I like to talk to cabdrivers. Especially the old salts. When my efforts to engage them in conversation are successful, they’ll inevitably ask me where I’m from. “Cairo, Illinois,” is what I reply, and the reaction is almost always the same. I swear I’m not exaggerating, this has happened at least 15 times: “Goddamn, that’s a rough town.” Always “rough” and almost always “goddamn” for emphasis.

And I suppose it is rough, though when you grow up someplace you think everywhere else is like it until you move away.

By the way, it’s Cairo as in “care-o,” not “ky-ro” like in Egypt or “kay-ro” like Twain wrote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The latter is how people from Kentucky and other idiots pronounce it, though I do enjoy it when some blow-dried anchorperson says it that way with a look-at-me I-really-know-how-to-say-it aren’t-I-country-fried-smart shit-eating grin. I’ve had people argue with me, tell me I must not be from there if I don’t say “kay-ro” because that’s where they make the corn syrup, which has absolutely nothing to do with the place other than being on the grocery store shelves. These people are more apt to believe I’m from Cairo after I’ve punched them.

I actually grew up on a farm about three miles outside of town, but the very first thing I remember is going there with my dad. I was three at the time, and I recall my father, who was Alexander County sheriff at the time, gathering me up and throwing me in the back of our gold Ford Galaxy station wagon. I knew something was seriously wrong because my old man looked scared. The only times he looks scared are when things are really fucked-up or when he’s in a restaurant that doesn’t serve beer. I remember that he was sweating and driving fast and I kept trying to stand up on the backseat of the car and hold on to the front seat to see what the hell was going on and he kept telling me to lie down on the floor of the car and when I did that all I could see was the streetlights above, in pairs, flashes of light zipping by. Like a recurring dream, I can close my eyes and see those lamps and hear the road beneath my head.

The next thing I knew we were bouncing into the parking lot at Saint Mary’s Hospital. This is where my granny lives, I thought. We burst through the entrance and headed for the emergency room. My dad planted me on the bench right outside the big wooden double doors and told me to stay put in a voice that meant I was going nowhere and I knew it.

Then he slammed into those big wood doors so hard they swung wide open and stayed open long enough for me to get a good look at all the commotion inside. What I saw in those few seconds is as fresh in my mind as if it had happened last Sunday. There was a man in there, stretched out on a gurney, and he had a police uniform shirt on, but it was ripped open and there was blood everywhere. His face was so pale it wasn’t even white, more gray, like a dummy in the window at Khourie Brothers. I sat on the bench trying to figure out if the man in the room was real.

His name was Lloyd Bosecker and he was shot by a sniper on top of the Security Bank building in the heart of downtown at Eighth and Commercial. This was right smack-dab in the middle of our race war, which ran from 1967 to 1973, not that either side declared war on a certain date or that a truce was ever signed. But it was a war nonetheless, sparked when a 19-year-old soldier named Robert Hunt was found hung in his jail cell in Cairo while home on leave. Hunt, who was black, was ruled to have committed suicide. My father, who wasn’t sheriff at the time, is one of those who are adamant Hunt killed himself, but the black community disagreed and, led by Cairo native Reverend Charles Koen and his United Front organization, rose up in protest against not only Hunt’s death but also a century of harsh segregation. Cairo had separate school systems, churches, and just about everything else. (One of the first civil rights actions taken in Cairo was a lawsuit in the early 50s by schoolteacher Hattie Kendrick demanding equal pay for black teachers. Mrs. Kendrick’s attorney was NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall.)

The riots of the 60s and 70s produced more than 150 nights of gunfire, a vigilante all-white civilian “neighborhood watch” organization called the White Hats, a boycott of all Cairo businesses by the United Front, and all sorts of marches, protests, and arrests, with special appearances by everyone from Julian Bond to the American Nazi Party. I was watching Biography the other night. The subject was J. Edgar Hoover, and as footage flashed on the screen illustrating the tumult of the late 60s, there was Cairo: black protesters shoving white policemen, who were responding with billy clubs. It made me homesick.

Not that Cairo was a bucolic Mayberry before the race war. Founded at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, it had a penchant for violence that was established along with the town itself. The first attempt at incorporation was in 1818, though that and two other efforts failed because of the lack of a flood control system. So for many years Cairo was little more than a rest stop and liquor store for the keelboaters working their way up and down the two rivers. It was most hospitable to the sort of businessman who would take your money while the hired help unloaded your shit off your boat, knocked a hole in the bottom of it, and sank the son of a bitch, then would trade you one of his extras for all the goods his men bravely rescued. Little did the merchant pirates realize they were setting the foundations of the local economy for the next 150 years: booze, crime, and screwing anybody who came to town.

