Sunday, August 8, 2010
In this post, I will expound upon two recent weekends of mine that were full of disparate activities that mark the different sides of humanity. Two sides which both have merits in moderation. This post is not about moderation.
Ever since I first arrived in Omaha, the local Chabad has been calling and text messaging me. Chabad is a Hassidic Orthodox section of the Lobouvicher Hasidic Jewish sect that has operations all over the United States and the world, and tries to reach out to Jews wherever they are. It is the closest thing to a Jewish evangelical operation, but because of the inward looking nature of Judaism, it mostly succeeds at not participating in the most egregious errors of evangelicals of other faiths. My father always said jokingly that he respected the Lobouvicher Hassids because they were the one religion in the world that was closest to Judaism.
Yossi Brackman, the director or the Chabad at the University of Chicago gave the Omaha Chabad my phone number before I came out here, and we had been in contact for a while trying to work out how I would go there to visit them. All of the Jewish people and synagogues in Omaha are in the far west suburbs, while I am stuck in the eastern end, but I had finally found enough friends that I could mooch a couple of car rides back and forth between the east and the west. The Omaha Chabad has a guest house, and I really wanted to spend a full shabbos out there, fully engaging in the Sabbath to the fullest extent of Jewish law. I wanted to become fully immersed in an experience that was not my own, yet not completely foreign. For anyone who has never experienced a true Sabbath, it is a wonderful experience. The Jewish Sabbath is not only a ‘day of rest’. It is not simply a respite from the world of work, it is an entrance into an entire world of contemplation and spirit. But it is very hard for a Jew to enter into this spiritual world alone, he needs others around him, a community, which is why I decided to head to Chabad. The very least, it would be an interesting sociological experience, so, Friday morning I packed my bag with clothes for the weekend, and after work, took the ride out west with the intern Ygal.
I got to the Chabad center earlier than I had planned, so while I waited for Rabbi Katzman to pick me up, I read some of the Chabad material. One of the differences that Hassidic Judaism has with the rest Judaism (one of the many…) is their almost god-like reverence for their ‘Rebbe’, the spiritual leader of the movement. Throughout the 80s and 90s, that Rebbe of Loubouvach was a man named Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a man, who oddly enough, always struck me as bearing both a physical and authoritative resembelence to Pope John Paul II http://www.campus.merkos.org.au/General_web/belief1.jpg
Anyway, the Loubovichers believe that Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (or simply The Rebbe, as they call him) was sent to herald in the age of Moshiach (the Messiah) and a new dawn of spiritual learning. It’s an odd belief system that is in many ways foreign and anathema to the type of Judaism that I was brought up with (especially considering The Rebbe died more than ten years ago). Anyway, as I waited for Rabbi Katzman to come, I read stories about the miracles that The Rebbe had performed for his community while it was in need.
After a little while Rabbi Katzman arrived. He was a tall and majestic, yet humble looking man, who wore the traditional long black coat and black hat of Hassidic Jews and had a long red beard that was beginning to grey. He smiled at me awkwardly and welcomed me in. While I knew he would look something like this, I was still caught by surprise. Hasids look odd and foreign in their enclosed communities in Brooklyn. In Nebraska they look extraterrestrial.
I went back with the Rabbi to his house, because Omaha is so far west in the Central timezone, the sun sets very late, and we still had a while until shabbos actually began. We got in the Rabbi’s car and he drove the short distance from the Chabad center to his house. As we pulled into the drive way, the rabbi picked up his son’s toy bicycle that was strewn in front of the door and moved it to the side.There, I was greeted by the Rabbi’s large family, his wife, little son, and eight daughters. It was quite a sight to take in, a hassidic family that could be straight out of Brooklyn (and maybe even Vilna or Warsaw), all together, preparing for the Sabbath in Omaha, living in a typical suburban house. I sat down in the living room, and the Rabbi’s wife brought me a bowl of pasta that she insisted I eat. Rabbi Katzman then came in with a book of Hassidic folktales for me to read as the rest of them prepared their bodies and souls for the holy Sabbath.
It turns out I was correct in feeling so out of place with the hassids in Nebraska. As we were walking to services to pray, I asked Rabbi Katzman whether there were other Hasids in Omaha. He shook his head rather sadly and said that his family were the only ones. How strange and lonely it must be to not only choose to be different from the world, but then to choose to live out in that world they had rejected. The Hassids are very much a reactionary sect of Judaism. In the folk stories that Rabbi Katzman gave me, I read about their beginnings. They were founded in the 19th century as a way for Jews to experience a more mystical conection to the Torah. They rejected much of the new scholarship and haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) that was going on in Western Europe and strived to create what they call Yiddishkeit, a Jewish way of life centered around a mystical religious experience, not necessarily pretention. That is why so much of their identity is transmitted through folk tales. The stories that I read documented the vehement ideological war that took place between the followers of Haskalah and those of Hassidism. I knew, that I was a descendent of the haskalah, here in the home of the Hassids.
One of the things that I found most interesting in the tales of the Hassids was their emphasis on material wealth. Many of the stories were stories about the local Rebbe performing some type of minor miracle so that a poor family could have enough money to perform a certain ritual or simply go on living. The religion’s transfixion on the material (albeit, not wealth) was surprising for a sect that was centered around so much mysticism. It was obviously a religion created by peasants to break free of the restrictive religious establishment around them. How ironic that they were now the restrictive religious establishment.
By 9:30, the sun had set, and the Rabbi and I prayed alone together, welcoming in the Sabbath bride. Then, we went into the dining room, where the table was set. The women lit the shabbos candles, and then we began to eat. After the meal, we began to discuss Torah more intensely, and the Rabbi took out a bottle of apricot schnapps. He passed it around the table pouring shots, said “lechaim, lechaim”, and everybody drank.
After dinner, the rabbi walked me back to the guest house, where he explained to me the importance in Jewish law of taking care of your guests even after they leave your house. The next day passed very quickly, and was fully of prayer, study, and discussion. Shabbos really is a beautiful time if you can manage to fully separate yourself from the material world. I stayed one more night on the west end, and then caught a ride back to my house Sunday morning with an engineer named Stephen who had spent most of his life in the Soviet Union and then immigrated 20 years ago to The United States.
The next week was Tisha B’av, the day that that marks most of the bad things that have historically happened to the Jewish people. For some reason, it is one of the few Jewish holidays that I find a real strong spiritual connection to, and it has always be a meaningful time for me. I was too exhausted to go to Chabad that night, but the next morning I woke up early and drove with Stehpen up to Chabad. After a service and torah reading, I drove back with someone else, and went to work.
