Great Journeys: The Mississippi

Part 6: The lower Mississippi

The Lower Mississippi begins at Cairo, Ill., where its character is radically altered.

Gone are the bluffs along the Upper river. Gone, too, are the quaint river cities and the thick woods that harbor flocks of birds and wildlife.

Cairo is a flat muddy town built on a flat muddy place where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers join. It is old wooden houses falling down, half a brick building here, old church there, boarded up storefronts and the Hub Lounge. “Package goods,” says the sign. Darryl Shemwell’s BBQ is closed on a Sunday morning.

Plaster is falling off the side of a brick building now used as a thrift store. In some old towns the paint is peeling, but in Cairo, even the stucco is peeling. Flocks of pigeons dive by the hundreds around the city streets and a new town clock is built on the crossroads of Eighth Street and Commercial Avenue, a road paved with bricks — an attempt at urban renewal and by the look of things, a complete failure.

Lee’s coffee shop and lounge is all plywood instead of plate glass.

The town is pretty well close to Twilight Zone empty.

At Fort Defiance Park at the south end of the city, the Ohio and Mississippi finally join. The Mississippi has the stronger current, and it rubs up against the Ohio and creates a string of eddies that spin out toward the middle of the river. Standing at the tip of Illinois, you look east to Kentucky and west to Missouri.

An old black man is casting his fishing line out into the river.

“I came here in 1980 from Kentucky when I retired,” he says. “I’m out here fishing every day.”

He’s fishing for catfish, he says, “or anything else that will bite.”

He’s just about the only live human being I’ve seen in Cairo and he tells me that times in the once-prosperous river town are hard. There are no jobs to be had and most of the younger people are leaving.

“The town’s dead, dead, dead, dead,” he says, turning his head with each “dead,”

“They ain’t nothing here.

“I don’t mind it. It’s nice. If I had wanted to work, I wouldn’t have retired.”

From Cairo to its mouth, 984 river miles away — although only little more than half that as the crow flies — the course of the river meanders like a dropped noodle, often looping back on itself, even cutting itself off. It is a lazy route, in no hurry to get to its end.

In such literature as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we travel   upriver, always getting closer to the mysterious center of the continent and the closer we get to its source, the closer we come to an experience of evil.

The Mississippi is backwards in this respect. In Minnesota, the river seems simple and the people around it comfortably bright-faced, optimistic and naive. The farther south we travel, the more complex becomes geography, history and the inhabitants.

The river is divided into three sections by geography, but it might as well be divided by religious attitude.

If the first part of the river is Lutheran, the middle Baptist, the final run is Roman Catholic, with a fine sense of its own sin, from slavery to modern casino gambling.

The Lower Mississippi is a fine, decrepit, history-ridden piece of geography.

South of Cape Girardeau, Mo., the river flows through its own waste. Thousands of years ago, the Gulf of Mexico extended north to Cape Girardeau, but the river dropped its silt at its mouth and slowly built up the earth underneath it, spreading its flood plain out to fill up the bay and create a valley four times as large as that of the Nile.

That soil was incredibly fertile, and the wandering river periodically flooded, maintaining fertility.

And American farmers figured out a way to grow rice, sugar and cotton and create huge plantations along the river: They invited a large number of Africans to cross the ocean and do the work for them.

Hard figures are hard to come by, but in the antebellum South, there were something like 4 million slaves. Most white Southerners didn’t own slaves, and most slaveowners didn’t own more than a half-dozen. Yet three quarters of the slave population was owned by planters with 20 slaves or more — and one quarter owned by planters with 50 or more.

This left the majority of slaves to a very small percentage of very wealthy Southern whites. Fewer than 3,000 Southern whites owned the huge plantations that existed on the labor of 100 slaves or more.

And these large plantations were found mainly in two places: the wet coastal plains of South Carolina and the shores of the Mississippi River.

In the alluvial bottomland of the Mississippi Delta country — an agricultural region in the northern part of the state of Mississippi — about 70 percent of the population was black. In some counties, blacks outnumbered whites by 10 to 1.

So, when one visits the grand antebellum homes of Vicksburg or Natchez, and contemplates the refined culture of the Southern aristocracy, one has to remember the vast suffering that built them.

“Slavery is a huge stain on us,” Mississippi-born novelist and historian Shelby Foote once explained. “We all carry it. I carry it deep in my bones, the consequences of slavery.”

You can feel it, too, in the dusty cotton fields of the Delta. The air seems thicker than elsewhere, the dirt worn out, the towns withering.

Between 1970 and 1990, Tunica County, Miss., lost one fourth of its population and ranked in those years as the nation’s poorest county, with nearly half of its residents below the poverty level. In the Delta as a whole, one quarter are in poverty and per capita income is half the national average.

Yet, in Tunica, that has changed changing. For Tunica is now a center for gambling. In the past few years, a veritable Disneyland of casinos have opened up in this town about 30 miles south of Memphis. There are gambling boats all up and down the river, but Mississippi’s peculiar state law requires only that a casino be afloat, not that it be an actual boat. So, developers have even dug shallow lakes to build their casinos on.

In Tunica, a long sideroad takes you from U.S. 61 into the complex, where you will find the Grand Casino on Buck Lake, Bally’s Cash Country, the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel, the Sheraton Casino, and the Circus Circus casino. You see the high rises looming surrealistically over the cotton and soybean fields.

