The very last thing I ever texted you were these words: “Ed, where are you?” I was trying to come visit. That was when I still stupidly thought you were going to get better, to go back to being some young, healthy man again. I held onto that idea until a few days before the end.
This month marks a year since that day we stood in your hospital room and watched them disconnect you. You fought to keep breathing but slipped away pretty fast. Maybe twenty minutes. I wanted to say something that did not focus on those last, awful years as your vitality rotted and you shuffled painfully when you could move at all.
That’s not the way I choose to remember you. I think of you pretty much every day and the memories are embers that bring me warmth. I heard someone say that life is a series of moments. Now not all of them are vital or even coherent but for me some radiate a kind of comforting light. What follows isn’t a rounded, fair account, it’s a vaguely directed, drifting free association, because recently a song came on and suddenly it was a hot Saturday afternoon in the late ‘70s…
City News and Book on 16th and Douglas is crowded with readers. You’re standing at the front counter ringing up purchases, I’m helping someone find a book in the aisles. I’m thinner and you are heavier. I have a first-time beard, all my hair and yours is jet black. We are both 19, maybe 20, we will never die, and just getting started in the thing called life.
City News’ summers were hot. One didn’t just perspire, one might actually confess or hallucinate. People really had to want to buy books and magazines to stand around in that inferno. Wet summer customers would quietly simmer in the racks, reading.
At City News we sold books, magazines, newspapers, Hallmark products, pickle cards and smut. Lots of smut. Lots and lots, many thousands of dollars’ worth of porn. Dirty books with titles like, _The Devil’s Sperm Runs Cold_ and magazines full of exposed, air brushed flesh. No novelties. The city fathers often went after the owners as filth mongers. The skin mags revealed a lot, not just in their content, but in who sought them out. The porn aisle was the great equalizer. One might meet a preacher’s son or a city father.
We worked the weekend and week day evening shifts for a woman we called “The Wolf.” Our pal Frank used to advise us on how to negotiate with her (“Listen, woof…”). We didn’t take his advice, but we found lots of other ways to be rude and obnoxious. There was a crew of antique women who worked alongside The Wolf during the week. Marian, Jane and Mary. You became good friends with Mary often visiting her and fixing things at her apartment. I think she filled some kind of mother gap in you. On Sundays we worked with the Wolf’s giant cub, Monica. A towering high schooler who routinely paid to see _Grease_ or _Star Wars_ every weekend.
At City News we each earned two dollars an hour. I’ve earned lots more an hour since but have rarely had as much fun on the clock. There was also the sole benefit of being able to take anything we wanted and read it. We all treated the place like a lending library. Take it away, read it, bring it back, never spend a dime. Remember Katie who worked one night a week for the reading rights? Katie could never be fired because she wanted the reading benefit. The Wolf would fire her and Katie would still show up and work. The Wolf did fire one young lady named Ruth for being “too short” and I said, “Wow we’re Ruth-less.” The Wolf fired both of us eventually and oddly I ended up firing Katie and others.
We’d use rubber bands to shoot flies. You got pretty good at it. When we’d compete you’d always have more dead flies than me. Why were there so many flies? Probably because we ate a lot of food from so many places now long gone (the Olympic, Pik Wik, Maxies, Shiksa’s Deli) and we made a mess that we left behind for others. Then came the morning The Wolf chewed my ass and called us pigs.
Inventory. We hated inventory. We had to bring friends in for that princely two dollars an hour and we had to count every book, magazine and card in the effing place. It took a small army a long night to get it done. Porn loses something when you have to count it.
You took over my shift the day my mother died. Months later we were both at the counter when you got the call that your father died. I said I was sorry and that I would take over so you could go home. You said there was no need and you kept on working. I did not understand that then and just attributed it to the part of you that you kept hidden. You kept that closeted part until the end.
One Saturday we closed the store, stayed on the clock and went to the Star Trek Convention at the Orpheum before The Motion Picture came out. You let me stay and hear George Takei speak and you went back and opened the store. An unusual act of kindness for young Ed WhiteEagle (that was how you traveled back then).
On a Sunday we closed the store stayed on the clock and went to the Auto Show at the Civic Auditorium. A terminal offense? Probably. An abuse of trust? Absolutely. Fun? Oh yeah.
We watched parades go by the front window, we closed the store (again on the clock) and watched them implode the Woodman of the World building.
There are no photos of you in the bookstore because for a guy who had a photography hobby you oddly refused to have your picture taken. You only loosened up as you got older. I wish I had pictures of late ‘70s Ed. You had that Yashica camera that you would loan to me and I took awful snapshots of Willie Nelson’s Kansas Summer Picnic and Elvis Presley’s last Omaha concert.
On Tuesday August 16th 1977 when Elvis died you called me at City News. You said, “J., did you hear? Elvis croaked.” While I was sacking a woman’s purchases I parroted you out loud, “Elvis croaked?” The woman went white, her eyes clouded over, and she ran out of the store without her purchase. Over the weeks came the incredible rush for Elvis material. Books, magazines, newspapers. Elvis was indeed everywhere. It was a frenzy. You had never liked Elvis, but your antipathy grew exponentially with all the demand and furor in the weeks after his passing. Remember the Elvis fan who wanted the National Enquirer with the photo of Elvis in his coffin? You yelled out to me so everyone could hear, “J! We got any more ‘Elvis in the box?!’” The lady went crimson with rage and accused you of disrespecting and being jealous of The King. You laughed like you were talking to a half-wit and asked, “Why would I be jealous of a dead fat guy?” You had a way with people. Not always a good way…
Once you marked some little Hallmark pencil decorations as “Ten cents apiece or eight for a dollar.” We sold a lot of that bargain. Only one guy questioned it.
