Other than while reading The Outsiders, I did not fuck with Tulsa at all. The first time I went there was for a NACA convention, when I toured colleges as part of a spoken word group. NACA is a meat market where artists get to audition for the business of colleges from all over the country. You perform, and then Donny and Becky from the Meadow Shit College Student Activities Board decide whether or not you’ve earned the privilege to be invited to their school, which will require 2 flights, a rental car, and a horse drawn carriage to reach. My group was part of a showcase with barbershop quartets, the principal from Saved by the Bell and a caricature artist who we thought was racist (turns out he was just a shitty artist).
Our manager put us up at a Howard Johnson with a view of the expressway. Our room smelled like it was cleaned by a bunch of high school stoners who didn’t realize their mom was coming home from work early. Also, there was a prostitute operating out of the room next door. The frequency in which the door opened and shut indicated that business was brisk.
I would not go back voluntarily. Tulsa was a blur of strip malls and poorly named restaurants (who names a restaurant Steak Finger?). I openly talked mad shit about Tulsa. Then someone paid me to go back and I went because I have a kid and kids are expensive. That sounds shitty and cynical, but it was true. I had no love for Tulsa.
I’m Going, Going Back, Back, to Tulsa, Tulsa
In Tulsa, the key to having a rad time is to know someone who can show you around. Luckily, on my return trip I was hooked up with some local poets who knew what’s up. I think they knew Tulsa had a reputation that was not awesome, and they were going to make sure we left thinking otherwise.
Downtown Tulsa is small by any standard. Like, 6 skyscrapers. Not even skyscrapers, more like sky pointers. The buildings downtown are a rad variety of Art Deco and Gothic. On the street level of one of those buildings is a restaurant called Elotes. Their specialty is puffed tacos, and they are okay. All the food is okay, but the real reason to go is for the luchador wrestling. Inside the restaurant is an 8 x 8 foot wresting ring. We got lucky and finished our meal as an evening of all female wrestling kicked off. I got to see a wrestler dressed like a chicken lay an egg and smash it over her opponent’s head. I also got to see a wrestler dressed as a grandmother who got her super powers by chugging a bottle of Geritol before flying off the top rope.
Our bellies filled with spiced pork, we made it to the Brady Arts District for the First Friday Art Crawl. We toured a number of galleries that were surprisingly not shitty. In the newly built Hardesty Arts Center there was dancing, an insect petting zoo (hard pass), and we got to meet Shirley Jones, aka Mrs. Partridge from The Partridge Family, who was in town performing at the Opera House. She’s 80-something years old and I’d still holler.
In the same area is the Woody Guthrie Center. I am not going to pretend like I am a Woody Guthrie fan, but if you tell me there’s a display with the handwritten lyrics of “This Land is Your Land,” I’m gonna be all about it. The museum was closing in 5 minutes when we entered. I had a persuasive speech ready for the guard, but he anticipated us and said, “Welcome to the Woody Guthrie Center. The lyrics are in the room behind me. I’ll give you a few minutes.”
We made our way to a bar called Soundpony that had just the right amount of shit on the wall to make me feel at home. It’s described as “bike-centric,” which made me imagine it would be filled wall-to-wall with bike messengers with stupid moustaches and dumb hats with tiny brims. While there were some questionable facial hair decisions, it was a decidedly non-douche crowd. It was hip hop night, and before you start dismissing a hip hop night in Tulsa because your mom’s cousin’s hair dresser gave Kurtis Blow a handjob in 1981 thus making you an expert in all things hip hop, it was great. The DJ’s spun mostly mid-‘90s Rawkus-esque tracks, which is convenient because that’s right in my wheelhouse. They even had a breakdance crew show up, and I would’ve shown them what’s up but I’m trying to stay humble.
The next day was our work day. The event we were hosting was in Cain’s Ballroom which is next door to Soundpony. Cain’s is a legendary venue that seats about 1800 people. The walls are lined with giant portraits of country music pioneers. We were there a couple of hours before the event, so I got to explore. Something was nagging me about this venue. I hadn’t looked it up before I got there, but I knew I had heard of it. Eventually I ran into the manager and I asked him what the coolest or weirdest thing in the place was. He casually said, “We got the hole that Sid Vicious made.”