One of the distinctive marks of Tisha B’av is that it is a fast day. Fasting is one of the more interesting tools in religion’s arsenal. It can be viewed both as a punishment for the body or as a transcendence of it. On Yom Kippor, Jewish people read from the book of Isaiah, a passage in which God asks rhetorically:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD ?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
And yet, Jewish people fast, seemingly to humble themselves. And it’s useful in many ways. When you fast, you actually find yourself thinking about food less than you thought you would beforehand. Importantly, you are able to see both how much and how little control you have of over your body. You are able to control your mind and your desires, preventing yourself from doing what you your body wants you to do. And yet, you are still subject to your body. Your extremities get cold. It is hard to keep your hands steady. You are both powerful and humble.
That day was very humid, but finally after work, the weather broke and it began to pour. Thunder and lightning struck out through the sky, and suddenly my room turned from being dark to having a distinctly yellow-green tinge. I looked out to find the world shrouded in sepia. Gazing out my window, I felt compelled to walk outside. So, not even putting my shoes on, I walked downstairs out to my front porch. My roommate Matt was their too, in a similar trance-like daze, without shoes, gazing in awe at the odd occurrences. Neighbors stepped outside from all around, looking up at the sky. Suddenly, the rain stopped and a rainbow appeared. Two rainbows, perfect refractions of light, powerfully projecting themselves from one end of the sky to the other.
The next weekend, I went out to a party. One of my friends from Chicago has a friend in Omaha named Rachel, and she was having a party at her house. The theme was Colt 45, the cheap malt liquor that only someone without enough money to buy skol vodka would drink. Rachel lives in a similar housing setup as mine, in a big house with a number of other roommates. Her house is about a mile away from mine, so I walked over. As I walked, I passed through the UNO med center campus, which was littered with medical advice signs. One of them was to prevent binge drinking. Half of the sign listed the various ways in which one could die from binge drinking, while the other half had a list of how many calories were in various alcoholic beverages. I guess some people are more afraid of putting on a few pounds than dying. I laughed as I passed the sign on the way to a party where I knew there would be more 40s than people. When I got to the party, there still was not enough alcohol, so I decided to go along with Rachel to pick up some more and get to know her more. As we were pulling out of the gas station with bags of booze, a bald man wearing a wife-beater came up to us and asked, “d’ y’all push pills? D’ ya need any pills?” We politely told him that we didn’t need his services and quickly made our way back to the party.
The party goers were divided into two sets, white trash Nebraskans in their early twenties and a more urban punk and bearded crowd. Both groups were there to blow off steam from working depressing retail jobs. Everybody was cordial, but a little awkward, so I decided we break the ice by naming our favorite primary and secondary colors. People looked at me a little strangely. But we went around introducing ourselves and our favorite colors, and people began to get more open. Soon, more people came and we split off into smaller conversational groups. I stayed with a group of the closest thing Omaha has to hipsters (note: Omaha does not have hipsters. It’s actually pretty depressing and actually quite surprising considering there is such a strong indy-folk music scene here. Sure, there are people who wear skinny jeans and have unkempt facial hair, but they are not hipsters. In fact, I have brought up the word hipster in conversation twice with people my age here, and each time, they have given me a blank look of not comprehending.), gabbing away for hours. Eventually, when most of the people were far gone from too much Colt 45, someone realized that the Columbian girl standing next to me in the circle looked somewhat like Penelope Cruz. He pointed this out, and everybody agreed. Then, we proceeded to go around the circle figuring out everybody’s celebrity lookalikes. Finally, they got up to me. Everybody was a little perplexed, when out of the blue, the Penelope Cruz girl said, “I know, you look like an 80s dude!” Everybody agreed whole heartedly, and I was left to wonder what this meant, and how it was in fact a celebrity. In the end I decided to take everybody’s word for it; after all, they were all born in the 80s, while I am only a child of the 90s.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Part IV (In Which Eric Learns a Valuable Lesson about People Riding Bikes While Drunk, Sees His Neighborhood Go Up in Flames, and Witnesses a Grown Ma
Just as I had began to find my place in the office and in my work, it was announced that a new intern would be joining our department. As he was down in HR received what was presumably the same ridiculous spiel I received on my first day, I wondered whether he would disrupt the power dynamic among the interns, disrupting the balance that John and I had created the week before.
The new intern was named Ygal. I disliked him immediately because of his name, that reeked of a kid who would be Jewish with a Vengeance. By that I mean the type of kid who has grown up in a small Jewish community, isolated within it, a small minority that is resentful and fearful of the larger society around it, but openly embracing of its culture. The archetype is proud to be different, but wears that pride in neurotic fear, always worried that the next pogrom is going to engulf his little shetl. This pride mixed with fear creates a type of self-loathing, but one that is not outwardly expressed as loathing, but rather (quite unwittingly ironically) as an aloof sense of self worth. He is affable, happy to glad-hand anybody he deems as being on his side in the fight. He espouses political views that are right wing, but he doesn’t view his views as being particularly right wing. His grand and great-grandparents were probably communists and would be disgusted with his drive towards material gain and egoistic advancement.
All of these anti-Semitic thoughts raced through my head before I even met Ygal, and I wondered how fair it was of me to be this prejudiced based simply on someone’s name. I wondered if I was simply fulfilling the anti-Semite’s view of being a self-loathing Jew. But then I realized that I loathe most groups of people much more than this harmless sect of people who are Jewish with a Vengeance, so I was probably safe. I also realized that he would probably have an instant connection with me and would also probably know some of the people that I had met in my travels.
Ygal came up to the fifth floor and was led around by Marty, circling the floor before he reached my desk. Ygal was shorter than myself, tanned and freckled, with short jet black hair. He looked kind of like Sal Mineo as Dov Landeu in the film Exodus, and had in fact just arrived in Omaha the day before from a two week long program in Israel, where he was taught how to defend Israel while on a college campus. He was friendly and happily shook his hand, and I was genuinely glad to have him in my department, it seemed like his outward attitude would open John up more and help build a stronger group.
Ygal was from Omaha, but went to school at the University of Texas. He was quick to inform me that he was a ‘frat boy’, a badge he wore with honor (a good way to way it); he informed me that he was a “part time student and a fulltime ZBT.” All in all, Ygal was good to have around, and I don’t want to sound too patronizing, we come from very similar backgrounds (so maybe I just don’t have much self-respect…).
The work week passed quickly, and before I knew it, it was Thursday. Caprice, Jess and I had made plans to go on what was called “The Taco Ride,” a twenty mile bike ride through Iowa that happened every Thursday. This week was supposed to be an even bigger event because it was right before the Fourth of July, and many more people were supposed to come out. There was even a local band hired to play music at the end.
