Okies Smile at Strangers

by Maya Sloan


Part I: New York, 1996

You drop out of college and move to New York, a place you’ve only seen in movies. You don’t know a single person.

The first month you can’t sleep. It was never this loud where you grew up. There are so many sounds that taunt you from just beyond your window.

Even with four locks, you feel like something is coming to get you.

The craziest part? You cannot wait.

You spend those early days—years, even—floating in a self-created vagueness. When asked where you are from, you won’t say the word. You are young, and Oklahoma seems like dusty, uncultured nowhere. Now you are somewhere. The somewhere. Oklahoma is a musical, not a place to have been born and raised.

You want to talk about sophisticated things. You try to figure out what those things are.

When people ask where you are from, you wave a hand dismissively. Oh, here and there, you say, as though you are a child of the great expansive universe.

You smile at people, as you always have, then realize some of them might take that the wrong way when a dude follows you home.

But you smiled at me, he says, looking sad. You feel a little bad for him.

You find yourself walking differently. Faster. Longer strides. Sometimes you own the pavement, the block, the whole Lower East Side, the city itself. Sometimes you feel microscopic, less than microscopic, if there is such a thing. You fall in and out of love. Sometimes during the course of a subway ride.

You know you are looking for something. You try everything you can think of — a lot of them bad — to find the answer to questions you haven’t figured out yet.

One day you pick up a pen and start writing, hoping the truth will come out with ink. You write and write. Stories about girls in New York who are trying to find themselves. The stories aren’t very good. The girls seem lost and, honestly, kind of stupid.

You put down the pen and go out to do something else. Have a drink. There’s that Irish bartender you sometimes make out with, and he’ll comp the drinks.

Part II: Brooklyn, 2011

Some people would call my neighborhood ugly. They’d say it was dangerous or dirty. They might even call it a shithole.

They might be right, but I don’t care. I love it here.

It’s weird. One day you wake up and there’s comfort in the discomfort. That’s the only way I can describe it.

I like my neighborhood. I know my neighborhood.

I know my Bodega, where the Pakistani owner greets me with a crooked—bordering on dirty—grin. I know his mangy cat is named Nancy Reagan. He knows my brand of cigarettes and cereal.

I can tell you the cheapest place to buy paper towels and where to get the best guacamole. I know at what hours the local coffee shop will be overrun with hipsters having too-loud discussions about their carbon footprints and underground bands that are so underground they might not even exist.

The hipsters are always here, hoping you see them trying to fade into the background. Plaid shirts are played out, but ironic facial hair is eternal. The female version? Bangs chopped at strange, skewed angles.

I know because I have them myself.

It wasn’t easy, but I came to know this place. I know which scenes in The Sopranos were shot in Tony’s pizzeria. I know which slices are the freshest. I know the location of a legendary Mafioso hangout that serves as a store where you can purchase fresh olive oil and gravestones, both of which are prominently displayed in the window.

I know another store—ten blocks in the other direction—where you can buy a wedding dress and a pet rat at the same time. They also have a snack bar.

Last week, a massive unwashed guy went into the 99 Cents Store on the corner of Graham Avenue. This is the 99 Cent Store next to the 24-hour Mexican restaurant that might or might not give you food poisoning. Either way, they have great Ranchero Carnitas, and sometimes it seems worth the risk at 4 am when everything else is closed.

This massive unwashed guy went into the other 99 Cent Store, stood in the middle of the cosmetics aisle, lit up and proceeded to leisurely smoke a cigarette. I don’t think he planned on buying anything. The owner—a sweet middle-aged Asian man who smiles at everybody and then probably talks shit about them in his native language—told him to stop. You don’t smoke here and You leave now or I call the cops. The guy took another drag and blew it out.

Then he went fucking ballistic.

The fight continued out onto the street, escalating into a full-fledged screaming match in front of the bins holding toilet brush, pinwheels and plastic flower.

Out of nowhere, six guys appeared. They jumped the owner, pummeling him. There were
sirens and they ran, leaving him bleeding in the snow.

I know all this because Mike, our maintenance guy, saw the whole thing. Mike can get you anything you want. Fancy uptowns shoes? An 8-track player? Ask Mike. He is the dream-maker.

Seven stiches and a concussion, his daughter told me as she rang up my shampoo the next day. She’s nice, though she probably talks shit about everyone in her native language too. I don’t blame her. There are a lot of jerks around.

She nodded towards the back of the store. Her father, black-eyed and freshly bandaged, stocked five dollar scarves.

Four days later, the snow was still red. The sanitation department -in hot water for getting drunk instead of plowing streets during the last few storms – wouldn’t be there to help. Nobody in the neighborhood wanted to touch it.

Turn away, my boyfriend would tell me as we passed. But I couldn’t.

And for the next week I found our neighbors in weird configurations. Strangers who rarely spoke were having conversations. Mike the mutton-chopped guy who runs the Spanish pet shop. One of the withered old ladies with her pushcart of groceries and the guy from the Laundromat who once took a slug of Vodka ringing up my only appropriate dress.

The old man who sits on the lawn chair by the hardware store and blasts Stevie Wonder from a boom box. People were even stopping to talk to him, and we all agree he’s nuts.

Sometimes the conversations were hushed and full of concern. Sometimes there was laughter and small talk.

As for the blood, I just took a different subway to work.

This is my home. Sometimes your home is chosen for you. Sometimes you make the choice.

