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1978 - Lyons in the wilderness

A transplant gives his take on the state.


Sometimes, it takes an outsider to really understand what's important about a place. That's why you just gotta love Gene Lyons. He's a Yankee, but damned if we don't love him. A New Jersey boy by birth, in October 1978 Lyons had been living in Arkansas a little over six years, having married a woman from Little Rock while at the University of Virginia. With less than a decade of Arkiedom under his belt, Lyons still had the nerve to write his take on the state and her citizens: "An Outsider's Love Affair with Arkansas." The result: Lyons on geography: "Back home, people don't know where Arkansas is and, therefore, are hardly preoccupied with WHAT it is. 'Where you living now?' an uncle or cousin will ask. 'Arkansas,' I'll say. 'Orkinsaw, huh?' 'Ockinsaw, that's out near Vegas someplace, ain't it? Whadda yis do, go over to Vegas for the weekend?' 'Nah,' I'll say, 'we don't need to. We've got our own race track.' 'No kidding? Trotters or flats?…' " On women: "The best thing about Arkansas is the women. The men don't deserve them. For every cotton-headed, drawling lamebrain who prates about her ancestors and her beaux, there are three charming, funny and gutsy ladies of substance. Only the power of the universal mating urge can be adduced as the reason they put up with Arkansas men, generally an inferior lot given to smug preening and the striking of poses. Who has not sat in a bar or restaurant and watched some heartbreaking beauty escorted by a clown in pastel polyester, white shoes and styled hair whose entire conversation is limited to football, poontang, money, and the wiles of the largemouth bass?" On race: "Southerners forced almost literally at gunpoint to integrate public facilities now boast that they have come a lot further in that regard than Yankees. In rural locations and small cities like Little Rock there is a plausible body of surface evidence to indicate that. But only because there are no really isolated suburbs to flee to. Where there are, such as in Atlanta, residential apartheid across municipal borders is as much the rule - in the "Sunbelt" - as in my home state. Yankees have always been hypocrites on the subject of race; now Southerners have joined them. I see little cheering in that." On culture: "I read in the Arkansas Democrat about the establishment of something called The Whole Person Center in Little Rock. There, individuals and couples are paying real money to a man, who among other things, teaches them how to close their eyes and concentrate hard on the mysteries and wonders of their left foot… One woman at the Center identified as a social worker interrupted her chant of 'Om, Om on the Range' to tell the reporter that she was happy 90 percent of the time and was there to work on the other 10 percent. How would you like to have HER on your case? Down in the East End of Little Rock, if that's where she does her social work, I'm sure she's regarded as one of nature's genuine wonders, like the Flying Nun." Lyons went on to write books, more articles for the Times and a weekly column, now nationally syndicated, for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazettte.

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