Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
"To live in a hotel promotes a cool two-mindedness: one is both steady and in a sea that passes with the tides. Accommodation is what's wanted, a replenished idea of permanence and transience; familiarity with overcoming the continual irregularity in things."
From the short memoir "Accommodations," by Richard Ford, 1988
Richard Ford is a long way from Little Rock these days. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1996 novel "Independence Day," the Mississippi-born Ford has taken his seat at the table of great American authors, and it looks like he'll be staying awhile. Commonly seen as a literary heir to writers like William Faulkner, he nonetheless refuses the term "Southern writer," which he says comes with too much ugly baggage. Currently, Ford serves as the Emmanuel Roman and Barrie Sardoff Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York City.
Before he was a famous writer, though, he was a boy living in Room 600 of the Marion Hotel in downtown Little Rock.
Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944. His father had a heart attack when he was eight years old, followed by another, fatal heart attack eight years later. Beginning in 1952 and continuing into his teen years after his father's death, Ford spent summers in Little Rock with his maternal grandparents. Ford's grandfather, Ben Shelley, was the manager of the Marion Hotel, and lived on the premises. Ford was given his own room at the front of the hotel on the sixth floor. Demolished in 1980, the hotel stood roughly where the Statehouse Convention Center stands today, near Louisiana and Markham Streets. Ford said that though guests came and went, he soon became part of the surrogate family of hotel workers.
"It created for me a nice sense of comfort, because I knew everybody," he said. "Everybody was family: all the bellmen, all the telephone operators, all the front office people, all the cooks, all the waitresses, all the waiters. And yet all around that little island of home-like experience, there were all these people coming and going, day in and day out — people I would never see again."
Living in the hotel wasn't a lonely experience, Ford said, even though there weren't many other children his age living in downtown Little Rock in those days. Ford said life as an only child had taken away his "loneliness gene" by the time he started spending summers there. He still remembers the city sounds he heard while falling asleep.
"I could lie in my bed and I could hear the buses coming and going from the Trailways bus station," he said. "Down behind the hotel, I could hear the Missouri Pacific switch cars. I could hear voices out on the street. I could hear sirens. I never thought of it as lonely."
Though Arkansas and the rest of the South were firmly in the grip of Jim Crow when he lived in Little Rock, Ford said that he came to befriend and respect many of the black employees at the Marion, a situation which he said "saved my life." With his grandfather busy running the hotel, Ford was put under the care of a black bellman named Sedric Bowe, who he said raised him through his adolescence, along with the sons of many other prominent businessmen who worked downtown. Bowe took him fishing, taught him how to water ski, and sometimes drove him back and forth to Helena so Ford could spend time with a girlfriend. Bowe is one of several workers at the Marion who helped shape the man and writer Ford would become.
"Those guys were my friends," he said. "All those guys, the bellmen at the Marion, they had all been in the service in the Second World War. They had all been out of Little Rock. They had been out into the world. Some of them had been to Germany, some of them had been to Japan. Even though they resubmitted to [segregation] when they came back to Little Rock after the war, the color line was a rather ragged line for them."
Though Ford didn't start writing until he'd gone off to college, he said that living at the Marion shaped his perceptions about life and the world in ways that eventually made their way into his work. One of the most important was the idea that home is not a concept that's conferred upon you. It's a concept that you confer upon yourself.
"You say where home is," he said. "It can be one place, or it can be more than one place. It isn't just the place where you happen by accident of birth to originate."
Too, living in the hotel as a child instilled in him a fascination with secrecy — with people living private lives behind locked doors, and doing things they didn't want anyone else to see. As a writer, he has often found himself trying to puzzle out why people keep the secrets they do. "When you live in a hotel, you're excluded from almost everything that goes on there," he said. "So I understood that in people's lives, there was always an interior, private part that I was very curious about — that I was willing to try and find ways to penetrate. It made private lives — secret lives — seem very dramatic and attractive to me."
Ford will give a talk about his latest book, "Canada," at 1 p.m. April 20 in the Darragh Center of the Main Library as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival. Kane Webb will moderate. The talk is free and open to the public.