Humming trees line the sunburnt streets. They hum in waves, their song swelling, reaching a disorienting crescendo before ebbing back into soft silence: the music of insects. If there were a mascot for this city it would be an amorphous bug. Bugs abound in Bartlesville, too many to choose from for proper representation. Today I watched a plump little junebug fall on its backside, too round to flip himself over. I didn’t help him, just as I didn’t help the cockroach that eventually died in our bathtub; that guy received an impromptu burial in the garbage, in a toilet paper tube coffin. Moon-eyed kamikaze grasshoppers spring at any large object with inexplicable ferocity. There are colonies of murmuring cicadas living in the plant life. Our friend, who opened up his home to us two weeks ago while we try to earn some much needed cash, brought the carcass of a cicada in to show us its glossy wings. Like miniscule Art Nouveau window panels, their segmented opalescent spans reflected morning light as they pressed along a sleek, jade green body. I tried to imagine the hundreds of such creatures that shook and rattled the trees surrounding us. The backyard, dusty and patchy and shrouded in layers of blown-in garbage, is the setting for their summer symphony. I sometimes sit and listen under the cover of the dancing trees. Beauty, it is proven time and time again on this journey, resides in many unexpected places.
We arrived in Bartlesville on the night of July 14th. The air, like the air everywhere else in this part of the continent in summer, is thick and slow. The air is easier to accept than to struggle against, like many things here. A recent bout of bedbugs that plagued so much of the south left its mark on our friend’s house, and we were told to march all of our linens straight back to the car after lugging them in. That night I couldn’t find sleep for hours, and in the morning I woke disoriented. Nearly four months of being on the road was difficult to shake off. My heart wanted to wake underneath redwood trees or in the shadow of a craggy mountain, or on the edge of a windswept, empty plain or a glinting span of sea. I woke instead to Bartlesville. To get my bearings, I took a walk through downtown under a blazing sun. The heat, alternately damp or dry depending on the passage of ghostly clouds, reflected off of everything: the cement sidewalks and walls, the streets, the cars, the treeless lawns. (Trees are not a feature of Bartlesville. They exist where necessary and are otherwise absent.) The town is a soulless palette of beige, brown, and gray, and everything has a sheen of neglect. The featured architectural structure, the jutting Price Tower built by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1960s, has been woefully ignored. Even the water, as clean as they claim it is, tastes like the dregs of a drying pond.
I didn’t believe our friend’s insistence that we had arrived in a shithole. He should know, he said, he’d lived here for most of his life. I did not believe his insistence that most of the people in this town were stupid, or at the very least, remarkably unaware of the world outside of Bartlesville. I thought he was being unusually harsh. Then again, I did not take into account my easy acceptance of this man, an acceptance not bestowed on him by this city. He is a unique and quirky and kind individual who does not try to achieve a normative outward appearance, and so he is stopped and questioned by police when he walks home at night. With my own eyes I’ve see him eyed suspiciously by shopkeepers and general strangers. By the end of the first week here I found myself wishing I had purple hair and black lipstick, if only to show solidarity.
He was right to be dissatisfied by this city. The stupidity he speaks of is the cruel edge that stems from ignorance. Many people speak proudly of the hospitality; they are all white, and they all fall into a widely accepted social category. Everyone else lives on the edges. Every block has a church, and most businesses stipulate the need to hire churchgoers in their ‘help wanted’ ads. Most young people are married and having children before their lives have had a chance to take a personal, independent form. Most businesses– restaurants, book and clothing stores, anything that is not a bank or a part of the Conoco Phillips oil empire– close at 2 in the afternoon and don’t open at all on Sundays and Mondays. You can’t buy chilled wine. Liquor is not sold in grocery stores or corner stores– and not at any time after 8. Or on Sundays. (A strange phenomenon called the “3.2 % beer” is what is available in groceries.) There is very little social life outside of church and the occasional dive bar. There is a farmer’s market, which is wonderful, but the featured musicians are always Jesus preachers. And no one, not anyone ever, wants to stand out in any way, shape, or form. A city in hiding from itself. So we drink gin and tonics and Tecate, and play board games to pass the endless humid hours.
Now that we have been here for over two weeks, my situation has begun to mete itself out with a worrying clarity. I need money. Soon. And the options for acquiring money are mostly limited to nursing and heavy machinery operation. There are some positions in restaurants and cafes, including one that calls itself “Indian” (meaning, by the old racist standard, “feathers, not dots”) and touts a clumsy cut-and-paste logo reminiscent of a befeathered Flintstone’s character. I can’t bring myself to walk into it, for fear of devolving into a sarcastic, caustic jerk to some poor defenseless barista. Most job ads state the need for a four year degree in something that is probably inconsequential. Other ads end with the all too familiar requirement that perpetuates a tired Midwest stereotype: “Church experience preferred.” Even the art leans to the martyrdom side of things.
