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Hometown: Close to Home

by Arkansas Life | July 13, 2020 at 6:00 a.m.

SOMETIMES it’s hard to believe that I, an average Gen Xer from Fort Smith, Arkansas, have had the fantastic experiences in exotic places that most people only dream of. I’ve bought hot-pink Converse low-tops in a Tunisian souk in northern Africa. I’ve explored the back alleys of Istanbul and emerged from its labyrinth to sip apple tea in a magic-carpet shop. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen the lights of Paris twinkling 1,000 feet below me as I’ve stood on the Eiffel Tower. And in Jasper, Arkansas, I met a knife-carving poet who, at the age of 82, rode his motorcycle 9,000 miles to the Arctic Circle and back.

You see, one thing I didn’t know until I was full-grown—until I’d lived out of my home state for a piece and willingly come back again—is that the people and places in Arkansas are every bit as complex and captivating as the people and places outside Arkansas. As humans, we tend to take our own environments for granted. But half a decade ago, I was bestowed the honor of being the primary writer for this magazine’s Hometown column, in which I head to different Arkansas towns and simply write about my extraordinary day there—and believe me, every day so far has been extraordinary.

But the times we’re living in now are also extraordinary. Hit by a global pandemic the likes of which are seen only once a century, Arkansans have largely risen to the challenge of working to protect one another against an illness that has proven to be disproportionately deadly. They’ve accomplished this by putting precautionary measures in place: shuttering restaurants, keeping social distance and, unfortunately for my Hometown column, restricting travel to instances of critical necessity. But as the Greek philosopher Plato said (gosh, I need to go to Greece!), “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and the restrictions necessary to limit this public-health emergency have given birth to great creativity in Arkansans who must continue living their lives—in a new normal.

For this special edition of Hometown, I’ve stayed in my own home in Conway and reached out to folks living in previously visited towns to see how they’re faring in the time of COVID-19—to see how remarkable people in remarkable places deal with remarkable times.


Jonesboro

Veronica Guyton is a front-of-store supervisor at Lowe’s in Jonesboro, one of the two seats of Craighead County (the other is Lake City, located aside the St. Francis River). As of June 22, Craighead County—the seventh most populated county in Arkansas—was ranked 11th in the state in the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases: 401, a number that appears to be on the rise. Veronica, an Army veteran whose life centers on “work, home and time with family,” talks about how her perspective has changed—and how some things have remained very much the same—in the time of the coronavirus.

Before everything else opened up, the only stores that were open were Lowe’s and Walmart. Our hours were the same, but work got more overwhelming. We don’t count our people coming in like Walmart, so our whole store could be packed. Our parking lot looked like an amusement park.

As employees at Lowe’s, we wear masks. We wear gloves, too. We put up the Plexiglas at the registers. We put signage up about where 6 feet apart is. But when dealing with customer service, you are working with whatever attitudes the customers bring with them. With the coronavirus, they seemed to become more angry, more entitled. It became more hectic, and I wanted people to treat us the way they wanted to be treated. We had to be there—we were essential. I listened to a lady say, “I’m supposed to be quarantined.” I said, “Ma’am, do you know what that means?” She said, “Yeah, I can shop.” I said, “Ma’am, we have families, too. What if we brought something home to them?” She said, “I never thought of that.” We still gotta treat people right, be respectful. With my military background, I have zero tolerance for disrespect, so I bite my tongue a lot. But I’m not gonna let people treat my cashiers badly.

I guess my life would be boring to some people, but I work, go home and spend time with family. I cook more now. I used to do catering on the side, but the virus stopped that. Everyone is cooking at home now, so what do they need me to cook for? My daughter’s a mental-health therapist, and now she can’t go to her clients’ homes, so we’re together a lot. My daughter and my niece and I make masks. We try to keep things fun and busy. We have been doing arts and crafts in the house—that’s when you notice that everything’s gone now. There are no canvases at Walmart.

