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Friday, July 08, 2005

delta safari

I have been traveling for work, too. The most notable trip I took last week was a day excursion to two dying synagogues in western-ish Mississippi. Our mission was mostly recon --- the Institute wants to keep tabs on these guys and help them out what they need and so possibly be in a position to administer their estates when they die, so to speak. The first synagogue was on the western edge of what they call the heartland area. The town where it is located is another one of those bizarrely dessicated Mississippi towns. Downtown looks a little bit like a Hollywood movie set from the 50s that has been sitting on a back lot since, well, the 50s, so all the plywood and the paint has started to peel. There's a big town hall with a clock, stores of a kind that nobody really wants in any other part of the country (general stores; soda fountains). Nobody wanted them in this town either - they weren't in good shape. These stores alternated with abandoned storefronts. Our host in this town was the local Jewish guy who was in his 70s and still running the store that his grandfather opened in about 1903. ("Longest continuously operating family-owned business in town"). His store was a descendant of the typical Jewish dry goods store of the early part of the 20th century. Now he pretty much sells clothes and shoes. Big signs saying everything is on sale, half price. There is a bullet hole in the door of his store. A few townspeople were browsing when we came by, but otherwise a typically deserted looking area.

This is one of the strangest things about Mississippi to me -- it always seems like there are many fewer people there than there ought to be, considering the number of stores and the sprawl of tiny settlements. "Where IS everybody?" my Long Island-bred companion asked after a weekend down here visiting. (Two million people live on Long Island. Three million people live in Mississippi). Here is one theory I have developed: Have you ever read or heard of the "Left Behind" books? From my understanding, this is an insanely popular series (yes, in this country, but no, not that anybody I know has read them) about the apocalypse, set in modern (i.e. godless) America --- and its central assumption is that all the really GOOD people (i.e. the good Christians) have been taken away to heaven, leaving all of the world's agnostics and shlumps here to try to figure out what's going on (and presumably, after enough sequels they will figure out how to get to heaven). Anyway, I think this is what may have happened in Mississippi. The apocalypse has already occurred. But of course the staff of the institute, being mostly Jews, didn't get any place. THe people you actually meet in Mississippi today are all of us jerks who didn't have the credentials to get into heaven and were "Left Behind". Jackson being a Baptist, God-fearing city, 60% of its population is probably watching us from above and laughing (or probably praying, I guess. If you figure out what we're supposed to be doing down here to get out of limbo, let me know.


The dry goods store owner left his son in charge of the store, and drove us over to the temple. It's a lovely little building, on the one-room-schoolhouse model, about a block and a half from the central square. The dry goods store owner proudly pointed out the tasteful little Star of David on the front, way up high. Until only a few years ago, he said, both the town's Baptist churches had had big Stars of David in stained glass on their facades, but not the temple! He was happy to say they had corrected this problem.

There are fewer than ten people who worship at this synagogue, none of them young. They get a traveling rabbi once a month. They do not know what they are going to do when they can't run it anymore. We took lots of pictures.

To get to the second synagogue we had to drive another 45 minutes further west. After about fifteen, we rounded one final turn in the road, passed over one final ridge, and suddenly, quietly, gently we slipped into the Delta.

You would think the Mississippi Delta would be at the sea coast, like the Nile delta. In fact, the Mississippi Delta is purely a phenomenon of the Mississippi river -- the utterly flat, fertile floodplain that has been fed and shaped for millennia by the river when it overflows its banks. The Delta is one of the most productive agriculture regions in the country. The topsoil is hundreds of feet deep, and it can support year after year of cotton agriculture (cotton being a crop that is very demanding of nutrients).

I had never been to the Midwest, so I was not prepared for what it would be like to drive through so much land that is so flat. The cotton is still green this time of year so it is quite lovely. But as you drive, you get the feeling that time is standing still. It's hard to stay awake. You feel like you can't possibly be driving more than 30 miles an hour. As usual, the land looks deserted. There are no highways through the Delta; there's nowhere you would need to go, and if you did, nobody is going to be spending any of the taxpayers' money to help you get there quickly. Every once in a while, you drive past catfish farms - places where instead of flat, square green fields there are flat, square brown-green ponds. Some are in operation - you can tell because you can see the water. Others - of course - are abandoned, and are being slowly covered over by spring-green muck. But are there still catfish there? monstrous, three-foot catfish? and if so, what are they eating?

can you tell catfish bother me a little bit?


At 1:11 AM, Blogger EdWonk said...

Did you take a picture at the intersection of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale? The Delta is the home of the Blues!!

At 5:19 PM, Blogger Billy Jones said...

Indeed, Mississippi is very different than most of the world, but in some ways just the same.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Lizz said...

A boy I was dating lived in Mississippi. His grandfather had a catfish farm. Apparently people used to pull over and buy catfish from him. I guess they still do.


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