Nothin But Churches

If you take Harrison out past the edge of town—north, I think; I'm pretty sure it's north—past the factories on the right, you will find Harold's Club. Harold's is scary. Harold's is mean. Harold's is the kind of place where if you don't want to get beat like a linebacker's wife, you walk up to the bar as scary and mean as you can muster and order a snakebite. Please, for your own safety—for God's sake!—do not ask for a microbrew. They are watching.

Harold's is scary and mean because it has to be. It is filled with the rough-hewn, hardscrabble faces of the Resistance. The Resistance is never pretty. The French learned that the hard way.

But what is there to resist in Shawnee, Oklahoma?

Everything seems nice enough in the heart of Potawottamie County, although it is certainly not a pretty little town, the long streets of its business district brown with the same dust that sent forth a generation of Okies to the orchards of central California. (The houses are lovely, though, especially in what people here still call the colored part of town.) People are nice—jovial, even. They don't hit you or anything. They mostly just eat a lot, rolling down Kickapoo Avenue to the buffet place (actually, there are a trainload of buffet places) or one of the myriad rib places, which all feature different anthropomorphized pigs hoofing happily on their casino-sized signage, saucily inviting you to take a bite of their hammy haunches. Go ahead! They don't mind! That's pretty much what there is to do in Shawnee, and for the first few days, you can feel the peace of it all drift through your veins like Huck Finn and Jim on their raft down the great Mississippi. No, that analogy doesn't make any sense, thank you, and after three days in Shawnee, I don't give a good goddamn. Things are slow, slow like Jim Silva's brain, and one can spend the whole day playing at the Bingo parlor with the oldsters or scratching obscenities into rocks out the lake road way.

Yes, things are different here. Hash browns come "smothered and covered" with extra cheese, gravy and what seems to be straight bacon grease. Sweet young waitresses come with voices soft as featherbeds and teeth that are a little snaggled. They don't get a lot of strangers here. Not even the teenagers seem to have cell phones. Still, despite the lack of such a basic hallmark of civilization, things are nice. Nice. But then something starts to nag. A feeling of unease ensues, and one finally realizes what's missing. There are no bars here, except one out the lake road, one in a hotel lobby and Harold's Club—and two of the three ain't open on Sundays.

And then one notices: where taverns should be, there are brick edifices with strange white planks plastered on the front in what look like sideways Xes. There are 96 of these odd buildings in a town with a population of 26,000.

These 96 buildings have titles: "Glad Tidings Assemblies of God Church," for instance, and "The Church of the Living God." Inside some of them, singing can be heard. A peek through the door of another shows folks in polyester pants rolling on the floor. I am invited inside. I decline and back away slowly. They seem to be temples to some kind of deity, and unlike the rest of Oklahoma —from the elevators to the nursing homes—they are not enveloped in the comforting blue haze of cigarette smoke. I find this eerie.

I do some research, beginning (okay, and pretty much ending) with some pamphlets in the vestibule. The buildings are "churches" used in the rites of a sect of people called "Christians," who worship a God-man called "Jesus Christ," who was born on "Christmas" to save humanity's immortal "souls." And whosoever believeth in Him shall never die.

"Christianity" is an offshoot of the "Jewish" faith; the split occurred almost 2,000 years ago when the Jews killed Christ on a "cross" and then didn't even apologize. There are no "Jewish" churches (called "synagogues" or "temples") in Shawnee. But there is Bingo. B-6. Bingo!

Having a little drinkie in the apartment of my "grandmother," I wonder if these "churches" are to be found in Orange County as well. A quick Internet Yellow Pages scan of Costa Mesa lists 33; there are 21 in Fountain Valley, and in Irvine, there are a whopping 45—one of which is the godless "Americans United for the Separation of Church and State."

While that is a goodly chunk of faithful, it is nothing on Shawnee's armies of "God." The town has been thoroughly fortified. It is decent and clean-living, except for all the salt and fat.

But if you take Harrison out past the edge of town—north, I think; I'm pretty sure it's north—past the factories on the right, you will find Harold's Club. And there, amid the Harleys and the meth-cratered skin, there is safety.


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