Shorty and Lynn Wofford of Lollie BottomThe “For Sale” sign tacked to a trailer displaying red wooden wishing wells makes this door easier to knock on, like they are ready for a stranger’s inquiry. A handwritten sign taped the door reads “Dog Will Bite.” A wide woman with large stained glasses pokes her head out of the house and lets me know that her parents can’t go outside as they are in wheel-chairs. A small dog yips at the window. The wide woman calls her uncle Lynn on the phone. He lives just behind the house where the biting dog barks. Lynn, the man who made these yard ornaments, and Shorty Wofford, Lynn’s wife who works at the Hendrix College cafeteria, meet me beside the trailer holding wishing wells, windmills, and wreaths. They wear ball caps and T-shirts—Lynn’s reads “World’s Best Grandpa” and Shorty’s bright orange tie-dyed tee reads “Hendrix College.” I intended to escape Hendrix, but ended up finding a stranger who works at the cafeteria where I eat lunch everyday. Shorty takes me behind her niece’s trailer to their place to see more lawn decorations and their racecar. Racing season begins in a few weeks, so Lynn has been working to get their racecar running. He and Shorty race down at the dirt track in Plumerville. Shorty and Lynn have lived in Conway, Arkansas, for their entire lives, since back when “College was a dirt road,” Shorty says. They invite me inside. One by one, Shorty brings out Lynn’s crafts—heart-shaped lights, a guitar made out of a bed pan, another out of a toilet seat, and a banjo. I ask to take pictures. Shorty sets up the scene: windmills spinning in the background, a chair where Lynn sits holding his toilet seat guitar, and a “First Act” gas can converted into an amplifier to rest his feet on. Leaning back in his chair, he gently strums his guitar. The instruments he has crafted can’t be tuned or played. They are made for show. Lynn is a member of a lip syncing, guitar syncing band called The Lollie Bottom Boys. The Lollie Bottom Boys, named after the road where Shorty and Lynn lived in their first house, mostly perform at retirement homes in Conway. They strum their guitars lightly and mouth the words to songs from O Brother, Where Are Thou? On special occasions, they wear beards, overalls, and hold rubber ducks in their hands. “It’s just fun, lots of fun,” Lynn says. Shorty shakes her head and calls his antics silly.
***I return a week after taking portraits of Lynn and Shorty to deliver the photos. Lynn shows me a video on YouTube called “The Lollie Bottom Boys in ‘Sing, Brother, Sing’,” on hillbilly night at Farris Holliman’s, the event center in Pickles Gap where Shorty and Lynn go dancing. Him and his two buddies poke fun at each other for being unable to do simple math or read their scripts correctly and then they perform “Sing, Brother, Sing.” Based on Lynn’s quick wit, I imagine he has led a life of practical jokes. Lynn tells me a story about taking Shorty’s uncle to the hospital after he hurt his finger while roofing. “We went to some doctor’s office one time. We went there and they sewed his finger all up. I was sittin’ and there wasn’t nobody in there. I said while I am sittin’ here I might as well get a tetanus shot.” The corners of his mouth drop into a frown and he nods his head. The nurse offered to give him a tetanus shot, only if he sat in the waiting room for thirty minutes to make sure he didn’t experience any side effects. “‘Course never did bother me anyway. So they gave me a tetanus shot and they said ‘go sit in the waiting room over there so we can kinda watch you.’ So I walked back over there and sat in that chair a little bit. All of the sudden I start going.” Lynn throws his head back, hitting the back of it against his reclined La-Z-Boy. His mouth gapes, and he begins to flail his limbs like he’s having a seizure. “‘Mr. Wofford, you alright? Mr. Wofford?’. I said ‘Who’s Mr. Wofford?’. Boy, they comin’ over there, they thought somethin’ was wrong with me.” “I always like to pull pranks on somebody. It’s fun.” Lynn says. Shorty sits in a La-Z-Boy with a quilt on her lap, and Lynn sits in his La-Z-Boy beside her. Two cardboard apple pie sleeves from McDonald’s and a tall glass of milk sit on the coupon section of the newspaper on the side table between them. Shorty’s silver hair glows against her purple shirt. Shorty has lived on Padgett Road since she was six years old. Her and Lynn’s house, a two-story home with white paneling on the exterior, rests behind a maze of wind mills, ponds, and a racecar. A traffic light facing Padgett is mounted to the front of their house. Wagon wheels rest against their side porch in between the carport where their PT Cruisers dock and their front door. “That was my grandmother’s and this was ours,” she says, pointing to a house behind hers made out of siding with a wind chimes hanging from the porch. Before moving to Padgett, Lynn and Shorty lived on Lollie Bottom Road. Shorty’s dad found and fixed up the house they have lived in ever since moving from Lollie Bottom. “It was brought from the river bottom, but he added on and re-done it and everything.” Her eyes look back and forth. “I had four brothers, I didn’t have no sisters. I was a tom-boy. I only have one brother left, my other three had diabetes and they are all dead. And my mom and dad is dead. I just have one brother left, he has diabetes.” Raised in a place where her family has history, in a home built with her dad’s hands, Shorty and her husband have built their own family an added a few decorations to the house too. Lynn and Shorty watch Judge Judy most afternoons and now we watch as two sisters yell about money. We agree Judge Judy is sassy and mean. Their great-grandson, Brayden, who lives with them, kneels in the corner surrounded by action figures and markers. Sponge Bob plays in the background. A plate of crusty French fries sits next to his feet. Shorty says, “We’ve got seven great-grandkids. I only have three kids, ten grandkids, and seven great-grandkids. ‘Course some of them are step, but they