Eventually, after levees were built in the 1840s, the town started to take root. Financiers vigorously solicited investment out east and in England. Posters plastered London describing the place as the future “World’s Greatest Manufacturing Mart and Emporium,” illustrated with fanciful images of smoke-belching factories and a gleaming capitol dome. Plans for a great railway system linking Illinois’ two most important towns, Cairo and Galena, suffered through several aborted starts until 1850, when Stephen A. Douglas added Chicago to the plan and engineered through Congress a historic two-million-acre federal land grant to the newly incorporated Illinois Central Railroad. When the project was completed in 1855, the Illinois Central Railroad, a Y-shaped route with its foot in Illinois’ southern tip, was the longest in the world. When the first train reached Cairo from Chicago, 600 dignitaries disembarked, and after much speech making by political figures, Mexican War heroes, and newspaper publishers, everyone got rip-roaring drunk. Finally, Cairo was booming. The new railroad connected the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and in 1859 six million pounds of cotton and wool were shipped through Cairo. The population topped 2,000. Bars opened left and right, whorehouses sprang to life, gambling was everywhere. Cairo was fast gaining a reputation as the wildest town on the rivers, as roustabouts and deckhands from up and down both rivers left their earnings on Ohio Street, then one of the busiest stretches in the United States. Early explorers had marveled at the tongue of land between the two great waterways and predicted great things. Many agreed with one of the town’s founders, General Clark Carr, when he opined, “The time is sure to come when Cairo will be the largest city in the world.” Then came the Civil War.

Days after the siege of Fort Sumter, both sides recognized the importance of Cairo. If the Confederates could capture the southernmost city among the free states (Cairo is further south even than Richmond), they’d gain an important entryway to the north up the Ohio, the same reason many runaway slaves viewed the place as a symbol of freedom. Cairo was one of only four major rail centers linking the north and the south, and the Union realized that controlling the Mississippi meant choking off the Confederacy’s most important trade route. Just days after the war began, rebel armies took up positions 20 miles downriver at Columbus, Kentucky. President Lincoln sprang into action, sending thousands of troops into Cairo. With all the big-name military leaders on assignment in the east, a little-regarded brigadier general named Ulysses S. Grant was made commander of the forces gathered in Cairo. At Fort Defiance, overlooking the junction of the rivers, he assembled and trained the men who would march to Vicksburg in the coming years, gaining him the fame and glory that would eventually land him in the White House. The Yankees had won the race to occupy Cairo, and though no blood was shed there, many point to this victory as monumental.

Following the troops to Cairo were thousands of former slaves and homeless southerners who wanted no part of the war. Also peddlers, pickpockets, and more prostitutes. Soldiers proved to be easy prey, and Grant soon declared martial law. Cairo’s reputation as a city of sin and debauchery was sealed. (Family lore has it that on a triumphant return visit after becoming president, Grant told my fresh-off-the-boat Irish-bartender great-grandfather that he made the best hot toddy he’d ever tasted.)

As the war ended, Cairo struggled to come to grips with the large number of refugees, black and white, who now called the town home. Uneducated, penniless, and unwelcome, the new citizens settled anyway. In 1860 there was a small black community in town of no more than 50. By 1870 blacks would constitute 30 percent of a total population of 8,500. Also, waves of immigrants arrived, mostly German and Irish, though before long the city’s mix would grow more cosmopolitan. Visitors expecting your basic Anglo-Saxon Protestant rednecks would find Greeks, Lebanese, Assyrians, and Jews. Cairo would boast churches of nearly every denomination and a synagogue.

The humanity that fueled Cairo’s postwar boom did not, however, change the atmosphere of the town–the new folk were mixing it up with the hooligans. A religious missionary at the time reported to his superiors in New York that he had found “one of the most wicked places in America.”

The successful Union blockade of the Mississippi that made Cairo so strategically important would also prove to be its undoing. The blockade forced both north and south to create other means to move people and goods. The steamboats would thrive for another couple decades, but the locomotive whistle had signaled the beginning of the end for the boats. And though in the 1880s Cairo would boast more railroads per capita than any other city in the world, it couldn’t sustain its status as a major rail center. Its last glory in that department was the opening of the great four-mile-long Illinois Central bridge, which, including its approaches, was for many years the longest in the world.

