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Photo by Michael Cooper.

Magazine | Letters

Letter from New York

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Posted 06.02.12

There’s this sports bar in New York City with for-shit food called Stillwater that has been visited for a decade by a girl from the Oklahoma town of same name. Stillwater is a small college town near I-35, where the flat red earth of the west bumps into eastern Green Country. The bar Stillwater sits in the east village of Manhattan on 4th Street, around the corner from the old CBGB, which is now a clothing store where rich people go to dress “downtown.” At first, the bar wasn’t called Stillwater, just simply the East 4th Street Bar. I’m that girl, and I went there a lot. Not because it was a special bar—it wasn’t very “New York,” if you’re into that kind of thing, which I am. I moved here specifically for that reason. The past few years, I’ve been both places—Stillwater and New York, there and here—sometimes both at the same time, as one can get stuck unexpectedly in the memory of home.

•••

East 4th Street Bar happened to be on a block where a lot of stuff was— theaters, other bars, cheap restaurants that I frequented in 2001 because I was new in town and poor. A few years after I moved here, my best friend got a job working dayshifts, so I used to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to her bar, where a Mexican cook named Paco (who was totally hot and had a crush on me) used to cook me spongy eggs. He baked me a 25th birthday cake with my name written haphazardly on it, misspelled. I’d sit with Catherine, drinking free coffee and eventually free beers. I’d sit all day when I didn’t have to work, because that is what you do when you’re young, poor, and family-less in New York with crazy roommates who talk too much. You go and spend your days at the least-expensive-possible place. If you are wise you will become best friends with a bartender.

East 4th Street Bar served horrible food: chicken dishes that occasionally made you sick, mysterious fish dishes only a senior citizen might order. If you were wise, you’d wait until Cucina de Pesce opened across the street, where an early-bird special warms a young hobo’s heart. Ten measly bucks got you soupersalad, main course, and a flipping glass of wine. The only catch was, you had to eat before 6. No one in New York can make dinner before 6, unless you’re out of work or on vacation or have random days off. I worked at makeup counters my first three years here, which meant I spent my Saturdays and Sundays convincing women they could totally pull off a matte red lip. On Mondays, though, Paco made me eggs, Catherine gave me coffee then beer, and a cartoon version of a harried Italian man served me $10 dinner.

Those were not the salad days. Perhaps when I’m old and gray and can’t walk, they will be. For now, I have a few gray hairs, and those were simply some long-ago days I can’t believe were as directionless and difficult as they appear to have been in my memory.

•••

The specific block of East 4th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues is specifically, fantastically New York. New York magazine thinks so. In New York, each block has its own soul. Somebody mentions a block and two cross streets and, if you’ve been here long enough, you’ll blurt out, “Oh yeah, Blah Street between Blah and Blah? That block has the best Indian food. I once got kissed by a very kind man there who was not actually unmarried. I found out my dog died while sitting on that bench. Do not get coffee at that deli.” Every block is like that, if you’re here long enough.

Each block has its history, plus a layer of your own history shellacked on top of that. It’s how New York becomes yours. A million people have walked down Blah Street this year, but I laughed with my best friend over a slice of pizza on that street. So now that block is mine.

A few years ago, New York magazine declared, “4th Street between 2nd and 3rd is the most New York block in New York,” and my own private self said, “Why, yes. It kind of is.” Here’s why New York thinks so: It’s got the most independent theaters, including La Mamma (Hair, the musical, was developed there by Ellen Stewart) and KGB bar, a writers’ and actors’ haven. Across the street is the home of New York Theater Workshop, which showcases some of city’s best new theater works. There are endless mom-and-pop shops. There’s also, according to those who’d know, a sex club next door, downstairs next to a certain bar that has a certain name, which I’ll get to later. My source opened the (unlocked!) door and pointed me downstairs, and the dark, trash-littered staircase looked up at me with a seedy glare, whispering to me, “They do not teach children how to read down here.”

For my own part, East 4th Street has been the backdrop of many crucial moments and solo wanderings during my first years here, and eventually I found myself living just two streets down, on 2nd Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets. I’m not at liberty to say the exact address because I was living there illegally (some people would call it a squat, but I think it was more of a, “We live here so darned cheap and we’re charging you rent so don’t tell on us, OK?” kind of thing). I respect that there are still artists living for cheap in a neighborhood now overrun with million-dollar rents and chain restaurants, so I won’t attempt to ruin their cheap digs. But I lived there, and it was a “time.”