aren’t step to me.” “I don’t even know all of their names yet,” Len kids. He nods in the direction of his niece’s trailer, “She can’t get around very good either. She’s way out of shape. Like 300 pounds out. She has had one job, it last her about three or four months, in her whole lifetime. I don’t understand people like that, that don’t work or do somethin’.” Shorty responds, “Truth will set you free. Free as a bird.” Shorty hadn’t had an official job until she turned thirty-five and began working at Hendrix College’s cafeteria. Lynn sometimes visits her on special days in the cafeteria, their favorite being “Rock n’ Roll Day” where Shorty wears her pink poodle skirt and they dance to the live band. Today in the cafeteria, it was “Carnival Day.” “It’s been a long day,” she says. Shorty poured thirty-three gallons of lemonade at the “lemonade stand” across from the “popcorn stand.” She tells me how Hendrix gives her and Lynn healthcare benefits and she doesn’t have to get up at four thirty in the morning anymore. Within the Hendrix community, Shorty has made friends and memories that fit into the history of her life. Plaques from Hendrix College honoring Shorty, pictures of their children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren, photos of race cars, and trophies cover the walls in their living room. Tiny frames fill the space above the doorway. Above Lynn, hangs a mounted ax painted gold by his kids in honor of his retirement from the roofing business. He’s been roofing since before he and Shorty married. Shorty and Lynn eloped fifty-three years ago in Oklahoma when Shorty was sixteen and Lynn was twenty-years-old. Lynn gave her the nickname “Shorty” and he met her through one of her four brothers. Shorty says, “We got married the fourteenth of October. We hadn’t seen each other on Friday. I’d been in trouble and couldn’t go nowhere, but I went to the movie with Mama and Daddy and Lynn happened to be there.” Her face brightens, her eyebrows lift, and her forehead wrinkles appear. “He said, ‘When you get off work, meet me and I’ll pick you up, and we’ll go get married.’ So he came by and picked me up, and we took off to Oklahoma. We had very little money, and it was on a Saturday afternoon. We had never been to Oklahoma. We went to the place and I had never seen an Indian in my life,”—her eyes widen and she slowly shakes her head—“but there were some real Indians out there. We slept in the car that night.” They spent the night on the side of the road in a place Shorty describes as, “a spooky spot. I would have beat my kids half to death if they woulda done that.” Lynn sarcastically describes it as “romantic.” “The next morning we went to the courthouse there and there was a man that said he was a Justice of the Peace. He married us. Our parents didn’t know anything about it and we got back and we was in trouble.” “I turned out to be his favorite son-in-law,” he notes with a nod of the head. Shorty smiles, looks at him with glistening eyes, and then rolls them. I feel like I am in the room with grandparents who would visit me in the hospital if I was sick or bail me out of jail if I got into trouble. I wanted to hug them and take them out to eat at David’s Burgers to hear more about their communities and their creations. Lynn has been working on their race car all day as racing reason starts in a few weeks. The car looks empty—only a rusty metal shell with faded numbers on either side. Lynn’s pants have smears of dirt and grease in their fibers. Black grease rests underneath his fingernails too. He hasn’t taken his boots off yet. Shorty and Lynn starting racing in 1974, and they have a whole room of trophies to prove it. Surrounding Brayden’s mattress, shelves filled with trophies line three of the walls. Surprisingly, not a single trophy falls when Shorty opens the door. She reaches to grab a six-inch tall trophy, the first trophy she ever won. After she wipes away the dust, she holds it with both of her hands. She pauses to look at it before showing it to me. In the first race they competed in, Shorty’s brother, Jerry, drove a ’56 Ford station wagon they bought on the side of the road for 50$. Lynn tells me, “We would’ve finished first, but the engine caught fire a little bit and the heat bailed out the window. So we brought that car back home and bought a racecar after that.” Not long after this race, Shorty began competing herself. Powderpuff, a name based on make-up concealer, refers to a female division of a male dominated sport. The women take the field, or in this case the race track, to duke it out in a space where it’s acceptable to show up without make-up on. At my high school, Powderpuff was for tough girls and the girls who wanted to be tough. Shorty is a tough girl. “I seen the Lawson girls, and they were so good. I said ‘I want to do that! We went to Heber Springs and they’re the ones who never had a Powderpuff. So I kept after em’, ‘Let’s have a Powderpuff! Let’s have a Powderpuff!” She bounces up and down in her La-Z-Boy and throws her hands in the air. “And so they did. The first lap I made, I ran off the bank and couldn’t get the car going.” Powderpuff racing didn’t exist in Heber Springs until Shorty bothered someone. By giving women the power to participate, she changed the racing culture. She constructed and joined a community that her and Lynn have enjoyed for forty years and counting. Shorty words get softer and slower, “We’ve had a good time with it.” As Shorty and Lynn get older, the work it takes to build a car and race it gets harder. Lynn says in his most serious tone, “To tell you the truth, this year’ll probably be the last year. Matter of fact, if that car falls apart, that’ll be the last of it.” He turns to look at Shorty, whose head falls and she gazes at the floor. “I build all the cars, do all the motor work on ‘em. I learned when I was fifteen or sixteen how to work on cars because we didn’t have the money to take ‘em somewhere to fix ‘em. Nowadays some of the stuff I can’t even work on. Everything is computerized.”
***Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, until racing season begins, Shorty and Lynn go dancing at Farris Holloman’s on the Greenbrier Highway with the “big juke box outside.” Farris Holloman’s features two-step, ten-step, waltz, and line-dancing. They don’t serve alcohol, but there’s a little snack bar there. They also play rock n’ roll music. “It’s just fun. Look out there on the dance floor, there are six different couples and six different ways of dancing,” Shorty says. Shorty and Lynn have been dancing for six years. On dancing nights, they show off their moves in a community that no longer feels uncomfortable to them. They know the people, their favorite tunes, and the different dancing styles. When racing season begins on March 22nd, they will trade off between dancing and racing. Shorty says, “We get up on Saturday mornings we go garage salin’ and lookin’ around all that and then on Saturday night we go dancing. Last year, we went racin’ every Saturday night. This year we are gonna split it up.” I tell them that I don’t know how to dance. Lynn offers to teach me. “I’ll teach you how to two-step, ten-step, whatever. I ain’t gonna go up to sixteen though.” I expected the house behind the trailer of wishing wells would hold people too foreign, maybe too simple, to love. Although they have never lived outside of Conway, they have stretched themselves into many communities within it. Lynn creates windmills and laughter. Shorty creates Powderpuff leagues and smiles. As a unit, they dance, race cars, and take care of their three kids, ten grandkids, and seven great-grandkids. Before I get into my car to go back to Hendrix, Shorty and Lynn give me tight hugs. My eyes begin to water as I back out of their long, dirt driveway, past their matching PT Cruisers and the trailer filled with wishing wells. I feel guilty for thinking I could have labeled them poor hillbillies selling lawn ornaments. Shorty’s sweet saying, “Truth will set you free. Free as a bird,” continues to meander through my mind. I did not leave their house feeling grateful for the things in my life. I left their house wondering how I can achieve a life so full of joy.
Mahmoud of Central ArkansasMahmoud Jiliat Layla has a Syrian wife named Hala and a four-month-old son named Abul Kiram. He has been divorced three times. He has earned the title “President of the Community” for Conway’s Islamic population. Despite the time he has spent in other parts of the country, Conway always feels like home. He says, “I have been to LA, Houston many times, and deep in the South. Louisiana is way too hot. This is my roots, you make it as home. I need to stay in Arkansas, something pull me back again.” When I eat at Mahmoud’s Mediterranean restaurant, Layla’s, I hear him yelling Spanish orders to his cooks through his thick Syrian accent. Six guys jumped Mahmoud outside of a mosque in Little Rock. One of the guys grabbed Mahmoud as he tried to get into his car and hurt Mahmoud’s knee. Mahmoud hurt his testicles. I assumed the confrontation was racial. Turns out, they just wanted his money. He now walks with the help of a walking stick, the staff-like kind often used when hiking. He is supposed to get knee surgery in a month. Mahmoud moved from Syria to Arkansas to study physical therapy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He has lived in America for twenty-seven years. Mahmoud drives a Nissan truck between Little Rock and Conway, Layla’s two locations. He speaks three languages: Arabic, Spanish, and English. He does not allow his female employees to handle money. To pay at Layla’s, a customer must meet Mahmoud at the register. The waitress is never your cashier. Mahmoud calls me “Baby Girl,” gives me hugs and high-fives, and reads Arkansas Wild, a magazine about hunting and fishing.