While sitting at work, I got a text message from Caprice asking me if I was still going to go biking with them. I heartily responded “yes”, and waited for forty-five excruciatingly long minutes before I would be able to clock out and get home to prepare for the Taco Ride. Finally, I was able to leave my office and go home. When I got there, neither Jess nor Caprice was there, and I got a text message from Caprice saying that they were at the gas station putting air in their bike tires, but that I should go ahead help myself to a beer in the fridge. Unable to resist such an offer, I obliged Caprice, and waited for her to get back. When Caprice and Jess returned, I found out that we would be going over the river to Iowa in separate cars; I would go with Caprice, and Jess would pick up her friend Brooke and come after us. I got in the car with Caprice, and soon enough, we were in Iowa, ready to bike down the ten mile trail to the small hamlet that lay at the end.
Once we parked the car, Caprice took out her camelback, which she informed me was filled with Iced Tea and Vodka. She offered me a sip, and again, I obliged. She also informed me that the pack on her bike was full of beer, and that she expected us to have them finished by the time we got back later that night. The evening was beginning to look interesting.
We started off down the nature path, slowly at first, but then picking up speed. The path was built on what used to be a rail line, but, along with most small rail lines, had fallen out of us somewhere around the middle of the last century. After years of disuse and neglect, the tracks had been pulled up, and lo and behold, a beautiful bike path was ready for the general public. The path wound effortlessly through rolling plains of Iowa, fields full of corn passed as I peddled my way passed the rows and rows of corn that you could see clearly through for and instant when the angle was just right. There were barns too, not like the dilapidated, worn out barns of upstate New York or the commercial dairy farms of Pennsylvania, but large majestic Midwestern barns. Every once in a while, a couple on horseback would pass us, slowly trotting along in the opposite direction.
Caprice kept on telling me how good the Taco Ride was (as if I couldn’t already see that), and that once we got to “Margarita-ville,” we would be able to fully experience it. She said that Cole (our landlord) and his friends were already at Margarita-ville, and that we would meet Jess there. Caprice kept on repeating “Margarita-ville,” and it took me a while to realize that it wasn’t just a state of mind, but a name for the midpoint on the trail, the place where everyone stopped and began to enter the proverbial Margarita-ville. But, as it turned out, most people could not wait until the midpoint Margarita-ville to start drinking. As we moved on down the path, we began to see groups of people about every quarter mile stopped on the side of the road, chugging beers. Near one group that seemed friendly, but not boisterous, Caprice and I pulled over, and she opened up her bike-pack, revealing a surprising amount of Miller Lites. The people we stopped with ranged in age from about Caprice’s age to about 45, and we enjoyed a nice rest together before we set out, down the windy path towards Margarita-ville.
As we got closer, the road got more and more crowded, it was obvious that hundreds of bikers were now on the path, all with one common goal. Margarita-ville was nothing more than a clearing in the woods, where a couple of picnic tables had been set up, but a mass of bikers had transformed it into a meeting ground, a resting place where they could express themselves. Bikes lay strewn about the sides of the road, music blared from speakers that people brought, and people lit tiki torches they had brought with them on the back of their bikes. Almost as soon as Caprice and I pulled in, we found Cole and his friends, two of his fraternity brothers, who had had much more to drink than caprice and myself. What had really gotten to them was the concoction that Cole had in his camelback, which was an amalgamation of beer, lemonade mix, and vodka. Pretty soon, Jess and her friend Brooke came riding in, and we were ready to continue to the end of the trail.
Once we pulled out of Margarita-ville, we biked a lot harder. There were fewer people drinking on the side of the road, and everyone just wanted to get to the tiny town at the end where everybody would be congregating. At one point, Cole veered off the road and fell into a ditch, cutting his forehead on a branch, but for the most part, the ride went smoothly, and we were in town in no time.
When we pulled into town, (which consisted of nothing more than a bar and a small general store, real Wild West), bikes were everywhere. There were so many, that nobody bothered to lock theirs up, they just left them leaning against any free piece of wall they could find. The cover band was already playing, and bad classic rock streamed through the air. A large crowd of people in shorts and biking clothes was assembled in front of the stage, watching the younger and drunker people dive into a foam pit that had been set up directly in front of the stage, a giant bubble blower blowing more and more foam onto the kids. We parked out bikes and walked into the bar, where Cole had had some more of his fraternity friends waiting for us, saving us seats. The bar was packed, and even they, a cheap bar that was used to having crowds on Thursdays was not expecting this many people. We sat down, eventually, the waitress got to us, and we ordered lots of tacos, lots of cheese balls, and lots of alcohol: bad beers, bad margaritas, and bad tequila shots. The food and booze came eventually, and everyone gorged themselves. One of Cole’s friends went over to the table next to ours that was full of college girls and tried to pick some of them up and bring them over to us, but they politely laughed him away.
Eventually, we decided to leave, and after struggling to pay (it really was hard to give them our money, they were too busy to even acknowledge it), we stumbled out of the bar. The band was playing the last of its numbers, and someone in our group decided to lead us into the foam pit, where we proceeded to cover each other in foam. After five more minutes, the band left the stage and put on recorded music, we stayed in the foam pit, listening to Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine man, and suddenly everyone was quite depressed and felt like they were somehow wasting their lives drunkenly frolicking in foam. Also at that point, someone decided to get a hose out and start spraying cold water on us.
Soaking wet with water and foam, we left the pit, and returned to our bikes. Somehow, on that way, we got split up, and I was left with Jess and Brooke, while Caprice, Cole and Cole’s friends were nowhere to be found. The three of us eventually decided to take off into the dark alone. Jess was the only one of us who had functioning bike lights, so she rode behind me, illuminating the dark path ahead of me as I rode on, into the abyss from which I had come earlier that day. Along the way back, fireflies dotted the path, leaving a small portion of the air, their own little world, illuminated around them. At margarita-ville, we found Caprice, who was being touched very sexually by a Spanish man on a bike. She looked very uncomfortable. When she saw us, her face lit up, and she informed us that one of Cole’s friends had locked his bike to someone else’s and couldn’t find the key; we should just leave without them. We finally got back to the parking lot around midnight, and Caprice decided it wouldn’t be a good idea for her to drive home, so she called her mother, who quickly drove by and picked us up.
By this point, Caprice was pretty drunk, and her mother could tell it. She was not angry or disappointed in Caprice, only kept chiding her for her use of vulgar language. We were low on gas, so we stopped at a gas station. Caprice quickly jumped out of the car and offered to pay for the gas. Her mother insisted that she shouldn’t, but Caprice wouldn’t let up, so her mother relented and said “only five dollars worth!” Caprice put thirty into the tank. When we got back in the car, Caprice’s mother thanked her profusely, and Caprice told her that with her new job, she could afford to do such a thing. Her mother agreed somewhat, but still didn’t like her charity, but then calculated how much more her daughter made than she (about two and a half times), and decided it was okay. We pulled into the alley of our house around 12:30, and there were children laughing and lighting off sparklers for the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
It was then that I remembered that the next day was “executive grill day” at the office, and my floor was having a potluck lunch, and I had signed up to make rosemary potatoes. I panicked, and began cooking, as the rest of my house continued to party (even Matt and Paul). By two, the potatoes were done, and I headed off for bed.
