What is Omaha like, I wondered. I figured at the least it would be:
But it's all those things and so much more! Case in point: downtown. Every old American City has a downtown, some shiny, thriving and gentrified, others sadly crumbling into ruin. Omaha's got one of those transitioning downtowns. It looks like it might have died on the vine a couple decades ago as everyone moved out to the new suburbs, but now all the youngsters have moved into the big empty warehouse lofts, they're setting up stores full of old Americana, brew-pub bars with interesting pastas on the menu alongside famed rib-eye steak, and making and showing art—quite a lot of art.
|View from our window at the beautiful old Magnolia Hotel|
What's in downtown Omaha? Bricks—so many bricks. Brick warehouses, apartments and galleries, but also brick streets. Don't wear your spike heels to the Old Farmer's Market unless you like wobbling around like a broken marionette, 'cause you'll be walking on many bricks on the wide, wide boulevards of Omaha.
|My cousin Steve takes in the Old Farmer's Market|
Why are the streets so wide? Could be because it's a former agricultural/cattle town and there must have been a lot of hauling of large vehicles full of America's homegrown bounty, heading toward all those former grain dispensaries and slaughter houses. What's the traffic like now? Non-existent. Enjoy the quiet solitude of wide brick streets as you criss-cross your way from antique mart to book store to record store with aplomb.
|My brother Steve checks out some cool brick buildings|
You know what else Omaha has that slicker now-gentrified west-coast cities don't have anymore? Fonts. Lots of great old fonts.
|A great old building font in downtown Omaha|
Case in point: wandering around the Jackson Street area, we came across the Fairmont Mercantile building, home of Hollywood Candy. If you like candy, especially old-timey candy that you can scoop out by the bagful from candy jars, this is your candy nirvana. The entire building is a seemingly endless labyrinth of narrow halls and antique stalls, full of the stuff vintage childhood dreams are made of. There's a small theater for renting out to show 16mm movies, and an ol'-fashioned soda fountain. It's a dreamlike time machine. Plus there's candy.
|CANDY RESCUE (plus antiques)|
|I think this was a former slaughterhouse|
Here's some vintage finds, all featuring excellent fonts. Whoever designed these toy and game packages, I salute you.
My friend Jill had this Easy Curl set. I don't know how well it worked. I think it heated up with a light bulb, but don't quote me on that. I remember this packaging from my childhood (probably up in her closet on a shelf) and I'm sure it was at that point that the desire to become a tomboy was cemented in my brain forever. It didn't matter if I excelled in sports or not (I didn't—but that was required to be an official "tomboy" in those days), I was just going to go for it. Now I appreciate this feminine, flowered approach, even if the hairstyles really tank.
|Although that little girl on the right is rocking a beatnik look|
GIRDER and PANEL BUILDING SET - for that boxy characterless modern look.
Happy Puppet Play - Peppy Puppy Marches and Dotty Duck Walks. That's what I'm talking about...
I didn't know Parcheesi started out as "Pachisi." But apparently it did. Look at this design. Wow.
QUIZ kIDs OWN GAME BOX - for the J.D. Salinger appreciator in us all.
Let's play the board game of TAG—which began the syndrome of "Kids these days just want to sit inside playing board games, instead of running around in the fresh air and sunshine."
There was a wide selection of old metal Aladdin lunchboxes, some with their original thermoses. This thermos was on its own, unfortunately. I'd love to see the hippie love-child lunchbox that it originally came with. Enjoy all three views of adorable peaceniks on a thermos that was probably full of Kool-Aid and Tang, back in the day. I hope the child who used this wasn't too ostracized by his or her more conservative schoolmates.
Do you like PEZ? I hope so, because there is SO MUCH PEZ in this place.
|Check out that realistic bat-head PEZ next to Speedy Gonzales - terrifying|
After escaping the warren of past consumer purchases, return to the present time zone with some delicious homemade ice cream at Ted & Wally's across the street. I had chocolate garam masala one day, and ginger the next. Both exquisitely flavored and made in old bucket ice cream jugs with rock salt and heavy cream. Also: there's an old Pepsi machine as you walk in the door (more fonts). Out of service, but still: the fonts.
|Served IN CANS|
|A simple direct marketing approach|
Walking around the old warehouse district, you see flyers and street art and are reminded of simple pleasures from cities of the past, only this is happening in Omaha, today. Our west-coast metropolises have gotten so slick and monied. It's refreshing to see this stuff, especially SoCal surf-punk band Agent Orange playing a show. PUNK WILL NEVER DIE.
|Stuff to do and see in Omaha|
And now for a special treat—the John Buck sculptures at the KINETIC Exhibit at KANEKO Gallery. All hand-carved from soft woods, featuring current and past politicians, explorers, money-men, artists and their muses, corruption, incredible beauty, abject cruelty, space and time. And with the tap of a floor button, they move. I took a little video throughout our tour as we stared in wonderment at Buck's incredible prolific vision of humanity and our foibles. He also makes prints and drawings. He's a mad man. The KINETIC Exhibit is dismantled now, but if you get a chance to see this Montana-based artist's work, I really think you should do so.
Most of the images below are featured in the video, but here they are in case you don't have time to see them moving to a weird She Mob soundtrack because your Internet life has become so busy of late (I understand). Incredibly this entire surreal experience was free of cost. We walked into the museum (a city block's worth of warehouse conversions) and into a guided tour, which meant we could see every sculpture in motion. We also learned that all the works had arrived in Omaha in pieces and none were labeled. Buck and the curators worked together to put them all back together for the exhibit. Kudos to KANEKO—you're the real deal.
|Manifest Destiny personified|
|Frida Kahlo and her pets make an appearance|
|45 holding onto the love of his life — wads of cash|
|Trapped in a burning church|
|Picasso and Einstein with muse in the background|
|Power, corruption and satire are some of Buck's major themes|
|The former Presidents' waltz — FDR in a tutu because he never got to dance in his adult life|
|JFK has Marilyn Monroe on his mind|
|Teddy Roosevelt and General Grant have a dance confrontation|
|Nixon's tape head confronts a shuttered Lincoln — dream stuff made real|
|Europe's explorers ready to conquer and exploit the "new world"|
|Lady Liberty about to clobber an Aztec god|
|The tears of the Madonna on a ship heading our way|
|Creatures based on the 14th-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville|
|Omaha is a fascinating city, obviously|
|The entire world and Trump's hair|
What else can you do in Omaha? Why not walk over to Iowa on the Bob Kerrey pedestrian bridge, where you can straddle two states at once for a state-border out-of-body experience.
|I am in TWO STATES AT ONCE|
I stay behind in Nebraska while my cousin Mary Ann checks out Iowa. Her husband Steve balances out the geographical scales. Yes, there were three Steves on this journey, making it extra-special. While crossing the bridge, my cousin Gary and his wife Barb emerged from Iowa, coming our way. We didn't even know they had been out of state, but they had been, for around ten minutes or so.
My cousin Mike married his beloved Anna at the splendid Orpheum Theater where they first met, both working musicians in the touring production of The Lion King. They even had their names on the Orpheum marquee and we all gathered onstage to congratulate them. Anna grew up in Nebraska and now we all want to visit again. Sorry, Anna, prepare yourself for a bunch of brand new cousins, aunts and uncles showing up in Omaha on a semi-regular basis from now on.
|Surely one of the finest productions at the Orpheum to date|