Maybe it was a gimmick, but I’d prefer to call it an experiment in semi-urban psychogeography: Walk as far as possible through Tulsa in a single day, feeling my way through the city with only my two feet. Pyschogeography is a discipline on the margins of academic acceptability, in part because it’s entirely subjective—How could you possibly measure the effects of a landscape on someone else’s emotions?—and because its origins stem from a radical political agenda. For the French theorists who invented psychogeography in the 1960s, an unplanned walk—a drift— through a city could set off a chain of events leading to a revolution. The high water mark of this project was the Paris General Strike in May 1968, when slogans like “take your desires for reality” ruled the day.
Listen to Russell Cobb read “Where the Buffalo Drift.”
There were a number of obstacles to my experiment: First of all, I wanted to survive, so this precluded certain parts of the city where pedestrians are routinely mowed down. In fact, the very day I set out on my journey, an elderly woman was struck by a car while trying to cross 21st Street. If a walk to Med-X could kill you, I might want to take some precautions, like seeking out neighborhoods with ample sidewalks.
Just off Cherry Street, there were unbroken sidewalks for blocks. Then, they randomly ceased in front of some houses in Maple Ridge, only to resume a couple of houses later. Who maintains these sidewalks? Why do some houses have them and others not? The patchwork of sidewalks resulted in a sort of hopscotch in and out of traffic. At one point, I nearly hopped on a decomposing squirrel that must have been rotting on a 19th Street sidewalk for days. The only other person I saw on this particular stretch of the walk was a 30-something monk—at least he was dressed like a monk, wearing an ankle-length, hooded black habit and rosary beads—walking a Jack Russell terrier.
Another obstacle was determining a final destination. Every journey implies a starting point and an ending point. Where was I going? I traced old streetcar routes, courtesy of Michael Bates, who has mapped Tulsa trolley lines onto a Google map. I thought about walking one of these lines, but most of them ended after a mile or two. I wanted something with more of an epic sweep to it. I considered walking the old Sand Springs Interurban line, but this prospect depressed me, thus predetermining my psychogeographic experiment.
I threw out all these options and opted to become a flâneur in the drift of the city. The flâneur is a bit like the American buffalo: a creature who moves randomly across the landscape, picking out bits of food here and there, digesting on the move. Unlike the buffalo, though, the flâneur usually inhabits the densely packed streets of the big city, moving against the grain of a consumer society. Nobody really thinks of Tulsa as a big city, but a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that the Tulsa metropolitan area has a population of just under one million souls—about the same as mid-19th century London and Paris, the cities that gave birth to the modern flâneur in the works of Charleses Baudelaire and Dickens.
“An idle man-about-town,” Merriam-Webster defines the word, perhaps with a note of disdain. The flâneur is, after all, a French creation, a by-product of Parisian splendor and squalor. He is one who strolls about the city not looking to acquire knowledge or consumer goods, Walter Benjamin once wrote, but to experience a city as a work of art. Most people interested in pedestrian issues want to get from point A to point B without getting run over or mugged on the way to work. I was more interested in loafing, seeing what secrets the city might reveal to me that I never noticed in three decades of car travel.
The voyage started out with promise: a mild, bone-dry December day just after Christmas, the kind of day that brings the earmuffs off the dog walkers and prompts the joggers to doff the leg warmers for sporty shorts. A day, in sum, that should have pushed the citizens off their couches and into the streets. Cars swarmed around the Brookside QuikTrip, but I was on foot. Crossing 36th Street, humanity disappeared. I walked for two blocks, waiting for my first encounter with a fellow pedestrian.
There’s a website that has developed an algorithm for walkability—walkscore.com—and it claims that Brookside is one of Oklahoma’s most walkable neighborhoods. Walkscore.com talks a big game: walkability is not only the answer to climate change, it says, but the ability to walk your neighborhood also corresponds with a longer lifespan, a smaller waistline, and higher property values. In fact, Brookside is supposed to be Tulsa’s model for pedestrian-automobile encounters, with what urban planners call “textured crosswalks” that “make the pedestrian space easy to determine for a motorist.”
A stylish shop on the west side of Peoria caught my eye. Scandinavian-looking kitchen instruments posed in the windows, urging this buffalo-flâneur across one of these model crosswalks made of bricks.
