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Street Level: Laboring on 21st Street

Street Level: Laboring on 21st Street

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LaToya Neal waits for a bus after a day of work at Panera Bread. Not long ago, she was a “destroyed” woman. Addiction had shown her several rock bottoms.

“Alcohol was my drug of choice,” she says.

She enjoys working now. She enjoys riding the bus to her job. She is grateful to be alive.

“I hit rock bottom a couple of times,” she says.

The most recent came after an arrest for driving under the influence. Instead of bailing her out of jail, her family left her there.

“Sitting there (in jail), I was angry and bitter at everyone,” she says.

But now she knows there was a reason for it. She is grateful for her family’s decision, because that led her to the Women in Recovery treatment program. She talks of George Kaiser fondly. It’s his foundation — The George Kaiser Family Foundation — that funds the Community Sentencing program as an alternative to incarcerating nonviolent female offenders.

She’s never met Kaiser, but knows she could never thank him enough. She talks about how he changed her life and the lives of her children, calling it a domino effect.

In January, I set out to walk 14 miles on 21st Street one mile at a time. I will finish the walk on 23rd Street at Southwest Boulevard after I cross the Arkansas River. Last year, I completed a similar project, walking the length of Peoria Avenue.

People often ask why I choose to do this. Simply, I love talking to people like Neal and finding out the stories of people I meet walking. You cannot hear their tales driving by at 40 mph.

Across the street from Neal, Charles Cumberbatch, standing on the back of a lawn mower, rides back and forth in front of a home that is for sale. A large straw hat protects him from the sun. Even on really hot days, the heat doesn’t get him down.

He is mowing with purpose. He thinks back to standing in his kitchen in Barbados — an island nation in the Caribbean — and hearing God’s voice.

“The Lord told me to come to Tulsa, and I said, ‘Yes sir,’ ” he said.

He sold everything, packed up and moved to Tulsa to attend World Revival Temple.

“This (mowing) is like tent making,” he says referring to the biblical scripture Acts 18:1-4. That is the reading in which Paul, a disciple of Jesus, is said to make tents to support his ministry.

“I believe the Lord brought me here to further train and hone me, and I believe at some point he will send me back out,” he says. “Jesus is good, there’s no one like the Lord.”

He then returns to mowing.

Expo Square looks empty and lifeless in the morning. A few workers apply paint or cut grass, but it lacks the excitement associated with the venue. As I walk slowly, some of the art deco characteristics of the Pavilion stand out. All the times I have been here on assignment or for fun, I have never noticed the ornamentation.

No matter the quiet and stillness, my 15 years as a Tulsa World photographer taught me there is almost always a photo to be found. As I walk, movement at the Oklahoma Ford Dealers Barn catches my eye.

On the thick dirt floor inside, Tyler Campbell pops a whip as a horse named Dennie runs circles around him. He grips a rope tightly and goes nowhere close to the horse with the whip. He always snaps it in the opposite direction, letting the noise do the work. Campbell is young, looking like a cross between actor Ron Howard’s famous characters “Opie Taylor” and “Richie Cunningham.” Country music plays on a smartphone strapped to his belt.

Just a few days earlier, Campbell showed up in Tioga, Texas, from his Pennsylvania home to take a job with Tim McQuay who owns McQuay Stables. It is a Reining and Hunter & Jumper training, sales and breeding facility with about 200 horses.

Campbell, just 24, is brand new to his job and is thrilled.

“It’s every person’s dream to be able to work for Tim McQuay,” he says.

He almost sounds like he is kissing up to the new boss. But McQuay is nowhere near as Campbell describes him as one of the top horsemen in the industry. His first task has been to bring 26 horses with McQuay to show at the Tulsa Reining Classic.

The horses run poetically around an arena on their morning workout. Someone describes them as being more like figure skaters than horses. Watching as McQuay’s crew works the horses, it seems like hard work and long days.

“I wouldn’t consider them long, hard days,” Campbell says. “If you find a job that you like doing, you don’t consider it even work.”

Mike Simons 918-699-8814

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Tulsa World Photographer Mike Simons walked all 16 miles of Peoria Avenue in 2014. This year, he will walk 21st Street and share the stories o…

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