| 6-26-2021 09:03 AM PT
Photo by NCAA Photos
(Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Except Warren Buffett)
I get on the plane in Denver and nestle into my seat by the window. The usual suspects filter down the aisle, each a bit larger than the last. None of them occupy my middle seat. As the flight attendants frantically balance the weightier passengers, I share a moment with my neighbor in the aisle.
She says Omaha is her home, and I tell her I’m in town for the World Series. She can tell. I ask for restaurant and bar recommendations and she rattles off the names of several places that her ‘friends’ own. I make note of it all on my phone, including something called a runza. Her book sits in the middle seat but she makes no effort to reach for it. Her name is Shirley.
The attendants finish their back-of-the-napkin math and are satisfied the plane will fly straight enough. It’s time for the final pass through the cabin. Shirley puts her tray table up until the flight attendant passes our row. Immediately she lowers it and places an oversized iced tea on its top. Her reverie is short-lived, though, as the other attendant catches her in the act. “It’s always the second one that gets you,” I tell Shirley.
During the flight we relate the abridged versions of our life stories. She spent a decade in Dublin, jet setting around Europe on trips that were nominally for work. She’d married several times, had her fun, and ultimately returned to Omaha.
“It’s home for me,” she tells me. “It’s where my family is, and I have six grandchildren now. You know, we used to have about five Fortune 500 companies here.”
I tell her all about Channel Tree, and the places that my pseudo-journalism has taken me.
“I could tell you were a journalist. You’re great at asking questions. The right ones.” After hearing more about me and my life and my full time (non-journalism) job, she asks me if I’m single. I look her in the eyes and tell her that I am. She looks deeper into my eyes and asks again.
“Yes, I’m single.” Her face contorts into a thought, and she pulls her phone out of her bag.
“I don’t like to do things like this,” she says, as she powers it on. She opens the photos, and aggressively scrolls. She finds what she’s looking for. “This is my granddaughter.” She hands me her phone, and I see a lovely girl in a graduation gown.
Shirley hurriedly tells me about her granddaughter as we begin our descent. She’s a recent Creighton grad from Omaha, and spent her last three summers interning for congressmen on The Hill. I get a glowing review of her personality and how she knows the details of every bill that’s in the works.
“I think you two would be great together.” She pulls down her mask and looks into my eyes to add weight to that statement. Before we deplane she hands me a business card and tells me to contact her if I need anything while I’m in Omaha. I tuck it away into my wallet.
I meet fellow Channel Tree writers Sam Weyen and Matthew Riley at the passenger pickup, and tell them everything. And so our search begins.
“You can take off your masks,” says our Uber driver.
The app makes us check a box saying we will wear them, but Nebraska is very clearly a maskless society. Even in the airport, the main place the federal government still tries to mandate them, I saw plenty of noses and lips. The three of us have been vaccinated, but surely many around us have not.
We discuss the World Series with our driver. She tells us how much it means to the community, and how excited they are to have it back after last year’s cancellation. Apparently the coach of Virginia has a statue outside the stadium. When he played for hometown Creighton, he led them to the promised land (across the street) and won the only title in Blue Jays history. The people of Omaha never forget.
I notice a green Runza cup in the center cup holder. I ask her what she thinks of Runza.
“You mean the restaurant or the food?”
She goes on to explain that the restaurant is named after the food. She is a regular at their drive-thrus, although she doesn’t eat the food itself particularly often.
“But their tea is very good.”
We are left with more answers than questions, but are at our destination. No one is in a hurry, yet it doesn’t seem to take long to get anywhere in this city.
Perhaps unseeded NC State is being overlooked. Maybe the Cardinal are too excited to be playing in America’s City. One way or another, they find themselves in an early hole in the Series’ first fixture.
The Stanford offense comes alive down the stretch, but it is a case of too little, too late. The Wolfpack capitalize on the all-too-numerous Cardinal miscues, and the team finds itself needing four consecutive wins to reach the finals.
We walk out after completing our post-game journalistic duties for the evening. And by we, I mean Matt. But the three of us continue into the night.
We find a bar with plenty of television real estate and settle in to catch the end of Game 7 of the NBA playoffs. Inside we find a table of Stanford fans that is as surprised to see us as we are them. It is eerily reminiscent of the commercial where the talking M&M’s see Santa Claus.