I use quotations because it was a hard time. I’d been in New York for about six years when I parked there. I had some lessons that needed learnin’, and the universe made me pay up to learn them. I now can legitimately say if you walk the stretch of 2nd and Bowery across to 2nd Avenue, and then wrap up around to 4th Street toward the East 4th Street Bar, I swear you should be able to see the trackmarks of my soul. I’m not trying to be heavy, I just really walked and thought a lot while I lived over on that specific small spot of land, behind the oldest cemetery in Manhattan, near the Ramones’ old place, near where Edgar Allan Poe once lived, around the corner from where Phillip Glass endlessly loops his compositions.

One morning, out on a meandering walk, I took a turn and saw flying over the old bar all of those familiar orange flags.

•••

It was a crisp, October day, and like a dogless kid peeking into a puppy store, I peered into the bar and saw a bunch of people standing around looking like they’d been transported from Eskimo Joe’s on game day. My heart sank, then swooned. (When you’re from Oklahoma but live in New York, you sometimes find yourself straddling invisible lines and wincing at the rift. I often say to people when I’m feeling conflicted, “I’m having trouble being in two places at once.” Always in one of the two, longing for what the other offers. I never hated Oklahoma or my peers. I was a happy, contented kid living the life in north-central Oklahoma who couldn’t wait to get out. New York’s been far more difficult than growing up in Oklahoma ever was, but I can’t imagine ever leaving here because now I love it so much. In spite of its hard lessons.)

I stumbled into the bar now called Stillwater, where women with bright orange turtlenecks and shoulder-length blonde hair were yelling “Go, Po!” (That’s what it sounds like, for no one ever fully follows through on the “pokes.”) I thought I had dropped into one of my strange, overly symbolic dreams where I was being forced to reckon my life’s path while a bunch of dream Okies cheered on the Cowboys. A dream ballet!

It would only make perfect sense for that to have happened on the block where my soul was molting. Sweet. As if I needed more symbolism.

The likelihood of this specific square-footed plot of land being named after my hometown, with the flags of my forefathers waving proudly at me was too odd to be a coincidence. Perhaps it was divine intervention? Digging around for the truth left me with the un-cinematic reality that East 4th became Stillwater because the original owners have another bar called Reservoir. They like fishing. Hence, Stillwater. In the owners’ dumb luck, some OSU alum saw the bar and started watching sports there. The bar sells more beer now, either way.

I have never understood sports well, whether it be the unrestrained love of them, or the overcommitted passion for a team. Aside from that, my heart breaks when OSU loses. I can’t focus on a game to save my life, which causes my poor father to tear his hair out, being forced to watch me stare at everything around me but the goddamned basketball after I’d beg him to take me to games as a child. (I only went to score a Coke and a hotdog.) My dear poetic, innocent-eyed father loves his Cowboys with every ounce of his being, as do most of the adults in my life. Being from Stillwater and a lover of OSU means your heart is going to be broken. Repeatedly.

When the two planes crashed, a decade apart, taking away members of the OSU basketball team and family, I burst into tears in absentia at the thought of the whole town grieving. You wish you could take the pain away, but it’s not possible. In tragedy, pain is meant to be endured, not disappeared. But sometimes a championship could help. Not because I give a shit about sports. But I do give a shit about the Cowboys. I have invested in them. My best friend from Stillwater once told a tale that she got food poisoning and puked orange after eating something of that color, Cheetos maybe. She raised her index finger over the toilet in the Pistol Pete salute and muttered, “Go Po.”

There is a lot of truth in that.

•••

Now, I stood outside a bar now called Stillwater, heartbroken and split between my complicated poor life in New York, peering in at a crowd of fellow Okies cheering on their always and forever heart-breaking Cowboys. I snapped a photo of the flags before I went inside, and sent it to my brother in LA, who left his own ghosts and secrets on 4th Street. “It’s a bar called Stillwater. It’s across from KGB!” He can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. He texts, “GO IN! OWN THAT SHIT!” I go in.