I woke the next day after my adventure, and walked to work, surprisingly alert and awake. Everyone was wearing casual clothing and was quite laid back. My potatoes were a great success and the entire floor ate together in the big conference room, laughing and joking. Phil, the big boss, questioned me in front of everybody, and I held my own, returning with wit and banter of my own. I arrived home in a mood ready for the Fourth of July.
Fireworks had been going off since Thursday night, and only grew in number and frequency as the weekend progressed. Technically, fireworks are illegal within the city limits of Omaha, but you would be hard pressed to find a family that didn’t launch them. Every house in the city limits had its own mini arsenal ready to go up when the time was right. The fireworks continued on intermittently throughout the weekend, until , at 9:30 on Saturday night, all hell broke loose. All around my house, rockets flared up to the sky, illuminating it in red and yellow tones for an instant. Gun shots surrounded my house, as I looked in awe at this great siege. The annual oblation to the great war gods of American society –Jefferson, Washington and Madison—had begun.
The Hispanics I live among celebrate America with a type of furor I had not seen. They celebrate it not in a cerebral or solemn way, but rather in a way which is alive and exciting. The pulse of their excitement could be felt in the air. From my second floor perch in my room, I could see the fireworks, but couldn’t feel them, the deep rumbles that emanate as they set off, so I stepped outside. I was greeted with a stench of sulfur, and a cloud of smoke that engulfed my view; the entire street had been transformed into a war zone. Black clouds lingered in the air like flak, the remnants of fireworks and glories past
The Hispanic kids next door set off fire crackers and roman candles in the street. Shrieks of joy and fear were let off by the children as the older men looked on with glee at the power they wielded. Every once in a while, a car would drive down the street, through the smoke that now engulfed it, a small convoy trying to find its way out of a street on fire. Every five minutes, a new family would begin its own display, trying to outdo the others The attacks were intermittent, with families taking the initiative when the explosions had stopped to launch their own rockets into the sky. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to see the blaze from the fireworks, only hear their violent shrieks as they were launched into the air. For a moment, I saw a rabbit sitting silently in the road, seemingly transfixed by this bizarre primate ritual of violence, before it scampered off. It’s odd how violence has been ritualized and reconstructed in a way that is peaceful and even aesthetically beautiful. There is a natural impulse to want to recreate the violent, after all, war is in many ways similar to many parts of our society, and is in fact a highly ritualized action (when not perverted by mechanized murder—war as a ritual can actually be quite beautiful and less physically violent than many other aspects of society). I was able to sit peacefully and calmly on my porch, listening to Woody Guthrie and watch as the world exploded around me. It seemed to me at that point that the problem with modern war was that the symbol had been removed from it. If only violence could be about aesthetics and honor, war would be quite acceptable.
The next week in work was rather calm. I was putting the finishing touches on two of the projects I had been working on, so not much new happened. I ended up having to present the projects in two different meetings, both of which went much longer than I expected, but I held my own, and they went quite well in the end. The week also welcomed in another new employee to the pricing department, a young man named Chris, who was taking over a job from Chris (yes), who had left two weeks earlier. On his first day, we all went out to eat lunch at a new pizza/sandwich shop that had opened up nearby. Ian was quite excited because he had read online that they had a gluten-free menu and pizza.
I introduced Ian earlier, but I will take this time to do so again. Ian is about 28, short, a little pudgy, but not fat, and balding. What hair he has left is ruddy, reddish-brown. He wears a chin strap beard, so he looks like an Amish or Abraham Lincoln. He is easily excitable and always ready for a joke, but more often than not, the jokes are at his expense. He is sweet, but easy to make fun of, and very often engages in self-deprecating humor (or at least humor that opens itself up to it). He likes it because it is his way of communicating with the world, and around the office, people like him because he lightens the mood up and he actually does his work quite well. Anyway, he was very excited about this gluten-free pizza, but when we got to the new restaurant, it turned out they didn’t have the technology for gluten-free pizza quite set up yet. In an instant, Ian went through a range of emotions, from rage, to disapproval, to a quite acceptance, back to a fit of rage. His face turned red, eyes watered up and he stormed out of the restaurant. Eventually, he came back in, sat down without ordering anything and attempted to joke his way through the meal to take attention away from his outburst against a society that wasn’t built for him. It didn’t work particularly well, and eventually Gina went over to comfort him. Such is the tragic life of a comic, the sad essence of the court jester.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Part III (The Part Where Eric Meets a Real Omaha Family, Sees the One Handed Police Officer Again Says Goodbye to Someone he Hardly Knew, and Ponders
This past week was a week of learning for me. I learned plenty of things about Omaha and was reminded of very many about myself. For instance, I learned that inside of Omaha is a gigantic cornfield. Right there, in the middle of the town, somewhere in between downtown and the row of Wal-Marts and targets that line the outermost reaches before the landscape once again melts away into cornfields.
Ever since I told her I was going out to Omaha for the summer, my friend Hannah Rose from high school had been telling me about her friend Claire from college who lived there. After one week of getting setup and settled in Omaha, I was ready to meet her. I wondered if after the week the New York-Chicago attitude had worn off of me and I would fit in. Probably not I realized, after all, I barely fit into those places to begin with. Claire and her family decided to take me out for dinner, and they suggested The Cheesecake Factory. I wasn’t much planning on going out with my first real Omahaers (Omaha-ans?) to a chain restaurant that had no bearing to Nebraska, but being a poor, hungry guest, I didn’t complain. I would let them decide how the night went.
It turns out it was a good idea I didn’t argue and we ended up going to The Cheesecake Factory. If I could describe Claire’s family in anyway, it would be much like my family… only more so. Stubborn, unmoving, picky, and incredibly warm and welcoming. Claire picked me up in a big posh SUV, she got out to greet me, we exchanged pleasantries, and then set out up Leavenworth to The Cheesecake Factory, which was in one of the shopping complexes next to a Target and a Wal-Mart. Claire was very friendly and very excited, and when we entered the restaurant, we both began to look prodigiously for her parents. Well, she began to look for her parents, and I began to look for people I assumed would look like her. After traipsing around the restaurant, Claire located her family, and we sat down with them. It became clear almost immediately that the precondition for my being there that night was to be the entertainment of the family. They would take me out for dinner, and I in turn would be forced to give them a bit of a change in scenery, I would submit to their questioning and would regale them with my stories.
