Books About Tulsa: A Tour

by Ben Lytal


1. Oklahoma
by Harlow, Victor E. 

This is my mother’s favorite Oklahoma history textbook. It smells like Parmesan cheese. Copyright 1934, 1949. Picture the Council Oak Tree. Catty-corner from the tree, a weather-beaten parking lot and at the edge of the parking lot, a dumpster. In the dumpster, old books. Brick-red, hardcover copies of Victor Harlow’s Oklahoma.

Harlow is succinct, swift. Small focused sections with useful boldfaced subheads. It’s like one of those sleek Art Deco fire stations we have. I’m particularly thinking of the one at 36th and Lewis.

2. Riot and Remembrance
by Hirsch, James S. 

It’s not Pennington’s. It’s more Hard Rock Casino. It’s slick, black and gold, easy. The first chapter of Riot and Remembrance contains maybe the most gripping, rapid, informative history of Tulsa out there. It’s like driving up the rim of Tulsa on 169, crossing over the BA, and suddenly finding yourself hit up the Inner Dispersal Loop into the old neighborhoods out toward Gilcrease.

Admittedly, some of the rest of the book feels like sitting through an evening school-board meeting at the Education Service Center. And coming out into that big endless parking lot off 31st Street, and wondering how you ended up on the moon.

3. I Remember
by Brainard, Joe.

When you first start to read it, it’s like Bell’s Amusement Park circa 1992. Skeeball. My dad and little brother and I are crossing the midway, on our way to the old flea market buildings. Where the taffy machines are. In the crowd in front of us there’s some guy in a T-shirt that reads, “Do It Till You Can’t Walk.”

Later, it’s like the 41st Street Barnes & Noble. With that utter wall of magazines. If you spent all afternoon there, riveted to one of those backless benches.

4. Oklahoma Tough: My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers
by Padgett, Ron.

There’s supposed to be a tunnel between the Mid-Continent Tower and other similar office buildings. But what if that tunnel went all the way out to Ron Padgett’s childhood home?

Where that is I’m not actually sure. I’m picturing Peoria north of Cherry Street. Or further east. Near Tally’s, maybe—behind there. Or further north. In somebody’s patchy front yard, a trap door you can heave up, like a vault. The mouth of a polished granite tunnel with electric torchieres. If only the young Ron Padgett or his friend the young Joe Brainard had ever noticed this.

5. Funny Money
by Singer, Mark.

The Sam’s Club on Sheridan used to be just a Wal-Mart. And it was the only Wal-Mart in town. OK, go back in time to that Wal-Mart. Carefully inspect the merchandise. Think about distribution. Raw materials. Go into the Home & Garden section and sniff the fertilizer.

This book is actually about Oklahoma City and the collapse of Penn Square Bank. But if you want to be in Oklahoma City all you have to do is go and hang out for a while on that treeless plaza that sits like an empty cafeteria tray between the downtown library and the courthouse. If you sit there on that sun-struck concrete for long enough (i.e., until you go blind), Tulsa seems just like Oklahoma City.

6. The Outsiders
by Hinton, Susan Eloise. 

A prefab classroom. Tulsa Public Schools must have ordered three dozen in about 1985. Every school seems to have two or three, each with a little porch, and a classroom on either side. And in at least one of those classrooms, a class is being taught The Outsiders.

The entire plot of The Outsiders was played out over a two-year period in middle school. Every day we were bused up there to the North Side, for the sole purpose of someone somewhere in the building being just like Pony Boy, for two seconds, daily, between the passing of the first and second lunch periods.

7. Tulsa
by Clark, Larry. 

There’s an early part where they’re in the woods. I always envisioned this somewhere convenient, some lost West Side creek, probably now Tulsa Hills or a similar bummer. Et in Arcadia ego. But inside the houses. The picture where they’re all happy, shooting up at somebody’s mom’s house. Sears Roebuck sold all those houses out of a catalog, and I’ve been in them. You have too.

Nobody told me about this book until I left town.