Certain women’s thick Oklahoma accents can sound as though a hickish person bred with a valley girl. The men sound like cows who just learned how to talk, which isn’t an insult, because there is nothing more poetic than listening to an old Okie tell you about how a storm is blowing into town. I listened to some of these cow-talking men yell, “Come-onCowBOYS!” as the men in orange fumble a potential touch down. I ordered a longneck. I want to call the man I’ve been hurting over and say, “Come to this bar! It’s just like being in my home town,” thinking he’ll see who I am better, and will put my hurting at bay.

Life isn’t a romantic comedy, so I didn’t do that. I drank my Budweiser and laughed at the knowledge that there is a sex dungeon downstairs. Not 15 feet away, a large number of non-Okies were having sex as a room of Okies above stomped their feet to the raucous strains of “Ride ’em, Cowboys.” Does OSU’s fight song waft gently downstairs, supplying a soundtrack to the supposed tender lovemaking going on in the dungeon below? Does the man in a button-up, bright orange, crisp oxford know he could walk 20 paces to a gay bar called The Cock? He doesn’t, and he probably doesn’t need to, but I know these two worlds are slow dancing cheek to cheek for just me right now. Stillwater in New York. Sarah in Stillwater from Stillwater about to walk back to her boarding room in the East Village.

•••

I went back to Stillwater Bar the night of the Fiesta Bowl game, squeezed between fans draped in orange. I tried to lock in on the TV screen, focused on the game at hand, but my eyes stole away to watch and listen to the comforts of home. The bar is now adorned in so much OSU memorabilia, it’s as though the bar, once a week on game days, is a Christmas tree decorated with Cowboy-only ornaments. A plaque denotes the dining area as the “T. Boone Pickens” room. It hangs near a scowling Eddie Sutton, who silently yells from a picture frame over bar patrons. There is enough neon-bright-orange glowing, you’d think it was eternally techno Halloween.

Then there are the fans—Okie girls with platinum-blonde highlights, and dudes with shorter hair than New York’s typical shaggy-dude coifs. Everyone seems cleaner, and everyone is smiling and happy to be there. When I see the players emerge onto the field in their black outfits, I am struck by how big I want to smile, but my learned subway-face, which borders on Eastern European stoicism, never announces that I’m filled with hope. I have a very deep Orange-Crush on the Cowboys, and I can’t get my heart broken again.

Please let them win.

Please let them not lose.

Please do not let them almost win only to lose tragically at the last second.

Please vengeful god of whatever—god of big 12 football, if you’re there, I’ll believe in you that this all matters! Not just for the happiness of my town one night a year, but for all days! Do you want me to wear all neon orange? It’s not my necessarily my color, but I’ll do it.

I can’t handle the pressure of watching them play. Like many, I’m convinced that my watching brings loss, as though my own presence in front of a freaking TV influences the Tebow Football God in his decisions: “Ah, yes … I see Sarah is here. Let’s teach her to not be a fair-weather fan.” So I flee after two quarters, once I get nervous. And for my sacrifice, they won. My brother sent me a photo of himself holding his magical dog, Billy, up to the TV screen, “Lion King” style, as an offering to Squinky, that losing burden OSU fans have dealt with too long, during the final field goal. Yes. He offered up his Chihuahua to a football god, and that very god said, “THANK YOU MY CHILD!”

I assume the crowd in the bar burst like a piñata when the Stanford kicker flubbed the final field-goal attempt. In both Stillwaters, black and orange confetti fell, as hand pistols and arms of wheat were raised triumphantly in the air. For a prolonged moment there was no “What if we win?” or “How will we lose”? Just a joyousness that a curse had been lifted. Right now in New York, even the people who say, “Where’s Oklahoma?” have been saying “OH! That town? Didn’t they just win a big game? Isn’t that bar on 4th Street called Stillwater now?” To which I peppily chirp, “Yes! Go Po!” And then I have to explain what a Cowpoke is. And who Pistol Pete was. And what waving the wheat is. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I can explain how beautiful and flat the land can be. I reckon letting people know there’s a place on 4th Street that shares the name, and occasionally the same colors as my beloved home town, is the only proper Okie thing to do.