They began the highly choreographed kabuki dance, starting with broad questions about what I did with my life in order to reach the truly interesting answers as to why I did those things. I enjoyed it a surprising amount, it wasn’t difficult to talk about myself, after all, that’s what I know the best, I didn’t have to think, I didn’t even have to make up interesting anecdotes that night. Alas, their line of questioning was interrupted when the waitress came over to take our orders. Claire ordered promptly, but when the waitress moved on to her father, the mighty appetite for perfection of Neptune broke out. With no fewer than six substitutions, he completed his order, and then passed his fiery trident onto his wife Salacia and their nymph son Andrew, who didn’t disappoint, ordering in a startling order and with utmost passion that would even put his father to shame. The meal went well, and by the time Claire and I left to go back to her car, the sky had opened up and thunder was resounding off the Great Plains. That night, I had made a friend in Claire, but within three days she would pick up and leave for Poland, and I would be left again where I had begun.
All night long lightning pounded mercilessly against the landscape, causing both man and nature to take refuge, huddled together in fear. I was lying on my mattress on the floor, admiring the beauty of this most glorious thunderstorm, but this attitude was not one that my environment would allow to last. For with each jolt of thunder, my small green house would shudder, trying hard to expel its demons and reach a peace with the heavens. Amid this chaos I fell asleep, and when I got up the next morning to walk to work was well rested, but found the great tree in the middle of Dewey Park on my way to be cleft in two, struck by a bolt of lightning; some warriors made it through the storm, others didn’t. Throughout the week, I engaged danger head on, biking through traffic to get to the grocery store, all the time laughing that a mighty tree could be destroyed so quickly, while I could cower in my bed and survive.
Aside from the tree, the week was marked with another farewell. After 14 years Chris was leaving NICO to move to Kansas City. Chris could best be described as oak-like. A massive beheamouth of upper body strength, my only interaction with him in my one week at NICO had been repeatedly running into him mixing protein drinks in the bathroom. And, like a tree, he had a type of aloof silence about him. I often wonder whether the silence of individuals can be attributed to wisdom or simplicity, and for Chris, I suppose I will never know, but either way, he exude a mystical power that humbled others around him. The office decided to go out for lunch for Chris’s last day, something that seemed to embarrass him until the leader Marty informed him that we would be going to Fudrucker’s to get hamburgers. Chris glowed.
To get to Fudrucker’s, the other intern John offered to drive me. Over the past week, John and my interactions had been limited at best, and I decided this would be a good time to try and peer into his being. As we walked to the car, we again passed the police officer with one hand. A bad omen indeed. Luckily, we got to Fudrucker’s safely and ordered our food. Chris ordered the biggest hamburger on the menu, and everybody watched him in awe and he bit into it and let it pass through his throat. After he had finished, he sat back and began to murmur to himself. Slowly people began to realize, stopped their conversations, and leaned in to hear what he was saying. By the time that everyone had quieted down to hear Chris, he was talking about how NICO had been the one thing constant in his life over those 14 years, while everything changed around him. You could tell from his tone that Chris really did love his past 14 years because of that. He didn’t want excitement, he just wanted consistency. We wished him well, and split up into our separate cars to go back to work.
On the way back, John the intern and I talked. It turns out he’s more interesting than I thought, but told me when he was going through long worksheets, he had trained himself to zone out. It was the only way he could get through the day. I told him that sounded like a horrible fate, and I pitied him. Anytime I was given a boring assignment, I would revel in the boredom and triteness, fully engaging it and battling it head on. Perhaps I would be fighting a losing battle, but I would try not to develop coping mechanisms until the very last possible moment.
When I got back to work, I began to sort through some of the companies that we wrote coverage for, categorizing and summarizing their business for a future model we would be creating. The project was in some ways repetitive, but interesting, each company telling its own unique story. For the first time, I was seeing what America really does for business, reaching my hand into the great grab-bag of general liability and pulling out interesting small business after small business. NICO literally covers every type of company in the US. Their motto could be taken straight out of the Kris Kristopherson song Me and Bobby McGee, they cover companies “from the Kentucky coal mines to the California sun.” also, they cover lots of fireworks companies. Americans love fireworks, these small rockets that go up into the night sky and suddenly, in a burst of flame, illuminate the world around you, if only for a second, and then shroud it once again in utter darkness. As I went through the companies, I noticed what for me was a surprising number of companies that were run by husband and wife together, both a romantic and working pair. I couldn’t determine whether this was a romantic notion or just a way to get by, but to me it seemed rather quaint, and in that way natural and romantic.
When I returned home that afternoon, I saw four people sitting on my porch. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself, “they don’t seem to be the normal people I live with. What if they are hoodlums??” In fact, two of the people were people I already knew, Matt and Paul, but taken out of the context of their rooms, they seemed quite alien. There was another man out there, and then a woman, the real reason they were all sitting on the porch at 5 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon drinking. Her name was Baily, and she was obviously the leader of this little expedition, encouraging all to drink and engage in socializing. Baily passed me a bottle of straight vodka and then a jar of cranberry juice mixed with vodka to wash it down, and being a sucker for that type of nonsense, I drank one and then the other. By seven, I was pretty drunk, and when the four of them went to a bar downtown, I went up to my bed and talked to my friend Zach from Chicago on the phone.
Baily stayed with us, sleeping in the living room on a couch through the weekend, and was always an interesting person to converse with for five minutes after entering the house. That weekend, I decided to go downtown for the first time. So I got up early, mounted my bike and began to ride down the street. In no time at all, I was in the cobblestone section of the Old Market. I stumbled into a used book shop and got lost in the cavernous stacks of books for an hour before realizing that the time had passed. I left, with two books on Mythology in hand, and went looking for a place to eat. I wandered in and out of restaurants, but couldn’t find anything that suited me. Having given up, I wandered into a small alley, where I stumbled upon a small Mexican restaurant, where I felt comfortable sitting down by myself and reading Hindi myths. The waitress was very kind to me and kept refilling my lemonade. I thanked her as I left and was ready to bike back home when I came across a gigantic arts festival, complete with a large stage full of bluegrass singers. I sat back, realized, and then biked home, which happened to be up hill all the way.
After I got home, I took a shower, and began to let my mind wander. Naturally, it wandered to Death and Sex, two of my most favorite and most feared subjects. I had recently been watching a slew of Woody Allen movies and had been reading reviews about a book about Death & Sex by Volk and Sagan, so it was natural that I think about those things. Plus, I am a human.
These two subjects are two that are often analyzed, but rarely in relation to each other, how they are interconnected and cause one another. I began my shower by thinking about death (a natural place to start), I wondered what made death a necessity. Outside of violence and disease, many people still die what we deem as a ‘natural death’, something which seemed to me to be quite a burden and unnecessary. At first I tried to justify it with scientific, bio-chemical answers. “Well,” I said to myself, “all of the universe tends towards entropy and our bodies are part of the universe, so they too must tend towards entropy and die.” But I thought to the small organisms that can be frozen and then regenerated after thousands of years, maybe eventually the universe must end and we must dye, but in the mean time, our bodies possess the mechanisms to resist flying apart. Surely, our complex body could create some type of mechanism to prevent the atrophy of our internal organs, after all, we grow and add matter to our bodies until we are about 25, there is really no conceivable reason why we should stop. The necessity of death still eluded me.
