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Any Arkansan who cares about Arkansas has to be troubled by the 2010 federal census figures. Any Arkansan who cares about all of Arkansas and all of its people, that is.

The numbers showed that in the 21st century’s first decade, folks in East and South Arkansas were saying goodbye to a lot of friends and neighbors, while their cousins and old classmates in Central and Northwest Arkansas were making room for more. For instance, Pine Bluff, where I was born, saw its population drop by 6,002 (10.9 percent), from 55,085 to 49,083.

To put faces with these numbers, one Saturday morning I took the back roads on a meandering trip from my adopted hometown of North Little Rock to Pine Bluff.

No bacon, no gravy

Late morning, I stopped at a Delta cafe advertising breakfast anytime. Inside, I found two fellows munching burgers in the front room, several generations of a family dining in an adjoining room, and a hand-lettered menu board with a tantalizing array of Southern dishes. When the waitress asked me what I wanted, I said, “Can I get some breakfast?”

She said, “We’re out of bacon, and we’re out of gravy. Would you like something else?” I took another look at that menu board. “How about barbecue ribs?”

The waitress smiled and said, “Burger?” It dawned on me from her smile that if I wanted anything to eat here, I’d better go for a burger. I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke.

Soon she brought out my plate, then sat at a table across the room, talking with the cook about a friend who was in bankruptcy and couldn’t afford new shoes for her little boy. I asked if I could get my Coke. The waitress said, “Oh, yeah” and brought one in a can. An “Out of Order” sign was taped to the soda fountain.

A woman came in from the adjoining room and said, “Mrs. Snopes wants to know what’s for dessert.” The waitress said, “We don’t have any dessert — unless you want an ice cream cone.” The woman said she’d ask and never returned. (“Mrs. Snopes” was not the customer’s real name. I changed it to protect the innocent.)

I was there about 45 minutes and only two other customers came in, a couple of guys in camo. One said, “Whatcha got t’eat?” The waitress said, “Burgers.”

Cafe as metaphor?

Continuing toward Pine Bluff — past falling-down ancient buildings, through one community where the only grocery store was boarded up, but the liquor store was thriving, stopping in another town at a grocery with sparsely stocked shelves — I mulled the idea of that cafe as a metaphor for this area. There are many nice people here and, like that menu board, there’s lots of promise, but there’s just some kind of disconnect when it comes to the delivery.

A few days later, after discussing that idea with a friend who has a much better grasp of these things than I, I concluded that forlorn café is more a symptom than a metaphor.

My friend notes the Delta has eating places, such as Cotham’s (burgers and catfish) in Scott, Murry’s (catfish, steaks) near Hazen, and Craig’s (barbecue) at DeValls Bluff, that are among the best ANYWHERE. These shrines of Southern cooking have customers who happily flock long distances, like geese to the Grand Prairie, to dine at them.

Meanwhile, other places are suffering, losing customers, barely hanging on, if not going under, as employers disappear and people move away to try to find jobs … parents can’t buy their kids new shoes because they’re in bankruptcy.

Another ‘Promise’

There are, of course, no easy solutions to these problems. But I, being an infernal optimist, believe great things can happen with teamwork, diligence and enough time, and I see cause for optimism.

In the little South Arkansas town of Sparkman, for example, people are working to strengthen their community by pooling their money to provide college scholarships for their high school graduates. They’re calling the effort the Sparkman Promise. This is similar to “Promise” efforts in El Dorado and Arkadelphia, but with an exciting difference: Sparkman’s undertaking is being financed by local patrons and businesses, while the other two programs have deep-pocketed corporate backers.

Nothing against corporate supporters, but it is highly encouraging to see people — common folks — pulling together to work for a better community. If they’re successful and ignite other towns to do likewise maybe we can call it the Sparkman Spark.

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