We almost got robbed by a guy who was smarter than us but not equipped to deal with our complete lack of customer service. The guy faked a pickle card win. We didn’t know it was fake but we told him we couldn’t pay him. The Wolf was THRILLED we did not honor the payout. She made it clear that we had no winners in our pool of pickle cards. We thought about that. She knew we had no winners in our jar? Hmmm.
We did get robbed by two guys who were smarter, or at least more experienced than you or me. They spilled change over the counter and when you bent down to pick it up one reached into the open register drawer and pulled out the tens and twenties. We used to keep the twenties under the tray but we got busy, sloppy and got nailed. I remember you shouting to me in a panicked voice. I think you were most angry because you were outsmarted by someone. I was just glad we were robbed without looking down a gun barrel. We went to the police station and looked at acres of mug shots. All criminals look alike.
This was when Omaha had a horse track, so we sold racing forms and many tip sheets. For a time, we opened the tip sheets, compiled a summary of all the details cited and calculated the best horses then re-sealed the tip sheets. We made a chunk of change having your uncle place bets for us. And we lost it all.
We’d play the stereo loud. Mainly pop music radio or whatever you wanted to hear. I don’t remember having a say when we were both on duty because you felt I had no taste. Sometimes you brought in LPs of your choice that we’d drop on the turntable. Sometimes the customers liked the music, sometimes not. The band Kiss came in once when I was working solo and playing my 8 track tapes. They told me I had no taste.
Bookstore visitors covered a broad spectrum. We had regulars, stars, freaks and friends. The dyspeptic Barrel with Legs who hated any tunes we played, (“That music is raucous, purely raucous!”). I caught Waxface stealing porn. When I told him he couldn’t come back he looked shattered. There was the lady who was praying loudly in the center aisle for God’s angels to smite us. I advised her she could not call down God’s wrath during business hours. She objected strongly to that. A battle of wills ensued. I ended up strangling her to death. You helped me hide the body because you were my pal.
Kidding. Like so many things long ago I don’t remember how that episode ended.
Shoulda taken better notes. My biggest flaw, if we ignore the fact I was a jerk, was not taking better notes. I stupidly thought I would always remember the incredible variety of events that swept us along at City News and Book.
We brought our imaginations to City News. We were creating all the time. We were both going to be writers back then. You would sit down on the step ladder we used for a chair and scrawl out stories on the backs of brown paper magazine bags. You wrote stories about Thudmore Crevice, Helen Earth, who married H. G. Wheels and became Helen Wheels. There was Wek, the shadow boxing Neanderthal, Mo and Jo, Space Chumps, and their ship, the Zircon Reflection.
Me? I would just goof around making jokes doing funny voices and mixing incongruent situations, trying to twist reality to get laughs. I would free style with oral monologues like The Tribulations of Officer O’Clancy, Beware the Mayonnaise Harlequin, The Uninteresting Adventures of the Shadow and of course, Mike Blaze: Personal Dick. I was always looking for stories, ways to change the mundane into something memorable.
We created our music group, the Great Plains Buffalo Chip Band. We had album titles like _Chip to Shore_ and _Chippity Doo Dah_. We didn’t have albums, just titles. We sorta wrote songs. We riffed on things like the word “funk” years before it was a thing (“Mean Mother Funker, “What the Funk”). I wrote lots of funny, small minded lyrics that aren’t funny anymore but are still small minded. We had our entrances to the stage planned when we played the big arenas. You would rise out of the floor wearing a giant hat with a hologram of the Battle of Gettysburg, I would fly in on a flaming chariot. Mike had to swing in on a rope because we ran out of money. Seemed super hilarious then. The band was doomed because you were the only one of us who could play an instrument.
We started our company, Ewe-Fokker Enterprises. “Ewe Fokker, the world’s oldest expression” it said on our business cards. No one was ever so creative, not even us.
The Mighty Avengers social club and bowling team would gather at the front of the store on Saturday afternoons. We’d all be reading something. John Monasterio, Andy Monasterio, Russ Marquardt, Dave Austin, and we’d plan our Saturday night. Foosball, pool. Almost always a movie. And of course, the bar.
Sunday mornings I’d walk down from church clear eyed and sober while you’d crawl into work, late, hung over at legendary proportions. Towering Monica, who worked those mornings with us would do everything she could to increase your misery. She truly delighted in irritating you. You had a way with the ladies, but not always a good way…
We worked together at the bookstore for how long? Two years? Is that all? So much wonderful in a short span. I suspected the time was special and I tried to savor it but it went fast. Should have taken better pictures, made better notes. I wish I knew what I have forgotten. You know, I have no idea if the bookstore years meant that much to you. Those days glow golden in my heart.
Many more adventures ensued and sometimes I took better notes and you appeared in more photos. We grew together where we could and respected where we couldn’t, all while the years kept tumbling forward.
Until for you they stopped.
So, this memory ends where they all start for you and me: the laughs. Like the song says, “It’s the laughter we remember, whenever we choose to remember.”
Ed, here’s to the series of moments called City News and Book, their golden glow and the way we were.