The bridge, which is still in use, crosses the Ohio just north of town; from there the tracks follow the Mississippi to New Orleans. Its opening in 1889 sparked worldwide press attention that’s hard to imagine today. “It is indeed one of the wonders of the world–a work that fills the beholder with amazement–so extraordinary is the demonstration of men’s ability to overcome natural obstacles,” gushed the Memphis Appeal. Without the development of new industries to ensure Cairo stops on the rail and barge lines, the bridge that completed the rail link between Chicago and New Orleans would close the book on Cairo’s preeminence as a transportation center. But in spite of the dense hardwood that surrounded the town, great forests of centuries-old trees that made for a decent lumber industry, Cairo seems to have had little interest in any vocation other than vice.

The late 1800s brought some growth. Up sprouted beautiful Victorian mansions along magnolia-and-ginkgo-tree-divided Washington Avenue on the north end of town, owned by river merchants and the like. Critics say Cairo’s few elites stopped any real outside money from investing, preferring to keep the underclasses, both black and white, in control and the labor cheap. But the moneyed in the late 19th century did contribute most of Cairo’s cultural landmarks, including the lovely Safford Library, the long-gone opera house (hailed as the finest between Saint Louis and Memphis), and two pretty nice sculptures. The library’s Fighting Boys is a bronze by Janet Scudder, complete with strategic garlands. (The Art Institute’s lead version lacks the leaves.) The Hewer, a bronze by George Grey Barnard, was said by Lorado Taft in 1910 to be one of the two finest nudes in America. Not too many towns of our size have been lucky enough to have that much fancy art or so many whorehouses, not to mention both. And while the civilized flourished to a certain extent, throughout the end of the century the town remained wide open. As the sign in one levee-front bar proclaimed: All Nations Welcome but Carrie.

In 1909 a vigilante mob hung and mutilated the body of William “Froggy” James, a black man accused of raping a white woman, then for good measure they hung a white man accused of killing his wife. This occurred at Eighth and Commercial, where Lloyd Bosecker was shot 62 years later. The next year a sheriff’s deputy was killed by another mob attempting to lynch a black man accused of snatching a white woman’s purse. On both occasions the National Guard was called out, and on the latter martial law was again implemented. Around the same time, a measure to vote the town dry was defeated 4,505 to 653. The population was nearly 15,000, but the Cairo paper at the time estimated there were only 3,600 eligible voters. In 1917 Cairo had the highest arrest rate in the state–an amazing 15 percent of the population was arrested. In 1937 the town had the highest murder rate in the state. Cairo’s prostitute population in the late 30s was estimated to be over a thousand. From 1942-’44 there was a series of 12 serious fires that destroyed businesses, most never to be replaced. After World War II, unemployment rates skyrocketed, and so did crime. In 1951 Senator Estes Kefauver announced his organized crime committee was investigating a $20 million bootlegging operation based you-know-where, sending large amounts of booze into dry states. The 50s also brought renewed violence as various mobs tried to squeeze one another out of the slot machine racket. Local hoodlums smashed rivals’ machines, firebombed bars, and killed each other. One tough, Jake Rubin, was shot in the head at point-blank range in a bar full of people in the hilariously misnamed suburb of Urbandale. When authorities arrived, no one had seen a thing. A friend of my father’s had an excuse: he was passed out blind drunk on the bar stool next to Rubin. They had to wake him up to tell him someone had been shot and killed at his elbow. Another local gangster, Rocky Rothschild, was an ex-policeman turned bad guy who honest to God had a car that created a smoke screen at the push of a button. Another friend of my father’s, the legendary Bobby McAdoo, was dating Rocky’s ex. Rocky pulled up to the gas station where McAdoo worked and got out of his car as McAdoo very nervously filled his tank. Rocky said, “I rob all day and steal half the night and I can’t afford her.

I’d like to know how you think you can do it pumping gas.”

Then of course came the 60s and the aforementioned rioting.

In the decade following the race riots the town’s population was halved, then in the 80s halved again. Unemployment hovered around 25 percent, and a third of the town was on welfare. We lost bus service in the late 80s, and in 1988, the City of New Orleans, operating on the rail line that existed only because of Cairo, made its last stop there. Our town was without passenger-train service for the first time in 133 years. Population, transportation–pieces of the town were disappearing too. Everything from bank clocks to hotel bars and iron storefronts was being carted off to quaintify historic districts from Saint Louis to New Orleans.

The town had one last chance for a grab at the brass ring ten years ago when Illinois legalized gambling. On riverboats. To revitalize dying towns. Perfect! I mean, what other town, with the possible exception of East Saint Louis, deserved a license more than the onetime vice capital of the Mississippi Valley? No other place had more experience in what we now elegantly refer to as “the gaming industry.” Name me another town whose vitals needed re-izing more than Cairo, and name one with a richer river legacy. Of course the state snubbed us, then stuck our noses in it by awarding a license to nearby Metropolis (Superman’s hometown–ha!), a lily-white burg up the Ohio that had always looked down its nose at our wicked ways. Great. Government finally comes around to openly taking people’s money and giving them diddly-squat in return and the town that perfected the art of getting visitors drunk and ripping them off doesn’t get to play. All Cairo got was a blindfold and no last cigarette.