Then I remembered a quote that I had read on Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish earlier that week, in a break from my work. The quote was from famed scientist Max Planck and went as follows: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Thinking along that line, but in evolutionary biology terms, in order for new and beneficial traits to be formed, so that genes themselves may live longer, our bodies need to die, in order that they be replaced with a new generation. Our genes dictate the need for death; those crass chemical combinations of causality have little care for our bodies or souls once they have mediated the further propagation of the genes. Because of this, the genes abandon our bodies once their purpose has been attained, in fact, they kill the body so that there is room for the new generation. Sex is the way in which the process continues. This mixing and mutating of genes creates new combinations that allow the current genes to further progress.
Sex and death are really tools of the same mechanism acting on us, two opposite sides of the same coin (which makes them not really opposites at all!). Sex begins the process, it introduces mutations and new combinations into the system, that will hopefully allow the genes to survive for longer. And death finishes the sequence, allowing room for those mutations to take over. In some ways, sex can be seen as a precursor to death, the necessary prelude to it. Freud argued that the sexual act was one that mimics birth, and is an attempt to re-attain the prenatal state. But sex is actually precisely the opposite! It mimics and foreshadows death! Without one, it is inconceivable we should have the other. Man only has to rebel against his genes and stop having sex to attain immortality. Or something like that. Actually, in some ways, it’s precisely the opposite. It is only by acting through the given system that immortality can be achieved.
Joseph Campbell tells a story in The Power of Myth that speaks to this idea very powerfully. He talks about a ritual present in the men’s societies of New Guinea. There is a great initiation celebration that goes on for five days, until the participants are exhausted and in a state of utter mysticism. At last comes the great moment that the ceremony has been leading up to. The young initiates are brought forward as a class, and with drums blaring and people chanting, each one enters one at a time into a small hut and has sex with a young girl. When the final boy goes in, the entire tribe rushes on the hut and pulls the supports out, killing both lovers in the midst of their embrace. Their bodies are then removed, stewed and eaten by the entire tribe, the powerful vigor of the young couple reintroduced into each member.
This story is both horrible and beautiful at the same time. Here is a people that truly understands that death and sex are not things to be feared! They are a part of life, integral boundaries that need to be embraced and brought together. It is only through sex and death that one can reach a point above both of them. Therefore, there is no need to fear either, the society and its constituent members accept death, just as they accept life.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Part II (the part where Eric is food poisoned, begins to explore and buys a bike-- BONUS RECIPE INCLUDED)
II. The Introduction of Me (the part where Eric is food poisoned, begins to explore and buys a bike -- BONUS RECIPE INCLUDED)
So far, this story has mostly been about observations that I have had. I have been present in it, and you have seen the world of Omaha through my eyes, but I have still played a passive role. My only action was in seeing and transcribing. That is often the way it is when you are in a new place. But there comes a time when you begin to need to take an active role if you want a story to continue. And this is where I come in. This is where the story stops being about Nebraska and starts being about my time in it.
My first night in Omaha, I had a dream. Not a significant one, with a meaning or a message. Mostly, it was a replay of the “A Taste of Omaha!” festival. Only I was working to feed people instead of buying food. And instead of any of the food that I had consumed, I was feeding people a strange type of corn-on-the-cob and meat sandwich. The corn-on-the-cob was overcooked and I couldn’t understand how people would eat a sandwich with the cob inside of it. But I did as I was told and kept serving them. The content of the dream is not interesting. It the fact that I dreamed it. In the eighth grade, my science teacher Gary Dreiblatt taught us about dreaming and sleep and told us to keep a dream log over our spring vacation, in which we wrote all the dreams we had. I was nervous because I didn’t (and still don’t) dream all that often (and when I do, it is rarely all that interesting; my conscious self is much more interesting than my subconscious). Anyway, I expressed my fear to Gary, and he said I shouldn’t worry, anytime we experience a change in sleep patterns or location, we tend to remember our dreams more. And, that first day of spring vacation, when I got to sleep in, I did remember my dream. Ever since then, I have had the most vivid dreams at those liminal moments that mark separations in time. Maybe that’s why Jacob had his most vivid dream as he slept alone, about to meet his brother in the land of Israel.
I woke up late and knew that if I were to survive, I would need supplies. So I showered, put my sneakers on and headed east, hoping that I would hit a grocery store. I walked down Leavenworth, knowing that I would eventually hit a grocery store. Kept walking, past the bars built into the hills, past the blue collar uniform stores, past the gas stations. Nobody else was on the streets; eventually I reached a grocery store, a giant supermercado called Avanza.
Avanza is the most terrific of grocery stores, with the cheapest fresh produce and the greatest Mexican sodas. I roamed the aisles, planning out what I would eat for the next weak (mostly pasta, potatoes and tuna melts… it all got pretty old pretty quickly), picking up the greatest spices I have ever seen along the way. I reached checkout and was pleasantly surprised at just how low my bill came out to be. So I paid, walked out, and then realized that I needed to carry all this food home, back the way I had come. So I started off, each arm leaden with bags of groceries, going block by block, closer to my new home. It was a hot day, and by the time I finally reached my home, sweat was dripping down my face. So I sat down, popped open a jarritos and hoped that the food would put itself away. I realized that it wouldn’t, so I painfully got up and loaded up the refrigerator, which was already packed with my food.
That night, I cooked as I never had before, planning to make food for my lunch for that entire week. I roasted the potatoes I had bought, caramelized the onions, made pasta with a special sauce I had created from the spices I had gathered along my trip through the aisles, and was generally pleased with myself. I sat down and began to eat my glorious first cooked meal of the summer.
It was then that the second of my roommates I was to meet came in. Paul is a slight man of 25, someone out of college and waiting for the next stage of his life to take off. He works at sears and is generally awkward, but somewhat congenial. He lives on the ground floor of the house along with this Matt, who is 28, looks rather like Paul, and has generally less direction in life than him. Jess and Caprice (another one of my roommates I was to meet later) would talk about how they haven’t seen him do more than leave his room in the six or so months they’ve lived with him. I exchanged pleasantries with Paul and engaged in amiable small talk. He was cooking some ribs. He let me know that. I told him that I could see and they looked very good. I finished my dinner, packed it neatly into little Tupperware containers and put them in the refrigerator upstairs. I would later come to regret that.
My other roommate is Yasmin, she is 23, very thin, from West Africa, and mostly speaks French (and loudly at that). She is a student, and like my other roommates, in her off time works at some crappy service job.
The next morning I got up at 6:45, realized that I would have to do that for the rest of the summer and found myself oddly amused at what I had done to myself. I showered, got dressed in my ‘business casual’ attire, made some eggs-in-a-basket, garnished with zahtar (the spice I use in most everything I want to be savory), and ran out the door, on my way to work.
