The Last City I Loved: Omaha, Nebraska

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Say Omaha and most think cow town, feedlots, fly over. That panhandled flatland between points A and Z: a badly seamed green-and-yellow pastiche that provides the grain and steer for the bigwigs and small mouths of the larger Republic.

The Black Frame Crowd or Messenger Bag Riff Raff may posit this is Oberst town, Saddlecreek central. What’s the last best thing to come from Omaha? Top 40 radio? The Russian-dressed Reuben? Elliott Smith was born in a mid-town apartment complex like a million other mop-topped white dudes with premature age lines, all the better for the underage purchasing of hard-packed cigs or a six-pack of tallboys to be punctured and drunk under the fuzzed-out sodium lights of a Walmart parking lot.

Nebraska. The Good Life.

Rent here is dirt-under-your-fingernails cheap. Car keys left hanging in car doors will still dangle there come morning, and strangers will remember your name, greet you with said name when reacquainted, and hug you with the warmth and generosity of some third cousin seen in the grub line at an annual family reunion—two people kowtowing to subliminal niceties under the banner of Being Decent.

 ***

Five years ago, I left my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to get a piece of paper that certified my mastery of fine arts. Boston gave me seafood, bad sinuses, and a frizzy-haired girlfriend who told me she didn’t believe in monogamy seven months in.

Come graduation, I’d barely stepped off the dais and palmed the fake diploma holder, when I was ready to shuck the robe and become a dust blip beaten back across the Missouri. I wanted no last seaside views, no last late-night South Street Diner dinners, and no last Orange Line rides. I had friends—no, brothers—I needed to be back beside in the panhandle: Chickinelli, Fletch, Shad. Not to mention I needed to reunite with bloodlines. My younger sister just birthed her first baby boy, Enoch, my first nephew. I needed to see him grow. Say his first words, gnash his tiny teeth over America’s threadbare interests. I also needed to drive. Apologies to bikers and environmentalists, but there is no mode of transport near as romantic as a car. Being able to get from one point to another with the soundtrack of a country crooner finger picking and warbling as you drive toward some blind horizon trumps all.

On the flight back, grease-thumbing a copy of the SkyMall catalogue, it dawned on me how much I’d miss Boston. It wasn’t without its graces. I worked part-time, in between bad thesis scribbling, at the Brookline Booksmith, hands down the best bookstore in the Boston area. The upper crust with their NPR totes and elbow patches might favor The Harvard Bookstore, and Harvard has its strengths, but the Booksmith had the grit and squeaky floorboards of familiarity on our side. We were a bunch of misfits who tried to take awkward pictures with a Barack Obama cutout (the Photohsopped one from the first term with the white hands), and we often ambled over to a little hole-in-the-wall grandpa bar on Harvard St. (yes, everything is named Harvard), where after midnight, they’d shutter the blinds and allow us to smoke indoors. We downed whiskey and slow danced to no music.

Equally, instructors and friends in my program were lifesavers. Askold Melnyczuk was the epitome of the word mentor. He was always rushing to class quoting Müller or Gide, his gray hair wisping off his head like he’d done a full sprint, even in a dead wind. No better verb than wisp to picture it. I have never met a more caring instructor or someone who, I can say unfailingly, loves literature more than Askold. The man ushered AGNI into the world as a nineteen-year-old in a basement at Antioch.

My classmate, Kimberly Duncan-Mooney, was the one writer I couldn’t be. Poised, professional. Even though Kim was two months younger than I was, she and her wife, Caitlyn, always had this air of measured comportment and adulthood about everything they did. Their two year-old son knows how to tie a cravat. Our stories reflected us. Kim’s were magnificently polished and well crafted. Mine were bastardized concoctions of old drafts and whomever I was reading at the time, often hacked and cobbled together at the last second just to piss off some kid from the previous year’s workshop. My friend and one-time roommate Jon Papas and I would write in frenzies (he was on the poetry side of the MFA program) and then greet each other after bouts of literary self-flagellation and smoke cigarettes on the back porch, listening to the sirens and whirs of Jamaica Plain behind us while Jon espoused Yeezy’s latest.

