et me begin with a winding introduction. The point is, eventually, to discuss my new self-published zine, Ramcat Alley, but it may take a while to get there. You see, this zine is intimately linked to Omaha, and to my own queer fascination with this little town (which I recently, only semi-facetiously, referred to as "The Pearl of the Great Northwest" in a correspondence). Ramcat Alley was started with a specific editorial goal in mind — to explore those things that make up the character of a city. So I shall need to start by introducing this region, this Omaha, this pearl.
Omaha really is quite an interesting town. This is a fact that is ill-appreciated by most of the city's residents, who stew in a sort-of perpetual jealous at larger towns, such as Minneapolis and Chicago, who in turn cast their own envious eyes toward New York and Los Angeles. These cities, among the largest in the world, and, by extension, in the history of the world, evidence occasional insecurity when discussing older cities, such as Paris and London. And the ancient, magnificent cities of the world, I imagine, sometimes look up at the night sky, bite their knuckles in a jealous rage, and wonder why they can't be as big and as magnificent as the moon.
This is the way of things. People often move away from Omaha, certain that they are too mastodonic in spirit and talent for so bijou a city on the plains. Often without having achieved a single noteworthy thing in their wretched lives, Omahans will pack kit and caboodle and light out for New York, certain that their fame awaits them there. It rarely does — they often end up serving pizza for several years, or selling khakis at the Gap. After years of fumbling to make bills, these expatriate Omahans look backward toward their native land, with its low cost of living, and hop a Greyhound back, tail between their legs. It is a humbling experience, but, I believe, an instructive one. After all, if you have not managed to achieve much in Omaha, what sort of hubris does it take to believe that you will soon become the toast of Broadway?
And, anyway, it is perfectly possible to be mastodonic in Omaha. After all, Nebraska's official state fossil is that of the mastodon's American cousin, the wooly mammoth. The earth here is so crowded with mammoth skeletons that 10 of the hirsute pachyderms are estimated to be buried in every square mile of the state. In fact, the world's largest wooly mammoth fossil makes its home in Omaha's sister city, Lincoln, the capitol of Nebraska. This giant seemed to feel no need to move on to Chicago or Memphis. Nebraska was good enough.
It's good enough for me, at least for now, although I will confess that I have a sort of wanderlust that causes me to up and move states every three years or so. (Even now I wonder where I will end up next; I have always wanted to live in New Orleans, and am curious about Hawaii, and have developed a sort of perplexing fascination with Baltimore.) But while I am here, I know Omaha for what it is — a mid-sized American city that has never really enjoyed the sort of rise in fortunes that a Seattle or a Minneapolis can claim. And I like it this way. One-third of downtown Minneapolis was razed in the Forties, plowing under the city's enormous skid row, as well as a variety of magnificent architectural structures, in order to make way for the future. Minneapolis was no longer going to be a logging and textiles town, as it had been in the first part of the 20th Century. The future was in insurance, banking, and technology, and those musty old Victorian buildings, with their pompous facades and ornate interiors, simply had no place in a glass and steel vision of the future. And Minneapolis has continued like this — like larger cities, Minneapolis is a corporate town, dominated by chain restaurants, chain books stores, chain clothing stores. There is little to differentiate a mall in Minneapolis from, say, a mall in Boston, or Thailand, for that matter.
And, while I know Omaha wishes it were able to claim this sort of trendy anonymity, because its fortunes have been small, it is still mired in its past. The downtown of Omaha has virtually no skyline to speak of, but is littered with buildings from its early years. The face of Omaha still retains features from the end of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th, particularly in the form of oversized, red brick jobbing buildings. A few get knocked down every year and replaced by bland, anonymous examples of contemporary architecture, but it is a slow process. Much of Omaha still resembles the city's wild youth, when Omaha was a brasher city, the start of the westward half of the transcontinental railroad. The city's early, and small, fortunes were made outfitting travelers to the West, some looking for gold, some grabbing up land to farm on. Omaha was a wet town then — in fact, grocery stores had open casks of rum set out, and people would guzzle as they shopped. Omaha was an open city then, filled with gambling dens and prostitutes, and this underworld flourished well into the 20th century. It's a great history, and I love reading about it, and, best still, unlike in cities such as Los Angeles and New York, this history hasn't been thoroughly picked over. When I read of prostitutes throwing themselves Christmas balls, and of Jewish merchants who spoke multiple Indian dialects and died under mysterious circumstances, and of massive communities of Syrians who made early Omaha their home, I know that much of this history has not yet been explored. It's mine to pick over, and I will be among the first to pick over it.
This is what I am doing in Omaha just now, and it is one of the reasons for Ramcat Alley (one of several, but the only one I will detail just now). It seems to me that the worst thing a newspaper can do at this moment is render itself redundant. After all, when I want world news, I simply hit the Internet, which does a better, more thorough job of reporting news than any local paper could hope to duplicate. I can, after all, turn to multiple newspapers in searching out a story, whereas a local paper must reduce the story down to a scant 600 words, if that. With most newspaper's dwindling news holes, there isn't even the room for that.
Both of the local newsweeklies devote a lot of their space to covering the arts, which is certainly justified, as Omaha has a robust arts community. When I was a newsweekly writer, I also covered the arts, and think there is great value in it. But there would be little need for me to also provide reports on local bands or theater — between the Omaha World-Herald, the Omaha Weekly Reader, and the newly published Omaha Pulp, as well as in a monthly glossy publication called Medium, the arts is pretty comprehensively covered. It is not well covered, but that is another subject, and, for just now, I think I shall refrain from criticizing my fellow publications.
In all of these, though, there is scant space devoted to Omaha's spicy history. And so it is that I started my mission in publishing Ramcat Alley. I enjoy digging up tales of lynchings and snipers, and Omaha has its share. I think this is important, as Omahans sometimes have a tendency to believe that they don't have a history, or, if they do, that it is not a very important history. It is why they leave the town for other, presumably grander cities — Los Angeles, after all, had Zoot Suit riots, and of you don't know about Omaha's Greek riots, there seems to be little here that compares. So part of the purpose of Ramcat Alley is to give Omaha back its history, or a part of it, anyway. The part that interests me, which mostly involves knifings, burlesque dancers, riverboat gamblers, hoboes, and other unregenerate yeggs, tramps, and whores. (This should be no surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with the dissolute contents of this Web diary.) After all, what could be more interesting?
Ramcat Alley is, for the most part, meant for people in Omaha and surrounding regions. But I have already had requests for copies from outside Nebraska, and so, to simplify ordering for anybody who would like a copy, I am including a Paypal link at the bottom of this page. I'm asking $3 per issue, which seems a pretty good deal to me — the zine is, after all, 32 pages long, lavishly illustrated, and filled with all manner of bizarre contents. Just click the button below. Your support in this new endeavor is greatly appreciated.