I had been planning my route to work for months in advance, ever since I started looking for a home in Omaha, so I kind of knew exactly where I was going. Still, it was odd to finally be walking the path that I had seen so many times on a google map. I got to the National Indemnity (I’m working at National Indemnity—and a little bit with geico, national reinsurance and Berkshire homestate companies, which are all part of the core insurance business of Berkshire Hathaway. The way Berkshire works is Warren Buffet makes money from insurance and then uses it to invest in crazy schemes that more often than not work incredibly well) building and was greeted by Elizabeth from human relations. I had had many conversations with Elizabeth on the phone, but again, just like the path I had taken to work, it was odd to finally see her in person. That would be happening a lot through the day.
The people who work for Berkshire HR are all pretty silly. They are all women, and range from interns to women of about 65 years old, who need to hold onto the wall as they walk down the hallway. None of them have left Omaha, and they try so hard to represent their company well. All are proud.
Something I’ve realized about Nebraska: people always say that people from New York (and the east coast in general) are unfriendly, and they find people in the Midwest a lot nicer. I suppose in some ways they are correct, most people in NYC will not say hello to you as you pass them on the street, and in NYC you get the feeling that people in Human relations don’t really like interacting with humans. I wouldn’t say it’s a difference in character though. More a difference in situations. When walking in NYC, you see thousands of people; it’s impossible to say hello to every one of them. So people don’t. Conversely, it is such a rare occurrence for a shop in Omaha to get a customer that the people seem to be nicer. But they aren’t really.
That being said, the people in HR were very excited to see me, and after a powerpoint presentation on the company, they bid me adieu and sent me down one story to the people I would be working with, the pricing department!
The people in the pricing department are also silly. Actually, now that I think of it, that’s a good word to describe many of the people I’ve met here. Pricing is pretty self explanatory, it is the job of the department to look at the data that comes in, all of the numbers about losses and whatnot, and determine the amount of risk that the company is holding, and what a legitimate price would be to charge as a premium. I am working directly with two men, Marty and Steve. Marty is tall, fairly lanky, and, like most people who look like that, fairly goofy. As a matter of fact, I have taken to judging people quite quickly from their outward appearances here. Maybe it’s just the fact of meeting so many new people, or maybe there really is something to the pseudo-science of physiognomy. Anyway, the other man I work with, Steve, is shorter, hipper (his desktop background is a painting by Van Gogh!), and generally more bitter. When I went out to lunch with the group that day, he would make sarcastic comments when his peers would jokingly say something stupid. I immediately liked him. He was serious and wanted business done correctly, but acknowledged the absurdity of modeling abstract risk all day. When he was initially training me and getting me acquainted with one of the systems, we began to look through old policies. To make them more interesting, we would look up the more ridiculous people we insure (beaver exterminators, alligator wranglers, fireworks operators) online. We came across an article from a local newspaper a man whose company we insured down in Texas who had been murdered about a year and a half ago. We both looked at each other, unsure which one of us would laugh first.
I left my first day of work, content with the work I had done, and made a tuna melt for dinner. I have a secret recipe I made up for the greatest tuna melts in the world, and I will now share it with you:
1. Take a can of tuna fish
2. Put some mayonnaise in it (the only time its legitimate to eat mayo)
Watch till the very end: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgztF8Fp160&feature=player_embedded
3. Now comes the tricky part, grade some cheddar cheese and mix it into the tuna!
4. Put some zahtar in there for good measure
5. Put the whole mixture into a tortilla and grill it like a quesadilla
Anyway, that’s what I cooked for dinner. I briefly thought about my chances of mercury poisoning from eating tuna, but decided that I would throw caution to the wind and eat it anyway. You’re only young once.
The rest of my first week went pretty much along the same lines, with little details changing. One day I went out with two of my coworkers (Ian and Gina, two of the weirder ones in the office—Ian is the floor safety monitor and finds a Dwight Schrute-like type of solace in that title) to go play ‘Pitch’, a Nebraskan card game, at the National Indemnity office down the street with some of the company’s programmers. As we walked to the other office, I saw a police officer beside his patrol car, standing perfectly still, looking perfectly ahead, not acknowledging us as we passed. He had a hook for a left hand. None of my co-workers seemed to notice him, and they kept on walking.
The next day, I had a meeting with one of the Senior Vice Presidents of the company talking about one of my projects for the summer. He has a deep authoritative voice and commands the type of respect that no one else in the office does. Also that day, the intern from HR called me to interview me for the company wide “Friday Facts!”, a weekly newsletter in which all new hires are interviewed. I said some silly things to her and they published them.
The week was going pretty well until Friday came along. It began as any normal day; I got up, washed up, packed my bag up with my lunch and headed out to work. Once at work, I dove right into what I had left off the day before. Things progressed as normal until lunch came along, and I took out my pasta and put it in the microwave. I went back to my desk to eat it, hungry because I had missed breakfast that morning. I got about halfway through it, when suddenly I had a great urge not to eat anymore. I put my fork down and my food away. I also had a great urge to make myself tea. So I did, and got back to working., modeling risk for airplanes. About three hours later, things began to take a downward turn. I started to feel not so well, but figured, I only had an hour left of work, so I should just get it over with. I was tough enough, hell, I was from New York! I went back to pricing and actually started to feel better. 15 minutes went by, then 30. And then, I started to feel extremely cold. I stayed at my desk for another 15 minutes, at which point I decided that the last 15 minutes of work weren’t really worth it and I snuck out the backdoor and headed home. I thought the fresh air would feel good, but when I started walking, I realized just how woozy I had become. I stumbled out of the building, and started walking through the park on my way home. I was surprised at the number of people outside (I guess that’s what Friday afternoons are for), and wondered what they were thinking of me as I faltered, went to the side of the road and vomited in the bushes. I immediately felt better, walked another thirty or so paces, at which point I again proceeded to vomit, this time next to a tree. After that, I really did feel better, and when I reached my home, I went to the dollar store across the street and bought a box of cheerios and some apple juice; the only medication I needed. I went to my room, ate the cheerios, drank the apple juice, and lay down. Five minutes later, I was back in the bathroom, vomiting again, this time for the last round. It turns out, I was not supposed to use the refrigerator upstairs (there are two in the apartment) for storing food (what I was supposed to store in it, I have no idea), and when I put my pasta in it, I was in fact taking my life into my hands.
That night, all of my roommates got drunk (except for Yasmin, who doesn’t drink) and caused a general ruckus. Because of my afternoon, I couldn’t join in, and looked on sadly. I helped the drunken roommates change a light bulb, which they decided needed to be changed immediately.
I woke up early the next day, and went out bike shopping with Jess and Caprice, who were surprisingly not hung-over or tired at all. We went to all types of stores (it was my first time in a wal-mart!), and I ended up with a pretty cheap bike. Now I will finally be able to fully explore Omaha.
