On my first full day in the most economically divided county in America, people started telling me about the man who wanders the streets here with an American flag wrapped around his shoulders.
Everyone knew him, but no one had many details.
Me: Where will I find him?
You know, around.
Me: Right ... Like where, though?
Near the lake, maybe.
Sight unseen, this man became a sort of mythical being for me -- a representation of the soul of this part of the Mississippi River Delta, where a body of water and centuries of history largely separate the rich from poor.
Surely, he must have something to say about the American Dream.
As I wandered around both sides of Lake Providence, the town and the sickle-shaped body of water that separates the rich on the north from the poor on the south, I looked for the man with the American flag at every turn -- on Lake Street, with its boarded-up businesses; at the Grab Bag, a local gathering point; near a cemetery, where locals go to scratch off lottery tickets; at the Dock, a restaurant with a cartoonish red crawfish on the roof and warning signs for alligators.
I struck out, again and again.
I began to wonder whether the man and the flag actually existed. There's that scene in every great Western film (and in a dream sequence in "Wayne's World 2") where the cowboy looks across the desert and sees an elder or shaman in the heat-rippled haze of the horizon. Maybe all of these people imagined the man and his flag? Maybe they wanted a source of hope in a place that's about as economically depressed and desperate as they come. About 40% of people in the parish live in poverty.
There would be good cause for a mirage.
A reason for an imaginary mascot.
But then, five days into the trip, I saw him
He was sitting on a metal parking barrier off Interstate 65.
I was scheduled to interview the owner of My Dream Eatery, a rare new-business success story in a town that needs plenty more of those. But I knew I would miss him if I went to the interview. Hell, I was worried if I looked away, he would disappear. I peeked my head into the restaurant as quickly as I could to say that I was going to be a few minutes, sorry, but something had just come up.
As I walked toward him across the parking lot, I tried to look nonchalant but also wanted to catch his attention by waving, which is an impossible combination -- one employed successfully only by Mormon missionaries or maybe sex offenders.
I said hello -- hi, ahem, my name is John, and I'm from CNN. I'm working on this story, and I, well, I've heard about you. (!) I mean, I've heard about you. (...)
George Estes, 59, was kind enough to speak with me.
The American flag was neatly folded and wrapped around a backpack, not his shoulders. He was wearing several layers of clothing, a dress shirt, a tie, a tuxedo vest and a jacket. It felt like 100 degrees that day. Few clouds, if any.
As we talked, he wiped beads of sweat from his face.
But he looked completely and remarkably dapper for a person who walks five, six, seven, eight miles a day -- going nowhere and everywhere in particular.
He wears a large backpack, he said, to stop his back from hurting.
Estes' parents both died when he was relatively young, and he dropped out of school in seventh grade. He has struggled with mental health issues, he told me.
He survives on government disability insurance.