Desperate for a job, and of course finding nothing in the paper, I applied at the first place that held a sign in its window: a Goodwill clothing store, full and part time positions available. I arrived to drop off my application and was promptly turned down. “What are these two hours you can’t work?” demanded the manager, an aging, owl faced woman whose happiness did not show when she smiled. Two hours? Surely that doesn’t matter. “I will be taking two one-hour classes at the Y, but only from eight to nine in the morning,” I replied, certain that there was no way I wasn’t getting this job. She smiled like a crocodile. “Then we can’t possibly hire you. All of our employees are available at all hours, every day of the week.” A laughable prospect, or sad, I couldn’t decide. But as I left, trying to sort out why I felt so snubbed, I realized that it wasn’t hours all of her employees supplied: each wore a glinting cross around her neck, while my own was bare. I was clearly not enough of a believer. Add to this the fact that I did not foresee the need for a job when we left on our journey, and therefor had not prepped my bags with an interview-ready outfit, I was nixed from the moment I walked in.
And so I find myself sitting and staring out windows, listening to bug song.
Some things are wonderful here, as with everywhere. Summer storms, a constant source of awe for me since I did not have them growing up, are plentiful. In between soul crushing bouts of heat, of course. They begin as the evanescent glitter of a distant party thrown in the heavens: wavering sheets of pale yellow, pink, and green light silently illuminate billowing mountains of clouds, striking back and forth for hours along the horizon. Then the breeze comes, running its fingers along the windchimes on the porch. And without further ado, the storm arrives fully armed in pomp and circumstance, cymbals crashing. I could watch these storms for days. Our street turns into a little river, with tiny boats of trash skittering over the surface on their way to do battle with the sewer.
Other good things: everything is cheap. Anything that is not sold in a box store is cheap as dirt. Our friend showed us the best places to find used goods, explaining that he tries to pay no more than a dollar for anything. I didn’t believe him at first. $3 seemed perfectly fine for an oak end table! Why, even $5! Me and my silly Californian ways. Now I complain when a summer dress is a dollar fifty. We went to a real, old time auction (maybe “old time” isn’t correct, I just don’t know anything outside of Ebay), complete with a fast talking auctioneer. I learned about the “auction chant,” that string of sound that is mushed between numbers. It’s called filler and is meant to excite a sense of urgency within the bidders, especially with the added razzle dazzle of a group of ringmen who shout out when a bidder raises a hand. There are competitions for auctioneering, and the seamless authority it takes to run one was evident that night. It didn’t work on these Oklahomans, though. They fanned their faces and lazily eyed the other bidders. Some sat in soon-to-be-auctioned sofas and gossiped. But I was spellbound. I watched, thrilled, as the auctioneer, a woman of about 50 with a fat ring on her hand and a crisp hair-do, auctioned off goods like she was folding laundry or playing bridge with old friends. Spouting out the chant, pounding the gavel with an ease that I suppose came with time and experience. But beyond that, what was being sold, and what it sold for, had me in a tizzie. I nearly went and took out all the money I had in order to outbid the tiny sums being drummed up for huge, beautiful pieces of furniture. $55 dollars for an antique, hand-carved, mirrored bureau in perfect condition. $70 for a pair of nearly untouched leather chairs from the 1930s. I felt every California antique shop weep in agony. It made me greedy. I stuffed my face with Honey BBQ Twists and bought nothing.
There’s a burger joint along one of the dusty main streets that is a favorite for a specific demographic here in Bartlesville. Sandwiched between a junk store run by methheads and a parking lot, it is essentially a plywood shack held up by years of peeling paint and good faith. The state of the inside isn’t much better, but an attempt at style has been made with bright trim and pictures of Hollywood standards on the walls (Elvis, Marilyn, etc.). But I don’t look too closely at the floor, or the walls. I look at the customers, a motley cross section of Bartlesville residents whose families had probably never been too far beyond the Oklahoma/Kansas border. The waitresses are young and they both have broken teeth. They all say “hon” and “how ya doon, what else kin I getchya” and one moves too slow and the other too fast. They are sweet and hardworking. They look as if they are trying to put something behind them. I wonder if they are being protected by some forcefield here, the owner, maybe, or some patron. I have to suppress an urge to overtip whenever we go there. I am poor, and no one likes pity. Or at least that is what I say to myself.
But there is something that Bartlesville, and probably all of Oklahoma, has that Sonoma County, and probably all of California, does not. Humility. It lacks snobbery. There is no room in Bartlesville for such a useless attitude. Being able to put food on your table is more important than discerning whether your artisan wine is organically grown or not. I was startled to discover what an enormous relief it has been. But after all, snobbery is what was so disenchanting about my beloved home state, that incomparable “god among men” that California truly could be. She could really be something, if she didn’t make me feel like a stranger.
So, thank you, Bartlesville.