Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

May 7, 2006.
Oklahoma City

Once I decided to leave the road and move back to my house, my interest in travel seemed to be rekindled. So I left Chickasaw looking forward to exploring Oklahoma City, seeing what this middle-American town was all about.

I’m not sure I ever found out. I headed downtown, lured by what was described in the tourist literature as a booming restored city center. It wasn’t quite that – more like a few blocks of chain-store restaurants and night life in renovated industrial buildings, surrounded by highways, empty lots, and abandoned warehouses. So from there I went to see the memorial at the site of the Alfred P. Murrow Federal Office Building, blown up by Timothy McVeigh to express his displeasure at the government. Since 9-11 there’s been lots of talk about memorials, and of course the Oklahoma City one gets lots of attention as a model for the World Trade Center. It was fine, I guess. That attack doesn’t resonate for me the way 9-11 does, since I wasn’t there, and I’m not from Okalahoma City, but it is a very American spot. After all, this was a totally home-grown attack, and Oklahoma City isn’t New York City. A lot of Americans don’t’ even think New York is part of their country; for those people Oklahoma City is what the US is about.

Conservative, bible-belt, sprawling suburbia, its economy based on agriculture and resource extraction rather than finance, politics, universities, research, or even tourism. The World Trade Center site is flooded with foreigners (though of course the Pentagon “overlook” by the Navy Annexe is not), but the pilgrims at this memorial were just a home-grown as the attackers and their target.

Inspired by visiting the Ft. Worth Museum with Melinda, I decided the next day to check out the Oklahoma City Museum. It had a special exhibit by a glass artist named Dale Chihuly, who creates things that are a cross between vases and sculpture. I didn’t much like most of his work, but in the three-story glass atrium over the museum lobby rose a creation that reminded me of the kelp in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, viewed from many levels as it rose in the water of the several-story tank. Chihuly’s creation was in shades of green and yellow and orange, which glowed against the gray sky outside the glass façade of the museum. I’ve almost forgotten the stocky blown-glass birds and flowers atop his pearly white vases, but the shimmering light of this creation in the entrance hall was worth the trip.

I’d picked “arts festival weekend” to pass through Oklahoma City, it seemed – there were events happening everywhere. So on Sunday I headed to one of the fairs in a suburban town to the north of the city. I’d camped there the night before, in a quiet street next to the town park. In the morning I went in search of breakfast, hoping for quality coffee, a muffin or a scone, and perhaps free wifi. Instead, the place I found turned out to be better for a fancy Sunday brunch than for coffee, but I figured I’d stay – the only other options seemed to be fast food. It was empty when I got there, but by the time I got my spinach omelet the entry was crowded with clean-scrubbed young couples and pretty blonde children in their Sunday best, waiting for tables for their after-church breakfast. Quite different from the crowd at an east coast coffee house on Sunday morning – men in track suits picking up coffee after an early jog, young lovers of all genders gazing sleepily at each other, guys reading the newspaper, neighborhood folks chatting with the staff. Definitely no one dressed for church! This place definitely felt like the bible belt.

At the art festival I got to talking to a man selling simple ink drawings that reminded me of the illustrations in a book I’d had as a child. He’d grown up in Oklahoma City and left, but came back to sell at the shows when he could. It was a good place to grow up, he said – friendly, easy, safe. But a bit too narrow stay as an adult, if one didn’t share the political and religious view of the community. I felt my perspective being vindicated – but then again, I probably find people to talk to who share my views. I wouldn’t have gotten into that conversation with the folks having breakfast after church!

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