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Jewish World Review July 20, 2001 / 29 Tamuz, 5761

Michael Long

Michael Long
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Consumer Reports

Summer song -- PADUCAH, KENTUCKY -- Between the bridal shops ("Debbrah's… For That Special Look") and just down the street from the offices of the local newspaper (The Paducah Sun, where the "P" is barely hanging on, suspended by a single wire and bumping the "a"), the downtown of this small river city is undergoing a quiet and successful revitalization.

The old brick buildings are back to life, sandblasted to their original shades, suddenly stately, ornate and attractive again. Some are outfitted with awnings and neon, with splashes of funky colors in the big windows, and each is set up with signs advertising whatever is inside-mostly coffee bars and baked goods and crafts. These boutiques are set between the main businesses, mainstream retailers and common services. The mix works, giving the little downtown some color between its practicalities.

On Friday and Saturday nights, this mix drives a unique and surprising transformation: downtown becomes a true destination. While the downtowns of most other small towns simply go dark, Paducah's turns into an event, part carnival, part county fair, part family visit on the back porch. By six p.m., families and couples are milling around a stretch about three blocks long that ends at a retaining wall by the river, where the Tennessee and Ohio meet. They're headed down to the water to hear a band, or strolling from attraction to sidewalk attraction.

This downtown is coming back in a big, busy way. But it's due to more than a few fun shops and some pretty buildings. The people of Paducah seem to have a strong civic interest in making their town special. Sometimes, enthusiasm bursts from the seams. And here, well… talk about a unique expression of pride: The street is lined with singers-lots and lots of singers. Singers with spotlights and sound equipment, singers with fancy costumes, singers with giga-watt smiles, singers with audiences.

On this night, an Elvis impersonator has commandeered the corner bandstand and he is crooning-and not too badly, either-in full costume: Elvis circa 2001 is the good old fat one, sealed in a skintight red jumpsuit with gold trim. His wife or girlfriend or something stands ten yards back, running a camcorder on a skinny little tripod. No one leaves anything in the tip bucket, but it's still early, and Elvis does not yet seem concerned. "We're gonna play out here until about 8 o'clock," when, Elvis explains, another singer has dibs on the spot. "Oh man, I got a wasp in my water cup-somebody come and he'p me." He dumps his ice over the rail of the bandstand, curses an Elvis-y curse before his otherwise unperturbed fans on the park benches a few feet away.

Singers are set up no more than fifty yards apart. They have arrived early enough to secure the best locations, before the crowds come out closer to sundown. Every kind of music-except for hard rock and rap-is here, with particular focus on the vocals. Instrumental backup comes from CD accompaniment tracks. This is piped through clusters of sound equipment, hundreds of dollars in rural-church-quality Peavey amps and speakers, the stuff most familiar to those of us raised in evangelical, dirt-road sanctuaries where karaoke-style music was happening-on Sunday morning, no less-long before it hit the bar scene.

Just down from Elvis is a country singer, singing to no one, but singing anyway. He has secured for himself the best parking place (proximate to his show, at least); his windshield is a cardboard display of photographs and clip art, advertising his act. He sings mainstream music-Brooks and Dunn, Clint Black, pop-country kind of stuff, boot-scootin' tunes. Walk a few yards out of that fellow's sonic borders and you come up to an old man singing gospel tunes you've never heard. He's seated, holding a microphone, looking straight ahead to the street while his audience of men and women in Harley T-shirts sits in lawn chairs on either side. He sings this over and over: Someday they gonna rise up… someday they gonna rise up… someday they gonna rise up-sings in a way that suggests less Billy Graham than David Lynch.

Along the river is a retaining wall painted witha mural portraying the history of Paducah --- there's a spot for Truman VP Alben Barkleyand another for humorist Irvin Cobb, both local boys made good. In a gap made for stairsteps down to thewater, a woman in a party dress sings "My Way" to absolute oblivion. This will be a busy spot later tonight, nodoubt about it, but now it's just out of the way. She's 75 yards from the shore, her back to the river. She sings with no irony whatsoever. Across the block, on a street that also hasyet to be occupied with the evening crowds, another female singer belts one outunder a worklamp-cum-spotlight. Shesmiles and waves as we pass --- she seems to be Paducah's own Little Miss Dynamite.

Fathers dance with daughters, folks show up with lawn chairs, and even the motorcycle riders are polite. It is almost too good to be true, too easy to pose sarcastic, at least it's that way to me. After all, this is just across the river from where I grew up, not far from a place that promotes itself on TV as a "gated" trailer park community. But these days, I resist, and respect. Here is a place where the people have made up their minds to be happy, where folks get off work and rush downtown to sing, where they finish dinner at home and take a walk with the neighbors-and there's a fun place to go that will survive only if it gets their support.

We are living in a time-perhaps it's ending, thank G-d-where posturing and irony poison everything. We laugh at things not because they are funny but because we can feel superior. And in doing that, we have forgotten what fun it is to be amused, and what really is satisfying. Many have lost a most vital sense: how to have a good time without having to analyze how it looks to everyone else. Here is a place that has decided to get on with things, to have some fun. Good for Paducah, and a fine example for the rest of us. Not a bad lesson for a warm summer night.

JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


07/03/01: It's a Wonderful Recount

© 2001, Michael Long