I leave Texas and drive further east, coming into Oklahoma. I’ve downloaded the soundtrack for the original movie soundtrack for Oklahoma! so I am singing “I’m just a girl who can’t say no!” as I cross the border. It feels right. And I’m having fun.
Oklahoma is more prairie, grassland and the highway doesn’t deviate from the straight and narrow, but I manage to make good time. On my way to OK City, I stop in the small farming community of Clinton. It seems like better times lay in the distant past, but the town is trying to revive with some antique stores and a cafe or two. Unfortunately, I spot another beautiful old movie theatre that I wish I could rescue. I’ve seen too many of these on my travels.
I check into the Baymont Motel, conveniently located near the Cracker Barrel (if you’re into that sort of thing). It is functional and clean and next to the highway, so easy on and off. The receptionist, Lisa, is a chatty woman about my age. We greet and exchange pleasantries and then get onto the topic of my road trip, after she notices that my plates are from Massachusetts.
I tell her about meeting many people who are kind and friendly and then the discussion takes a dark turn. Somehow, we end up talking about the opioid crisis and meth and she says how she thinks in a few years she won’t be able to leave her house. She is THAT scared. I sigh. I know where this is coming from. Thanks, Fox and Friends.
While, I have since learned that she does indeed have some legitimate concerns (Oklahoma City it turns out is THE hub for the Meth trade due to it’s intersection of major highways), I realize that a lot of the fear is being “trumped” up by you-know-who as the midterm elections loom.
I try my best to reassure her that it is not as frightening as she thinks it is and that FEAR is what will take us all down. I try to convince her to not listen to the fear-mongers and to try to get out more and meet others and not be afraid because that is when the tyrants can get a foothold and manipulate us. I also say that when we see a problem in our community (as we do in Massachusetts with opioids) we need to address it directly and place the blame on the real source of the addition (drug companies, poverty, unresponsive politicians) rather than hiding from it and hoping it will just go away.
I’m not sure if she hears me. But I’ve tried. We shake hands and I go to my room to relax a bit before going out for the night. Let me say here, that most of my cross country motel experiences have been positive. The rooms are clean and comfortable and I plan on devoting another blog to the working men and women who toil away behind the scenes of the tourist trade, but for now, I appreciate the hard work of the housekeeping staff as I kick off my shoes and lay down on the clean sheets for a brief nap.
After resting, I am ready to see OKC. The receptionist had recommended going down to Bricktown and later a nights tour of the Federal Building monument. I decide to drive into town, despite having been warned that parking is at a premium.
When I get to Bricktown, a pleasant river front of rehabbed mill buildings, I park in a lot which by Boston standards is cheap: $10 all night. I talk with the young parking attendant who gives me more tips on where to go and since this area isn’t too large, I can manage to tour around it fairly quickly. My first stop was to a beautiful new art gallery that featured work by local first nation artists. (Oklahoma was known as an Indian Territory, but was essentially a repository for forcibly displaced nations from other parts of the country. Oklahoma was the end of the Trail of Tears. Here Seminoles, Cherokees, Chickasaw and many other nations were left to fend for themselves after being removed from their homeland.)
The old brick mills now house restaurants, bars, art galleries, music venues, and small shops. It reminds me a bit of the Faneuil Hall area in Boston, but smaller. There is also a lovely baseball stadium, The Chickasaw Ballpark, where the local minor league team, the Oklahoma City Dodgers, play. Everything thing here seems well planned and maintained. There are families, young college students, retired couples, and tourists all walking about in the autumnal evening. Unfortunately, there are also people on these electric scooters buzzing about as well. This is the new trend in cities and I have to say, I am NOT a fan. People buzz by you on sidewalks going very fast and not looking out for pedestrians. Sigh. Progress….
As I walk around, I spot a street sign that reads “Flaming Lips Alley.” I then remember that Wayne Coyne is from OKC, along with other notables, Charlie Christian and Vince Gil. Down this alleyway, you will find (if you look closely!) a small sign for a small bar called, JJ’s Alley. The parking attendant recommended this place for a beer, so of course, I have to stop in.
JJ’s is a narrow and tall, two-story building which houses two bars, one on each floor, and hosts live music nightly. Tonight, there was a local Americana band playing at 10, and an open-mike showcase at 5. Since I was there at 5, I headed to the lower bar and crossed my fingers it would have someone with talent.
As it turned out, the two guys there to play were more interested in drinking that playing, so I may have dodged a bullet. I sat at the bar and marveled at the clutter of oddball decorations on the walls and ceiling. A very realistic-looking human head in a jar was the most, well, jarring.
