Route 66: The Center of the Universe

The fur coat in my hands costs $185,000.

The price tag states it clearly—the coat costs the same as a three-bedroom house in this town.

But then the lady with heavy pink lipstick whispers at me, her cupped hand hushing the secret that only the two of us know, “I could probably get you half-off for this thing.”

The thing for which I am now apparently bartering is a full-length cloak of pure sable, tawny and seamless and softer than anything my fingers have ever known.

I can’t stop touching the fur coat, which might be making the saleswoman a little nervous. She tugs at her pink skirt, which incidentally matches her pink lipstick and the pinks stripes in her blouse.

“No, sir,” she says politely, “It’s 7/8ths length—not full.” I stand corrected. I did not even know there was such a thing as a 7/8ths cut for a coat. (Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a coat?)

Our host at Miss Jackson’s is generous and polite, her elocution that of any grand lady in Oklahoma. I wonder if she attended a local finishing school, but before I can ask, she’s helping Andrea with a black mink cape that’s been laser cut to express zebra stripes in relief. This one costs less than a house, but more than a car, and the lady in pink is warming our hands for the big sell.

I assume that she assumes we’re getting married. That’s the only reason young couples show up at Miss Jackson’s and browse the shelves with such eager curiosity—past the crystal and china and counters of fine perfume. She thinks we’re here to register for a big Tulsa wedding and just maybe, today, I’ll buy my bride a bit of black mink.

Surely, we must be a disappointing commission. Andrea is my producer at National Geographic and we are not engaged. Furthermore, the only fur I’ve ever owned was a misshapen coonskin cap from Kazakhstan where the bullet hole showed quite prominently.

I doubt Mrs. Jackson’s would keep my damaged fur for me, but should I ever choose to care properly for my hat, I could pay to have it added it to the 3,000 furs they store on their top floor. Every privately-owned fur is treated like a museum piece, stowed away at a steady 50˚ F and 55% humidity, ready to be shipped upon request back to the owner just in time for ski season or a Christmas party.

I suspect Miss Jackson is on the top floor of her store right now, sifting through other people’s furs and passing quick judgment. Already, I feel some affection for this lady I will never meet—a lady whose legacy lives on in the Tulsa department store she created over a century ago.

“Miss Jackson still walks these floors,” beams the saleswoman, and though Nellie Sheilds Jackson passed away some years back, all three of us go suddenly silent, waiting to see if we hear any footsteps from above. But there is nothing but the bing of the brass elevator doors opening, and Andrea and I back out of buying any of last season’s fur at a discount.

I always love a native guide, which is why I wanted my producer, Andrea Leitch to join up with me in Tulsa and show me her hometown. Miss Jackson’s was the first stop on Andrea’s tour.

“Every Christmas we came here to see Santa and to look at the window displays at Miss Jackson’s,” explains Andrea. The window displays are famous across the country—even Bergdorf’s studies Miss Jackson’s for ideas in their notorious window displays on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Indeed Utica Square is Tulsa’s Fifth Avenue, full of fine shops and ladies who lunch at any of the fine al fresco restaurants around the block.

“We love patio dining in Tulsa,” says Andrea, right as we stumble upon a table of businessmen eating messy ribs at the Stonehorse Café. Behind them sits an old British telephone box, shiny and red with a working payphone inside.

Utica Square is ridiculously pleasant. Plump bundles of lilac-colored wisteria fall from the portico above, heavy with raindrops from an earlier shower, now glistening in the morning sun. A bakery bell rings over and over as families and shoppers steal away with bags of bread or cookies and cake boxes, too. It’s as if the whole city is getting ready for a party.

A man walks past wearing an Oklahoma hat and a big heart stitched over Tulsa.

“Nice hat, man,” I say and he laughs, leaning over to show me his Tulsa pride. We talk, and he tells me how he moved away to New York City, but that he came back because, “It’s a lot easier to make friends in Tulsa.”

“See?” Andrea says as we head downtown. “Everyone here is so proud of this place.”

“But why?” I wonder. “What’s so great about Tulsa?”

“We’re 918ers!” she exclaims, as if the area code makes it the greatest city on the planet. Andrea is riding shotgun in my car, directing me past highlights (the hospital where she was born) and down to Eleventh Street.

The oldest section of Route 66 draws a straight line through the heart of Tulsa, like an arrow pointing west. We park beneath the massive Meadow Gold sign, which was only recently saved from demolition by a team of concerned Tulsa citizens. Raised high on a metal scaffolding, the neon words of the Midwest dairy brand seem clean and new, while the street below is about as gritty a place as I’ve seen on this trip (and I’ve been to St. Louis).

I’m afraid to ask Andrea is this is the bad part of town for fear that she will insist Tulsa has no bad parts. Andrea is about the proudest Oklahoman I know, and she shows me around the historic parts of her city as if we are touring Rome in the Spring.

Of all the ruins we see, my favorite is the Eleventh Street Bridge, which was closed to traffic more than a decade ago. Kneeling down I can see the crabgrass pushing through the cracks in the old pavement that once carried cars across the Arkansas River. The defunct bridge sits between two larger and busy roadways, reinforcing the redundancy of Old Route 66.