I ask the waitress to explain a runza. She tells us it’s German or Polish or possibly some other culture not known for their food. It’s this thing that’s maybe a hot pocket, maybe a sandwich, but definitely full of ground beef, sauerkraut, and flavor. I ask her if she likes it.
“It’s probably *the* Nebraska food.”
“Do you like it?”
“They serve it at all the Cornhuskers games. Only that and one other thing.”
“Some people do.”
One screen shows Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo exchanging blows. The other is Vanderbilt and Arizona trading off missed opportunities with runners in scoring position. There are still no masks in sight, and our eyes manically flit back and forth between the two screens, trying to make up for nights like this that were lost. Especially those of us from California.
I order a beer, Omaha style. The waitress asks me if I’m sure. I look her in the eyes and tell her I’m well beyond sure. Some minutes later she returns with normal drinks for my friends before cautiously lowering mine onto the table. A stout with vanilla ice cream. I hate every sip of it, but I keep repeating my mantra in my head. When in Romaha.
I pull out the business card that Shirley gave me.
Shirley Johnson / Substitute Teacher
Her email and phone number are on the back. I unlock my phone and we sit around a table figuring out how to get me a meeting with the granddaughter.
“In the fourth paragraph, I think you should lay out how you hope her granddaughter’s eyes are like hers. And maybe if you were a few years older...”
“Don’t forget to say that you floss regularly.”
“Remind her that you went to Stanford.”
I take none of their advice, although I do send the email from my alumni account. The email is short, congenial, and gets to the point. I want those digits. I check my phone every ten minutes for the rest of the night awaiting the reply.
Milwaukee eliminates Brooklyn, but only because Durant’s shoes are a half size too big. Vanderbilt, our robber baron brethren, walks off Arizona in the bottom of the twelfth. We overstay our welcome at the bar, and quickly settle our tabs as the night cleaning man asks us to lift a limb here or there so he can mop under it.
The Wildcat and Commodore faithful pour out of the stadium less than a mile from us, and the Uber prices surge ever higher. They haven’t heard of Lyft yet.
“We’re only 1.6 miles from the hotel,” says Sam. “I’m sure we can hoof it.” So we do.
We pass trendy bars and nightclubs going thump-thump-thump-thump and crowds of attractive people our age. But that’s not for us. It doesn’t take long before we trade the rabble for something far more our speed.
On mile three of our 1.6 mile walk we encounter block after block of factories with windows missing or bricked in. Lightly graffitied plywood does its best to cover the structures and jobs lost to time. Everyone has been quick to tell us that the skyline is growing rapidly. Now we know at what cost.
The well-lit, decrepit district turns into a dark and narrow street that the odd car takes way too fast. We hop into the overgrown grass to avoid becoming hood ornaments, and ask Sam if he knows where we’re going.
“Yeah I know exactly where we’re going. We hang a right not far from here, and it’s only a couple miles past that.” This quickly becomes the longest 1.6 mile walk of my life. But we’re seeing the real Omaha, probably.
We find the right turn: an unassuming street with a matching name of Avenue H. We amble down the center, talking about life and beef and granddaughters. Shirley still hasn’t replied to my email. We’re all deep in our search for runzas and the nameless Creighton grad I heard so much about. But first we have to complete our search for the Candlewood Suites.
Somewhere on Avenue H, the road that time forgot, we cross into Iowa. In the late 1800s Iowa and Nebraska waged a furious war over a small strip of land called Carter Lake. The community was on the eastern side of the Missouri River, and thus part of Iowa, until an alluvial flood moved the banks further east. Nebraska claimed the border moved with the river. The Supreme Court disagreed. And so on this nighttime walk we find ourselves crossing state lines when we can find nothing else.
Sam eventually navigates us to our hotel, but not before passing an abandoned strip club and a packed one-story casino. I check my phone one last time in vain. We agree to never again let him give directions, but quickly forget that vow the next morning.
“I’m going to f---ing beat your a--, you b----.”
Two rows behind us is everything I missed about baseball. After giving up our seats in the press box we steal away toward the right field pole. For many innings a pair of yahoos do their best to heckle anyone and anything that will listen. No one laughs or objects, until now.
“Shut your mouth, I have an eight year old with me!” says a soon-to-be former gentleman in the row between us. He lets a lot slide, until they dare utter the word ‘tits.’ That is the final straw.
As the men stand to come to blows, the heckler’s wife jumps between them. The complainant nudges her to the side to get at the man with the booming voice. That’s when she loses it.