***We plan to meet at Layla’s on a Monday evening, so he can take me to his apartment to photograph his family. All of his cooks are on break, so he sends me to his apartment alone, along with a grocery bag carrying three egg plants and a Daisy Sour Cream container filled with flour to give to his wife. He slips me a diamond shaped piece of baklava wrapped in foil. With the gem in my pocket and egg plants—“Without calorie!” Mahmoud informs me—in my back seat, I have a purpose. At Layla’s, I know the rules—it’s like any other sit down restaurant, except you pay at the front. I don’t know the rules inside Mahmoud Layla’s home. Google Maps leads me to The Links, an apartment complex ten minutes away from Layla’s but still in Conway, where Mahmoud’s wife and son wait for me. I drive through brick apartment buildings, curving around the edges of a golf course in search of Mahmoud’s palace. Mahmoud, his wife, Hala, her parents, and his four-month-old son, Abul Kiram, share a two bedroom apartment. Hala’s parents came with her to Arkansas to escape the violence in Syria. Hala has her son in her arms when she answers the door and asks me to remove my shoes. Nervously, I hand her the bag and watch her readjust Abul Karim to account for its weight. A plump man with graying hair sits on the couch in sweats and a striped T-shirt, not phased by my entrance. On mute, he watches what looks to be Al Jazeera, with red and blue bars of text briskly sliding across the bottom of the screen. Steaming tea in a crystal glass sits on the coffee table. Hala wears a black and white floral dress that exposes her ankles and neck. The white walls are empty and the couch lacks decorative pillows. On the stove sits a copper pot filled with yellow curry. The thick curry smell reminds me of passing through the swinging doors into Layla’s kitchen. Mahmoud and I sit in a small storage room off of Layla’s kitchen and we begin our interview. He reclines in a black office chair, a heavy bag of lentils at his feet. He holds a hookah pipe in his right hand. He tells me he began talking to Hala when he was fifty-five and she was thirty-three. When Mahmoud talks to me, he speaks slowly. He touches my knee twice during our interview, to assert claims and to make sure I am still paying attention. I wear pants and scarves every time I go to Layla’s, but I never feel nervous around him. “In East, the idea of getting married is that your mom or your dad or your sister will arrange the marriage. So hey, I give my respect to my parents,” he nods his head, “my sisters,” he nods his head again, “so I am going to let them choose for me the right person. Because already they know what I believe and what’s my philosophy, personality.” After spending twenty-five years in America returning to Syria felt foreign to him. “I had adopted a lot of this ideology of Western society. It’s so hard for me coming back again,” he says. Western culture means freedom for Mahmoud—freedom to start his own business, to marry a woman of his choosing. Despite his resistance, his family pushed him to marry a Syrian woman. “They told me about this girl and they give me her phone number.” His head sways back and forth like he is nodding and shaking it at the same time. “So I was talking to her, talking to her, talking to her to see her mind, what she believed and her personality.” After two years of communicating on the telephone, Mahmoud went to Syria to meet Hala and her family. “I wasn’t sure if I should marry her or not. Something inside me is pushing me to go forward. I mean marriage is a beautiful thing, you know.” He looks up to meet my eyes. “It is beyond that. It is holy, really. This is what God wants you to do—to get married and to continue life.” So he and Hala have done what God wants them to do in a two bedroom apartment in Conway, Arkansas. In apartment number fourteen, I sit next to Hala’s father on the couch. As I insert film into my camera, a cell-phone vibration fills the silence. I peek at Hala’s phone as it vibrates: “Sweety” it says with a picture of Mahmoud holding Abul Kiram. After saying a word in Arabic and nodding, she gives the phone to me. He gives me instructions as to where to take photos: in the bedroom and in the living room. Hala does not decide where her son’s photographs will be captured, only the outfits he wears, until Mahmoud gets home. She leads me into their bedroom. It feels tight and bare with a neatly made bed, a recliner, a cradle. She sits Abul Kiram in the recliner. Her mother enters the room wearing a long patterned skirt and t-shirt with a different design. They begin the universal struggle to make the baby smile without touching him. Her mother shakes beads behind my head while Hala says “Habibi!” over and over. She tells me that habibi means “Over here!” but according to Babylon, it means “my beloved.” Abul Karim does not smile. Hala’s mother pulls onesie after onesie out of a drawer, handing them to me for my opinion, of which I have none. Hala decides on gray striped over-alls that say “TEAM” down one leg. Hala and her mother force tiny sneakers onto his feet and reposition him in the chair. He stares down at them, despite their energetic hopping and cooing from behind the camera. I ask if she wants to pose with Abul Kiram. She looks at me and mumbles something about her hair, while letting out a heavy sigh. She pauses, and finally runs to the bathroom to take her hair down. She sits up straight in the chair and sets her son on her lap. They both have deep black hair. She looks royal. Hala informs me that Mahmoud will be coming home soon and he wants me to be here when he does. “I have to put on my hijab because another man is coming with Mahmoud,” she explains. At this moment I understand why she looked apprehensive when I asked if she wanted her picture taken. What will she do with the photos of her wearing only a dress? She goes to her bedroom and shuts the door. She returns to the living room wearing a white hijab that covers her head and neck and a long dress. As the “President of the Islamic Community in Conway,” which consists of about seventy members, Mahmoud and his family must follow “the Islamic Path.” He maintains the highest position within Conway’s Islamic community, which requires responsibility. “I have to protect the community from harm and to make sure the community is going in the right path. I have to explain to them what the Islamic life is, how to be active with that.” My puzzled face evokes more explanation. “Islam is, in Arabic language, a submission to God. How am I going to submit to God from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep, even when I am sleeping. There