Paul Simon, the former senator from Illinois, was voted the prettiest boy baby in Eugene, Ore., in 1932. Just off the top of my head, you ask? Well, yes, but it’s only there because I’m readying myself to do a radio show in Carbondale, Ill., where Sen. Simon directs the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. If it doesn’t come up, say, right off the bat, when I interview him, I’d be surprised. Carbondale and all greater Little Egypt are very much on my mind these days. Why is Southern Illinois known as Egypt? The delta thing (you’ve got your Mississippi, your Ohio, and your Wabash)? The pyramidal mounds left behind by an earlier civilization? The tendency to sail into the hereafter in cardboard skiffs (for this is the home of the Cardboard Regatta)? Nobody knows, but if the other Egypt had the Illinois Central instead of the Suez, they might pronounce it Kay-ro, too.
As is my wont on our road trips, I looked for evidence of the first Jewish civilization (this goes back to my mother’s tendency to send me clippings to back up her thesis that “there are Jews everywhere”), which seems to have dawned in Carbondale in 1894, with the advent of Solomon and Winters–One-Price Cash Clothiers, established by J.J. Winters of nearby Du Quoin and J. Solomon of (where else) Chicago, setting up shop, appropriately enough, in the Odd Fellows building (the parallels to my father’s disastrous credit clothing foray in Racine, Wis., with his Odd Fellow lodge partner Izzy are inescapable). A Mr. John Lethem, who chronicled the early days, noted, “Here one will find a large and varied line of goods neatly and tastefully arranged so as to give one every opportunity of making a selection,” adding, quite unnecessarily, “Mr. J.J. Winters is the resident member of the firm.”
Carbondale is the first city I’ve run across that lists a daytime and a nighttime population, 49,000 and 27,000 respectively, reflecting not the hardiness of the 27,000 to stick it out, but the comparative size of the Southern Illinois student body and the fact that it departs, at dusk, for parts unknown: Murphysboro, perhaps, or Beaucoup (pronounced “Bow-kup,” like in Yiddish–a Solomon legacy?). SIU has the Small Business Incubator, where fledgling businesses are kept at a constant 105 degrees until they hatch; Sen. Simon’s Public Policy Institute, which, like the senator, seems to be concerned about everything; and a medical school that attracted unwanted national attention a few years ago when its long-standing policy, since repealed, of cutting the legs off used cadavers so they would ship in a smaller box (34 inches) broke in the Daily Egyptian. What no one talks about is that the cadavers were going to Chicago, possibly to vote in the primaries.
All around is the beautiful Shawnee National Forest, which has over 20 varieties of wild orchids, more trees than all Europe, and 85 percent of all types of vertebrates. If it’s vertebrates you’re after, look no further. Over the years SIU has garnered a reputation as a party school, although the college guide assures us that “academics have priority during the week, but students report that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are reserved for partying.”
Talk to you when I talk to you.