“Did you just put your hands on me? He put his hands on meeeee!”
“Shut up, b----.”
“He put his hands on me!”
“See me outside, then see what happens. I’m going to f---ing beat your a--, you b----.”
When you find yourself saying that to a woman, much less in front of your eight year old, you’ve completely surrendered any high ground. The police come over and quickly confuse things.
“The woman says this man hit her,” rattles the officer into his walkie-talkie. A flurry of stories fly out of all onlookers. It’s unclear which one they accept, but all standing parties are quickly escorted out. We continue to watch baseball.
We surmise that our excitement for the day has met its zenith. We are quickly proven wrong. In my Stanford email inbox sits a reply from one Shirley Johnson, Substitute Teacher. She is happy to hear from me, and relates that she has told her granddaughter everything that happened on the plane. Probably some things that didn’t happen, too. She gives me the name, number, and words of encouragement. I quickly enter a new contact into my phone. Alexandra Mayer.
“What do I send a girl whose number I got from her grandma?” I pose.
“You’re on your own this time.”
I do my best to craft a text that’s the right amount of excited and non-creepy. I try to put myself in her shoes, having been set up by my grandma, and have a hard time believing she wants to see me. I frantically react to every subsequent buzz and ding of my phone as I nervously eat Mike & Ikes and half watch the game.
Finally it comes. She uses two exclamation points, and three messages later she sends a heart. I’ve never been the best at interpreting these sorts of messages, or really anything a woman has said to me. But even I know that this is a good sign.
I dip out early from the night game to catch an Uber back to our hotel. I need to shower the sunscreen and Omaha humidity off of me before I meet her at the appointed bar. This is Shirley’s granddaughter, after all.
“You don’t have to wear that mask,” says the maskless driver. So I don’t.
He asks me why I’m in town, as if that’s not clear from my Stanford clothes and overpriced CWS cap. Upon learning I live in California, he has plenty of thoughts.
“You know, I spent about 10 years in San Diego. I sure am happy to be out of that state.”
He tells me he had been stationed there during his military service, and stuck around after it was over. There were things he liked, but plenty he didn’t, and one by one his friends left for cheaper pastures. Omaha is where he grew up, and he no longer has any desire to live elsewhere.
“It’s as good a place as any. I’m happy here.”
“Do you like runzas?” I ask as we near the hotel.
“Love ‘em. ‘Specially with cheese.”
I arrive early, and wait outside the bar. Moments later I see Sam and Matt as they not so sneakily duck behind a car. They are (probably) gone by the time Alexandra walks up. She’s beautiful.
We enter what appears to be a hole in the wall into a red velvet pre-prohibition bar. The cocktail menu is as confusing as anything I’ve seen in San Francisco.
She tells me that she doesn’t do things like this, but was admittedly intrigued. I agree. We talk about Shirley and have a good laugh at the absurdity of it all. Quickly the conversation becomes like any other.
I learn plenty about Omaha. Warren Buffett is more autistic than us outsiders are led to believe, and he has a strange thing for Latvians. There were a bunch of Fortune 500 companies and there still are some. She’s upset that ConAgra flew the coop for Chicago.
She tells me about her time on The Hill. She would frequently answer calls from constituents. Normally they were mundane, but on one occasion she had a man berate her for working for that senator. He kept calling her a c--t. When she took down his information at the end, she realized it was her Theology professor from Creighton. He had no idea it was her.
Last summer she needed to get a signature from a certain Illinois senator. When she arrived at the office, she found the doors closed and a sign that read something like
We are working from home indefinitely. Unlike the Republicans, we care about people’s lives
She phoned her boss asking for advice, since she really needed this signature, and was told to try the door. It opened, and inside was an office full of staffers. They were all maskless.
I talk about the Branch Davidians, because that often comes up organically.
“Oh my God, I love the Branch Davidians,” she tells me, eyes aglow.
She doesn’t see herself in politics forever, but she likes having an inside view on how the sausage is made.
She asks me where I see myself living long term, and I can’t give her a concise answer. I ramble on about any number of cities that might be interesting to me. I say the Bay has its pluses and minuses, and then I only talk about the minuses. It occurs to me that throughout our conversation I have not painted the Bay Area and California in the greatest of light.
“That’s okay, I had zero desire to be in California,” she says. “Everyone I know who went there came back.” I ask her where she sees herself and she replies with ease.
