Arkansas Is Everywhere
(Especially in Me)
Before this past September, it had been more than seven years since I’d traveled to New York City. The last time I paid a visit to the Big Apple, I did all the touristy things I could think of, like eating a bagel in Times Square and waiting in line overnight for tickets to Saturday Night Live and shopping at Bloomingdale’s and Barneys and FAO Schwarz. This time, however, I was set on living like a normal New Yorker, soaking in the day-to-day lifestyle and the culture that comes with it—despite the fact that I was staying less than a week. So I bunked with a friend in the outer borough of Queens and took the subway often, and ate at places that had no Zagat rating or starred reviews (or even interesting names that I could remember).
What was so special about this trip at this time of year with this plan of action? For one, I made time to see friends who had moved to New York from Arkansas. Sitting in a tiny apartment that cost more in rent than I make in a month, we reminisced about our days doing children’s theater with the Young Actors Guild in Fort Smith and praised the professional productions at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock. Walking among the teeming crowds of the trendy new High Line Park on the West Side, jostled by elbows and squeezed between shoulders, we lamented Arkansas’ open spaces and friendly faces. And over seltzer and “The World’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake” from Junior’s Restaurant on Broadway, we recollected our grandmas’ sweet tea and apple pie.
When I wasn’t with friends, I roamed the city somewhat fearlessly. I found fabulous shoes that cost hundreds of dollars. I wandered through Central Park, with its hansom cabs and ice cream stands. I even, while enjoying a glass of sangria near a pier on the Hudson River, spotted Rick Moranis—of Ghostbusters and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Little Shop of Horrors fame—and snapped a selfie with him. But no matter how spectacularly my adventure was going, it was Arkansas that was whispering in my ear: The cost of living is much more reasonable down south, I heard. There are trees and flowers and play spaces on every corner back home, no official park needed, my ears echoed. Famous faces are cool, my home, my siren state, called, but friends and family are irreplaceable.
I thought I’d done everything I needed to shake off the South and put on the mantle of a real, live New Yorker. I’d stayed away from Facebook, ensuring that I wouldn’t see friends tailgating at the Razorback game. I’d tried to enunciate the “g’s” on the ends of my words to obliterate my accent. I’d even—gasp—avoided the Miss America pageant, knowing our fair Miss Arkansas was a favorite and would almost certainly be making extended appearances onscreen.
But everywhere I looked, I saw Arkansas. Squirrels on top of brick walls lining the streets of Queens brought pictures of the towering oak trees in my Conway front yard to my brain. An old Honda Accord motoring the streets of Manhattan caused me to flash back to my college years in Fayetteville, where my yet-to-be husband pushed my hatchback through the parking lot of Wilson Park so I could pop the clutch and we could get to dinner at Hugo’s. A plaque situated on the back of a bench in Central Park reads, “Lois Virginia Sparks, 2/24/55-6/26/02, A Southerner Who Loved New York and Who Always Chose Life.” She reminds me of myself.
I thought I’d go to New York City and have a completely foreign experience. The big city and its bright lights seem to extend an opportunity, a promise to help you forget where you came from, of giving you the opportunity to reinvent yourself, to start relationships anew. Instead, I was constantly reminded of where I came from, felt even more deeply who I was, and resumed a conversation with my old friend, the city, who knew exactly where I came from and treasured it almost as much as I did. After all, why would New York go to the trouble of spotlighting all of its Arkansas connections if it didn’t love my home almost as much as I do?
When the plane touched down and I smelled that clean Arkansas air and saw my 3-year-old daughter, blonde hair in curly pigtails, running to me with a jubilant smile on her face, squealing, “Mommy!” I still knew, in my head, that I would continue to miss my friend New York for as long as we were separated. But in my heart, overflowing with love and gratitude, I was glad to be back in Arkansas, my motherland, my home.
Writer Heather Steadham lives in Conway with her teacher husband, clarinet-playing son, gymnastics-loving younger son and a dancing, singing whirlwind of a baby girl. Someday she hopes to take this little traveling circus to New York, certain they’ll turn the city on its ear.