Tulsa

 With fewer than 100 miles to the Pacific, Tulsa looks likely to capture the title for my favorite place.

With fewer than 100 miles to the Pacific, Tulsa looks likely to capture the title for my favorite place.

I have no idea what to expect. I can’t picture what Tulsa looks like or who would live here. Oil barons, cowboys, rednecks, hipsters, frackers, tumbleweeds? Without any professional sports teams or landmarks of national importance, Tulsa is a blank canvas in my mind. Its residents quickly paint a wonderful portrait.

What surprises me most about Oklahoma’s second largest city of 400,000 is that Tulsans are so easy to befriend. There is something special here and it’s hard to describe. More than any place I’ve been before or after, I feel the best chemistry with Tulsa. This magnetic attraction begins at a cafe in Claremore 30 miles northeast.

Everywhere I go I meet someone new and cool. People here are helpful, kind and open to meeting strangers. After one week in Tulsa—broken by a brief stint in a nearby hospital—despite my shallow history here I depart with more contacts in Oklahoma than in NYC.

I’m writing this while sitting on the quad of Pomona College in Claremont, CA. I find that Tulsa has a campus familiarity where there’s a decent chance you’ll bump into recognizable faces at coffee shops, bars and cultural events, yet the size of the city dilutes these interactions as not to be too often, but just frequent enough to feel like you own the city.

The best thing about New York, in my opinion, is that anyone can become a New Yorker. In Tulsa I feel I can make the city mine, but also that people actually care who I am. In New York they don’t. Too many dreamers chasing too few pathways to success, trampling over one another to get on top.

Promising plans begin with Oh, let’s do coffee or We should totally get a drink sometime, but "sometime" turns to never thanks to competing distractions. Everyone is busy and having a crazy week, week after week. Unless you can be leveraged to forward their ambitions, incentive to develop causal connections into reliable ones is too steep a gradient to overcome.

On this trip I've learned that good people are better than a good place. Tulsa quickly becomes my favorite stop, and I find myself defending it from naysayers like the receptionist of my Park Avenue dentist.

“Oh no, not Oklahoma. Maybe to pass through but never to stop. I just… I can’t,” she pauses spreading out all fingers at once in disgust. A contractor fixing the phones lets loose a muffled laugh from underneath an adjacent desk.

I hand over my credit card and wonder what a decent dentist goes for in Oklahoma. Probably less than $155, and that’s my grandfathered discount rate. The receptionist hands me a receipt and a postcard with kittens on it to self-address. I hate cats.

“Jeffrey, I don’t know where you’re going to be in six months, but we’ll send this in time for your next check up.”

I write OKLAHOMA, slide it back cat-side up, and exit onto 60th Street where people are swarming into the subway to be miserable for every moment they’re underground. (This is why I love bike commuting on street level).  

Off-the-radar and an underdog, T-Town is incredibly appealing. Cool people are treated as overstock in Austin, Brooklyn, Portland and San Francisco. But Tulsa? Come on in! There’s vacancy.

Here’s an example of what can happen:

I’m sitting on the patio of East Village Bohemian Pizza. An orphaned crust is all that’s left from a satisfying Mount Vesuvius pizza, which is the best pie I’ve tried since Carmi, Illinois and maybe takes top honors for the entire trip.

The waitress is telling me how she grew up in the building next door. Her mom had her while a student at the University of Tulsa—she was born on campus! Her father was a reggae musician and rehearsed in a studio on the ground floor. She used to play basketball in the alley that’s now this patio with tables, umbrellas and comfy cushions.

Countri Bike is locked across the street. Mark exits his apartment, sees the bike, and instinctively cuts towards me.

“Hey, is that your bike?”

I smile and nod. The waitress leaves the check and Mark scoops it up.

“I’m going to pay for his meal,” he says, smoothly whipping out a credit card and handing it to the server without looking at the bill. I’m trading stunned looks with the waitress. Other tables stop eating to listen.

I’m speechless. This guy just paid for me out of the blue.

Clutching a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Mark’s “dorking out’’ by underlining timeless passages. It’s Monday and he’s playing hooky from lawyering. It was a big weekend down in Austin at a wedding, and then last night he drank his face off at the staff party at Hodges Bend across the street that’s downstairs from where he lives and where my bike is parked.

The owner of this craft cocktail bar happens to pass by and Mark pulls him in. He owns Hodges and and a tiki bar called Saturn Room, where he invites me for a tropical drink before excusing himself.

Mark and I begin to chat and he explains why he, a native Okie, likes it here.

“It’s exciting to be in a city that’s in the building phase rather than already built out. To be part of that building is really energizing.”

He then throws out a line that I will repeat to many others: “Tulsa is like the younger brother of Austin that no one knows about.”

Opportunity knocks
In addition to the good chemistry I have with Tulsans, business opportunity abounds and support is strong. Tulsa ranks among the top U.S. cities for startups.

My first host Cathy has house guests coming the next two nights, so I Airbnb it at Margot’s place. Margot is an attractive young yoga instructor who is well-known in the community. Cathy knows her because she taught Margot kindergarten! Cathy first drives me to Lee’s Bicycles to pick up the flat-fixed bike, and then leaves me with Margot who will be out the rest of the day. I stay home with Patrick Swayze, the sweetest dog in the Midwest whose happiness depends on constant hugs. I can’t bare to leave him home alone.

That night Margot returns and we stay up late chatting. She shows me business plans to open up her own yoga studio.

“I’m 25 and I have no idea what I’m doing,” she laughs, pointing to floor plans and spreadsheets scattered across the dining table. Bite marks scour her pencil. Her yoga studio inside a renovated historic building will have rooftop space. A rooftop!

I can’t help crunch numbers or measurements, but I reassure her that she’s going to succeed because she’s already proven herself in the field and is following a passion.

Her two friends, also in their 20s, opened a boutique bakery in the heart of the Brady Arts District. If they can do it, why can’t I? Not a bakery or exercise studio, but something else. A chance to create something, and as a result look forward to waking up each day like I did when on the road.

I’ve already done the improbable—bike commute across the country (update: 55 miles from the Pacific Ocean). Maybe Tulsa will give me the hospitable new beginning I was searching for when I left New York where jobs didn’t lead to anything except stress and disappointment.  

Reason for concern?
The people I meet in Tulsa are great. But what about the ones I didn’t meet? Oklahoma is politically redder than a bullseye of a dart board. At the center of the country, Oklahoma has no sea, no mountains, and worst of all, little ethnic food. Fortunately there is Whole Foods and I hear a Trader Joe’s is not far behind, which are my barometers for advanced civilization. Two Braum’s are within biking distance from downtown, so maybe I don’t need ethnic food if I have access to cheap and delicious dairy?

On Halloween, the day I cross from Oklahoma into Texas, the husband of a small town mayor dresses up with some buddies as the KKK and tools around town on a golf cart with a burning cross. This is the head-shaking Oklahoma the rest of the country hears about.

Little did I expect to become part of the headlines when I get assaulted the day I leave towards Oklahoma City.

Tulsa also has a great cycling scene and my experience at Soundpony and Tulsa Hub is the subject of my next post.