Day 25: Tulsa swing
Tulsa is everything that Coppola’s Rumble Fish led me to expect; all manmade gleam, western neon, and noiry art-deco.
We came into the city through the west along 412, a sun-soaked strip of discount body shops and Mexican restaurants. The roads were reasonably well-paved, especially relative to the outskirts of Memphis. Zagging neon lettering already advertised Tulsa’s fascination with the modern as envisioned in the hopeful fifties.
Tulsa is a hip half-indian cowgirl toting a laser-tipped popgun, eating a greasy burger in a streamlined, chromium diner and blasting rockabilly through cheap headphones. I knew this when I saw the skyline, riding in, framed by the coffeeshops, rusted garages, and pool-halls below.
Tulsa, and I imagine Oklahoma in general, is confused and unique in part because of location. It isn’t quite the south or the west, but some strange meeting of the two. Oklahoma is the buffer between Texas and Kansas, standing behind the brash, dip-spitting former and gazing into the unending empty plains of the latter.
Mike and I made quick tracks through the hinterlands and into the city, our legs primed and pumping at full capacity from the day’s ninety-mile ride. We turned off of 15th onto Cinnci and found our host’s place, a spacious two-bedroom in an up-scale, victorian cluster of apartments1.
We met Wendelene outside of the complex just as she was setting out for downtown. After a quick hello, Mike and I changed in the apartment, stripped the gear off our bikes, then took the unburdened frames out for a ride to find dinner.
After meandering around a strikingly-beautiful (but dead) business district, we finally found an upscale restaurant to eat at. The place was pricey, but Mike was starving and therefore not long on patience. When you travel in a group, you have to take into consideration the hunger-level of every constituent; one collapses and everyone is miserable. I’ve been in a similar spot and I know it isn’t fun, so I agreed to stop despite the pricey appearance.
We walked in. The lavish silverware arrangments and dark wood scared the hell out of me.
I sat down and warmed up to the idea of a good meal, watching a lone serviceman nurse a plate of chicken in a booth across the room from us; he looked eager and friendly but had the bashful loneliness that’s tough to shake when alone in an unfamiliar city.
We then ate about the best $25 meal I’ve ever tasted. I ordered meatloaf, served with mashed potatoes and broccoli, and a pint of Shiner Bock. Our waiter was a slick mulatto with a voice that had a thread-count of at least 300.
During dinner, a heavy rain swelled for a few minutes, eventually petering out like a spat between temperamental newlyweds.
We finished up at the Daily Grill and called Wendelene; she had just rode down to Archer and Main, where a bicycle race was being held. I almost passed it up because I was beat; glad I didn’t.
We biked down to Archer and Main through the fresh, wet streets. After a few blocks, Main was walled off to motorists and we biked into a throng of onlookers, all staring at a street closed to traffic and reserved for the flock of racers who would periodically rush by, whipping air and coaxing excited yells from the crowd.
We looked around a moment at the convoy of trucks branded by bicycle companies and the bars across the street. The sun was just setting. We continued the hunt for Wendelene by crossing the racecourse at the go-ahead of a cop working the crossing.
All sides of the closed street were pulsing with laughter and drinking. The crowd was large enough to make us believe we were in a city but small enough to feel like a comfortable, successful block party. Music spilled out of the bars and flooded the sidewalk. The sun was just setting; artificial light began to overtake natural.
We kept north on Main still in search of Wendelene. Mike got antsy and hopped into a bar, returning with a beer, when I got a call from Wendelene giving us more detailed directions.
We met her and some friends in front of a bratwurst stand. It was Wendelene, Jenny: a hilariously outspoken girl; Derya, Wendelene’s Turkish, electrical-engineering, and delicate rooommate; and Daniel, a well-built, blonde Californian about 5’10” also couchsurfing with Wendelene. Daniel was in town for a century around Tulsa, starting early the next morning.
We chatted for a while with the group, then I accompanied Jenny to Crystal Pistols, an atmospheric saloon where Elliot Smith played over the speakers. Jenny paid the barman $10 for five cans of PBR and we smuggled the cans out in my backpack while the barman cooperatively turned his back. We repeated this same routine two or three more times throughout the night.
The drinking began.
We watched the race for a while and it got dark. I was ecstatic, taking in the energy generated by the crowd and standing in the shimmering Tulsan lights. The mammoth skyline sat cooly a mile away and searchlights swung smoothly through the darkened sky. The flow of beer consumed in open air lightened me and the group talked and laughed until the apogee and end of the race.
After the race ended, we hung on for a while at our post and then started south on Main to a bar. Jenny, Mike, and I hung outside in a dim area beside the bar, enjoying the night air and talking the talk of blossoming drunks. I admired Jenny’s pocket notepad, which contained a skeleton itinerary for each day of the week, handwritten and doodled.
Derya eventually pulled us inside the bar, where I no longer needed to stash beer in my backpack like some off-color Santa Clause. We got drinks and then hit the dancefloor. The DJ spun 80s remixes and even an LCD Soundsystem track. Tulsans can dance. We moved with unencumbered, cartoonish freedom and we danced with a glow reserved for coming-of-age movies about high school house parties. I think the place was called The Soundpony Saloon.
After a few tracks on the floor, we left the bar and stood outside it in the middle of the street. The girls were oggling a group of spandex-clad racers while Mike and I joked around with Daniel.
Daniel had landed a job in McAllister, OK working at an ammunitions factory. He’d met up with Wendelene through a CouchSurfing potluck held in Tulsa. He reminded me a lot of a good friend from home, Alex Katzenstein. A cop car, lights active, crawled by.
After a while, we peeled the girls off the bikers and began the bike to Joe Momma’s, where, allegedly, pizza could be purchased in giant slices and cups of High Life could be had at $12. Everyone in the group unlocked their bikes and we rode south on Main.
Jenny was drunk off her ass, so she tore out ahead, running a light and climbing the bridge on Main. We tried to stop her, since she was about to ride the wrong way down a major one-way street, but our shouts were only met with more pedaling. I tore off after her while the group tried to figure out what to do.
A minor misadventure followed, eventually putting us all at Joe Momma’s after a wild chase after Jenny down 1st and going the wrong way.
We saddled up to a big table at Joe’s and ordered a large pie and some beers. We snapped the first pie up, then placed an order for a replacement and two pitchers (two pitchers) of High Life. Jenny somehow found an electric guitar and began to serenade us, much to the delight of another customer who was suit-and-tie’d and named Joshua.
Despite our best attempts to kill the pitchers, we ended up pouring the remnants into our waterbottles3 and leaving Joe’s.
Jenny again escaped on bike, choosing an impressively dangerous route back to Wendelene’s apartment. This time, Mike chased after her.
Daniel and I biked together, the other two girls following close behind, and we talked while passing the High Life waterbottle back and forth. I liked biking discombobulated on the darkened pedestrian trail
This whole night was made possible, I realized, by the strangers we’d met on the internet. We were tight with a group, even if we’d only known them for a few hours, and that made the night. When you’re traveling, other people are your greatest resource. Tap the locals and you are far more likely to have a good time in a foreign place.
Someone driving my body carried my bike up the wooden, outdoor staircase and rested it outside of Wendelene’s door. The same ghost had me take out my contacts and unroll my sleeping bag. Daniel, Mike, and I crashed in the living room at approximately 2AM.
I slept like I had been wandering drunk over a mutt city after biking ninety miles.