I’ve tried my damndest to move away from Norman, Oklahoma, but every time I nearly stray to chase something shiny, this OU town pulls me back in, haunting me by whispering in my ear at night, things like, “Hey, Leah, it’s Norman here. Come back and drink in me.” Or like, “If you come back, you’ll stay young forever.” Or, “If you build it, he will come.” (Actually, scratch that last one – I may be confusing Norman with a voice in Kevin Costner’s head.)
Most people go to college, get their degrees, and move on to “the real world,” that special place we all hear about when we’re younger. They look at Norman and the University of Oklahoma as a minor blip in their past before they became boring and sucky adults that hate fun, like it’s a bus stop in the tedious bus ride that is life. Then there are people like me who clearly envy those boring people (and who might show that envy by lashing out and calling them “boring” and “sucky”). I went to OU for four years, graduated, tried to move to Boston, and then moved back to Norman. I went to OU for two more years, planned to move to New York, then got a full time job at OU’s Fine Arts College instead. Then, I went to OU for two more years, received my second Master’s degree this past May, and told everyone I knew that by the end of August, I’d be on my way to Boston. But as you might have guessed, I’m not. I’m still here in Norman. I’m stuck here, but as someone who has a potty mouth once said, “There are shittier places to be stuck, Motherfucker.”
Perhaps for those of you reading this, it seems odd to find an article about Norman written by someone suffocating in its boundaries. Don’t get me wrong; I love Norman. I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the people I’ve met or the things I’ve learned here. But it’s precisely my love for this town that makes me so desperate to leave it, and judging by the count at the bottom of the page, I have roughly 2000 more words to try and make you see exactly what I mean by that.
On his album Werewolves and Lollipops, comedian Patton Oswalt spends some time discussing Austin, TX, Madison, WI, and Portland, OR, calling each of these places a “magical fairy bubble of sanity in the middle of…shit.” He advises the people of Austin in the audience to “move away from here when you’re really young, or stay here for life.” Though Norman is smaller scale than the places Oswalt mentions, I feel like what he says applies here, too. Norman is, indeed, like living in a giant bubble, encased in a protective wrap from the rest of Oklahoma. I don’t mean to imply that Norman is better than any other Oklahoma town, but I do believe that it is more culturally diverse, more laidback, and more optimistic than the downtrodden rural areas, the staunchly conservative Oklahoma City, and the vortex of small town life that makes people want to get pregnant just so they have something to goddamn do.
The problem with living in a bubble (other than having to breathe in recycled air all the time) is that when you venture past its outer layer, the world outside beats you down with bitterness and harsh reality. Recently, someone told me that I didn’t live in the real world, and I got all huffy and defensive about it. But after a few weeks of anger turned doubt turned, “Oh, shit, I overreacted,” I realized that maybe I don’t live in the real world at all. I mean, sure, shitty things have happened before in my life, but I’m starting to think that to live in the real world means to have to face those shitty things without my cushion of optimism or my security blanket of the bubble around me. I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me, Norman has been my sanctuary for the past ten years, an escape from ever having to find out whether or not I will let the bitterness get to me.
To live in a college town means to live in a place that exists in the moment just before that sinking mundane adulthood kicks in, where you can feel the buzz of youthful optimism in the air, where the ghosts of hundreds of thousands of college students roam to tell you stories of their drinking days. And when I think of Norman as that college town, I wonder how so many people can settle down here. Why are so many people so happy to live their lives in this college town? Why, up until now, have I been so deliriously happy here?
I can’t give a simple answer. When I think of the time I’ve spent here, I think of stories that could only take place here, different scenes with a rotating cast of characters and one constant: me.
Here is a Norman story:
My best friend Rockey used to live on Symmes Street, barely a block away from my house on Jenkins. One lazy Sunday, a bunch of us were hanging out at “The Symmes House,” as we called it, smoking pot and sitting on the large front porch. I wasn’t listening to the conversation, just staring, half-baked, out at the road, probably stressing about some paper I should’ve started writing, when I saw two girls dressed as fairies dancing down the sidewalk and spinning hula hoops on their arms.
That in itself was not bizarre enough for me to even mention it to my friends. A few minutes later, however, I watched a skinny boy on stilts hobble by on that same sidewalk in the opposite direction. Then a juggler came by. About the time the fifth freak made his way by the house, it occurred to me that this was getting a little strange, so I turned to my friends and said, “Am I really fucked up, or do weird freaks keep coming down the street?”
Before the last syllable dropped from my lips, a guy wearing clown makeup and riding on a unicycle scooted his way by us, and my friends erupted in laughter.
I pointed at him. “So you guys can see him, too, right?”
About a week later, I ran into one of Norman’s local characters at a thrift store, and he told me that a bunch of Normanites had banded together to start their own circus. Despite my polite reaction to this information, I was quite skeptical. I had a lot of questions that I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask, like, for instance, can you just up and start a circus? And until you get an elephant or a trained bear, isn’t it really just a freak show? The next time I went up to Othello’s to perform at the open mic on comedy night, I spent a full ten minutes making fun of Norman hippies and “circus folk.”
Cut to a month later: me and a bunch of my comic friends were heading over to the alley in front of Norman’s skanky strip club, Sugers, in order film a sketch comedy short. What we didn’t know was that we were filming on the same day, in the same location, as a Norman arts fair. So on that pleasant Saturday afternoon, my friend Derek Smith and I were both walking around in homemade superhero costumes. I had on tights, a mask that covered the top half of my face, pleather gloves, a cape, and a giant “O” duct-taped to my chest. Derek looked ridiculous.
