I got drunk in Woody Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. Ok-EE-Mah, not OH-Kuh-Mah, as the tourists say. I pulled in just about happy hour on a Thursday in mid-July. Oklahoma is a beautiful land of golden rolling hills. I didn’t expect it to be so lovely, and it probably wouldn’t have been had I not spent the last three days driving through the sticky highways of Texas. The town has a population of 1500 but I barely saw anyone until I checked into the motel. It’s a one-motel town, and from what I could tell, a one-saloon town as well, so as soon as I washed the smell of Texas heat and cow shit off of me, I headed there.
I walked through a parking lot full of four or five decades worth of bottle caps, twisted into disfigured shapes with various shades of rust. The wooden sign above the door had been carved out to say “Welcome to the Rocky Road Tavern. Home of Woody Guthrie and Common Folk.” I’d driven alone from California, met all kinds of people in El Paso and Austin, got stopped at border patrol with a bag of weed in the trunk, woke up the previous night by a policeman banging his flashlight on my car door, but nothing on the journey so far had been as daunting as walking into this small town saloon alone.
I opened the door and the sun poured into the dark carpeted, wood-paneled room with two pool tables, countless dart boards and a juke box. No one was playing anything. They all turned to the light. I was needlessly self-conscious, now that I think back, because I doubt they could see me through all the sun that flooded in with me. Every step I took closer to the bar was a careful one, not wanting to give away my nervousness. I felt like a stage actress not knowing what to do w/ her arms, so I jutted my hands wrist-deep into my jeans’ pockets, trying to appear as cowboy as possible while I nodding to the man on the stool closest to the door. His body completely turned around to watch me, mercilessly. All six or seven people at the bar watched as I grabbed a stool and immediately pulled out a cigarette, taking special notice to steady my fingers. The bartender came up, threw down a coaster as if to say, ‘What can I get you?’ . I asked for a bottle of Bud, knowing not to ask for a fancy foreign beer I’d order if I were home. The bartender stood right in front of a poster of Woody Guthrie smiling, the only friendly face in the bar. Even the 7-year-old bar-owner’s kid was scowling at me, but no one was throwing a harder, meaner look than the old lady at the end of the bar.
The two men next to me said they’d give me a light as long as I don’t try to punch them. I’ve heard this before. I can look mean when I’m not smiling. So I smiled. They asked where I was from and where I was going. I said California to New York. I said it to the men, but I was really talking to the old lady, hoping she’d do what she did, which is speak to me. “I used to live in upstate NY. I drove trucks from New York to all over the country for forty years.” I’m not sure I believe her so I say, “There probably weren’t a lot of female truck drivers back then.” She said jutting out her bottom lip and wrinkling her already very wrinkled chin, “I was the first and I was the only.” Because no one around laughed or rolled their eyes, and because she was the toughest person I had seen man or woman on my trip thus far, I believed her. The two men at the bar handled the formal introductions, “Virginia, meet the town bitch.” She seemed flattered by the introduction, but her real name was Mickey. The two men left and because she was still sneering in my direction, I asked if I could move closer. I moved into the stool next to her and stayed there for four hours.
Mickey’s 79 years old and has spent her last fifty years in Okemah. After kicking her cheating husband from the house, she lived alone raising five kids. Since then she’s lost her right breast, part of a lung, and two of her five children to cancer. She told stories about flying planes, riding motorcycles, sex with countless lovers, driving everything from stuffed animals to broccoli around the US and Canada in her big rig. She spoke endlessly about her love of beer and cigarettes. But nothing impressed me more than her mouth, her goddamn-mother-fucking-son-of-a-bitch-piece-of-shit mouth. That’s how she spoke.
This town was too small and from the disinterested looks of the fellow patrons, her stories have been recited to everyone in Okemah at least twice. She was thrilled to have me there to be impressed, saddened, inspired and shocked by everything she said. During a rare quiet moment, Mickey looked down at our dangling feet and said, “Sometimes I ask what allowed me to survive.” What could have turned into a lesson about God and faith or perseverance and struggle, was thankfully overthrown by her snarl, as she answered her own question, “It’s meanness.”
We sat there all night. Fighting over who would pay for each new round of beer. Inspired by her chain smoking, I went through a pack of cigarettes. In all those hours, she asked me one question, but it was a question not about me, but about herself, “Have you ever met anyone like me before?” Anticipating my answer she’d snap back “and you never will.” At one point, the bartender wanted to know what brought me to Okemah. Just as I was about to talk about my love of Woody Guthrie’s music and my hatred of Los Angeles, Mickey cut off my polite half-truthful answer with “Curiosity!” Hard for me to disagree with her on that. Hard for me to disagree with her on anything. When she said computers are ruining this country, I had no rebuttal. It seemed as good a reason as any, especially when all the people around us quietly nodded their heads in agreement.
At about midnight, she turned to me and said, would it really mess things up for you if I decided to go home now? Extremely drunk and quite tired I said with relief, “No.” Before she walked out, with short steps, or hops, using her arms to steady herself, reminding me of a penguin, she asked with excited and expecting eyes, “When will I see you again?” Feelings of guilt mixed with honor entered me as I told her that I’d be leaving town in the morning. I said I’d try to make it back next year, maybe in time for the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. I said that I’d look for her then. Her disbelieving eyes stopped my social niceties and cued me to say, “If you’re still alive.” And she smiled and said, “If I’m alive, I’ll see you then.”
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