Still, to say I was heartsick for home would be like saying a perfumed turd still smells like shit. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. I chalk it up to him being a fey six-foot-tall writer built like a refrigerator from Asheville, North Carolina. He probably felt ill in any orbit. Before my return, I fretted over whether or not Things Would Be The Same. During my three years in Boston, I’d come back to Omaha every six months or so, and my good friends would drop everything to accommodate my ridiculous intrusions into their everyday schedules. Tag along at this wedding—why not? Hop on this long-planned road trip. Pull up another chair. Regardless, their lives went on without me, and the joys and heart pangs and shared memories were all happening in my absence. Fletch almost losing an eye after falling off a roof. Lizzie’s Budapest boyfriend on his Heartland tour. The house party where the roasted pig was picked clean by bare hands. The first question on my brain and heart was: how would I fit into the jigsaw puzzle of today? When those in the know guffawed at inside jokes, how many pregnant pauses would have to pass before the conversation got back to an even keel? How many back stories would have to be given, long-wind, to catch me up? The answer, luckily for me, was none. The best part about being a true and honest-to-goodness pal is that there is little to no discomfort in the headlong tumble of the awkward pause. Not every beat needs to be filled with yammer. There can be a solace and a knowing in the unsaid.

***

Here I could give you the stats, the hard sell. Unemployment numbers hover at a nationwide low, rental prices have friends in coastal cities cursing economics, and we’ve got five major Fortune 500 companies headquartered within our fair burg.

Omaha is atop every best-living list. Boon times. Business folk flock here trying to suckle at the teat of the Berkshire Hathaway Grand Poobah, glean whatever bits of investing knowledge they can from Buffett. Once, before the Boston move, I sold a book to Stephen Baldwin, who was in town for the annual BH stockholder’s meeting. He told me he wanted to buy Warren a gift—his self-penned religious awakening memoir. We had one copy in stock.

Young artists and artisans understand the harsh realities of balancing rent and costs of living while trying to make sure no nick or hard cough leads to an unexpected hospital visit. Omaha makes this balance allowable. Every coffee slinger or fry cook is a drummer or bass player in a band covered by Pitchfork. One can live and work in an unfettered way, or at least a way less fettered than is possible in any major metropolis. All the Bigs are flush with the raving yokels mad for the glamour and the look—the artist lean and wardrobe—but it’s too damn pricy to give it an honest go in those spit-shined towns. Those willing to give all in the way of art are living in the little pockets of America: Athens, GA; Oxford, MS; and Omaha, NE.

The city is big enough to support and sustain local arts and music, while still being small enough that everyone knows everyone else’s name. Last count on the official census was 400,000 in city limits. Add in all the outlying and abutting counties and nooks and we’re sitting at over a million, easy.

Of course, no city is without its blights, its bruises. One drawback is that it’s still quite segregated. North Omaha is primarily African-American, South Omaha primarily Hispanic, and everything else is the land of Caucasia, though thanks to our wide and easily accessible thoroughfares, no two points in Omaha take more than twenty or twenty-five minutes to get to via highway. Unfortunately, those lines of demarcation fall into being in the same way they do in most civic instances, due to bullshit redistricting, the invisible hand of economic oppression, and some of that old junior high like-with-like internal distancing. But again, you won’t get the stink eye for treading in the wrong part of town.

Also, we could be doing a lot better when it comes to being LGBT-friendly and having more than one semi-vegetarian option on any given menu (this is the land of prime beef, after all).

Omaha’s at this weird crossroads where history is on our side, but time is also trying to curry favor. We’re equal parts train yard, meat plant, and River City Roundup, while also being home to The Slowdown, Secret Penguin, and The Union for Contemporary Art.

The Benson area has been rejuvenated by young bar patrons and artists trying to get those same patrons to unclip that new money, maybe finance a studio space, drop a little cash on a one-of-a-kind up-and-comer’s future signature wares. The Old Market has the wine bar, Buvette, and its cobblestone hopes, but there’s also refurbished warehouses pumping out electronic dance music to sneakered teens. Dundee has the old sweater regulars who take their coffee black at Blueline, but they’re also hosting the newest charcuterie farm-to-table joint. It’s no accident some of the most successful hubs of the city have made nods to The Next while still preserving elements of the past. Like a relic cast in amber, only that relic is displayed in a futuristic museum shaped like a metal kidney.

***

But beyond any architectural wows, flora or fauna (there’s a reason it’s called the Plains) or number crunching, the best thing about Omaha is the people.

Within a few months after my return, I solidified my standing in certain circles, became another familiar face, found sources of adequate income. I did part-time bookstore work, slung falafel with buddies in Dundee, and got a position adjunct teaching composition classes at a satellite of top-notch community colleges. And I met new kith, and rekindled with kin and older connections gone cold.

