Second destination : Lebanon, South Dakota (continuation of the first part)
(This is the continunation of the first part of the text : Lebanon false cedar mystery...)
Later that evening I come back to the Longbranch bar, in Lebanon SOuth Dakota, for dinner. It's still empty. Behind the bar stands a woman with long white hair. Her name is Jan and she says she was expecting me as Hazel told her about my arrival. Our conversation leads me to understand what being in a small town really means. Three women manage the bar: Hazel, Jan, and Linda, who are all good friends. Hazel was married to Michael, Jan's brother, and Linda to Jim, Jan's other brother. Linda and Jim divorced and Michael passed away. Hazel then married Jim, her former brother-in-law and her friend's ex-husband. The story feels like a mini soap opera, but they are all friends and. When there isn't that many people around, one gets drawn to those they see the most it seems.
Aside from tending bar, Jan plays the accordion in a country music band along with her brother Jim on the guitar – who also happens to be the head of the town's municipal board. I ask her if she could play for me and, after hesitating at first, she calls Jim who arrives a few minutes later with Hazel. They both play and sing for about half an hour, and the genuineness of their performance is deeply moving; I clap long and hard after each song.
These are Jim McRoberts and Jan Oaks from Lebanon, South Dakota, brother and sister country music players. This is a very short excerpt of an impromptu session they played for me after much convincing. I got excited and messed up the camera settings, so please excuse the quality. Jan tends bar here, and has done so for over 40 years. This is a municipality-run saloon, something I didn't know existed. Jim is married to Hazel, who has also tended bar since she was 19. They're all in their seventies now. Jim has arthritis, so it's becoming harder for him to play. #lebanonusa #merlehaggard #countrymusic
I come back the next night. The difference is striking. There are about a dozen people drinking at the bar. This is a crowd compared to how it was the day before. Jan comes in to greet me, turns to the patrons and yells: "Hey everyone, this is Fadi!" A collective "Hey Fadi" greets me back and I'm very much in disbelief at how welcoming these strangers are.
I grab a beer – at $1.25 a pint; try finding that price in Beirut – and walk towards the pool table. A man who had apparently heard of my story approaches and says: "So you're from Lebanon. Well I grew up in Palestine." I don't give him the chance to continue. I start speaking excitedly in Arabic, which I haven't done in what seems to be a lifetime. He gives me a puzzled look and then laughs: "Dude... I meant Palestine, Ohio.'
We continue our conversation, in English, and he says he works at a gas station kitchen, flipping burgers for minimum wage. But his car is of the latest model, and the electronics he has look expensive. So I ask him how he can afford all of it. "I deals" on the side, he replies.
I think he means weed. He invites me to his friends' place, a husband and wife who recently moved into town, saying it will be different from the Longbranch bar where most people are much older; he is 32. At his friends' house there is another man whom I recognize from the bar. All of them are jittery with bad skin and dark circles under their eyes. I'm not an expert on drugs, but this can't be the effect of weed. They get agitated when they see my camera, so I turn it off. A few minutes later, the man from Palestine, Ohio (I'll call him Andy) and the one from the bar start yelling at each other. It rapidly escalates into a physical fight. The man from the bar, who is quite large, falls onto my camera bag. I hope my camera gear is not ruined. I quickly excuse myself and leave.
But before going to the couple's place, Andy wanted to show me the new land plot he bought. I ask him why he moved to Lebanon, and he mentions the land prices being low and the town being isolated. The plot is 150 by 50 yards (6270 square meters). "How much do you think I bought this for?" he asks. "50,000?" I guess. He laughs and says it was only $3,500. Three thousand and five hundred dollars... He refuses to have his picture taken, but says that he is trying to get his act together, and he hopes he'll soon be able to send after his girlfriend and their two kids, aged 13 and 10, from Illinois after he builds a house. He has recently gotten a cross tattoo, in the hopes of motivating himself to become clean.
I learn from him that when these small towns get depopulated, the land prices drop. And when there's no more police force around, it's a perfect place to live unnoticed. The original town residents are all familiar with his side job selling drugs and they are still welcoming as long as he doesn't cause any trouble. I keep wondering if their welcome is genuine or if it is out of helplessness. I wonder, too, whether this little town will be the theater of more clashes in the future. And I wonder if those neglected little towns in the US rural areas are doomed to turn into 'Meth towns'...