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May We Enter the 'Land of Hope'
I know it’s hard to be reconciled
not everything is exactly
the way it ought to be
but please turn around
and step into the future
leave memories behind
enter the land of hope
--- Zbignief Herbert
This is another sad and cautionary tale that I wrote when Bill and I went on a gastronomic tour of the South. “Let’s stop at Cairo - pronounced Kayrow - Illinois,” I said, and I checked the Internet for hotels.
I’m fascinated by America’s great rivers such as the Susquehanna, the Monongahela, and the Hudson. I’d always wanted to see Cairo which is at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers. Abraham Lincoln went down the rivers on a cargo raft to New Orleans when he was a young man; and Mark Twain mentioned Cairo in Life on the Mississippi and in Huckleberry Finn. I envisioned a charming river town such as Hannibal, with Tom and Huck shouting, “Steamboat comin’ ‘round the bend!”.
During its heyday, Cairo flourished as a river port of 15,000 people with a handsome brick customs house and lovely homes with names like Magnolia Manor and Riverlore. After it was supplanted by Chicago, its population dwindled to around 3,000.
The reality of Cairo was very different from my romantic vision: Its magnolia days are over. We drove through a forlorn, silent place of abandonment where we saw no people out and about - entering a business, sweeping a walk or pushing a child in a stroller. I half expected to see a black-clad rider approaching in the distance under a pall of doom and disaster. “It sounds like something out of Stephen King,” Vicki said when I told her about it. Precisely.
Bedraggled bed sheets hung haphazardly at the plate-glass window of a ratty-looking motel building. “Eek! I wouldn’t stick a toe in that place!” “Rose Mary, I think it’s been taken over by people who are living there.” And last we came upon a sight that disturbed me greatly and told me that something had gone very wrong in this place.
A large corner - about a third - of what had been a medium-sized, three-story brick factory building had collapsed. No one had bothered to clean up the rubble or even steal the bricks.
I remembered a scene from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. The protagonist, workaholic Dagny Taggart, runs the country’s largest railroad system. Her friend and lover, Hank Reardon, has invented a new metal that is extremely strong and inexpensive to produce. They set off on a quest to find a revolutionary motor whose inventor, John Galt, has disappeared, taking its secret with him because he refuses to accept the dictates of a socialistic government that would make him give up ownership of his idea.
Wherever they go, they find closed factories and unemployed people living in poverty.
Cairo is just a small place, but the statistics are staggering. We tend to think of extreme poverty as being something that happens in the ghettos of big cities rather than in small towns in rural America, but Cairo has the highest percentage of children living in poverty in the state of Illinois and the fifteenth highest percentage in the entire United States.
What could have happened, I wondered, to reduce Cairo to something out of Atlas Shrugged? The answer is both simple and complex and is contained in the poem that I quoted above: Rather than abandon the past and their memories and lay aside ancient prejudices and grudges, the people refused to change and consequently relinquished hope. More to come.
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