In 1991 a CNN special about rampant crime in America called Mean Streets said Cairo had one of the highest crime rates in the United States. Though most of the whiskey, roulette wheels, and strip joints it was home to for so long had vanished, a hard edge, a meanness many had noted lingered on as strong as ever. So many resources, such a great location, how could the town have messed up so bad? No one can give a good reason. But the facts are there. The history has surely been recorded. Perhaps no other town of its size (a peak population of 20,000 in the 1920s, down to less than 5,000 now) has been better chronicled. The articles are remarkably consistent, the Chicago Tribune reporting in 1876 that “Cairo averages a murder a week,” and in 1985 that “it has finally beaten itself to death.” The Louisville Times reported in June 1952 that “one thing can be said of Cairo. It does not take any more than the asking to find out where to go. Gambling, nightclubs, prostitutes–ask anybody, they all seem glad to tell you.”

The literary record of the town is first-rate. Besides Twain, Anthony Trollope, Saul Bellow, Jonathan Raban, and Andrew H. Malcolm, Cairo was remarked upon most notably by Charles Dickens. Dickens, thought by many to be an early investor in Cairo (that heavy promotion in England), ripped it a new asshole in American Notes then based the hapless town of Eden on it in Martin Chuzzlewit. The famed Notes (1842) quotation: “At length…we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld that the forlornest places we had passed were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers…lies a breeding place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of golden hope and speculated on in the faith of monstrous representations, to many people’s ruin. A dismal swamp on which half-built houses rot away…teeming with rank unwholesome vegetation in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted thither droop and die and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off on its southern course, a slimy monster, hideous to behold, a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any promise; a place without a single quality in earth or air or water to commend it: such is the dismal Cairo!”

I suppose the weather might have been bad the day he dropped by.

Pulitzer winners, we’ve been lambasted by them too. J. Anthony Lukas wrote in a 1971 New York Times Magazine story detailing the town and the riots: “Probably no other American locality in recent years has lived through such persistent, systematic, stubborn racial violence.” And Ron Powers wrote this, my personal favorite, in his 1991 book on the death of small towns, Far From Home: “It was dying slow and it was dying mean…dying of every disease, human and economic and elemental, that could be conjured and called down upon a town. Its capacity to cling to a kind of life did nothing to ennoble Cairo, but only reinforced its sinister aura. The town’s sulphurous legacy of corruption, wretched luck and murderous temperament made it seem cursed; a locus of evil.”

No wonder the sight of a stranger carrying a camera or a notebook causes us Cairoites to want to pelt them with some of our “rank unwholesome vegetation.” “Locus of evil”? Kiss our asses.

Maybe we hate reporters because while they always seem to chronicle the things we’ve done wrong, they never seem to mention the things we’ve done right. Now it’s just about too late. The clock is running out on Cairo pretty damn fast.

I remember a much different Cairo, a time when all the stores were open on Commercial Avenue, with the Hamburger Wagon sitting outside Khourie Bros.–a little old wooden thing jammed with a popcorn maker, a soda cooler with all three Crush flavors in 16-ounce glass bottles, and a griddle that produced the best thin greasy burgers ever. I remember being inside the store, waiting on my mom to buy a new outfit, with all the Khouries yelling and screaming at each other (“MAXINE! I’M WITH ELIZABETH RIGHT NOW! TELL FREDDY WAYNE TO SHUT UP!”) while I see how many of me I can see in the hinged mirror. The musty smell of the P.N. Hirsch department store with the old hardwood floors and antiquated ceiling fans. Shooting pool at the Snooker, old men with cheap stubby cigars spewing smoke into the dimly lit hall on a hot summer day while they played gin for nickels and dimes. The Snooker had hand-lettered chalkboards on the wall with the names of all the baseball teams listed and a space for the scores, only it had been so long since anyone booked there the boards listed the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Washington Senators, the Boston Braves. Speedboat races on the Ohio river, half the town sitting on the concrete levee wall. Days spent after school upstairs in the library with Mrs. Ogg, poring over Harper’s Weeklys from the Civil War. The Saturday-morning gooey goodness of a butter-top coffee cake from Eddie’s Pastries, the greatest breakfast food ever invented, period. It was a doughy bottom covered with a coagulated mixture of butter and sugar on top, bagged so that when you bought one you couldn’t tell if you were unlucky enough to have got the much hated and much drier corner pieces. Whenever you went to visit a former Cairoite, you had to bring along several butter-tops. All the small neighborhood grocery stores (at one time there were more than 40): German like Crestman’s, Rink’s, Metheny’s, and Bucher’s, or Assyrian like Antoon’s, Nassar’s, Joe’s, and Guetterman’s. All closed. Rink’s had baseball cards. Joe’s was right between my school, Saint Joseph’s, and the public middle school, Bennett. They had Jungle Juice and penny candy in cases made of wood and glass, and we would steal ’em blind.