Ethel House is a Victorian on Davenport that houses maybe the greatest collection of women under a single roof, short of an officious Washington building through which the Supreme Court justices and H-Rod sauntered. Rachel Tomlinson Dick, who is as awe-inducing a person as has ever been, saw a void for a feminist record label and decided to start one from scratch, in addition to playing in two bands with feminist tilts: The Wayward Little Satan Daughters and HERS. Darcy, her consigliere, is maybe the most badass person I’ve ever met. Once, at two rivaling house parties, I got into a little skirmish with two beefy bros in graphic V-neck tees in the middle of the street, and out of at least fifty or so people, Darcy was the only one brave enough to jump in between us and defuse the situation. No lie, less than thirty minutes later, I had to try to pry Darcy free from whaling on someone else’s face.

Chelsea, Teal, Cora, etc. These women are activists, musicians, designers, stylists, ASL interpreters, and writers. The energy the women of Ethel house put out could easily run a space station.

But the truest, big-hearted coterie of folks that I would jot my name down next to in the ledger of life as compatriots, pals, trench friends, family are the following five:

Paul Hansen, the wildest young writer I know. Paul has some of the most wide-ranging tattoos known to man, ink homage ranging from The Boss to Proust. He also plays lead in a band of shirtless marauders known as The Fucking Party. Paul once dressed up for Halloween as a box of Franzia and has constructed the longest and most architecturally sound wizard’s staff I’ve ever witnessed (a “wizard’s staff” being the product of a drinking game wherein each finished beer can has to be duct-taped on top of the previous one until the “staff” is taller than the drinker).

Fletch is the most talented man on six strings. Plays a cover of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” that’ll bring you to tears. We met seven or eight years ago now, at the local Omaha landmark, Hotel Frank, a generational pit stop for young Omahans to reside in for a few years while saving beer money and living free from under the thumb of parental supervision. A pretty girl in a leather jacket once took Fletch’s picture for a tintype portrait project. She asked all involved what the last words were that they had said before they went to bed. Fletch answered, “Good night, Gene.”

Shad is a former reservist who came back from Iraq keen on home ownership. A wild-maned DIY’er, Shad walks around shoeless as much as the weather allows (a habit he picked up after three months in India), and he’s currently in the small-batch soap-making business. I once saw Shad get tasered (twice, actually) at a house party, because he asked for it. And he wasn’t doing it in an act of look-at-me grandstanding, but in search of genuine I-want-to-feel-alive kicks.

Chickinelli is secretly (or not so secretly) one of the most talented visual artists in the city. Chick’s completed residencies in Montreal and Peru, and his organic, geometric line-driven paintings show leagues more talent than the name jockeys who ride their art school diplomas around. Chick manages the falafel shop and would rather get recognized for being a hard worker and a decent, beer-guzzling dude than a paintbrush-wielding holier-than-thou artiste.

Lizzie is a hands-in-the-dirt type, whether literally digging mud to clear paths for plants and herbs in urban gardening or boarding a bus to DC to support union rallies. Lizzie and I first bonded on a trip to St. Louis where we smoked hookah, ended up at an apartment party where someone was live-painting the narrow walls, and smoked cigarettes in one of the last allowable smoking spots in the city. We played pool and waxed poetic on Dharma Bums, particularly the need to be the right age to read Kerouac.

When I first returned, these were the five I called. Caught up with.

Though there’s so much overlap in our Venn diagram of life (Fletch and Shad went to high school together; Chickinelli was a few years behind them; they met Lizzie at a church retreat in high school; Paul once lived with Fletch at Hotel Frank; Shad lived in another wing; Chickinelli lived with Fletch at one point on 45th; Lizzie, Fletch, Shad, and I all lived together not too recently; Chickinelli and Paul recently lived together; and everyone works in Dundee), the only thing that really holds water is that no matter the time or distance that separates us, we all try. All put forth the effort. Because in any longstanding relationship, the tensile strength gets tested and stretched, sometimes on a day-to-day basis, but the friendships stay intact, still hold their shape, when you remember it’s less about what you’re being afforded than what you can afford. Not about what isn’t being done for you or to you, but what small gestures you can muster regardless of the turn.

Pick up the phone, set a date. Do the deed.

The five of us caroused late nights, stumbling through Benson back alleys, always ending up back at Shad’s house listening to Michael Hurley records, sipping whiskey, smoking cigarettes by the hard pack, and telling or re-telling stories. About the time we all took mushrooms in St. Louis to go see Radiohead. Or when we went to go see Prometheus and ended up in a fight outside a bar on Leavenworth where screwdrivers were scattered in the street. The time snowplows pushed up banks against Hotel Frank’s edges and we shot off the roof into white drifts. Then poured lighter fluid on the drifts, lit them on fire and tried again.

Or. Or. Or. Or sometimes, not needing to say anything at all.


Gene Kwak is from Omaha, Nebraska. More from this author →