is a verse in the Quran,” Mahmoud recites the verse in Arabic from memory. “It means that I did create a mankind and the genus for one purpose and the purpose is only to worship me.” Every part of his life for the sake of God, from feeding his wife to choosing which type of car he purchases. “If my income is $10,000,000, I am going to buy a car that’s $300, for what? I am going to hire myself a chauffeur. Do you see?” Mahmoud feels the need to maintain a powerful image as a successful Arkansas businessman and the “President of the Islamic Community in Conway.” His cherry red Nissan with an extended cab helps him maintain this image. As Hala and I wait for Mahmoud to arrive, we attempt to make conversation—she speaks little English and I speak zero Arabic. Our broken conversation reveals: she has three brothers and three sisters, some of her siblings have moved to Connecticut through marriage, she visited them at the beginning of the year, and she has lived in Arkansas for one year. Her mother requests that Hala takes a picture of me holding Abul Kiram. I sit him on my lap and stare into his eyes. He begins to fuss, so I bounce my knee and worry that I am not supposed to bounce him on my knee. Hala’s phone covers her face as she snaps a few images. I wonder what my contact name would be in her phone “Photographer Girl,” maybe “Eggplant Girl.” Mahmoud’s voice carries through the door before he opens it. A Latino man who I recognize from Layla’s kitchen enters with him. “Zapatos, man,” Mahmoud says to his guest. The cook removes his neon yellow Pumas before following Mahmoud to the couch. Mahmoud offers him a drink. Without instruction, Hala retrieves him a water. The cook works on Mahmoud’s laptop, while Mahmoud moves a chair to the corner of the living room, sits his baby on his lap, and tells me to take a picture. I suggest a family picture. Hala stands behind Mahmoud, her head barely peaking above his. He takes me to the bedroom and says that he wants pictures of Abul Kiram wearing only a diaper. Mahmoud tells me to come over to watch and starts chomping at his son’s belly. “I just want to eat you up, man,” he repeats. While he holds up his diaper-clad son and tells him to look at the most beautiful girl behind the camera, his wife stands behind me chirping “Habibi!” They ask my opinion on which outfit the baby should wear next. I suggest the jeans. Mahmoud struggles to thread his son’s chunky legs into the tiny holes. As he forces the stiff jeans onto Abul Karim’s thick legs, Mahmoud propels Abul Kiram across the bed with each motion. Mahmoud makes a game of it, scooting him back and forth until his tiny toes poke out from the ends. “Sexy man survive,” he tells his shirtless son as he places him in the chair. Before his family introduced him to Hala, Mahmoud thought of himself quite the “sexy man.” While interviewing him in the tiny closet off of Layla’s kitchen, he lists his divorces like he listed the items he placed in the grocery bag for Hala. “I have been married three times. Three white Arkansans. First one, she wants a divorce. The first one almost seven years and I don’t want a divorce. She finished her Masters Degree in Technical Writing. The second one did not work. I found out that she was smoking marijuana, and I am absolutely, definitely not one of these people,”—he takes a long inhale from the hookah pipe in his right hand—“so I divorced her. And the third one was about thirteen or fourteen years marriage. She was older than me and she didn’t want to have kids. I need to have kids.” His divorces did not break his heart, but instead helped him figure out what to look for in his next wife. Trial and error, I suppose. “I am attracted to a woman who has mind like a man. Physical is woman, but here,” he points to his head, “like a man.” I ask three times what this means because he struggles to tell me the differences between male and female minds. Finally, I find clarity when he says that women are “bitchy.” I can’t imagine Hala bitching, even if Mahmoud forgets the eggplant she needs for dinner. “When a woman wants something from a man she will let him take his clothes off and run away. Thank God that you don’t know how to do it, so stay like that.” He thinks he knows me well enough to know that I am not a female body who bitches—that I have a man’s mind. He thinks he knows I am not a gold digger—the type to leave a naked man behind. I think I know him well enough to learn his secrets. I laugh when he laughs. I act interested even when I can’t understand him through his accent or his offensive statements. I can see why he thinks we are friends. Am I exploiting him for his unique perspective and his baklava? I don’t want him to stop talking. “When you get to school, you study, you take a test, you pass or not.” A new fingers extends—pointer, middle, ring—as he lists the process. “But in life, you take that test and then you learn, so the opposite.” Mahmoud regrets not finishing his degree while at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. He dreams of returning and earning his B.S. in Physical Therapy. It has been fourteen years since he has been in school, so he will have to take the GRE and “start from scratch,” he says, “I don’t want to fool myself. I always keep my ear open because I like to learn.” Mahmoud taught himself Spanish by reading a book and practicing with his cooks who, according to him, refuse to learn English. “So, we’re done?,” he asks as he gets up. “Let me feed you.” The story I wanted to tell about Mahmoud, that of a hardworking immigrant living the American dream, didn’t include sexism. At once, I wanted to babysit Abul Karim and to never see Mahmoud again. I felt closer with brave Hala and we had only exchanged a few words. Hala followed her husband to America where her hijab makes her seem like an outsider. Mahmoud has made Conway comfortable for her by allowing her parents to live with them, having strong presence in Conway’s Islamic community, and establishing a reliable source of income. Maybe marriage is easier when only one spouse makes the decisions. Mahmoud’s ideas about women should have deeply offended me, but it felt too absurd—curling smoke falling from his lower lip while praising me for not being “bitchy.” He leads an admirable life: opening two restaurants, guiding Conway’s Islamic community, choosing to marry an Islamic wife from Syria after three divorces, fathering a child. He cares about me, he touches my knees, hugs me, calls me “Beautiful,” offers me food, and I know he will always will. Our lives have come together in a little Mediterranean restaurant in Conway, Arkansas, yet our minds remain apart.