I used to go out every now and then, and that got limited. But I’ve seen that there’s new stuff on Main Street in Jonesboro—the art park, a museum, and now we have a lot of murals up. More pop up all the time. My favorite was a painting of three different people—the same person, but different colors, different things on them. I don’t know if it was teaching about diversity, but that’s the one I was looking at. I’m looking forward to exploring the city more. I’ve been here since 2002, and Jonesboro has grown a lot since then. Jonesboro has a lot to offer—you just have to get out. That’s what we’re learning. You have to explore the city you’re in. Even if you need to quarantine yourself, you can still explore your city. Get to know your town. Explore Arkansas, even. But get to know your town first.

Photos courtesy of Veronica Guyton 


Conway

According to The New York Times, as of June 22, Faulkner County—with 290 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three deaths—was 13th in terms of Arkansas counties hardest hit by the virus. But that doesn’t mean Conway (the largest city in Faulkner County and the seventh largest city in Arkansas) hasn’t been affected by these unprecedented times. Myra Hinton, a patient care technician (PCT) at Conway Regional Medical Center, supports nursing staff at the hospital by performing such necessary (and often unglamorous) work as delivering direct care to patients, whether it’s measuring their vital signs, providing for their nutritional needs or assisting them in bathing. Myra, who moved to Conway from Wynne in 1994, gives her front-line perspective on the current state of affairs of life in central Arkansas.

I like Conway because there are good opportunities here. It’s a pleasant place to live with not a lot of crime. It’s a good place to raise a family. I love the schools. I have a son who’s 23 and a daughter who’s 25, and they both graduated from Conway schools. If you want to go to college, you can go several places here or in Little Rock. I like taking my grandkids to the parks, walking, going to the gym. There are just lots of opportunities here.

But oh, my God! I’ve been affected by the virus just as far as getting to work, period. I was working on the second floor of the hospital—it was an oncology floor and also a psych unit. They shut it down completely and revamped it for COVID-19 patients. So [those of us who worked on that floor] have just been put here and there in the hospital. You have to get checked in, get your [temperature] checked, answer questions about your health before you start your shift. You have to wear a mask and goggles to go into patients’ rooms. Even though they have a COVID-19 floor, you don’t know if you’ll encounter someone with COVID-19 someplace else—someone who hasn’t showed symptoms yet. And even after I’ve explained to patients that their families can’t be with them during this time … well, it’s a rough time in life right now. And what if you bring something home to your husband or your kids or your grandkids? It’s scary. And Conway Regional stopped paying into our 401(k)s and stopped PTO (paid time off) so that they wouldn’t have to lay anybody off. They’ve closed our gym so they can provide daycare for nurses who have to come in to work on COVID-19 patients. But even outside of work is different—like going to the grocery store. You have to protect yourself when other people won’t protect themselves. It’s been a BIG adjustment.

AND OH, MY GOD! I’m ready to travel. To be able to go back to my regular work area at the hospital because we don’t know from day to day where we’re going to be working. To get out and visit our family and friends. To go to our family reunions. Go to the doctor regularly, and be able to have your family go with you. Go to the grocery store and not be afraid you’re gonna get something. Buy things that are in limited quantities now. And school will be back to the same. My grandkids are in pre-K, and that’s very important. They’re 5 and 3, and they need their education.

Photo by Sheena Hare | Capture Arkansas


Winslow

It was family that brought Kylee Kidder to Winslow from party-hearty New Orleans, where she worked in the very heart of Big Easy parties. “My background was predominantly in festival production before moving here,” Kylee says. “In non-COVID-19 years, [the town] has a festival practically every weekend. I worked with the French Quarter Festival, New Orleans Fringe and with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, among others.” But when she hit her fifth month of pregnancy back in March 2018, she and her partner relocated to Winslow to be closer to her dad. Much closer, in fact: They now live within earshot of each other, some 300 feet apart. And while Kylee’s still working to find her way in small-town Northwest Arkansas, she spends a fair amount of time leading, on an interim basis, Ozark Folkways, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve, develop, teach and celebrate Ozark arts and crafts. She was also signed up to be a part of the U.S. census force this spring, a job which is, as Kylee puts it, like so much else in the time of COVID-19, “up in the air at the moment.”

