstorm. At its highest, the water would have probably come up to my shoulders. The next day at a shelter I spoke to a homeless veteran who last saw his tent atop a newly formed island as the water rose around it. I cried as he told me how he supposed he lost every single thing in his life. Someone had even stolen his shoes after he fled his home.


I cried covering seventeen deaths in a Branson, Missouri boat accident the prior summer too. It was my first tragedy and I didn’t know how to react. I imagined I should be steady and stoic, jotting down important figures (this hospital was treating x number of people, a person had lived in Branson x number of years, someone in a Walmart had been on the Ride the Ducks tour countless times and never worn a lifejacket).


Then Tia Coleman sat at a table in a wheelchair and hospital gown in front of dozens of reporters and recounted losing nearly everyone: her husband, her three children, her sister-in-law and nephew, her mother and father-in-law and her husband’s uncle all drowned while she somehow survived. I don’t remember whether the press conference was more or less than one hour but I will never forget watching her keep her composure for as long as she could, then finally, understandably and justifiably, sobbing. My heart ached; I cried. My heart still aches.


----


Some other aspects of Little Rock and Arkansas I will allegedly miss:


(These are recorded in a series of voice memos I took while pulling into Bristol, Virginia near 9 p.m. after a long day of driving)


Tuesday night trivia at Prospect Sports Bar (and eating for free on our trivia winnings); the coziness of the Little Rock airport; the smug superiority of being in the south and thinking everyone on the coast is elite and ignoring you (and knowing there’s a good grain of truth in that); every single thing about my job, from my coworkers to the stories I covered to the Nespresso machine; the Civil Rights history, from Daisy Bates to Elizabeth Eckford to Edith Jones; many of the people I met, some of whom I could have been closer to if I’d stayed longer; often, the way my hair sometimes looked in the Arkansas humidity; the Clintons being the center of everything, from conspiracy theories to celebrity sightings; my small synagogue and intimate Saturday morning services; the price of rent and of gas and cheap beers at smoky bars; the hike up Pinnacle Mountain and driving through the Ozarks; minor league baseball games.


Lest I get too sentimental too quickly, I haven’t mourned my departure for long. I will not miss some of my favorite bands flying right over Arkansas, or the entire town shutting down on Sundays - also the only day of the week you can’t buy alcohol - and the state’s proximity to exactly no beaches. There’s very little public transportation in Little Rock, and almost no investment in public infrastructure; despite a law requiring electric scooters be solely operated on sidewalks, public walkways are in shambles. More than once I stopped at a slab of shattered concrete, the ground resembling a small mountain range, and wondered how on earth a person in a wheelchair could possibly navigate it. I honestly don’t think it would be possible.


I always felt pretty distanced from southern culture, even as I pride myself on my ability to adapt to my environment. It’s small, but men never - never - let me hold the door for them or follow them into an elevator. The small synagogue was cozy, and also one of only two options for me to be with Jews on Shabbat. Strangest, whenever I heard the New York accent of a higher up, I felt homesick. I missed major league baseball.


My last week in Arkansas was such a whirlwind that it felt like a screenplay. I toiled away at a story that never developed, but had a nice national story mid-week. Friday was my last day so my coworkers and I went out to lunch. I cried saying goodbye to them. The following day, I attended the sunset wedding of two wonderful people. We partied until nearly 4 a.m. Sunday, my trivia team placed in the regional competition and I left the bar $50 richer. I packed up my apartment Tuesday and Wednesday, left Thursday morning, and was at my parents’ house midday Friday.


In thinking back on the last year I feel truly fortunate. What wonderful people I met and what incredible experiences I had. I do miss Little Rock. I certainly miss the people still there. I do not miss the heat.