In Canada, where I live, cars screech to halt whenever the pedestrian dips his toe into the river of traffic. Pedestrian right-of-way is a sacred concept, even in suburbia. I waited patiently at the crosswalk, trying to catch the gaze of motorists, hoping to shame them into stopping for me. As I do in Canada, I stuck a foot in the street to let people know I was serious about getting across the road, but no one stopped. I started to count the cars blazing by me and got to 28 before a pick-up truck stopped and gave me a finger wave, urging me across. But then I was stranded in the right hand lane, with the left lane still buzzing with traffic. I must have looked like one of those squirrels that can’t decide whether to dart across the road or retreat to the curb.
Hey lady in your green Volkswagen bug with a daisy in the flower vase, surely you will stop for me? No. You, the bearded Volvo driver with the fading Obama/Biden bumper sticker, surely you will help a brother out? If I am regarded at all, it is as a crazy person. I am positive that a stray dog would have had more luck crossing Brookside than me on its model, textured sidewalks.
Finally, I am across, but there is little to keep my attention. It’s almost noon and I want to at least make it downtown. I pick up my pace and walk for almost a mile before I encounter my next pedestrian, the monk (Is he Benedictine? Eastern Orthodox? What is doing here?), who gives me a wise nod, just past the decomposed squirrel. I catch a glimpse of a lowrider on a bike struggling up the hill on 21st street, and that’s about all the humanity I see for the next half hour.
“I am moving to Tulsa from Denver and am wondering if it’s safe to walk the streets,” someone on city-data.com posted. Someone else replied with this warning: “I think the biggest hazard of walking repeatedly to and from work in downtown Dullsa (oops, I meant Tulsa) is getting killed or injured by boredom.”
I am at 18th and Boulder at 12:43 p.m., but there is still no sign of life on the streets. I am getting hungry, so I stop in The TreeHouse for some barbeque. It’s toward the end of the lunch rush, but I am the only diner in the place. My journey is starting to take on a Twilight Zone quality. Three employees hover around me, making idle talk about the weather.
I pick up the old Main Street trolley line and spot my first post-lunch pedestrian outside New Age Renegade, a gay bar that seems much less formidable in the bright, early afternoon sunshine than it does at 2 a.m. I shuffle along behind my fellow walker for a few blocks before he stops to examine the stranger following him downtown. I consider catching up with him to explain my experiment and possibly interview him, but he sets off in a sprint across the street. Now we are walking parallel to one another down Main Street. We make it to Ninth and Main before he is sufficiently freaked out to take off running again, this time in a westerly direction down Ninth Street. This is also where I see only the second pedestrian since lunch, a homeless woman who stops me to ask for some change.
“Do you do a lot of walking around here?” I ask.
“Naw,” she says, “I’m just trying to get some change to get the bus back to my apartment.”
In the heart of downtown—“The Deco District” they have apparently rebranded it—I spot a few people actually walking places. One guy stumbles down a staircase adjacent to Orpha’s Lounge and nearly falls on top of me. Now I am a true flâneur, I think. I am anonymously adrift in the big city with its big buildings. But the thing that really appealed to the flâneur par excellence— Charles Baudelaire—is nowhere to be found:
The street about me roared with a deafening sound.
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt.
Where are the “agile and graceful legs” that obsessed the Bad Boy poet? “The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills” is nowhere to be found. A half a mile north, I encounter a couple of teenagers making out at the Center of the Universe, but that’s about as sensual as my voyage gets. The City of Lights, Tulsa is not.
I’ve made it downtown by 3 p.m. so I set off for Greenwood, imagining the blaze of madness that engulfed Tulsa ninety years ago. There are plaques on Archer Street commemorating the businesses and residences destroyed in the Riot, sometimes three per block. How long have these plaques been here? Once again, I am the only pedestrian in sight, raising the question of who ever reads or notices these small plaques in the sidewalk. I walk up and down Greenwood, my head buzzing with noise of I-244 and thoughts of the Riot. A man with a three-legged dog is talking on his cell phone.
I cross back over the track and spot a couple of pedestrians heading into McNellie’s. It’s almost 4 p.m. and my legs are weary. The drift is pulling this buffalo-flâneur towards the bar, so I follow the couple inside. I take a seat by the window, watching for others caught in the drift of the city. After a few minutes, the Edward Hopperish loneliness wears off and I am simply bored. I check my iPhone and text my wife. I need a ride home.