When I was in my twenties, toward the end of the 1970’s, I worked at my father’s company in downtown Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Two blocks from my office, at the corner of Fourth St. and Main, across the street from Woolworth’s and catty-cornered from S. H. Kress, there was an outdoor newsstand. Being young and easily diverted from the routine of work, I would sometimes walk to this newsstand on warm afternoons in my tie and shirtsleeves. On the way I would pass stores that sold jewelry and books and musical instruments, and I liked to linger on the sidewalk and admire the displays in the windows.
Main Street was still the heart and soul of Pine Bluff then. Every important local event was promoted on banners strung high above the street, from the Little Tyke Fishing Tournament to spaghetti suppers at the Catholic Church to the rodeo parade in the fall. The street was still busy with traffic then, too; powerful American-made traffic, with retractable headlights and big chrome bumpers, and nameplates like Bonneville and Riviera and Toronado. Freight trains rumbled down Fourth St. several times a day, with thumping wheels and squealing brakes and horn blasts that ripped the air. Sometimes I would see my father-in-law seated high up in the cab of a Missouri Pacific locomotive, his hand on the throttle, eyes fixed on the track ahead.
A sullen attendant managed the newsstand from a booth that was just large enough for a cash register, a tall stool and his own chunky frame. From there he kept a watchful eye on his nemesis; browsers who loitered on his sidewalk, thumbing through his magazines, crinkling their pages and smudging them with greasy fingers. The attendant had posted “No Browsing” signs around the newsstand, hoping to shame these vagrants into moving along, but the signs were rarely effective. Somewhere in his head was a line that separated the potential paying customer from these profit-pinching pirates, and whenever this line was crossed, the attendant would lash out. “This ain’t the library,” he would say. “Buy it or put it back.”
I have to confess that I was often guilty of browsing myself, because I can only recall one time when I bought a magazine. But I had been there enough times to know that the clock the attendant kept in his head had a short timer, and I managed to avoid his ire over many years, an achievement I take more pride in than I probably should.
I thought of the newsstand the other day because of Google. I was playing around with my computer in Kansas City, where I have lived now for a long time, when I discovered an amazing thing in Google Maps called Street View. The fact that I am probably the last person in the world to learn about Street View does not bother me at all. Anyway, I pointed my cursor at Fourth St. and Main in Pine Bluff and Street View showed me a picture of a bare wall where the newsstand used to be. There was not the slightest trace of it left.
The newsstand is not the only thing missing from downtown Pine Bluff these days. Gone are most of the retail stores and, with them, most of the traffic. People who went to the movies and ate in the coffee shops are nowhere to be found, because those places are gone now, too. What’s left is an overwhelming sense of abandonment, and it is heartbreaking.
In the next version of Street View, I would like for the Google programmers to give us the option of choosing the time as well as the place. Let me put my cursor at the corner of Fourth St. and Main in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, then let me dial the calendar back to the summer of 1976. Let me see the newsstand like it was then, alive and thriving like the rest of downtown, selling magazines and newspapers in the noise of the traffic and the trains, while the sullen attendant barks at the browsers; “Hey buddy, buy it or put it back.”