For such a small town, there are a lot of group activities that take place in Winslow. Ozark Folkways is always full of workshops and music events, but in the pavilion in downtown, there’s also a farmers market on Saturday mornings. Every weekday, there is the Winslow Community Meals lunch. It’s a nonprofit that offers inexpensive meal service and delivery. During normal times, there’s a nice-sized dining room, and people get to enjoy a little company. It’s a very lovely community for spending a little time relaxing when you find the people you like. But now there is a lot less socializing. The Community Meals used to be a great social activity in the afternoon, and now it’s a pickup or drop-off situation only. Ozark Folkways has been quiet for months, and we are not sure exactly what date that will change—we are hoping for the first of July.

I am raising a toddler and living next door to my 90-year-old father, so we are really doing our best to stay safe and holed up. We go out for groceries once a week—or less, if we can manage it. We go on a walk through town each day, trying to limit our excursions through the neighbor’s garden. Otherwise, we hope the rain goes away so we can get outside and run off some energy. Nothing like a 2-year-old stuck inside for weeks at a time! We definitely miss hanging out with our friends—my son does, especially, though I’m not sure he realizes it as much as we do.

We’d really like to go play at the playground at Lake Fort Smith. We just don’t have the climbing, swinging and sliding equipment set up at our house. I want to go to a party. Maybe we could start with an outdoor concert (small!) at Ozark Folkways—some chance to hang out with friends and enjoy a drink (or two). We’re really bummed that the fireworks won’t be happening at the Winslow ball field this year—that’s always a pretty great event in the summer. Maybe they’ll reschedule for Labor Day or something.

Photos courtesy of Kylee Kidder

Photo by Arshia Khan


Pine Bluff

Stacy Lem has been working in health care in Jefferson County since she graduated from high school in the late 1970s. But her connection to COVID-19 goes beyond the prevalence of the virus in the field of her career choice: Howard, her Chinese-Canadian husband, works as a chemist in the lab that diagnosed the first case of the infection in Arkansas. Between their work in the field whose employees are most likely to come in contact with the virus—and their twice-yearly trips to Canada to visit Howard’s family—this Pine Bluff couple’s life has changed significantly in 2020.

I worked at Jefferson Regional Medical Center until recently. I was in a doctor’s office. I visited with the patients there, helped them manage their care. Right now, I work at home through the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, and I deal with Medicare patients. I give them information about the coronavirus and how to take care of themselves—ways of protecting themselves. My husband still works in the lab, and he has to wear a mask all the time. At first, he had to wear gloves and a gown, too, because he was handling specimens.

Before Arkansas started testing for the virus, we went to Dallas and ate some dim sum. About two weeks later, we were both running a fever and had respiratory problems. I don’t know if we had COVID-19 or not, but it was unlike any other respiratory illness I’ve ever had. Our doctor said it sounded like allergies. I said, “It isn’t the right time for allergies.” We chose to quarantine ourselves for two weeks. I told my daughter to keep her kids away, and I didn’t see her again until three months later. We’ve been wearing masks ever since. I wear them everywhere I go. I make them to hand out.

We don’t spend a lot of time in public, normally. We have a 100-acre farm in Rye, and we work on it. When my husband comes home from working at the hospital, he undresses outside, puts his clothes in a basket out front, and we bleach his shoes and set them aside. There’s constant cleaning at our house. But you gotta do that, you know? We probably should be doing it all the time.