Shawn, Sandra, and Hector of The LocalsThe businesses in downtown Conway can be put into five categories: antique shops, boutiques, law offices, hair salons, and restaurants. One of the oldest businesses in downtown Conway, Bob’s Grill, which claims “If it happens in Conway, it's talked about at Bob's Grill...” hosts bingo on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Patti, a waitress who has worked at Bob’s Grill for over twenty years, tells me the pot can get up to $3,000. In the late mornings, old men sit with their coffee and newspapers and talk about local politics. Just a block away from Bob’s Grill lies Van Ronkle Street where a new movement, The Locals, has set up shop. I visited The Locals in hopes of finding the locals—the people who understood Conway better than I ever would. It seemed too easy.
***According to the Oxford Dictionary, local means “belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood” (“local” def. 1). This definition does not include knowing the best restaurants in town or the ability to give directions to anywhere in said “particular area.” Under this definition you could call me a local because I relate to Hendrix which relates to Conway, even though I struggle to find my way to to the University of Central Arkansas, which is also in Conway and just down the road from Hendrix. Being “local” means knowing people and places not easily stumbled upon—knowing enough people with histories in Conway to have visited all the recommended spots. The Locals is a non-profit with a location in downtown Conway for vendors to sell their items and groups to host their events: readings, workshops, concerts, etc. Large paned windows break the brick surface of The Locals storefront and a row of four theater seats mounted on plywood and wheels stands in front of the window. The Locals sign uses untidy bold lettering filled with spirals and a coffee mug with a heart in its center as the “o.” It juts out from the brick wall facing Van Ronkle and swings in the wind. Hector Garcia, Shawn Goicoechea, and Sandra Leyva, Shawn’s wife, run The Locals. They currently live on the second floor of La Lucha Space, which used to host all of the community events; however, with the creation of The Locals, La Lucha Space has become “headquarters,” as Hector, the resident creative, calls it. Potlucks and private meetings occur at La Lucha Space, while The Locals maintains regular hours. In order to sell crafts, food, soap, or any other product, one must become a member, which requires approval from the La Lucha Space Board of Directors, of which Shawn is a member, and an annual fee—ranging from $25 to $75 depending on the product. Along with this fee, The Locals collects 12% of the profits. Most of the time, The Locals offer their space for community events free of charge. “We want to welcome people to come to the culture,” explains Hector. The Locals fosters a culture where origin, processing, and people have more value than money. The Locals’ community and the products bought and sold within their shop feel more deeply rooted in Conway than just “belonging to.” The Board of Directors for La Lucha Space won’t accept a member who screen printed shirts shipped here from China as the T-shirts are not made in Arkansas and the means of production are unknown. Sandra, Hector, and Shawn have planted a community in Conway. The Locals provides a place for residents to sell things grown in Conway’s soil and made by Conway’s people. Shawn says, “We emphasize that being local is about being where you are. I’m from Washington, and if I were local to that, then why would I be working really hard to bring food so far? We think we should have minimum wage and certain rights, then why do we go get things from places that don’t have that standard?”