Ding ding ding! The fucking Sex Pistols played here on their ill-fated U.S. tour! At some point during the evening of January 12th, 1978, bassist Sid Vicious got pissed and punched a hole in the wall of the green room. The piece of dry wall he punched through is now framed and hanging in the office. It even has a little plaque to honor the occasion.
The event was rad. My dude Nate and I hosted back-to-back poetry slams for nearly 4 hours, but the audiences were fantastic and loud. Our duties fulfilled, it was time to hit the town. We hung out in a bar called Yeti, whereupon arrival I witnessed a young man throw up in the sink at 8 pm, so we didn’t stick around. From there we stopped by the now mandatory arcade bar, The Max. It wasn’t super crowded, and ordinarily I love an arcade bar because I don’t drink and it gives me something to do. Too many games were out of order or had sticky buttons. Also, they did not have Puzzle Fighter.
It was time to stop fucking around—it was time for Cellar Dweller. I had already been here once, and before I could take in all of its grandeur one of the bartenders got on a megaphone and exclaimed, “We’re gonna get cheesesteaks, so everyone get the fuck out.” I almost proposed to that woman.
Cellar Dweller don’t lie: it’s in a literal cellar. It’s got unfinished concrete floors, blood red walls, big leather booths, and it’s way dark. It felt less like a bar and more like someone’s grandpa died so they decided to sell booze out of his basement. You enter through an apartment building or office building or some shit like that. When you open the door, you are faced with a steep, narrow stairwell that looks more like the entrance to a serial killer’s lair rather than a bar.
I could stay in a place like this for hours, and we did. This night there was no hankering for cheesesteaks, and since our guides Kent and Claire knew the bartenders, we got to play DJ at the end of the night before heading back to our hotel for a little R and R.
One of the worst atrocities on U.S. soil (and that’s saying a lot, I know) occurred in Tulsa back in 1921. It’s called the “Tulsa Race Riot,” but really it was a massacre where white citizens attacked the African-American neighborhood of Greenwood, aka Black Wall Street, killed a bunch of people, looted homes, and burned businesses and churches. The neighborhood was wiped out and it went largely unreported. Information was suppressed. You’d be hard-pressed to find an American History textbook that gives it more than a glancing paragraph.
You can walk through the Greenwood neighborhood, but it looks nothing like it did before the massacre. You won’t find the original Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Dixie Theatre or hundreds of other businesses that brought wealth and prominence to the neighborhood. The closest you’ll get are sidewalk markers that will tell you what buildings used to be on the street. Redevelopment was hindered by the local government. The neighborhood is now bisected by a highway, and part of it is covered by a minor league ballpark.
In the ultimate example of too little too late, the city built the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in 2010 featuring statues by the sculptor Ed Dwight. It’s poignant and necessary to visit. You can also visit the Greenwood Cultural Center, which gives you a ton of info and they host a bunch of events as well.
With a couple of hours to kill before flying home, Nick drove me around to hit up some last-minute spots. I bet you never knew that Tulsa was the center of the universe. That’s because it isn’t, but there is a cool spot downtown that makes the claim. Look for the “Artificial Cloud” statue, and you’ll find the center of the universe. There’s a series of brick circles, and if you stand in the middle your voice echoes, and to anyone standing outside of the circle your voice sounds all distorted. It’s an acoustic anomaly, but really it’s black magic and your soul will burn in a lake of fire if you dare to step into it. At least that’s what I told the school kids gathered on the spot.
Would I Go Back?
I have grown to love Tulsa. You still got a bunch of assholes running around, but there are folks willing to fight for Tulsa’s soul. The friends I have made there are some of the most humble, genuine people I have ever met. They work hard to make Tulsa a community by creating spaces for underappreciated voices to be heard and by simply creating art on their own terms.
A 3-day stay would be perfect, or at least an overnight if you’re driving cross country.
Visiting in summer. Your face will melt off of your face.