In the observation car on board the (nine hour) Amtrak ride from Chicago to Omaha, Randi and I encountered Henry: a young British tourist on his way from New York to California. Because of course he was. No matter how many times you remind us how ginormous the US is, we’re constitutionally inclined to seek out the railways to get from A to B. And if you have the time to spare, it’s still the most rewarding strategy. Nine hours pass very quickly when you have that much legroom, a half-bottle of wine and a table from which to watch the Midwest roll by.
I won’t even pretend that we were going to Omaha for any reason other than reaching another state. But it’s a strange place. Omaha is the largest city in Nebraska – and by ‘largest city’, I mean it’s around 400,000 people, with 1.3 million in the Greater Omaha area, against a state population of 1.9 million in total. So most Nebraskans are here.
They just don’t come out very much.
I’ve been to ghostly city centres before – St. Louis comes to mind – with an eerie emptiness at the downtown core. But that’s because they’ve been depopulated by suburbanisation. Omaha feels different. There were some unattractive stretches, but on the whole everything was perfectly pleasant. It wasn’t run-down. There were restaurants and bars, and – as you’d hope – they looked pretty busy on a Saturday night. There just didn’t seem to be anybody on the streets between the restaurants and the bars. Short of apparition or an extensive floo network, I assume the mystery is explained by lots of very direct car journeys from home to work to play. It’s a shame.
Blessed with great weather, we bucked this custom by walking around a lot, but we settled into a wonderful bar in time to watch the Cubs advance to the World Series. (To the uninitiated, this a Big Deal. They haven’t got this far since 1945, and if they won, it would be the first victory since 1908.) Despite being two states over, Omaha turns out to be a hotbed of Cubs fans and the atmosphere was perfect for the occasion.
Special thanks to Cory, an amiable bloke who joined us at the bar and answered many of my remaining Nebraskan questions. (The quintessential activity is pheasant shooting, apparently. British readers might note that, even here, I still get asked in cabs about Brexit.)
Other adventures in Omaha included adding predictive post-it notes to Gerald Ford’s birthplace, wandering around the ‘Heartland of America’ park, learning about Prohibition and railway history at the Durham Museum and taking advantage of the bike rental scheme by the riverfront. Although technically most of the actual biking was in Iowa since the Nebraskan trails were still mostly in ‘proposal’ stage on the map. (This was also where my shoelace became unfortunately entwined with the bike, and Randi had to beseech some strangers for a fearsome-looking pocketknife to set it free. Guns don’t save people, pocketknives do.)
That’s pretty much it for our weekend in the country’s only unicameral state. But we have been busy in Chicago too, including grinning and bearing through the final Presidential debate, phonebanking into Nevada (ten minutes of conversation with one wavering Republican woman made her feel, and I quote, “a lot more confident” about voting for Hillary – probably the first and only time I’ve had this effect on anyone) and playing Betrayal at House on the Hill with Chloe. This is a fun board game where one player suddenly turns hellish defector halfway through, and came highly recommended by Katie.
We also saw two more plays! Merge, by New Colony at the Den (which, I think it’s fair to say, is our favourite theatre here) told the story of the rise and fall of gaming company Atari. It’s the kind of thing I would happily read a book about, so seeing it on stage instead – at a breathless, quirky pace – was an enjoyable alternative. And then The City of Conversation (directed by Marti who is most definitely our favourite director, anywhere) showcased the decline of a Washington political elite through the Carter, Reagan and Obama years. The lead character, socialite Hester Ferris, was particularly well played and the entire production was well worth the trek up to the treacherous ‘pavements optional’ land of Skokie. Doubly so, because we also got to have lunch with Robert and Grace beforehand, who joined us in glaring awkwardly at the one person who voted for Reagan in the pre-show Carter vs. Reagan vs. Obama poll.
Deborah Herrick, Gillian Self, Ellen Wohlberg, Hazel Boss, Sharon Dinkin, Amanda Schalk, Jamie Freedman, Randi Lawrence liked this post.