Village Voice Goes to Omaha, Shocked to Find It Not Like N.Y.


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February 6, 1964, Vol. IX, No. 16

Not Much Dolce Vita in the ‘Real’ America

By Melvin Shestack

This summer I traveled to America’s heartland — or, as I was told by a fashionable lady in Omaha, “the real America, just the best place to bring up children, that’s all.”

Unfortunately, the image I will always have of Omaha — and it’s not a fair one, I’ll admit — is of one of the real Americans: a young, cigar-chewing, grotesquely obese cretin discussing a local problem. At a place called Peony Park where Omahans, for a slight admission charge, can cool their real American bodies in a giant All-American-size pool, Negroes were refused admittance. This caused many of Omaha’s more courageous Negro citizens to protest by picketing Peony Park. The fat American told me: “The niggers seem to be gittin uppity.”

But the fat American was somewhat out of fashion even in Omaha, where euphemism is king. “They don’t really want to socialize with us at all,” the fashionable lady advised me. “They just want more money. That’s all they’re interested in.” Omaha’s Negroes, she suggested, understand the system. Caught up in the fight for racial equality, however, the fashionable lady wanted “them” to have as much money as “we” do — “if they have the skills to earn it, of course.”

…At Omaha’s most exclusive private club (I seem to get around) it was just the way Alabama’s Governor Wallace would like things to be. Here the waiters — all of whom could get a job on a Cream of Wheat box — professionally obsequious, actually perform a minor crouch as you walk by…

As a special treat I was taken to visit Omaha’s official beatniks. As it turned out, if I had come a week later, they wouldn’t be beat any more. But at the time I was there, they were still in the beat business. There were only two of them, but they were well known, and they lived in an honest-to-goodness loft. Trying hard to be cool, they affected “Village” dress, and one of them had a beard. A poem was smeared in black paint on the wall. They were pleasant, friendly, and made a phenomenal effort to please. They both played guitars and banjos and the like, and I was treated to an impromptu folk musicale. They also trafficked in marijuana: “You don’t really turn on,” they explained, “but you can get a buzz.” For my benefit they displayed a jar of the freshly harvested pot.

(Shortly after I left Omaha, the loft was raided by gun-toting Omaha vice squad detectives, and they are no longer beatniks…)

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