The poem, which originally appeared in an 1869 edition of Harper's Magazine, warned travelers to avoid a particular city. It reads, in part:
Where sand is blown from every mound
To fill the eyes and ears and throat-
Where all the steamers are aground
And all the shanties are afloat?
Where whisky shops the livelong night
Are vending their poison juice:
Where men are often very tight,
And women deemed a trifle loose?
Those lines were more than enough to intrigue me, so my wife and I packed our bags and headed off for a weekend in that seething vat called Omaha. Our youngest son also lives there, so the idea of visiting him might have been a factor.
One of the best ways to get a feel for a city and learn about its history is to visit its museums. Strolling inside a climate-controlled structure such as a museum also seemed like a good way to escape the foot-cooking heat we were enduring that weekend.
The Durham Museum is housed in the former Union Station, a stunning art deco structure that was once Omaha's main train station. Its walls are graced by soaring cathedral windows, and its floors are festooned by wonderfully patterned terrazzo. It's a pretty nice shed.
In the basement of the Durham, I ran into a fellow South Dakotan named Sue. After leaving South Dakota some years ago, Sue "made good" and became incredibly famous. I instantly recognized her from the innumerable photos that have appeared in the tabloids. Gathering all my courage, I sidled up to her and tried to strike up a conversation.
"So, I hear you're from out by Faith," I said, hoping to sound nonchalant.
No response. Sue simply continued to stare straight ahead, a toothy smile frozen on her face.
"You got a nice set of choppers there. Who's your dentist? I go to that Dr. Knutzen."
Nothing! The awkward silence continued for some moments, until my wife finally came over and rescued me.
"Quit talking to that T. rex skeleton!" she admonished. "Why do you always have to embarrass me? I can't take you anywhere!"
Another good way to gauge a city is by its restaurant scene. That evening, we opted to eschew (ha!) the chain eateries and find something local and unique.
This is how we found ourselves at a tiny cubbyhole cafe named Sgt. Peffer's. This place should in no way be confused with the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a point that was driven home by the numerous photos of the Beatles that adorned the walls of the restaurant, along with an actual Sgt. Pepper album.
But the food was zesty, authentic and very filling. In short, it was everything you could want from an Italian eatery.
Across the street was a little gin joint that boasted champagne on tap. This struck us as unusual, so we decided to check it out.
After sampling their supposed champagne, I concluded that it would have been more accurate if they had advertised "fizzy Boone's Farm on tap." But the place was chock-a-block with ambiance, including a ceiling that was plastered with old beer ads from newspapers. Decades' worth of cigarette smoke had turned the ads a deep amber.
Oddly, there was also a framed collection of political campaign buttons on display. Among them were buttons for Nixon, LBJ, Kennedy and even Dewey who, as we all know, defeated Truman in a 1948 landslide.
The next day we opted to continue our museum theme by visiting the Joslyn Art Museum. Plus, it was still really hot outside.
The elegant edifice of the Joslyn is made of pink Georgia marble. Deep in the interior of the building, amidst the vast maze of art galleries, is a courtyard that features a fountain made of a rainbow of ceramic tiles. It's a pretty nice shed.
The art on display ran the gamut, from contemporary blown glass installations to paintings by artists who were so famous that even I had heard of them. It wasn't all "highbrow," though; one gallery contained doodles by Dr. Seuss for a book he eventually named "The Lorax."
One painting I found interesting was by George Catlin. It depicted several Sioux braves who were on snowshoes and were applying their buffalo lances to bison that were struggling get away through a mire of deep snowdrifts. It made me profoundly grateful for the invention of the drive-through window.
While perusing a particular portion of prominent paintings, I said loud enough to be heard by bystanders, "Yeah, I've always wanted to own a Renoir. But I never had the Monet!"
My wife shook her head and muttered, "I can't take him anywhere!"