Sing in me O Muse!
And through me tell the story
Of the man of many twists and turns
Who crossed the plains of America,
Thinking an adventure he would find,
But really had a chic internship at a large firm.
The man who in his narcissism thought himself a hero,
Thought himself out, alone in the world,
One who would see the West and learn from it.
Thought maybe it would be good for him in a cliché type of a way.
Perhaps it will be.
Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.
I. Departure and Arrival (the part where i romantically and naively elocute about my trip)
After a forty minute delay on the tarmac, the plane took off, on the way from Chicago, Illinois to Omaha, Nebraska. Almost as soon as I had boarded the plane the weather broke and rain began to beat down on the thin fuselage, causing the passengers to look around at each other nervously. They all had places to be. We waited because of the pouring rain, but the rain was still coming down as we took off, and I could tell no real difference in the weather from when we had to wait and when we were allowed to leave. But I am neither a pilot nor a meteorologist, so I am not at all qualified to question the authority of the flight staff.
The sky was filled with thick rain clouds from on horizon to the other, and as we entered them, the plane began to shake. The plastic that made up the interior expanded and contracted as the plane was moved by the elements, making a creaking sound that only stressed plastic can make. The woman sitting next to me (slight, young, honest looking Filipino woman wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt beneath a beige sweater, sitting in seat 11C) pulled out a set of white plastic rosaries from her leather bag, and clutched them in her hands. The man sitting across the aisle from me (thin, professional looking man with short blonde hair, sitting seat 11A) pulled out his iPod and began to watch a cartoon. I pulled out the first book I planned to read over the summer, The Seven Storey Mountain by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, an autobiography about his path to faith in the vein of St. Augustine’s Confessions, plus a little bit of added narcissism. My type of spirituality. The Filipino woman held her beads the entire flight, drifting in and out of sleep, moving from rest to reverence seamlessly.
As we headed west, the clouds began to thin. Although they still took up the entirety of the sky, they were the thinner, wispier type, that seemed like they were placed there to give the inhabitants below them just a little bit of shade from the hot sun. Still, the Filipino held her beads. And then, as we began our decent into Omaha, the clouds dissipated, giving way to clear skies, in a cliché scene that would have made even James Cameron proud. I felt like the girl Antonia from that book by Willa Cather about heading out to the prairies of Nebraska… My Antonia.
We landed, my seatmate crossed herself, and we said goodbye. I picked up my bags, got a taxi and heading towards the house I was staying in for the summer. Heat rose up to meet me as I stepped out of the cooled airport into the sunlight.
Nebraska is a land of immaculate lawns with no one to play on them, even on a hot Saturday afternoon. Despite the lack of people to frolic, men have worked out to perfection a system of irrigation that creates an aesthetic beauty that only a lush carpet of grass brings. Next to the grass are long roads. The roads are new and evenly paved, straight lines that take no cars nowhere. The land was hillier than I thought it would be; the city seemed framed by a series of hills, covered in thin trees, delineating the human from the elemental.
The tax-driver and I pulled up to the house I am staying in. It is an old, large, two story house, with flaking green paint on the outside and lawns that are embarrassingly small and sparse. My landlord, Cole met me there to let me in and help me set up. Cole is what for me, a native New Yorker, the picturesque Nebraskan should look like. His shoulders are wide, biceps large, hair blonde and neck seems to go straight into his head. He is young, industrious, and hardworking. He wore a T-shirt that said “Proud UNO Alum” and was clearly very proud of the small business he had set up, providing cheap short term housing to graduate students and “young professionals.” He was nice, helpful, and even smart, but not in a New York way. It was pleasant. None of my roommates were there, so the house felt a little empty, but traces of my roommates lay strewn about the apartment. A bike here, flip-flops there, and food that spoke volumes about each one of them, these young, lost souls, who needed to resort to Cole to try and find a cheap place to live.
My room is sparse at best. The only piece of furniture in it is a mattress. My clothes are arraigned in piles along the newly painted orange walls, with my mandolin and guitar taking a special place in the corner. A large pile of books lies next to my bed. I doubt I will read them all, but carrying them made me feel powerful.
My house is in the Hispanic section of midtown Omaha. Stores whose names begin in “tienda” line Leavenworth Street. Small bars are built into the sides of hills. A short way away is a large new development complex, with newly paved streets, empty condos, chic restaurants and spas (that are all “coming soon!”), a large movie theater, and its own police force on segways. No people inhabit it yet. But there is obviously a big plan for the future of midtown Omaha. Churches pepper both neighborhoods, a large Greek one is the most imposing, but smaller, more typical colonial style protestant ones also line the streets.
My roommate Jess took me to the “A Taste of Omaha!” festival at night along the river. Jess is a strawberry blonde, a little taller than average and just a teency bit chubbier than average. In an endearing way. She is twenty-three and is studying computers at some professional college and working a couple of jobs in her off time to get by (grocery store, etc.). She grew up a little bit outside of Omaha and is extremely proud of the area (“did you know Omaha has the highest per capita number of restaurants, golf courses and millionaires?”), but she claims to want to get out of it someday. She is a little bit spacey and a pretty bad driver. While we were driving to the A Taste of Omaha!” festival, she was bemoaning how bad Nebraska drivers were, when she proceeded to run a red light. And then did it again. And again.
To get to the “A Taste of Omaha!” festival, which was held in the ConAgra plaza, we drove through downtown Omaha, a place which is called Old Market. The old market is a section of town that you get the feeling was partially designed by the local board of tourism, but also partially rose up out of the soul naturally. The buildings are mostly old warehouses, with intricate fire escapes and facades that have been preserved. It was here that I got my first glimpse of white Omaha. As we entered the market, we saw a group of siblings playing fiddle tunes on the street corner. From the youngest, who looked to be about ten, playing a violin against the eldest, to the middle brother seated, plucking away at a cello, it reminded me of what I wished my family could do. A crowd had gathered around them and they seemed to be doing a lot better than the old man who was playing guitar along the side of the highway when my taxi drove into town from the airport. Maybe it’s because they were cuter and had a gimmick. Maybe it’s because people were walking instead of driving and could actually hear them.
The stores that inhabit the old warehouses are small boutiques, where one wouldn’t need to buy anything but would anyway. The store that caught the most people’s attention was the one that sold Christmas decorations all year round. I guess that’s what Omaha can support. New York has a store that sells Halloween supplies all year round (in the east village). I guess it’s basically the same idea.
It was very difficult to find parking (because the whole town was out for the “A Taste of Omaha!” festival, so we had to park in the large lot of the Gallup campus, the massive calling center from which Gallup Polling calls thousands of Americans to ask them their opinions on every sort of matter. It is said that people from Omaha have the least distinguishable and most American of accents and that they can blend in anywhere. I guess such a large complex proves the point.