A couple came in and sat down next to me. They were an attractive young couple, dressed up for a night on the town. He looked like he had been the quarterback and she the popular cheerleader in high school. Both blond and pretty, and not older than 38. While he sipped his beer and watched college football on the TV, she fawned all over him like she was still in high school, and not a mother of four on date night. After she got no reciprocation of affection from her distracted husband, she turned to me for conversation.
Indeed, they were out for date night and had four kids. The youngest was 2, and the oldest, 18. The 18 year old had just had a baby herself and so the iphone came out with photos for me to ooh and aww over. We talked about travel and her deep desire to see the country, but with little ones at home, it would be a long time until she realized her dream to buy a big-ole RV and tour the country. I felt a little bad for her, but then, she seemed happy hanging onto her husband’s arm and producing babies for Jesus. I had to remind myself that I am in the heartland and my dreams are not the same as those who live here. Who am I to judge what life is better?
As we finished up our beers, we said our goodbyes and headed out of the bar to go our separate ways. On the sidewalk outside, the husband turned to me and asked, “Can we pray for you?” The wife got so excited and turned to me to ask “Can we?” I was a bit shocked but knew that that 1) they were sincere and harmless, and 2) it would have crushed them if I refused. So, there on the sidewalk in OKC, I joined hands with the quarterback and the cheerleader, bowed my head, and accepted their benediction. They prayed for my safe travels, and I was grateful for their blessing, even if I don’t agree with what I can only assume their politics might be regarding a woman’s choice, I knew that they were giving me this prayer out of love. I’ll take that any day. One more way we can find commonality in a divided political landscape.
We parted, with the wife asking the husband to flag down one of the Cinderella horse-drawn carriages, and I walked to my car. I put in the Murrow Federal Building into my Waze app and followed the directions across the city.
OKC is a transportation hub, like many of the cities I have encountered, and one of the things you notice in these places is how the railroad runs right through the city. From Fargo to Amarillo to OKC, the city streets dip underneath the railroad lines carrying train loads of cattle, coal, or wheat. These hubs are the heart of our country and without the rails and the interstate highways, we would grind to a halt.
I find the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and park in a lot next to the memorial. It is dark now, and the city streets are empty since most workers are safely home in the suburbs. I walk over to the memorial and am immediately moved. The new park/memorial is submerged below street level and has replaced the hole created by the bomb.
In 1995, the worst act of terrorism (until 9/11) on American soil occurred. This was committed by Americans. Domestic Terrorism. Something we have a hard time admitting to and addressing, so I threw myself into the memorial to try and feel the pain and understand how such hatred can bubble up from fear.
The loss was palpable. For each life loss, a chair, illuminated from below with their name and age. The hardest ones to look at were the small chairs for the children. The day care center was located on the second floor and the chairs were arranged by floor. It was heartbreaking. On one end of the park there was an entrance with the time signature of 9:01 AM, the other end, 9:03 AM. These two times represent the time of innocence before the bomb blast at 9:02, and then the time that the city started to process and heal from the impact.
There were a number of others walking silently through the park and it was good to know I was not alone in the experience.
After this, I almost decided to go back to my motel room for a good cry, but my stomach was shouting at me and I still had the desire to go experience an OKC landmark: Cattlemen’s.
Located in Stockyard City, on the southern shore of the Oklahoma River, Cattlemen’s is an institution in OKC, serving up great steak since 1926. It hasn’t changed much in the years since, still sporting red vinyl swivel seats at the low bar with southern charm and waitresses that will “honey” and “sweetie” you to death.
I sat down at the bar between a group of ranchers to my right and a pair of college girls from Texas to my left. The ranchers kept to themselves and quietly ate their ribeyes while I chatted away with the girls to my left about politics and Beto O’Rourke. They said they would vote for him, so I avoided any indigestion from our dinner talk.
Our waitress was so accommodating, giving us extra melba toast and insisting we cut into our steaks to make sure it was cooked proper before she shot off to wait on the next customer. It was all perfect. Even the iceberg salad with a cup of ranch dressing perched on top. Gulp. My cholesterol probably doubled that night.
With a belly full of good American food, I headed back to the motel to sleep. I turned on the TV and up came Vivian Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. When the line “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers” was spoken, I smiled to myself. I feel the same way. Especially when I travel. Without the kindness of strangers, you are in trouble. With their kindness, you are at home. Even when you are hundreds of miles away. It reminds you that we are one big human family and if we are kind and take care of one another, we can survive. Let’s keep that in mind as we go through these challenging times.