Every time I head back to Cairo I half expect to see it this way again, yet all there is to see is another building falling in, another vacant lot where there used to be a house, another sinkhole destroying a street, more hopeless For Sale signs on front lawns.

Almost every one of my high school classmates has left, mostly for a better place, so there’s never a homecoming to come home to. If you grew up in a small town like I did, you probably moved off to someplace bigger and ostensibly better–definitely more complicated. You expect that your occasional return visits will bring respite, the kind that familiar surroundings and faces deliver. But in Cairo, the former are mostly in ruins, and the latter have mostly moved on–to another town, prison, or the great beyond. Looking to see who’s hanging around at DeJarnett’s filling station? Can’t, it’s not there. Shoot the shit with whoever’s at Villa Pizza? Sorry, burned to the ground. Escape the heat with cold beer at the 28th Street Tavern? The empty lot where it stood isn’t air-conditioned.

Carl Boyce worked with my aunt at Cairo Auto Supply, a little bitty guy everyone called Jackson. I’m not sure why, but I think it was akin to calling someone Slick or Hollywood. Jackson had thick horn-rimmed glasses and a bulbous nose, and he snorted when he laughed. He had a fantastic collection of Playboy centerfolds hanging up in the back of the store and delighted in showing them to me.

Elmer Smith owned the cleaner’s. He was commonly known as Smitty. Smitty always, always had a new dirty joke to tell you when you picked up your clothes, a custom I was allowed to indulge in starting in junior high. Smitty quit drinking in the last years of his life per doctor’s orders. Sort of. Then he could be seen sipping on a bottle of Vicks Formula 44. “Bad cough,” Smitty would say. Smitty always had three or four girls working for him, a little saucier and more smart-alecky than average. They had to be to put up with Smitty.

Jackson, being a bachelor, had all his laundry done there. One time he pinned a note to his underwear that read “Use more bleach.” He got one back that said “Use more toilet paper.”

Jim and Huck were trying to get to “Kay-ro” to get free, but it was fogged in and they headed on south into dangerous territory. Sometimes it seems the fog never lifted and the town slowly disappeared. The hospital, where everyone in my family was born, is a pile of rubble. The gorgeous old high school, with its grand auditorium–demolished. The new one, built in the early 1980s, the one I graduated from, is windowless. Better to keep your eyes on the chalkboard than look at the desolation all around you.

A few things seem better. Crime is way down, and white people and black people seem to get along real well now, better than ever before at least. Maybe there’s nothing left to fight about. The ones left, the ones who have stuck it out, are stubborn folk with an innate sense of place who refuse to uproot themselves, no matter how foolish it seems to stay. The town is vainly making improvements, rebricking Eighth Street and restoring the long-closed Gem theater. After so many years of pillage, an effort is being made to beautify downtown, if only for the sake of those who live there, the hell with everyone else.

At long last, a new source of employment has arrived. The state of Illinois might have denied it a gambling boat, but 15 miles out north it has given Alexander County a new prison, the much discussed Tamms supermax (my brother is a lieutenant there). It’s where the baddest of the state’s bad are housed, and where executions are now carried out. The powers that be won’t sanction a craps game back home, but killing’s OK.

Almost all the bars are closed now, places like the Turf, El Patio, the Hub, and Club 18. The one remaining attraction is Smith & Groves, Herbie “Duke” Washam’s bar, at Eighth and Commercial. The friends I still have in Cairo can usually be found there.

I drove downtown to Duke’s the last time I was home, and I couldn’t help but notice how easily the races mixed at his place, the same intersection where Froggy James’s dead body was mutilated and where Lloyd Bosecker got shot. I glanced into the middle of the intersection where a new clock has been erected and walled off, and I thought the spirit of cooperation that seemed to have gripped Cairo’s remaining inhabitants was not unlike a condemned murderer finding religion at the last hour. If only we could offer butter-top coffee cake as a last meal.

For more on Cairo see the Visitors’ Guide on page 44.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Jackson.