We do like to hike and kayak, but we go up north to do that. My husband’s from Canada. He was walking down the street one day in Toronto, and he saw this sign—they were looking for people to work in Arkansas. He’s got a degree in chemistry, and he came down here and took a job, and that’s where we met. I was engaged to another guy when I met my husband. Howard and I had never been on a date when he asked me to marry him. I kicked the fiance to the curb. I shoulda kicked him to the curb sooner. Howard asked me to marry him in March, and we got married in December. He’s the reason I went to nursing school. We had two children, and he said, “You need a profession you can fall back on if anything happens to me.” So I went to nursing school.

We’ve been to Calgary, British Columbia, Quebec. We normally go up there twice a year, but we missed our trip last fall, then we couldn’t go this spring. We call it home, Toronto. Howard’s got two sisters left up there. We can’t travel to Canada right now, and one of his sisters is terminally ill. We know there’s nothing we can do for her, but being there for our other sister is important—being a sounding board for her.

With our farm, we’re not big goers and doers. When we get the go-ahead, getting to be with my family more is what I’m looking forward to. We can do a lot of stuff we normally do on our own property. It’s peaceful here. When the breeze comes across and the sun sets, I just think, Man, this is pretty. But it’s a different world we live in right now.

Photo by Arshia Khan


Hope

Beckie Moore grew up in Hope. She wandered near (Hot Springs, Conway) and far (Washington D.C., Hawaii) for 19 years before returning to the birthplace of the 42nd president of the United States. “It looks like I’ve served time in the witness protection program, but I assure you, I have not!” she proclaims. Although she’s worked for such philanthropic institutions as the United Way and the Clinton Foundation, her most important lesson came from her time working as an English teacher in Arkansas high schools: “All teachers learn to monitor and adjust. It’s drilled into our heads from day one. And there’s certainly a lot of monitoring and adjusting going on right now.” Beckie explains just what “monitoring and adjusting” looks like right now in southwest Arkansas.

I absolutely love the community support that we witness every single day. It’s grown exponentially throughout this time, but it was there all along. I remember it when I was a little girl growing up in this community. I witnessed it. I’m glad that hasn’t gone away—that community connectivity, community support. It’s alive and well. That, to me, is the number-one shout-out to any community. Many communities cannot say that.

Obviously, there were some mandates that caused some businesses to shutter their doors for a time period—salons and fitness centers, for example—and that was difficult to see. Arkansas didn’t completely shut down, and I have to credit our governor for that. People ask what we’re going to do now that we can open back up, and I say, “We didn’t shut down.” It wasn’t business as usual, but it was business as best as we could manage. It’s caused people to think in very unique ways.

One local dress-shop owner considered adding home decor, and now half of her shop is dedicated to home decor. She’s started a Facebook page called “Home,” where people can talk about interiors. It’s caused people who wouldn’t have come to her shop originally to come on downtown. We have some wonderful antique stores, and since we didn’t have tourists—or locals, for that matter—roaming around, the stores did virtual, livestreaming tours through every booth in their stores. So people could sit in the comfort of their own homes, watch the livestreams and pick out purchases that way. Then we had another dress store—a great, long-standing family store—and they saw the need to help our health care workers, so they made T-shirts saying things like SHOP-DINE-KEEP HOPE ALIVE, and the store used a local T-shirt shop that was hurting because it didn’t have the business from sports teams. Most of the proceeds from those sales went back to health care workers in the form of gift cards. I won’t say people weren’t scared and didn’t take a step back at first, but they didn’t stay there long.

When we get the go-ahead, I’m looking forward to events and programs again. Many of our nonprofits had to cancel their events—like Relay for Life—and that’s not what we want to see. I look forward to jump-starting those programs. I’m looking forward to Hempstead Hall opening, and I’m looking forward to the Watermelon Festival. It’s scheduled for Aug. 6-8, but we’re still waiting for directives. We have the theme, which is “All Juiced Up,” and we have the date, but past that, we’re moving forward at a snail’s pace, waiting for the go-ahead. And we know that when we get the go-ahead, some restrictions will be in place, so we’re ready to monitor and adjust. (Editor’s note: The festival has been postponed until 2021.) 

Photos courtesy of Beckie Moore

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