This is part 3 of my series about growing up in Oklahoma, my love affair with the midwest, and other stuff. Read part 1 here and part 2 here. BTW, Jen and I are both in the throes of finals over the next week or two, so bear with us if updates aren’t as frequent!
I spent my entire life in Oklahoma defining myself as a not-Oklahoman. I knew my stay there was temporary, but I wasn’t sure how long my sentence would last. Five years? Ten? As we drove south through Illinois and then across the vast girth of Missouri to get to Tulsa for the first time, I wondered about this new place. I thought Oklahoma would be flat, dusty, and full of horses. I imagined that everyone wore cowboy hats, and tumbleweeds would bounce down my street.
But, the Tulsa I lived in looked more like this:
You have to understand that Tulsa is a very young city, even by American standards (although, ironically, it’s derived from a word meaning “old town”). While Iowa was busy excommunicating native tribes, establishing statehood, and desegregating public schools (yes, they did this in 1867), a bunch of dudes were just sitting under a tree and saying, Hey, this nice spot on the Arkansas River would make for a great town. Tulsa was established in 1901, five years before Oklahoma was even a state. For perspective, Chicago was established in 1837, and New York City had been around for over 200 years by the time Tulsa elected its first mayor. Within about five seconds of establishment, oil was discovered in Tulsa territory and it went from being an intersection to a booming oil town. Tulsa’s growth was fast and dirty. There was none of that slow evolution from urban center to suburbs and exurbs: Tulsa was slashed into a grid and shit was slapped up as fast as possible. Everything is right angles and square miles apart: it’s remarkably easy to navigate but a bit surreal, like moving through an artificial landscape.
Tulsa has absolutely no public transportation to speak of. (Okay, there’s a bus. But does that count?) There’s no el, no subway, no streetcar or metro. To get anywhere, you get in a car and hurtle through town at 50 mph for 20 minutes, past no fewer than three home improvement stores. It’s suburb all the way down. It’s very noveau and very southern and very weird when you’re used to older cities and Midwestern wayfinding, which is all about figuring out which streets change names when you cross the river and driving as if you’re always in a school zone. (All of this info is courtesy the fabulous Wikipedia, btw).
We lived in south Tulsa (not “real” Tulsa or “authentic” Tulsa, but the ‘burbs – practically Broken Arrow), which as far as we could tell had been razed completely, allowing for subdivision after identical subdivision with names like “Country Aire Estates” and “Woodland Meadows ” to be erected in waves of bad taste starting in the late 60s and lasting right up to the still-booming present. The houses bore heavy, brown flagstone facades; wood siding painted mustard or puce; and blond brick. Houses are built “on the slab” which is code for “cheaper:” despite the desperate need for basement shelter during a severe weather, I never encountered a house in Oklahoma that actually had one. They’re typically ranch homes, with boxy rooms and oversized windows.
Trees were puny and the grass was a new kind we’d never encountered called “Bermuda.” It was hardy enough to survive the intensity of the summer heat, but it resembled a bristly buzz cut. Compared to the lacy, cool bluegrass we’d had in Indiana, Bermuda grass was like walking on toothpicks. We were shocked to hear our area of the state referred to as “Green Country:” green compared to what?
Even the sky was different: so much closer to the equator, the sun burned the blue right out of the sky, making it a blinding white. We moved in mid-September, a time of year when leaves are changing and wind turns crisp and cool in the Midwest, but it was still summer in Tulsa, the pavement rippling and blistering with heat. On a walk around our new neighborhood, everything looked so similar and the street names were so confusing (South 78th East Place? South 79th East Court? South 78th East Avenue?) that my sister and I got completely lost. I became irritated and upset and wanted to bail. She wanted to keep going. I left her and walked home, alone. She was only nine. At eleven, having never dealt with that kind of brutal heat, I had no idea what a risk I’d run letting her wander around. (I just thought I was being kind of douchey, not dangerously douchey.) There were no sidewalks in this town, we realized. The curbs had sharp, square corners: horrible for bike riding. Although our neighborhood was full of children, everyone had solid wooden fences over eight feet tall like barricades around the yards. The whole thing felt hostile.
I started junior high that year, in a school district so big that the seventh grade had its own entire building. Until now, I’d never changed classes, found my way through a building, opened a locker, or changed my clothes for gym. I had several panic attacks at school and my Mom had to meet me in the counselor’s office, where I sobbed and gripped the hem of her blouse, begging her to homeschool me. After several agonizing weeks, I dropped gym, mastered my combination lock, and felt a little less completely terrified. I tentatively made friends in my classes, mostly honors courses, as well as choir. And that’s when the church talk started. (To be continued!)