TOUR Day 14 - Omaha and Records

In 2004, I spent a whole afternoon daydreaming about the perfect vacation, and I decided it would be driving to Omaha. At the time, my favorite thing in the world was music (because I was a teenager), and my favorite record label in the world was Saddle Creek (because I was openly depressed). Rilo Kiley had just signed to Saddle Creek, which had them joining the ranks of Cursive, Bright Eyes, and the Good Life. (If you are wondering what those bands sounded like, you can do a YouTube search for Conor Oberst and it all kind of just sounds like that. Maybe best described as sad boys whining about how lonely they feel when they whine.) I would be in a “Travels With Charley”-style van, alongside a “Travels With Charley”-style poodle, and I’d listen to sad music the whole way while watching what I imagined would be fields choked with elegant wild horses. At night, I’d hole up in tiny motels, penning the great American novel. Once in Omaha, I would go to the Saddle Creek headquarters, where I would meet sad boys who would totally “get me,” and we’d hang out at vegan restaurants and discuss Bukowski. I am glad I did not go on that vacation. There’s no way I would have survived it.

In 2008, post-car accident, my sister Alexis and I got a ride to Omaha (about an hour east of York, where we crashed) from the guy who towed our car out of the muck. He and his wife — who had four outspokenly Christian kids, and a living room full of guns and a portrait of George W. Bush — had pretty graciously taken us under their wing, despite our Oregon plates and “Dissent Is Patriotic” bumper sticker. In Omaha, we bought a cherry red Volkswagon for $1000 from a kid who was headed to college and needed extra money. We did not sign anything. We got nothing registered or transferred. Everything about what happened was basically illegal. But we needed a car, and we had $1000, and we didn’t have time for that car (which Alexis hunted down on Craigslist) not to work out. We named it The Cardinal. It broke down three times on the way to New Orleans. In December, the engine burst into flames. Needless to say, it wasn’t the Omaha adventure I’d dreamed of in high school. 

Yesterday, I got another shot at Omaha. We pulled into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn that looked like a hospital. I got out of the car and walked around and immediately thought of Memphis (where I spent a lot of time last year, being hopelessly in love with a man who lived there). There was a tension between redevelopment and preservation. There were legitimately old signs that had been allowed to stick around past their obsolescence for aesthetic purposes. There were obviously brand new buildings that had been stone-washed and over-weathered to give off the impression that they were much older than they were. The city seemed too big for the number of people there. The people who were there felt like characters out of The Sims: they were perfectly-contained, fully-actualized humans, whose strengths and faults all lined up logically, making perfect algorithmic sense.

The show was good. It was full but quiet. People sat at their tables, taking everything in. Laughter was sparse, yelling was sparse. The other comedians on the show were strong, and that surprised me. They were all well-dressed and intelligent, and I asked them if they had moved to Omaha, or if they’d been born there. They all said they had been born there and had just stayed. They were all married. There was a delightful, hip strangeness to all of this. I spent a lot of time secretly lurking in the back of the big lounge space, watching the people move about with calculated aloofness.

People wanted to chat with us after the show, but I have crippling social anxiety and wanted to avoid that at all costs. I crept up to the stage and put my head down to start breaking down the set. The sound guy came up to help me disengage the microphones. “That was cool. It was weird. But it was cool. It was different,” he said. I asked him about the coolest bands he’d ever teched for. I think maybe I should stop asking that question of tech people, because I’ve never really gotten an answer to it. He listed a few big names, but he didn’t seem too interested. I asked him if he was from Omaha. He said he was. “You know, we had a big thing here with Saddle Creek a while ago. I grew up with all those guys. Mike, Conor, all of them. And we were all doing music and stuff, and they started doing that label, and I just ended up doing tech.” He shrugged. I didn’t know if he regretted it. 

For a while, we crouched by the stage, pretending to put away wires, talking about all those guys’ projects these days. The sound guy — whose name I learned, but which I won’t post here in the modest interest of privacy — talked about them with pride and affection; not a hint of jealousy. He described them lovingly; he was generous. I find myself hitting that place in my own life, too, where I am no longer so jealous of other peoples’ success. It might be because I see people model humility and generosity all the time these days. It might be because in adulthood you find it in yourself to just not want so much. Or maybe it’s just the graciousness of the universe, letting you let go. I told the sound guy that I liked Conor Oberst’s latest solo album a lot. I said I didn’t know if it was OK to still like him, but I thought it was lyrically genius. The sound guy said it was OK to like him. We parted ways; I went to fold T-shirts and bring them out to the van, and the sound guy headed to the back to power down the booth. But first, he played a few tracks off the solo album in the warm conversational buzz of the still-packed room. No one complained.