March 21 - Looking Hot Springs, Feeling Cairo

I slept between the intense warmth of a wood burning stove and a goitered dog that I mistook for a pillow. The Bitter Tears awoke in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the funhome of Zac and Cheryl from Itinerant Locals. Over coffee we chatted briefly with a Vermont band that snuck in around dawn for a catnap. They had just come from Austin’s SXSW. With only a few details mentioned about this year’s festival, it was decided that SXSW need not ever be played again by anyone in the room.

We bid adieu to Zac and Sheryl in the soft falling snow of the Ozarks, and I took the first leg of the long drive through the perpetual rain of the Show Me State. At a rest stop we were shown other bands fleeing Austin, college girls in short shorts (it was 35 degrees), and a van full of shackled gutterpunk juvies filing out of a restaurant ironically named Country Pride.

In the afternoon we stopped in Cairo, Illinois, one of my favorite places in the world. I discovered Cairo when I was 17 while on a road trip with friends. We needed somewhere to ignite fireworks, and I was taken by its broken, deserted apocalypse. I revisited Cairo at age 28 with a girlfriend, and she cried. When The Bitter Tears played a song called “Cairo, Illinois” and they became my favorite band. In 2008 I made Cairo the location of a story about a guy who works at Taco Bell and lives in a van. Here’s a draft of the first chapter. At the time I was feeling a bit like Cairo.

Ace of Cups is a new coffee shop, book store, co-op on the main drag. The coffee is free trade, the walls are garish, the organ on display works. But time seems to stand still there. The girl behind the counter had been there for three weeks, but she would be moving on soon. I told her I like coming to Cairo to see its progress. "And its decay," she added. I bought two records (a Harmonicats LP and a jazz age comp) for $3.

We enjoyed the fried corn nuggets at Shemwell’s, and drove on for another 6 hours, playing road games, getting lewd, laughing at personals and Elbo Room bands in The Reader, and discussing old TV.

By the time I got home it was 1am, and Lauren was a sleepy pretzel on the couch. We went to bed. I didn’t even have a beer.

Verdict: Win

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