Tulsa is not one of my favorite places. It’s not that I dislike the city, nor the people…but it is an odd place, full of contradictions. And the contradictions make me uneasy.
People, fundamentally, are interesting…and weird. One of my favorite tag lines from an old TV shows is this: “There a thousand stories in the Naked City, maybe this one is true.”
I left Dallas on Thursday morning at 8:26 a.m. It was a simple trip to Tulsa. Up and back on the same day. No stress. No complexity. I’d be back home at 5:30 for open gym, basketball, and the NBA draft. Or, so I thought…
After navigating the security checkpoint—it went especially quickly—I had a few extra minutes. The shoe shine stand was open. I looked down at my shoes and decided they were overdue.
The shoe shine person—Candace— was in her late thirties with a pretty smile and formidable West Texas accent. Odessa, perhaps, or parts further West…maybe, even, Van Horn.
She started working on my shoes.
“Do you know what happened to me the other week,” she said. I said, “Tell me about it.”
“This man looked like he was a hobo or something. I couldn’t even believe he was flying. He had these boots made outta snake skin…really old and scuffed up. I was working really hard to make them look good. Anyway, while I’m putting wax on one boot, he proceeds to reach down and take the other boot off. He looks at me and says, “Miss, would you rub some of that stuff that you’re putting on my boot in between my toes…”
I looked at him and said ‘absolutely not.’ There was no way I was gon’ touch his toes. He started telling me that it wasn’t right that his boots were getting clean, but his feet were still going to be dirty.”
I quickly looked at my watch. I didn’t want to miss my flight. A black guy in an Armani suit was in line to be next. A flight attendant strolled by, looked at his watch, but kept going. Candace, with her cheery, talkative demeanor, continued unfazed by the chaos all around us.
“He asked me if I had any lotion. I told him ‘yeah’ and reached in my backpack and got a tube of this lotion I’d gotten from my friend Carrie who sells Mary Kay. He takes the tube, squeezes out a big gob of lotion, raises up his shirt and starts rubbing the lotion under his arms. Right here in this terminal.”
I interrupted. “So, what did you do?”
“I kept right on shining his boots. That’s my job. I gotta make my car payment this month. If I don’t make enough workin’ Monday through Friday, I gotta come in on the weekend. If I can’t pay they’ll come and take my car away.”
“Did he pay you,” I said.
“Oh, the guy? Yeah, he paid me in quarters and dimes.”
I paid her five bucks, tipped her a couple of more then said good-bye.
This, alone, should’ve let me know what lay ahead… but, I trudged on.
I made it to Tulsa, arriving at the workshop on time. It was a session on “Better Human Relations and Communication.”
The facilitator is making a point about the value of open, honest communication at work and at school. There is a guy in the back of the class with a ponytail. He is the first one to answer every question. This guy’s on a crusade. I can tell.
He stands and declares this:” Personally, I don’t understand why you can’t stand up and give a Nazi salute at work—it’s a sign…it’s a way of communication and no company or school should be restricting free speech.”
A Nazi salute at work. Oh, that’s a good one: let’s embrace symbolic gestures of a political movement that used technology and efficiency to take the human race to new levels of depravity.
I excused myself from the class and went to the Men’s Room. The Cleaning Guy was putting one of those yellow “Do Not Enter” signs in the doorway just as I walked up. Fortunately—well, at least for me—he let me through. He wore a Mets Jersey and Mets cap. I asked him what ever happened to Darryl Strawberry (Darryl was from my old neighborhood).
My mission completed, I finished washing my hands and returned to the workshop. The guy in the Mets jersey is emptying the trash. I say, “…thanks for letting me in, I hope things go well for you today.”
He says:” It’s been rough. My Mom died a few months ago and after I got her buried and everything, I got laid off…after 14 years. The only job I could find was here in Tulsa so I relocated my family from New York to here. You know, I had this apartment where I could see Shea Stadium from my balcony. I love the Mets so much…hate the Yankees, but I love the Mets. Now, we’re here and my wife is depressed and wants to leave and move home to Santo Domingo, my kids are unhappy and my blood pressure is over 220. Last weekend, I was in the hospital.”
His eyes filled with tears—I wanted to hug him.
“My wife, she don’t understand. I gotta do what I can to take care of my family. Even if means leaving New York. I love New York so much. I didn’t want to leave, but hey, what I am gon’ do.”
We shook hands. All the responses I could think of sounded trite, insignificant and downright patronizing. Nothing meaningful came to mind. Finally I said, “Stay up, bro!”
I went back to the workshop with the guy who thinks that anyone who wants to give a Nazi salute at work should be able to do so.
The workshop, thankfully, ended on time. I arrived at Tulsa Airport and there were 213 people in line at the security checkpoint. (I counted)
As I’m standing in line, I see a kid who went to high school with my son. He had been in Tulsa on business and was en-route back to San Antonio. We talked for a while. He told me that he and wife were building a new house. They recently moved to San Antonio and loved the city. He said he loved married life and his wife was great. Forty minutes later, I’m on the secure side of the checkpoint putting my shoes back on when I hear that my flight had been cancelled. Walking down the concourse, I looked to my left and see a friend, Beverly (who, apparently, is also in Tulsa on business.) We embrace, lament our flight situation, and sit down to plot the next episode.
We talk about old times and new times. She regales me with her stories. She is funny and so damn engaging. Our conversation turns, of all things, to Africa. She tells me about an African guy, living large in the U.S., who sent his Mom back to Africa because she ate too much and he didn’t want to take care of her any longer. Of course, the country she went back to is embattled in civil war…militias roam the street indiscriminately killing folks….but, he sent her back because she ate too much.
The ticket agent called my name. I was being re-routed though O’Hare. Let me frame this: Tulsa to DFW is a 48 minute flight—except, I wouldn’t be on that flight, I would be going to Chicago (two hours) and connecting to a flight back to DFW (another two hours). It was either that or spend the night in Tulsa.
I took the Chicago flight—including an upgrade. Leaving Tulsa is always the better plan.
I wanted sleep. The flight attendant offers pretzels and almonds. The guy next to me offers the last pack of almonds as a gesture of kindness. I don’t eat pretzels. Now, I felt compelled to talk.
“So,” I asked, “do you live in Tulsa?” He says, “Yes, but I am going to Miami for a funeral. My girlfriend’s sister got killed two days ago—in a car crash…guy plows through the intersection and hits her broadside…. died instantly…. She was 28. My girlfriend and me were going to a family reunion in August. That’s when I was scheduled to meet her.” “Wow, I said, “you gotta live every day. You gotta really do what you’re passionate about.”
He said,” Well, she was passionate about marine biology, but she worked as a waitress. Me, I want to a pilot, but I am too old to change jobs (he is 27). My best friend is a pilot, but he hates flying. All he wants to do is be a pharmacist.”
We talked more, but sleep finally overtook me.
I arrived at O’Hare around 8:00 p.m. My flight was delayed until 9:10. I sat at the atrium in the “K” concourse reflecting on the weirdness of the day. People were buying Grande Raspberry Mochas all around me. Fourteen Japanese kids walked by. The flight to London Heathrow was in final boarding. The husband of a lady in a wheelchair screamed at an agent. Just another day at O’Hare, I thought.
What do you want to be? I’ve been thinking about that lately as it relates to my own condition as a coach and a producer. Truly, what matters? And, how do you know you’re doing what matters? And, after you’re gone, will it matter to anyone that you did it?
I’m going to ponder these questions—but, at long last, I hear my flight being called and now, all that matters is getting home.