Prowling the Birthplace of Jim Thompson

Tuesday morning I arrived bright and early at the customer site I was visiting in Oklahoma City. It was cloudy, rainy and cool the entire time I was there . . . but, given it was about 50 degrees warmer than it had been in Missoula when I left, I was quite comfortable.

I have to say someone screwed the pooch when it came to scheduling me out here. Long story short, I was back out of there again by noon, and had rescheduled my flight home for Wednesday morning instead of Thursday. Of the options I’d identified for entertainment purposes, I decided to visit Anadarko, the birthplace of the legendary Jim Thompson. Thompson, as we know, was a writer of awesomely dark, psychotic, noir crime fiction who died in 1977. So I slipped into something more comfortable, grabbed a flask of whiskey and a pistol, and away I went.

I’m kidding about the flask. And the pistol. The only weapon I carried, in fact . . . was myself.

It was only a little more than an hour of driving and I was pulling into town.

This was a spur of the moment thing. I don’t know much about Jim Thompson, and less about the town he was born. I knew he was born in 1906, which was the year before Oklahoma even became a state. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like then — that isn’t all that far removed from what we commonly think of as the Old West.

These days, given Indians comprise a near population majority, there are many businesses with an “Indian theme” as it relates to their naming conventions. For example, one of the first places I passed (after the Kiowa Housing Authority) was a strip mall called “Warrior Valley Plaza.”

I don’t think there is a strip mall in existence that isn’t butt ugly. This one was as ugly as any I’ve ever seen.

     

In fact, the only businesses that seemed to be operating out of the place were the regional office of the BIA and the local adult learning center.

     

As I drove around, there wasn’t much traffic, and not too many people out on the street.

I was getting rather depressed. The town just seemed to be falling down. Many of the homes, obviously being lived in, were run down. Other buildings looked half demolished, and many signs were mostly destroyed.

     

What it most reminded me of, in fact, was Indianola, Florida, a small town on the Atlantic Coast I’d worked in three or four times over the course of implementing a project a few years ago. I’d been there a couple times, then went back a few months after it had been hit back-to-back by hurricanes, and it looked like hell (though it was damn ugly to begin with). Researching a little when I got back to the hotel, I learned that Andarko had indeed been pummelled by a tornado just a few months ago. That explained a lot of the destruction.

     

It doesn’t explain the overall vibe of the place, though. Many buildings were empty, or moved, like this decrepit Sonic Drive-in (Sonic started out in Shawnee, OK, in 1953 — coincidentally at the same time Jim Thompson’s career really took off with the publishing of books like After Dark, My Sweet and Savage Night, which followed in the wake of 1952’s The Evil Inside Me; all books I HIGHLY recommend, by the way)

     

Places like this move to new locations and leave their old sites to rot. It’s ugly and depressing. Not only that, but Sonic food is particularly awful.

I ventured downtown, hoping to find some cozy little diner that would serve me coffee and pie, just like a character out of a Thompson novel. I didn’t intend to beat or kill anyone immediately afterward, or go on a drunken bender, bag some dame, or even go on the lam, but I still thought it would be a nice touch. Unfortunately the downtown was pretty well dried up, just like the rest of the community.

     

I could have gone to a movie, if I’d wanted . . . though the name of the theater made me wonder about the owner. Nice thing was is I could have bonded my way out of jail afterward, apparently, if the necessity had come up.

There was no friendly little diner in sight, and I drove all around the multi-block core. I suspect there were chain restaurants out along one of the other highways that cut through town, wherever the fucking Wal Mart was, but I didn’t want any of that kind of shit. I wanted the heart of town, the old town, and I’d hoped to encounter some quiet little burgh like you see in ads about “real America” that run during political campaigns. Anadarko, obviously, didn’t fit the bill. And no one I spoke with — only a couple folks I encountered, mind you — had ever heard of Jim Thompson. I did find a Mexican restaurant to take lunch in, at least.

          

The food wasn’t that great. The Modelo was, however. The woman working there was interesting; her voice was like Roseanne Barr with a Mexican accent. She asked if I was a photographer, and what I thought of their town. “It not bad, pretty nice, huh?” she said. She has lived there 15 years, hailing originally from East L.A. I said it’s probably a little different living there, and she laughed loud, “Oh jyes, very very different!”

Rolling out of town, I drove around a little more. I passed the Apache Housing Authority as well, and rolled through a little neighborhood of weatherbeaten brick HUD houses. It was more depressing. The street sign seemed ironic to me, considering the Apache were forced into Oklahoma in the first place, then had “their lands” further taken away and divided up as excess.

     

I don’t know what I expected from my visit; it’s not like Jim Thompson is all that famous anyway, and the town of Anadarko in 2009 is light years different from the 1906 version (which existed shortly after the lands in the area were opened to settlement by whites). I skipped a couple Indian museums there because I knew they’d just piss me off. So the visit didn’t give me much insight into the life that might have inspired Thompson to write the stories he did, but certainly showed me how a life in a town like this might shape a modern noir writer. This is a side of America a lot of people don’t see, unless they live in the middle of it. I’m glad I visited.

6 thoughts on “Prowling the Birthplace of Jim Thompson”

  1. >Thanks, Kirsten — I know you too are one of those folks who love to jump in a car and take a look at things off the beaten path! After all, aren't we kindred spirits in having passed by the World's Largest Ball of Twine?

  2. >I love the photo of Sonic that says "Moved next to Wal-Mart!". Kind of an apt summation of the whole town. The whole country, really. The whole US retail economy, really.It's also funny how towns like to put up idyllic murals depicting what the town used to look like amidst what they let it become. This is a popular technique in old Colorado mining towns too. It's like, "Welcome to our depressing shithole! Look how far we've fallen!"

  3. >Yale, you nailed it — especially with the Wal Mart picture. I also like how the billboard in the background of that shot is an ad for a casino.I think what I liked the most about the big mural wall was the "I Believe in Anadarko!" slogan.Missoula has some cool murals, but at least the downtown part of Missoula is really the highlight of the city. Unlike so, so many other small cities around the country.

  4. >You see that movie I Am Legend? I caught the front end the other night and it makes a good case for what NYC will look like when it's emptied of people due to virus (except for the zombie dudes at night). Your post reminded me of that…

  5. >I did see I am Legend. I loved how the city was rendered in that, and I totally get what you mean. The movie pissed me off because they changed so much unnecessarily from the book, but I did enjoy the post-apocalyptic setting. I'm a fan of that kind of thing.

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