Before us stands a monument to Cyrus Avery, father and founder of the Mother Road. As commuters tear past, we gaze up at the eight state flags whipping against eight steel flagpoles lined up in a slight curve, as if this was the United Nations for Route 66. Below the flags, a sculpture shows Cyrus Avery with wife and daughter driving west while spooking an eastbound team of horses. In the early days of Route 66, such run-ins were common with horses and cars headed in opposite directions on narrow paths. In the end, the cars won.

Avery’s road was the long thread that pulled eight disparate states together, and Tulsa is the final knot in that stitch. This is really where Route 66 began. The papers got signed in Springfield, but the idea was born in the Oklahoma heartland from one man’s vision to connect his state to the rest of the country and beyond. Cyrus Avery loved his city so much, he dedicated his life to putting the place on the map and making sure that America’s first highway passed through it. This fondness for one’s hometown continues today, and it seems everyone I know from Tulsa feels the same way.

“The hardest thing I ever did was leave Tulsa,” Andrea tells me at lunch. “I was so happy here,” she adds, remembering her past life in Oklahoma.

We both live in Washington, DC now, half a world away from this deli in the Blue Dome District. The eponymous blue dome was the roof of a gas station across the street—a funky little round brick building that stands humble against a backdrop of big oil skyscrapers.

Most of the buildings in this town remind me of the Hall of Justice from all my comic books—the urban capital where all the Super Friends gathered to report their crime-fighting misadventures. In the blazing sun of the Oklahoma afternoon, I half-expect Superman or Wonder Woman to zoom in between two giant edifices and land their red boots for a chat, but they never do.

Instead, Andrea leads me into the citadel of art deco architecture and mirrored glass, up and over a non-descript overpass to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.

“I want to show you this thing,” says Andrea, cryptically. Grabbing my shoulders, she positions me on a small concrete circle in the middle of a ring of bricks out in the open sun. I stand obediently, facing north, knowing that below me, beneath the bridge, the railroad runs all the way to Santa Fe.

“Now say something,” she commands, and so I say, “Huh?”

My voice sounds strange and echoes weirdly.

“Hello, hello?” I say louder, and my voice calls back robotically, “Hello, hello?” From the outer circle, Andrea looks at me, a little bewildered.

“Just say anything,” she prompts me. My producer is offering me a live mic, a blank page and an open stage, but I have nothing clever or deep to say, only, “Hello, hello?” followed by that ghostly response.

We trade places, and she checks to make sure the phenomenon still works. She calls out, but I barely hear what she’s saying.

“What?” I ask.

She steps out of the circle.

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“They call it the ‘Center of the Universe’,” she explains. “If you stand right in the middle of that circle, you can hear your own echo so loudly, but anyone outside the circle can’t hear you at all.”

Andrea is describing the plight of every writer on Earth. And here it is, the artist’s struggle, embodied in concrete in dear sweet Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I step back to the middle of the circle and bellow, “Welcome to the Center of the Universe!” like a Sooner cheerleader at the final game of the season. My vocal message shoots out on all sides, wraps its way around the Earth at light speed and hits my ears ten times louder: Welcome to the Center of the Universe.

The two of us take turns talking from the magic little circle until more tourists arrive for their turn at the game. Maybe it’s a silly little thing, but there is nothing like it anywhere else on the globe—not that I’ve ever encountered.

Andrea and I depart from the Center of the Universe, and after wandering the city, we try to find parking in North Tulsa. She shows me the signs from old motels and introduces me to old friends—friends that have never left Tulsa. Together, we all go up to the roof of the historic Mayo Hotel, built in 1925, around the same time that Cyrus Avery was plotting our Route 66.

Twenty-some stories above the rest of Tulsa, the wind is strong but the view is clear. The sun is setting and the whole city changes with the light, like a chandelier of glass buildings that hang upwards from the earth. I can see a motherboard of oil refineries across the river, making the stuff that America runs on.

I am glad to have seen my friend’s hometown through her eyes. No matter where you travel in the world, that place is someone’s home, and you will only ever understand it when you see it that way.

Tulsa was Avery’s hometown, too. He believed it was the greatest place on earth and he wanted the world to know it. He loved Tulsa so much, he made a road to get here—to the Center of the Universe.

Before it gets dark, I drop Andrea off at her childhood home and say goodbye.

“Thanks for an amazing tour of your hometown,” I say.

“See you back in DC,” she answers, though that’s still a long ways off. Tomorrow she is flying east and I am headed west, and there is more of Route 66 left to drive than I have driven so far.  Like Avery’s monument, we are traveling in opposite directions to opposite ends of the country.

Maybe that’s what makes Tulsa special—apart from the shopping and good schools and great steaks. Tulsa is still the crossroads it was in the 1920’s, where friends can say hi in passing knowing they will meet again.

That’s what this means, I think, driving solo now—the whole Center of the Universe. It’s a gathering place of friends and family, and it’s the place where you can say whatever you like and the universe will echo back, like the voice of God in your ear on a sunny day in Oklahoma.

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