Waffle Houses and purple bedsheets — Book tour stop #6: Tulsa, February 6-7

Ever since I had a book tour schedule to worry about, I’d been worrying about Tulsa. Tulsa, to all appearances, was not a big book market. Nor was Tulsa much of a travel market. I’d never spent much time in Tulsa, and I didn’t know a soul who lived there.

Thus, I was a bit daunted by the fact that I had not one but two book events in Tulsa.

My friends had been trying to comfort me about Tulsa by making fun of my anxieties — and nobody did this more effectively than Diana, a British expat friend in Bangkok, who sent me the following in an email:

“I’ve been slightly concerned about your book events in Tulsa. In all likelihood, there’ll just be you, your slide show, two librarians wearing buttoned-up cardigans, a handful of holy-rollers ready to shout you down if you blaspheme the Lord, three acne-ridden teenagers who were guided to you via the Burmese transvestite page on your website (and who hope your book has pictures as well), and an aurally-challenged octogenarian who — having disrupted the first half of your talk with yells of ‘speak up boy!’ — will fall asleep and snore through the second half, projectile-spittling onto the projector.

“So, to help you bond with the local townsfolk, here are some facts about Tulsa for you to sprinkle into your presentation:

“1. Garth Brooks was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So were Hanson, this is probably too obvious to be of any real use, but it’s good to have up your sleeve in case of emergencies.

“2. Clinton Riggs designed the YIELD sign. It was first used on a trial basis in Tulsa.

“3. There are penguins in Tulsa Zoo – this is not interesting per se but I thought it might be a lead for you to tell your penguin joke. [Note: The penguin joke, which culminates in the punchline: “Son, it looks like you just blew a seal”, is one of the few jokes I am ever able to remember]

“4. There is a Vietnamese Baptist Church in Tulsa — maybe you could do a deal with the Pastor and have him bring in some genuine Vietnamese people to illustrate your story about how nice people are in other countries.

“5. If you experience any Traffic Signal Light Problems, the number to call is 596-9744

“I’m afraid, Rolf, that’s all I could find. Seems like there’s not a whole lot of quirk in Tulsa.”

Not a lot of quirk, indeed. But there was a lot of snow: it took nine icy hours to reach Tulsa from Austin. As I said in my last entry, I love long-haul driving on the American road, but the snow de-romanticized things by forcing me to concentrate on the drive itself (and, in one of the most disturbingly bizarre things I’ve seen on my many returns to the United States, I had lunch at a roadside Taco Bell that also happened to serve KFC and Pizza Hut food). By the time I slid into the frozen Tulsa suburbs, I felt less like an author on tour than a coffee-wired trucker looking to unload his freight and get some rest (though I’m not sure what my “freight” would have been in this instance — perhaps my slideshow).

In talking about my lack of enthusiasm for my Tulsa readings, I don’t mean to disparage the city itself. It’s just that Tulsa is demographically quite similar to Wichita (save certain Bible-Belt accessories, such as Waffle House restaurants and Oral Roberts) — and it’s hard to get too excited about a place resembling your hometown if it isn’t actually your hometown.

Furthermore, my Tulsa book events were the result of a scheduling fluke: Months ago, before the book was ever published, I added Midwestern cities such as Tulsa and St. Louis because they were home to Backwoods outdoor equipment stores. Since I used to work in a Backwoods store in Wichita, I thought these sister stores would make comfortable venues for Vagabonding presentations. Hence, Tulsa was added to my list — and my publicist later added a second event at a Tulsa Borders store. Suddenly, Tulsa was a major stop on my book tour.

The thing is, I’d scheduled those Backwoods stores out of early insecurities that not many people would come out to my book events. If no one else showed up, I’d reasoned, I could just hang out and talk shop with the Backwoods employees. After having crowds of 80-100 people in Dallas and on the West Coast, however, Backwoods seemed less vital to the success of my book tour — and Tulsa felt like an awkward relic of my neophyte pessimism.

Perhaps because of the Oklahoma snowstorm, only a dozen or so people showed up at my Backwoods reading. Most of them were my parents’ age, so the Gen-X mullet jokes of my slideshow ended up falling flat. Nonetheless, the audience took an interest in what I said about travel, and asked lots of good questions. Because it was an older and more regional crowd, we mostly talked about travel within the United States — but it was encouraging to see that even retirement-age Oklahomans were serious about simplifying their lives and becoming rich in time and travel experiences.

When the reading finished, I caught dinner at a local Lebanese restaurant, where (in an activity that I always relish when I return to America’s immigrant culture) the owner and I compared travel notes about the souks of Aleppo, the ruins of Byblos, and the discotheques of Beirut. Some Saudi exchange students joined the conversation, Arabic coffee was served up, and — in a reminder that I was still in Oklahoma — I said my goodbyes and headed back to my $30 room at the Capri Western Motel. It was the only time I’ve had to fork out for a motel room during the book tour, and it made me realize how much I appreciate my good friends in the various other corners of the U.S. For the first time in weeks, I felt a tad lonesome; I watched a bit of a TV movie before drifting to sleep on the purple motel bedsheets.

The snowstorm had ended by the time I woke up the next day. I spent a languorous morning reading, sipping coffee, and breathing secondhand smoke in a local Waffle House, then randomly drove and walked around Tulsa that afternoon (I regret I didn’t visit the Tulsa Zoo penguins in the process, nor did I recruit Vietnamese Baptists for my presentation — maybe next time, Diana). My reading at Borders that night was livelier than at Backwoods — probably because it was a younger crowd that could appreciate my mullet jokes. About 50 people had wandered over by the time I wrapped up the signing, and several people stuck around to get personal travel pointers.

Not wanting to brave another night on the tacky, purple-accented environs of the Capri Western Motel, I fired up my mom’s car and headed on to Wichita.

Next: Vagina-gabonding — Book tour stop #7: Kansas City

Previous: Six degrees of country music: On the road in Texas — Book tour stop #5: Dallas

Posted by | Comments Off on Waffle Houses and purple bedsheets — Book tour stop #6: Tulsa, February 6-7  | April 29, 2003
Category: Book Release and Tour Diary

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