And sometimes—without you knowing it—the home picks you. Whether you like it or not.

Across the street is a pool hall frequented by Mexicans, run by Dominicans and owned by a Chassid who drives SUV’s with tinted windows.

A block down is Moe’s Deli, run by an Egyptian man and known for the wide selection of lottery tickets. I’m gettin’ a scratcher at Moe’s, I hear a guy tell his lady, you know they got the ones I like.

The Egyptian owner tells me about a little boy from the school down the street who was always getting bullied. As he speaks, the newly installed Plasma television behind him blares. Al Jazeera, day and night. The kids had a machete, he says. The other kids call him crazy nigger and this kind of stuff. He reaches in his backpack and pulls out…a machete. And the big tough boys all start yelling like little girls and run down the street.

He hates the kids at the local school. And true, come 3:15 I try to avoid the street as they are released from their prisons and the megaphoned police officers spend 45 minutes trying to herd them towards the L train.

The little boy just stood there, he tells me. Then he put the machete back in his backpack. He had a big smile on his face while he did it.

Moe’s Deli sells soup in huge black kettles. The Egyptian man’s wife makes a fresh batch everyday. She has a hundred headscarves in different colors and fabrics, and everyday she ties them in new and intriguing ways.

Their son looks around ten. He has good teeth, his father tells me, because he was raised here. I come from Egypt, and my teeth do not understand America.

The little boy likes Ghosthunters, Jay Z and Poptarts. His favorite subject is Science.

I’m 34. I’m a writer who teaches to pay the rent. My boyfriend is a Danish artist. We live in Bushwick, though everyone calls it East Williamsburg. I think the real estate agents are responsible. At some point Williamsburg got hip. Not our side of Williamsburg, but I guess they haven’t given up hope.

You find comfort in the discomfort. Our streets never stop talking: car alarms, drunken Spanish karaoke from across the street, honking, loud fights and giddy laughter, the 3 am trash collection, the occasional crackhead meltdown. Brooklyn’s lullaby.

I never have trouble falling asleep.

I no longer think of New York as especially sophisticated. Exciting, yes. Wild and fun and desperate. But sophisticated? Not exactly.

I’m an Okie who lives in New York. I’m not sure when I decided that. I just woke up one day
and knew. I could live in New York until I am old lady and I’d still be an Okie in New York.
I’m not the only one.

My best high school friend from Oklahoma discovered this neighborhood. Her landlord is an old Italian woman. Even though my best friend has lived in the apartment for a decade, she’d never dream of calling her landlord anything but Missus. I’m not even sure the lady has a first name.

My best friend is an artist. Oklahoma is all over her work. The plains and red dirt seep up through every photograph and painting, whether intended or not.

My other best friend from Oklahoma is a short subway ride away. She has a real job, assistants, a desk, the whole deal. She works in fundraising, which makes sense. She charms everyone she meets. She charms people for a living. In high school she was a debutante. We were hysterical—and secretly proud—to see her glowing face in the Society section of the Daily Oklahoman.

And there are others. The young designer. The poet who grew up a block away from the Wall Street guy in Northwest OKC. I love the poet. I went to Middle School with the Wall Street guy, and once, at an 8th grade dance, he asked me to dance when nobody else would. I thanked him for that, saying how I always felt like the biggest loser. I felt like the biggest loser, he said.

And we don’t blend in, and we wouldn’t want to. We talk Oklahoma, laugh Oklahoma and go back often. We talk about returning for good one day. We talk about the open spaces and kind people and the familiar smell. We talk about the things we miss. The Red Cup, Penn Square Mall, the reassuring trashiness of the Great State Fair. We probably make Oklahoma much rosier and more vibrant in our nostalgia than in reality, but that’s okay too.

When I meet another Okie in the city, there is always that moment of recognition. The warmth of finding your own. You might not end up being friends or even liking them very much. But you will understand them.

When people ask me where I’m from, I never hesitate to tell them, Oklahoma. If they ask about Oklahoma, I’ll tell them. I tell them more than they expected and probably more than they wanted to know. I’ll answer their obvious questions. The state above Texas. The bombing was six blocks from my house and yeah, it sucked, and no, I still don’t like to talk about it. Yes, I’ve seen the musical, and I never hope to see it again.

Then I’ll tell them more. The Flaming Lips and Woodie Guthrie and Tracy Letts. Brad Pitt lived in Oklahoma, did you know that? You can hear the accent in early roles.

It isn’t a pretty accent. Not a slow, melodic Deep South rolling-off-the-tongue kind of thing. More clipped and rough around the edges. But it fills me with comfort. After a few drinks, I hear it coming out of my own mouth.

I’ll tell them about authenticity and the ability to talk to anyone. I’ll tell them how Okies smile at strangers and that doesn’t mean the stranger will follow them home afterwards.

I stopped writing about lost girls in New York. One day I sat down and wrote about something I knew better. I wrote about Oklahoma. And that is when I realized what had been there all along.

New York may have underground bands and world-renowned exhibits and skyscrapers and endless lights…but I’m from somewhere just as exotic.

Okay, maybe exotic isn’t the right word. And Oklahoma sure isn’t perfect. But for as long as I live in New York, one thing will never change.

I will always be an Okie.

Maya Sloan grew up in Oklahoma City. Her first novel, High Before Homeroom, was released in June of 2010. www.mayasloan.com