Tunica now draws more than 14 million visitors a year and has nearly 6,000 hotel rooms. And after its first casino opened in 1992, the county budget went from $3.5 million to $34 million and unemployment dropped from 30 percent to 5 percent.

And the water tower in town reads: “Tunica, Miss. A Good Place to Live.”

Tunica is in the Bible belt, but income is income, so most residents who have new jobs dealing blackjack or serving cocktails don’t think too deeply about whether gambling is a sin.

The Delta is unfathomably rich culturally. It is almost as if American culture begins in the dark soil. For the Delta gave us the Blues, which take all the layers of human suffering and make out of it something beautiful and profoundly moving. The Blues spawned Rhythm and Blues and that spawned Rock and Roll and rock has pretty well conquered the world.

But the Delta ends at Vicksburg, where the bluffs resume temporarily along the east bank of the river. They continue past Natchez, where busloads of tourists stop at the town’s most splendid mansions.

In 1940, Edward Weston photographed the American South and one of the oddest images he found was of a gas station in the shape of a black mammy.

Well, that piece of American vernacular architecture is still around, and what is more, it is still in business, although it doesn’t sell gas anymore. It is called Mammy’s Cupboard about 10 miles south of Natchez on U.S. 61.

It was created as a combination gas station and gift shop by Henry Gaude for his wife, in order, as the Southern expression goes, to give her something to do. What she did, however, was run off with a salesman who frequented the place.

In intervening years, it was turned into a restaurant and a craft center.

Currently, it is a restaurant again, and one of the best in the area. The chocolate cream pie tastes like 18 ounces of chocolate squeezed into 6 ounces of pie. It is a feat of physics.

The large igloo shaped skirts of the Mammy holds three small tables and the larger addition on the back holds another five or six.

Most of the customers are middle-age women, which it seems is the major demographic of Natchez. But one man, sitting at one of the other tables in the brick skirt reminds me that some things are very slow to change in the South. He is a pleasant-enough looking man in his mid 30s and he exchanges palaver with the cashier.

“They opened up a new restaurant downtown,” he says. “If there’s one thing Natchez don’t need, it’s another restaurant.” He’s a well-dressed businessman, obviously educated.

“You’re right about that,” she says. “Or more gas stations, either.”

“I’ll tell you what we got too much of,” he continues, “but I don’t think they’re willing to go back to Africa.”

I’m shocked at hearing this so baldly said as banter, although I have lived in the South long enough in my life that I shouldn’t be. It isn’t only rednecks that can spout such stuff.

I am most struck by the historic irony of his slander.

“If you don’t want them here,” I want to tell him, “blame your own great grandfather. I don’t think their great grandfathers were all that happy about leaving Africa in the first place.”

But for me, I can hardly imagine America without black culture. It is the depth our easygoing souls require. It keeps us from being idiots.

As it flows south, the river gains depth too. The Upper river strains to maintain a 9-foot channel. But by Baton Rouge, La., the river channel is 45-feet deep.

And by New Orleans, the river is narrower and deeper still.

All along the final miles of the river, venerable old plantation homes are tooth by jowl beside fuming, smelly, sooty chemical plants and oil refineries. Beginning at Baton Rouge, you can hardly find a mile of the river without its industry.

It is a vast ugliness, and Louisiana has a reputation for lax enforcement of environmental laws. It is here that the Mississippi earned its reputation for being a sewer. What was once called “Plantation Alley” is now “Chemical Corridor.”

New Orleans, itself, sits mostly below sea level, with the river channeled by levees above the streets, almost like the New York City El.

The town has four parts: a business district, a chi-chi historical district, a kitschy tourist district, and everything else. Everything else is decay. New Orleans is the most decrepit city in the nation: Walls are falling, covered in graffiti; garbage piles in the streets; drunks sleep in the trash; cockroaches scurry into corners. The famous cemeteries are mostly crumbling concrete, dusky with soot.

And that was even before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Now, whole sections of the city look like Berlin after the war, burned out and broken.

Outside of the tourist and business area, it is a city that looks homeless and destitute

One writer said that New Orleans “is where alcoholics go to retire.”

But like everything else along the lower river in the Deep South, this very decrepitude is part of the city’s charm. It is a city where every corner is bent under the burden of history. There was the slave trade, the red-light district, the Prohibition alcohol, the gambling, toxic waste and environmental irresponsibility and it all serves to create a culture that recognizes the necessity of evil.

Every Southerner — and the deeper in the South the more this is true — knows sin. He knows he has to live with it; history loads it on his shoulders.

In Minnesota, the Lutheran accountant can believe in the basic goodness of life; in the Deep South, they know what goodness there is is dearly bought.

It is why there have been so many great writers grown on its soil. It is why no one who has ever written about the South has ever caught it accurately.

From New Orleans, the river spends its mighty flow, and by the time it reaches its mouth — or its mouths, for there are many — it has become the seepage of a great swamp. The single channel spreads out into hundreds, then thousands. Four are maintained deep enough for ocean-going traffic, but most just ooze out into the shallow, warm, salty Gulf of Mexico.

It expires in the complexity of exhaustion.

End of series

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