Letter to New York City: On Bohemian Life in the Sooner State

by James McGirk

10/01/2013

My wife, Amy, a recent graduate from Yale’s painting program, and I, a writer reeling from an unhappy stint as an administrator at a large non-profit organization, decided to uproot our lives in one of the country’s most expensive metropolitan statistical areas (we moved from Brooklyn, New York) and move to one of its cheapest: the micropolitan statistical area of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, population 16,000, and capital of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. On paper the move made perfect sense. The Cost of Living Index suggested that to equal my old salary of $65,000 I needed only to make around $32,000, which I figured I could do between freelancing and my forthcoming novel. As an added incentive, Amy, who needs daily medication, would be eligible for free health care from the Cherokee Nation. (She’s a citizen of the tribe.)

As I lifted the first forkful of food toward my mouth, our host stood up and asked us all to join hands in prayer.

One of the first things we did in Tahlequah was attend a “Starving Artists’ Luncheon,” arranged by a retired CIA agent who spends his retirement painting Hemingway-like scenes (bullfighters, Moorish ruins…). It was a potluck. Amy and I borrowed her mother’s car (she lives in Tahlequah, too) picked up some lemon sorbet and cookies at the store, and drove out to the agent’s studio on the outskirts of town. He had converted a barn. It was enormous; he and his wife had laid six picnic tables end-to-end across the middle of the space, and even though there were about 30 starving
artists milling around, there was easily room for 30 more. Outside, there was a screened-in patio and makeshift gallery (in one corner I spotted an old-fashioned punching bag). We loaded our plates buffet style—there were chunks of coconut chicken curry and macaroni salads galore—and sat down, beneath the artist’s sandy arenas and squirming, sequined matadors.

In New York City, in an artsy crowd, you’re constantly being vetted. As a writer, one of the first questions I get asked is, “Who have you written for?” followed by, “Where did you go to school?” And in response you’re expected to recite a litany of accomplishments. But no asked who I wrote for. And only one person, a retired professor, a fierce presence wrapped in purple, asked whether I had an agent. To which I answered, “No,” and then feebly launched an explanation: “I had some big names reading it, but because this one is about India and has a gloomy ending and a nasty narrator, I figured it would be better off with an independent publisher…” The professor kindly resisted the temptation to roll her eyes.

As I lifted the first forkful of food toward my mouth, our host stood up and asked us all to join hands in prayer. I cracked my eyelids open and noticed Amy peeking, too; we smiled and went back to pretending to pray. Lunch was grand, much of it procured from neighboring farms and far better than the Food Bazaar fare we were accustomed to. Salted between conversations, there was a lot of low-level wheeling and dealing. What I thought was a friendly invitation turned out to be a tout for a part-time barbeque business, and at the end of our meal our hosts tried to sell us bread—bread that, while delicious, at $6 a baguette was not exactly in line with the low grocery prices my cost-of-living indicator had promised. Of course, all of this was no different than what you’d find at a gallery in Ridgewood, let alone what we were used to from the pair of pirates who used to represent Amy. The only slightly unpleasant moment came after the meal when the agent cornered Amy, who paints enormous geometric abstract paintings, and bearded her about abstraction, implying that people painted abstract forms because they couldn’t paint the human figure. “He’s a Precambrian Sunday-painter,” Amy observed afterward. We weren’t invited back.

Amy converted our two-car garage into her studio (in New York she worked in the subterranean half of a moldy basement duplex in an old boiler factory, and the top half was our home). About once a day she would let off an earsplitting shriek and I would run to her studio carrying a rolled up newspaper. Oklahoma roaches are goliaths, to say nothing about the leeches, slugs, and other things that wriggled under the garage door. But she prevailed—or at least she did until one of the stray kittens that prowl our yard showed up with a limp, and the garage was converted into a kitten rehabilitation center. Luckily, studio space opened up at the nearby Cherokee Arts Center. In Ridgewood, we calculated that the studio space cost us an extra $500 a month (not including utilities). In Tahlequah, 400 square feet of air-conditioned studio space in a handsome WPA building, with a shop sink and access to the Nation’s brand new Spider Gallery, cost only $150 a month. (And as a bonus it doubles as a tornado shelter.) There were no bugs, and unlike our Ridgewood digs, Amy’s new studio neighbors did not have a full drum kit, nor did they deal dope, and they have yet to set the building on fire, fling bottles at us from the flat upstairs, haul in a bedbug-infested couch, or leave the doors open all night so that “the community can check out our new performance space.” There was an open studio at the Arts Center two weeks ago, and people actually seemed more intrigued with the work than the table of snacks.

Maybe after more than 10 years in New York, Amy and I are just getting old. The quiet out here in northeast Oklahoma is so absolute, so luxurious—at least until the cicadas started up. Here, I’ve seen hawks and eagles roosting in the old oak trees in our yard, and the other day I found a spotted feather that, according to The Feather Almanac, belonged to an owl. We have a screened-in veranda and our cats love to press themselves up against the mesh, absorbing the sunlight and snuffling the scents of strange creatures. There are plenty of creatures. Amy has tamed a clowder of stray cats, and there are possums and raccoons and gangs of rowdy teenage bears that occasionally descend on the town. And at night the lights on our street are out, and you can sometimes see the soft glow of the Milky Way.

Which is not to say life in Tahlequah is without its ordeals. In New York, I dreaded the subway. Living in Ridgewood off the L train meant two hours a day on the subway. In Tahlequah, my ordeal is concentrated into about two hours a week, and it was all my fault. When we rented our house (three bedrooms for $925 a month instead of $2,000 for only two rooms!), I agreed to take care of the lawn. How hard could it possibly be, I thought, and shuddering at the thought of buying a loud and stinky gasoline mower, opted for the old-fashioned “reel” mower, the kind you have to push. I should have heeded the label that warned expectant mothers and those with heart conditions not use the thing.

When it’s cool enough, which is when the thermometer is in the double digits, I’ll slink out and heave the thing around. It doesn’t help that our lawn is sloped. And it’s not like you can just let the grass go. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to cut. And a lawn is like a haircut or a pair of shoes: When it’s off, there’s no hope for anything else. The neighbors (who all have tractor-like riding mowers and perfect lawns) used to tease me; now they’ve started offering to sell me their old equipment. There are clouds of gnats and black snakes and hidden holes dug by gophers and murdered presents the cat clowder has left us. At least it’s given me a healthy respect for the agricultural sector.

Nature has such an imposing presence out here. Thunder sounds like a barrage. Lightning is enormous and terrifying. The freeways are spattered with dead armadillo goop, and we’ve had two close calls with tornadoes. Who knew they could come at night? Moore, Oklahoma, looked like a regular suburb on one side of the street; on the other, thousands of lives had been reduced to landfill.

So would I do it again? Would I recommend the next season of Girls move from Bushwick to the buckle of the Bible Belt (as they call the nearby city of Tulsa)? My financial assumptions were stupid. The publisher who promised to publish my dazzling debut went out of business a few weeks after the Starving Artists’ Luncheon, and I hadn’t realized so many American magazines pay their contributors quarterly, which has meant a few months of pasta and fierce debates about whether our last five bucks should go for gas or the cats outside. And Amy and I couldn’t have made the move without a loan from my folks. But I would do it again in a heartbeat. Tahlequah might be the only place in the world that has a community of artists for Amy and enough space for an aging curmudgeon like me.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 18. Sept. 15, 2013.