It’s Steak Tip Day Today

Emily Crosby, Undergraduate Admission Office

Honorable Mention

2019-2020 Staff Essay Contest

 

In Minco, Oklahoma, in 2006, an elderly gentleman saw a strange group of dirty teenagers and invited them in for lunch. He was walking out of a brick storefront, more plain and unadorned than you could possibly imagine, with just the words “Senior Citizens” in cheap white letters above the door. As one of those dirty teenagers, the sight of him shuffling across the street in his cap and tucked-in button-down shirt is crystal clear in my memory. To be fair, we were a group of dirty teenagers who clearly had some sort of purpose; we were on gear-loaded bicycles heading for Los Angeles, and by this point in our journey, I know for a fact we were a bit on the smelly side. We must have been an odd sight in this sleepy town, but we learned as we crossed Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas off our list that we were an odd sight in every small town we visited. We had just coasted into Minco with some of the only tailwinds we’d felt in the last 1,500 miles; when you ride west, you usually face the wind rather than ride with it. Minco was a classic “one stoplight town.” The main street was quiet and was clearly the only hub for this town of 1,600 at the intersection of OK-37 and Highway 81.

The gentleman had come out of the Minco Senior Center, having seen us out the front window, and told us it was steak tip day and the community would love to host us and hear about our travels. That one question, coming from a place of curiosity, kindness, and generosity, is how on a random July afternoon, nine kids from all across the United States spent the lunch hour with the senior citizens of Minco, Oklahoma. I have some scattered photos from that day, but I have clear memories of what was one of the most organic and memorable afternoons of this six-week, cross-country adventure.

Anyone walking into the Senior Center that day would have been taken aback by the sight of a bunch of outsiders in dirty spandex and unkempt hair, and there were times that even we forgot how strange we looked in grocery stores or in public with our helmets and bike shoes still on. If it bothered our hosts, they never let it show. I can see this afternoon clearly in my mind’s eye: my fellow rider Mark, a loud, somewhat brash, but heartfelt kid from Philadelphia is sharing the piano bench with an elderly woman as they plunk out a duet together on the old second-hand upright. Sam, the quirky and gangly rider from Colorado, is playing bumper pool with a gentleman in top and bottom denim. Brian, the big buzz cut-sporting rower who ate twelve packets of oatmeal on a dare a few mornings before, is standing in line for steak tips, dwarfing the residents around him as they ask questions about where we’ve been. Gia and Sarah, from Chicago and Boston, are rearranging their handlebar bags and cleaning out granola bar wrappers while two ladies ask them how they balance with so much on their bicycles; and had we considered just flying to L.A.?

I remember the wooden paneling on the walls, the linoleum flooring, drop ceiling, and fluorescent lights. I remember sitting at lunch with people who reminded me of my grandparents, and I enjoyed that they seemed to think of us as grandchildren for the day. Having not spent much time on my own, or in settings so different from suburban New Jersey, every experience on this trip was a novel one. But lunch in Minco still resonates for some reason; maybe now as an adult in a time when people are so divided, it stands out as an example of kindness, understanding, and a willingness to build bridges and learn.

We had nothing in common with the senior citizens of Minco, except for a desire to learn more about each other: where we come from, what our lives are like, where we’re going, how we got to where we are. We learned about their grandchildren, their pre-retirement lives and careers, the other activities they do at the senior center. They learned about us, our hometowns, the colleges we wanted to apply to, the states and towns we’d seen and those left to go before we reached L.A. They could have just seen us out the window as they prepared for lunch and drawn conclusions about where we were headed. We hadn’t even planned on stopping for lunch in that town; Minco wasn’t exactly bustling with lunch spots and grocery stores from what we could see. But that one man decided to extend a kindness to us, and in doing so, he exemplified the generosity and warmth that we came to discover in so many small corners of America once we knew to look for it. We learned that we can find common ground and shared interests with people in the most unexpected places, and I’m grateful for that senior center lunch to this day.

Our time in Minco was short as we had more mileage to clock by sundown. We eventually made it out of Oklahoma, and from there we went on to the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and finally the Santa Monica pier. We rode through hundreds of small towns and met even more wonderful people who would ask us the same questions: “Where y’all headed?” “How many miles is that?” “How long will it take you to get there?” “Where do you sleep?” Acts of kindness flowed from the most unexpected places. The entire town of Union, Mississippi, brought a potluck dinner to the community center where we were staying, and one gentleman drove us to the community pool, piled in the bed of his oversized pickup truck. A fire company in Prescott, Arizona, let us stay in their firehouse when we fell short of our destination one day. Retirees at an RV park gave us their blueberry pie, saying we deserved it more than they did. Owners of a KOA Campground woke up at 4 a.m. to make us pancakes and eggs before we hit the road. Still, the Senior Center lunch in Minco was the one that stands out the most in my mind.

The last photo I can recall from this particular day, one of my favorites from the whole experience, is our group of dirty teenagers piled on the one bench outside the Senior Center. We’re laughing, smiling, goofing around, ignoring Becca’s cries that she’s being smushed by the boys. We’re about three minutes from pulling out of town, and we all know that there’s a slim chance we’ll ever see Minco again. In that photo, seventeen-year-old me is carefree, a little tired, tanner than my Irish self has ever been, and energized by an experience I had yet to fully appreciate. I didn’t know then that almost fifteen years later I’d be reflecting on it, even after all of the experiences I’ve had in my adult life so far. That’s the power of one small act of kindness: One lunch invitation in a small town over a decade ago carries on as a reminder that despite what may seem like insurmountable differences, we can all learn something about each other if we just decide to walk across the street.