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Rheta Grimsley Johnson: A Mississippi love affair

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

GREENVILLE -- The skinny teenager holds his telephone in one hand and uses the other to hitch up low-riding jeans. 

 

"I want to tell you right," he insists. I had asked directions. We are only blocks from my intended location, he knows the place, but an opportunity to strut out a phone's high-tech features should not be wasted. 

 

Several minutes later, he gives up on coordinates and says, "Go straight to that traffic light, turn right, it's past the convenience store on your left." 

 

It's a restaurant I should have been able to find without an intelligent phone or a nice, accommodating kid. But I get lost easily here these days. As Lucinda Williams sings: "Faces look familiar, but they don't have names. Towns I used to live in have been rearranged." 

 

There is plywood across too many windows, too many streets have a poverty pallor that wasn't here when I lived in Greenville for one year, 1980-81. Businesses I once frequented have vanished. 

 

I look it up later and read that between 2000 and 2010, 16 Delta counties lost anywhere from 10 percent to 38 percent of their population. That follows the national pattern of rural-to-urban migration. But the Delta, a legendary farming region, adds to that subtraction with an increasingly efficient agricultural economy. Farming now is highly mechanized, which means fewer laborers are needed. 

 

That might be good news, except there are no replacement jobs. Not to speak of. According to The Economist, nearby Issaquena County has just 1,386 people, 40 percent living below the poverty line. Its 10 private, non-farm businesses employ a total of 99. 

 

And yet, those grim statistics noted, my not-so-familiar and down-at-the-heels Greenville still is as appealing in ways as it was to me when I first laid eyes on its legendary levee 34 years ago. The town has a romantic allure that you'd never find in some more prosperous, picture pretty place like, say, Fairhope, Alabama, or Hillsboro, North Carolina. Those towns are, for me, a little too easy to love. 

 

Would that it were as easy to renew love affairs with people as with places. How nice to rekindle a spark when routine and reality wear love to a nub. The Delta always makes me remember how much I love Mississippi. 

 

I haven't spent a lot of time in the Delta recently. I made the Clarksdale blues festival several years, savoring the home crowd and hands-down the most legitimate of the hundreds of blues gatherings that have spread nationally now from shore to shore. 

 

I haven't forgotten, though. I still remember a night barge ride on Lake Ferguson, the oxbow that leans into town like good conversationalists at a dinner table after dessert. I can taste the Doe's Eat Place tamales that I bought in a coffee can and ate in the park. I wonder if the Flowing Fountain still percolates on Saturday night. 

 

Most of all, I remember well the people -- the kid on the street, the barmaid in the blues club, the landlady who played "Lady of Spain" late at night on her organ. 

 

 

 

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