***I park my car outside of B and H Shoe Repair, where cowboy boots line the shelves and Moses, an African-American homeless man who I took portraits of in photography, sometimes sleeps. The glowing Christmas lights in The Locals’ window catch my eye. “Fresh Coffee” written on a chalkboard sign sits on the sidewalk, speckled with rain drops. The propped open door makes entering easy. In the corner, the exposed brick walls have been draped with plum and turquoise velvet curtains. A triangular stage hides under tangled computer cords and drapes. Next to the stage, mason jars filled with colorful fruits and vegetables line metal shelves. Three men work—stand up, sit down, unplug, plug-in—on a set of seven computers, the largest sitting atop the stage facing the room. Pictures of stars and galaxies move across the large screen. I have entered an indie game workshop called Bridge Simulator. The bridge is a spaceship made up of several computers, each screen displays a work station for a specific job, like engineering or weapon control. As a team, the players work to become the bridge of the enterprise. “It is a more geeky project,” Sandra says. The coffee stand sits towards the back of the room, where a friendly-looking dude with a rust-colored beard awaits me. He introduces himself as Shawn. Behind him an imprecise version of American Gothic hangs on the wall—the female wearing lab goggles, the male holding a handful of cash, and the blue sky broken with the neck and beak of an oil drill jutting across it. Sitting on a backless barstool, I rest my hands upon a lacquered bar top made out of varying lengths of wood. I ram my foot against the corrugated siding upon which the shiny wood strips rest. Behind the bar lies the makeshift kitchen without a sink or a built-in countertop. Two small tables hold teapots, a hot plate, a coffee grinder, and three clear plastic coffee vessels. I don’t drink coffee often; it makes my eyes bulge. Shawn pours my coffee and lets it steep until the timer goes off. Into a paper cup it goes. Sandra meets Shawn behind the bar. Her short curls hang loosely, sitting on the small of her neck. “Hey Sandra, is it okay if I take five?” Shawn asks. He kisses her on the cheek while she grinds coffee beans and whispers in her ear loud enough for me to hear he’s speaking Spanish. Shawn and Sandra had two weddings, one in Mexico and one in the America. His fibrous sweater hangs below his back pockets and his backpack swings back and forth as he trots out the door. Sandra moved to Texas from Mexico City when she five. At the age of sixteen, her mom got a job in Washington with the USDA. “You’re fifteen or sixteen, you’re at the time in your life when nothing is agreeable. The last two years of high school I wanted to be somewhere else all the time.” Noticing something in the back, she exits the barista booth. Besides the rich curtains and signs that read “La Lucha Space,” “Maria’s Home Made Country Fare,” “Conway Locally Grown,” and “FC Urban Farming Project,” the walls made of white painted brick remain undecorated. Rainbow colored knit afghans sewn around the exposed cylindrical tubes jut across the ceiling, a type of street art called yarn bombing. Rain begins to trickle and through the open door the warm breeze floats into the canning, crocheting, computer community. A women enters The Locals. She has thin curled hair and a turtle neck with a gold cross necklace latched outside of its folds. Sandra informs me that they are setting up for a baby shower. Soon pink streamers wind across the room. The pregnant woman is a friend of Shawn’s. “It was kind of a weird thing,” Hector explains to me, as The Locals doesn’t usually host baby showers. With Wal-Mart bags yanking at her wrists, the woman wearing a turtle neck ventures beyond the red curtain. Over the coffee grinding and the computer guys, I can hear her say in a Southern accent, “Sandra is here” into her iPhone. I assume the woman on the other line asked if anyone has arrived to help her transform mismatch tables and chairs into a pink palace. Women begin to trail in wearing jeans with sparklies on their back pockets and concerned faces. They carry bags that have words like “cutie!” or “baby!” printed on the outside. It gets loud with table scraping, balloon blowing, and chatter about where to park. As they work to cover up the walls with pink things, they have to step around a few unused shelves. Shawn says “They’re probably like, they should paint!” referring to the exposed walls in the back room. Sandra met Shawn at the University of Washington, where she studied questions about identity and community as an Interdisciplinary major entitled “Comparative History of Ideas.” “Am I part of the chicano community now? Or am I Mexican?” she pondered. They decided to travel together. Hanging out and volunteering, Sandra and Shawn spent time in Lebanon and Cuba. When their travel money ran out, they had to make a hard decision. “We could go to school or do something else, right?” In search of a temperate climate and a new part of the country, Sandra and Shawn looked into moving to Arkansas. After researching about Arkansas online, Shawn and Sandra visited Little Rock, Fayetteville, and Conway, where they saw a void. Shawn says, “We saw a lack of places where people can come and interact with each other. We didn’t want to go to a place that already had that happening, and Arkansas is pretty cheap.” Conway, to Shawn and Sandra, fit all of their requirements as it had a residential college, cheap real estate, a small enough population, and longer summers. As Shawn notes, “We knew we weren’t going to be rolling out this huge thing. ‘Hello, Boston, we’re going to change you!’” They bought a two-story house on Prince Street, where they live above and La Lucha Space lives below. “Going to lots of places makes you realize that you can find people anywhere who say, ‘Man, this place sucks. I really want to move,’” Shawn tells me. Sandra responds, “We are lucky because we found a really awesome community, and we stumbled upon it.” Like Sandra and Shawn stumbled upon Conway, Hector stumbled upon Shawn and Sandra. Hector met Sandra and Shawn through a sociology professor at UCA, Cliff Beecham, who helped with La Lucha Space. Shawn, Sandra, and Hector’s shared vision of community, where people value Conway and collaborate to celebrate it, brought them together. Hector tells me about the beginning of this community-oriented team. “Talking with them and just getting a lot of ideas that we coincide with—visions and ideologies as far as community. We were just willing to do something that is worth it—making a good thing for everybody. That’s the dream.” After spending time with Sandra and Shawn at La Lucha Space, he became a resident artist. As a resident artist, he began