About a month ago, The Observer helped a friend move from Fayetteville to Little Rock for work. Said friend is a quiet guy given to solitary activities, fond of cats and weightlifting, and he tends to get ideas in his head that are difficult to shake loose once installed — in this case regarding his new city of residence. Though he grew up in a Memphis suburb, he's lived for over a decade in Conway and Fayetteville, and it was clear his vision of Little Rock was a little skewed. Moving to a real city, he kept saying. He said he wanted a place downtown so that he could be right in the middle of things.
We kept trying to tell him that, well, although downtown Little Rock is up-and-coming in its own way, it isn't exactly Seoul or Berlin. If he expected a big city, he was going to be disappointed. But our friend persisted in chasing the urban dream and found himself an apartment at Block 2 Lofts, right across from the Statehouse Convention Center.
The Observer awaited his arrival one Friday around nightfall, wondering why traffic was so horrible that evening. Downtown was packed. Cars poked their forlorn way along the streets in futile search of some miraculously unoccupied parking space.
Our friend pulled his truck up to the curb, the bed piled high with furniture. "I can't find parking anywhere," he said. His gaze wandered over Markham and Scott streets with the bemused wonder of a farmboy emigre newly dumped on the teeming shores of Ellis Island. "Is traffic always this bad?"
No, it's not like this normally, said The Observer, a little resentful that reality was conspiring to sustain his illusion of a dense urban core. We muttered something unconvincing about the Friday bar crowd and people in town for the game at War Memorial Stadium that weekend. (Only later would we realize the reason: There was a marquee country concert at the First Security Amphitheater down by the river.)
We left the truck in the building's fire lane, hazard lights blinking, and proceeded to hustle. Inside the building, things only got sillier. We had to pass through an absurd number of maglocks to reach the apartment, which was on the seventh floor. The halls were windowless and grim; the elevator a cramped, rickety affair. The ground level was redolent of fermented tobacco smoke — a product of Maduro Cigar Bar occupying one storefront, but it gave the impression of gritty, noir dramas transpiring behind any number of locked doors.
We deposited armloads of belongings and headed back downstairs. Two young men strode past us in the hallway, speaking loudly to one another in French. We watched our friend eye the two of them, the wheels in his head practically visible. Big cities are filled with gesticulating immigrants talking rapidly in foreign tongues. "Listen. That's — that's really unusual, OK?" The Observer said, impotently, as a blind man came striding down the hallway from the other direction.
Up and down the elevator we went until the truck was unloaded and moved, and proper observation of the apartment itself could finally commence. Nice place, if a little overly loft-ish (black concrete floors, ostentatiously visible ductwork). Then The Observer stepped to the window and stared out in disbelief.
Directly to the west loomed the glass bulk of the StephensBuilding, looking for all the world like the panopticon it is. On the block immediately to the north, the Marriott blocked the view of the river. Little Rock's three tallest buildings (all topped with bank logos) filled the field of vision to the south, fronted by a flurry of brightly lit parking garages. A cityscape.
There may not be a window view anywhere in all of town — hell, maybe anywhere in Arkansas — with a vantage point so optimally circumscribed to give a false impression of urban density. Down below, traffic from the concert had snarled up every street into a mess of red brake lights. Vehicular honks and the chatter of pedestrians drifted upward.
Friend gazed out at his cosmopolitan new home, and The Observer gave up. Time to simply embrace the absurdity of it all. "Well, here it is," we said, gesturing expansively at the lights, "I hope you're ready. The big city."