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Jewish World Review July 9, 1999 /25 Tamuz 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Are life's sweetest mysteries still around the bend? --
LOUISVILLE --- Two minutes until 9 on a Kentucky night in summer, and you can still see the sun, just over that bridge.

It's hovering above the Ohio River. From the Kentucky side of the river, from a vantage point on the back deck of the Galt House hotel, you can see the state of Indiana, a mile across. There's the Indiana town of Clarksville, there's the Indiana town of Jeffersonville, there's an Indiana factory with the word "Colgate" atop its roof -- they make toothpaste over there, and shaving cream, and Ajax Cleanser.

Was it once a different world over there -- did Indiana, separated from Kentucky by the mile-wide river, seem like a journey? It's not now, hasn't been for generations -- the Clark Bridge will take you across the Ohio River in a matter of minutes. You can be on the Indiana side quicker than it takes you to think about the various meanings of all this.

And it's not the Kentucky-Indiana distance that's the most compelling one here. It's the other distance -- the unknown distance. The distance that once could be described by that most magical of phrases: "around the bend."

You can see the bend in the river from this terrace -- both bends, if you look in different directions. There's the bend to your right -- the river takes a jog, and it simply disappears, bound for wherever it's going. To your left, another twist in the river -- now you see it, now you never will.

If you lived on this patch of land long ago, America must have felt like an endless series of around-the-bends. If this was your home -- in the generations before everyone went everywhere -- those bends must have felt like a promise. Get on the river and go. To find . . .

What? That must have been the thrill. The sight of the bend in the river must have been more intoxicating than the most lavishly worded travel catalog ever produced. Because -- before it was easy -- you had no idea of what was there. The tingle of mystery. Where is the river going? And what may be out there, in this country of ours?

No mystery now. You don't have to guess at what's out there -- it's right on those signs. Where once there may have been mud and grass leading to the banks of the Ohio River on the Kentucky side, now there are dual freeways -- freeways that have the best seat in the Kentucky house, right next to the river, the endless high-speed motor traffic almost like a taunt in the face of the old river.

Where will the bends in the river take you? It's all but a useless question -- the river is like a painting now, the expressways are real life. The signs inform: Bear to your left on the expressway next to the river and you'll end up in Nashville, or in Indianapolis; bear to your right, you'll end up in Lexington, or in Cincinnati. A big NAPA Auto Parts truck roars by, passenger cars clog the multiple concrete lanes, and the river is largely empty. Like the setting sun, it's there mostly to look at.

Oh, there's a boat pulling away from the dock on the Kentucky side -- you can see that it is called the Belle of Louisville, and it's a literal sternwheeler, the huge red wheel at its back end turning around and around. It's for tourists; it's not going anywhere, except back to this same dock in a little while. The more distant bends in the river will never see it.

We can go anywhere as fast as we want. "Where do you want to go today?" -- that's the marketing phrase of a giant computer company. "Where do you want to go today?" Meaning: Anywhere is available. Tap a key, type in a phrase -- the world is yours, right now, on a screen. New high-speed modems are being advertised all the time, with the promise of even fewer delays. Distance? We've rendered it obsolete, or so we tell ourselves -- we can be anywhere in the world, anywhere in the universe, right now. Distance does not exist.

And there is the river, at two minutes until 9. What was it like here -- before all the speed, before all the noise? When the river was the only way out, and the next bend beckoned like a beautiful wink? With great and breathless efficiency we have jacked up the speed and done away with the distance and deleted the mystery. Midway into a summer's night the sun is still hanging in the Kentucky sky, and the expressway lanes are full and moving, and there is the river and its bend up ahead. In the dying sun, you can actually count the ripples.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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