painting a mural at La Lucha Space, which he guiltily whispers “Is not finished.” He worked as a resident artist until recently when he was given the title “resident creative.” Hector still works on his mural at La Lucha Space as well as his other projects, but his new title gives room for someone else to become the resident artist. As he sees it, “They just gave me a raise. That was mainly for the position, eventually I will move on with my life. I am going to apply to grad school.” His dream school is NYU where he can receive a Master’s Degree in Art History in only a year. A highly-competitive university in Mexico City sits on the top of his list too, but he says he has to learn to speak Nahuatl in order to get into the Art History program there. For now, he seems completely content within a community he has helped build. “This is a project that if the community is not involved or supportive, it’s just not going to happen because of our goodwill or our ideas.” He knows everyone who walks in and he greets them with a tender smile. “I thinks it’s rewarding and it will continue to grow.” Someone told Hector that no one comes to Arkansas, they just end up here. He lets out a rich laugh before explaining his journey. In 2005, Hector received a permit to come to America to study at the University of Central Arkansas, who had recruited him from Mexico. “Only wealthy people and smart people get permits,” he tells me. His grades allowed him to attend a competitive high school in Mexico, which gave him the opportunity to further his studies in America. Upon arriving to Arkansas from Veracrux, Mexico, he worked for three years in Benton laying bricks to save enough money to pay for tuition and English language classes. He had to take semesters and years off, but finally he graduated in May 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History and a minor in Sociology. When he talks about Mexico, he slows down and his voice fills with longing. “My mom was and still is really proud. I made it, I came here and got an education.” He smiles between sentences and occasionally looks down and pauses to churn up the correct word. “But then at the same time, I haven’t been back in four years.” Although he has made Conway his home, he misses “the sight of my mom, her eyes, her feeling, her presence, and I mean that’s it.” His dark skin and dark hair reflect the rays of light shining in through the window. “Last time I went to Mexico, I mean it was a great time with my family, but I couldn’t bond. It’s a culture shock again.” His eyelids open and his chin sinks into his neck. “I know I don’t belong here because I know I belong somewhere else, but in another sense I do feel like I belong here—the community, working here. It’s a really good job. It’s the best that I have had so far.” Sandra never felt like an outsider in Arkansas. “I mean there’s always the ‘Where are you from question?’ People, if anything, are very surprised at why we ever wanted to come here. So when they see that we care about this place and that we want to make the community awesome, then it inspires them to be like ‘Oh yeah, well this place is kind of cool’.” Sandra and Shawn want to bring people together and to celebrate Conway, a place they had never been until a few years ago. Shawn grew up in a small town in Eastern Washington—a town with a public pool that had a water slide. “It was a destination,” he chuckled. Conway’s quaintness reminds Shawn of Eastern Washington. Maybe that’s why he feels like he fits in. Maybe he sees everyone as fitting in. Maybe that’s what community is about. “People would ask where I am from, randomly, what about me says, ‘I am not from here?’” A tall scruffy guy walks in, and while I have the urge to welcome him to The Locals from my barstool, Sandra beats me to it. She didn’t recognize him at first, but after hearing him say “hummus” she squeezes both of his arms at once. This is the man who makes and sells hummus. She gives him the tour—starting with the chilled stuff, a small refrigerator with two glass doors, moving through rows of canned goods, past shelves dangling with yarn and earrings made out of spoons, stopping at the Arkansas shaped piece of knitting, and into the mysterious area behind the red curtain. He drags in a Coleman cooler. In the corner he sits and labels each container of hummus, stamping and stacking. As Sandra does business with tall scruffy guy, Shawn tells me about Sandra’s difficulty with the Southern accent. “Sometimes she says ‘y’all’ and I give her a hard time.” Maybe it’s easier to be in love when you’re trying to change the world. “One time, we were talking to this electrician who was doing some work on our house and he had a pretty thick accent. He asked where she was from and she said she grew up in Mexico. He says, ‘I thought I heard a little South in your mouth.’ She thought he said, ‘I thought you got a little salt in your mouth.’ So she’s like ‘Yeah maybe I could use a glass of water.’” Shawn says that he’ll never say y’all—“’You guys’ works for me.” I sit between women primping for a baby shower, an important hummus negotiation, and men setting up a Bridge Simulator convention that was supposed to start a half hour ago. After the papers have been signed and the hummus stocked, Sandra shares a piece of wisdom: “At one point you figure out that what you’re looking for is not out there to find, but it’s in you. Wherever you are, you’re going to be that person. Once you figure that out, then it doesn’t matter where you are if you’re involved in whatever you are passionate about.” The seeds for community start inside people like Shawn, Sandra, and Hector. They are the kind of people who remember your name, but don’t pretend to know how you take your coffee. “So it doesn’t really matter what you believe. I don’t care. You can be racist and a crazy person, but what’s important is that we can talk about it. That’s it” Sandra says. I have made new friends and entered a new community. The Locals have the specialized set of local knowledge: where to find Arkansas honey, homemade hummus, fresh eggs from Conway chickens, and experienced Bridge Simulator teammates. I have stepped into a culture where I am forced to be local—to engage with Conway residents and to purchase the goods they have made. Maybe being “local” is just as easy as “relating to” a place—just as easy as opening The Locals’ door, or talking to Mahmoud as he rings up my gyro, or saying hello to Shorty as she wipes down the table next to mine. Being involved in my community means learning about the communities of strangers, the ones they create and the ones they lead. Becoming local begins with discomfort—knocking on doors, moving to a new part of the world, fighting for a Powderpuff league—and ends with falling in love with strangers.