“I wanna work in Washington for a bit longer but I think I’ll probably come back to Omaha. It’s a nice enough place to live and my family is here.”
We continue to talk for hours about every topic that we can. It’s one of those conversations where time sneaks away in between your chances to look up. As the night creeps later, I stop looking up entirely.
There are no expectations here. Even if Stanford goes the distance, my days in Omaha are numbered. Their early loss means I could be returning home any day. But even if there are to be no more nights, she is content to share just this one with me. She is content, period.
Late into the night, after the bars are closed, the crowds are dispersed, and the Omaha air is still, we let ourselves go home. She didn’t drive here, and she doesn’t feel comfortable with late night Ubers. She texts her brother and her dad, and they decide to both come.
I wait with her in the brisk Nebraska darkness for some fifteen minutes. They arrive and she tells me to get in. I meet my third and fourth member of the family as they drive me back to the Candlewood in the nub of Iowa. I tell her goodbye for what I assume will be forever, and then text her for another two hours in lieu of falling asleep.
“Come on, come onnnnnn!!!”
The press box erupts during the Stanford-Arizona game. Not an eye is on the field. We’re all looking at three birds zipping around after a blimp-sized bee just outside.
The Cardinal jump out to a 10-0 lead against Arizona. The three of us from Channel Tree are loving it, but these hard-boiled national journos next to us need this avian outlet. The Wildcats mount something of a comeback before a three-run homer from Brock Jones puts to bed any semblance of a threat.
We share our high-fives once the media liaisons are out of sight. Our trip is not over. We tune in for the press conference. People sure love to ask questions when the team wins. If Esquer’s squad can piece together three more wins, we can stay the whole week.
We arrive at the Runza at 10:19 AM, a full eleven minutes before it opens. None of us expect to enjoy this crown jewel of Volga German Nebraskan cuisine. We were told everyone likes the restaurant, but we are here for the namesake food. And that seems more controversial.
Sam takes a work call from the parking lot as Matt and I enter the restaurant at 10:30 sharp. One man is already in front of us, and he’s clearly a regular. He’s past middle aged and wears a lifetime of weight. Walking is difficult for him, but smiling sure isn’t.
We get our orders within minutes and retreat to Matt’s car for a risky breakfast. I ordered two. The first thing I notice when I fish one out of my bag is the heat and grease. But I unpeel the wrapper enough to take a bite, and instantly I get it.
I didn’t think I’d like runzas. If I were to describe it in more depth, no one reading this would expect to like them either. But when I put aside all my doubts and biases and preconceived notions and let myself experience it - truly experience it - I enjoy every second of it.
As the game against Vanderbilt heads down the stretch, we think we are moments away from another round of whoops and fist bumps. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the boys from The Farm cling to a one run lead. That quickly slips away in the most excruciating of fashions. Moments after a fielding error, the Commodores walk off on a wild pitch from Stanford’s ace. Playoff baseball really is a different animal.
Sam and I take a walk around Carter Lake before heading to the airport. These days many of our conversations revolve around the uncertainty of our futures: potential career changes, shiny new cities, etc. I text Alexandra that Stanford is heading back to the Bay, and that I must, too. In a weird way, Sam and I both envy her. She says she’d like to keep in touch, but I know she’s practical.
I land in SFO and catch the yellow line of the BART home. My mask is dutifully on. Within a couple stops a red-haired and bearded man around my age boards my car, screaming that his name is Johnny and he hates when he’s called Donny. His socks are mismatched, stuffed with syringes, and doing their best to cling to his shoes. A mask is stuck in his hair.
Johnny proceeds to yell about his mom, before raising his voice to tell himself to shut up. Soon he starts swearing, and asks “What bit me?!?”
The door to the front of our car is bust open by a black man wielding a five foot martial arts stick. The stick man briskly walks through our car, feigns an attack on Johnny, then continues out the other side.
“Mom told me not to call the police anymore,” says a visibly shaken Johnny, over and over again. Some fifty repetitions later and our car is stuck.
“Don’t let the stick guy come back!” he screams, pounding on the side doors. His panic crescendos as time ticks by. So does mine.
After a handful of minutes we are back in motion. The train continues toward my town, and the subject of his screaming is once again his mom.
I try my best to feel content.
--Stanford Men's Hoops National Champs '42 '91 '12 '15
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