In the middle of filming, the members of the newly congregated Norman circus showed up at the arts festival, spotted Derek and I wearing our garb in the alley, and headed right toward us. All I could do was sit and shake my head while a parade of fairies, clowns, and 19-year-old girls in gypsy costumes danced their way between us, winking at us and praising us for our costumes. They think I’m a freak like them, I thought. But then I looked over at Derek through my hastily-cut eyeholes, took in his glittery Mardi Gras mask and his child’s cape, and I realized that I was indeed, a freak like one of them. And just like that, Norman had taught me a lesson about judging people, even when they’re really asking for it.
In the fall of 2000, I came here as an OU student, but since then (I’d guess somewhere around 2005) I crossed over from the category of “student,” and into the category of “townie.” When you’re a townie, you know never to drive down Lindsey Street, you look forward to summer and winter break to ease up Norman’s traffic, and you see the students who come in as alien visitors invading your space craft. (There’s some nerdery for you, nerds.) When you’re a townie, you spend OU football game days parking cars in your lawn for ten dollars, downing beers in full view of children and Baptists, and watching the game on a big screen outside, the stadium’s south side a scenic backdrop. Every time OU scores, you see the fireworks and hear the crowd roar just before the cable delay catches up with real life.
When you’re a townie, you don’t feel any fear walking down the street in the middle of the night because you’re home, and home means an absence of fear. In fact, you’ll probably run into someone you know at three in the morning, taking a drunk stroll that crosses paths with your drunk stroll, and you’ll stop and have a ridiculous conversation that you’ll only remember in blurry waves. And the next day, you’ll wake up and tell someone, “I think I may have started a Culture Club tribute band last night on the way home,” but you won’t remember who the drummer was going to be.
When you’re a townie, you start to realize that you know half of your friends from college, and the other half because they’re locals. And you find that you like the people that went to high school in Norman just as much, often times more, than the people that came here to go to college because they’re just more real.
When you’re a townie, and you go to Bill’s karaoke bar on a Sunday night when Rita is working, she drops two mugs of beer in front of you before you even order them, even if you didn’t want them to begin with. And then you sign up to sing the song that everyone requests, the one you always sing when you go there. And then you’re singing Billy Joel’s Piano Man to the same people that have heard you sing it a million times, but they all still raise their glasses and toast during the line, They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness/But it’s better than drinking alone.
And when you’re a townie like me, and you’re pushing 30, gulping watery beer from a glass mug while singing Piano Man for the 300th time, you’re quite suddenly aware of an irony in the words you sing: He said, “Bill I believe this is killing me”/As the smile ran away from his face/Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star/If I could get out of this place.
I know that there are many people who are happy living here, and I can certainly understand why—there’s a sense of thriving community here, a neighborly feeling that runs through the thread of this town. Months ago, I was running up James Garner Ave., and I hit a stop sign at Eufala. A giant red truck pulled up next to me. The driver’s side window was down, so I could clearly see the slightly rapey-looking man resting his elbow on the doorframe.
I hesitated to cross the street because I couldn’t see around the truck to find out if there was a car coming, but the man in the truck pulled forward slowly, waving me along with him. “I got you,” he said.
When I think of that simple sentence, “I got you,” I feel like it should be Norman’s unofficial motto, representing the small town feel that defines the character of this city. Norman is its people, and just as much, its people are Norman. So knowing that, why do I want out so badly? Why do I feel like this town is closing in on me?
I think it’s because I can’t go anywhere without being haunted by the ghost of an old friend. I can’t go to the store without running into someone I know. Hell, I can’t even remember how I know them anymore. Every place I go in this town has some kind of memory attached—the golf course, where John left a pair of shitty boxers during a wine drinking adventure, the Blue Bonnet, where one of the tables says, “Rockey loves Leah,” the parking lot of Ole Blues where I had to hold Lynse up while she peed, the spot on Main Street near the railroad tracks where someone that loved me asked me to marry him onstage in the middle of the Norman Music Festival in front of all of our friends. I’ve lived on the east side, on the west side, and right in the middle of this town. I’ve worked as a receptionist, as a teacher, as a personal assistant, as a server, as a manager of a camera equipment checkout facility. I got three degrees here. I started doing standup comedy here. Everything I can remember that has made me the me I am today happened right here.
Lately, I have this desire to go on some new adventure somewhere else, and like any good college town, Norman is telling me it’s time to go. And maybe the real world will beat the shit out of me, and maybe I’ll give in to its very un-magical reality, but maybe not. My friend told me once that you take home with you. I hope that means that when I leave here, if I ever leave here, I’ll take with me Norman’s optimism, its seething youthful energy, its kindness, and its easy laughter.
For all the people I love who live here, for all the wonderful and interesting characters who can be happy just by simply being satisfied with your own happiness, I envy you. Maybe I’ll meet you back here when we’re all old, when I retire from whatever weird-ass life I’ve led. And maybe we can sit on a front porch together and make fun of all the freaks that walk by us.
But when I travel somewhere to do stand-up, and people ask me how I want to be introduced, I will always reply, “Just say I’m from Norman.” Because for one thing, I don’t have any real credits, and for another thing, it says everything about me. Because I am Norman, Oklahoma. Because you are where you come from.