It Takes a Village: The Beginning
As I sit at my desk writing this article, I hear the sound of a bus going down 16th Street. You’d think the noise would bother me, but instead, I lean back and feel comforted. I haven’t ridden a bus since my teen years, but I remember it well. How could you forget your first independence, riding the Number 6 bus to downtown by yourself? The bus safely took me away, away to a place where I could shop, see the sights, and explore.
I had a lot of time to think on that 30 minute ride to downtown from North Omaha. I remember I’d stare out the window day-dreaming about what I’d buy with my babysitting money. Pendant watches, windbreakers and madras shirts danced through my head. The starting, swaying, stopping and starting of the bus, intermingled with my thoughts. Each cycle of thought with bus maneuvers, got me closer to downtown, Omaha, the Emerald City of Nebraska, my very own village where everything’s waiting for me.
When I’d get near my stop in the heart of downtown, I’d pull the cord and walk to the back exit like a pro, making sure to hold onto the back of the seats so I wouldn’t fall into a fellow passenger’s lap. The hissing sound of the bus’s air brakes signaled the start of the race for me as I patiently waited for the exit doors to open. After politely spitting me out, the bus heaved onward, lumbering on its designated course, leaving me standing alone on 16th & Dodge.
I’d begin my hunt at Penney’s and then go back out to 16th Street to its next door neighbor, Woolworth’s. After savoring a malted milk through a paper straw at the Luncheonette, I’d use the underground exit and walk with other shoppers through the tunnel under Douglas Street and pop out into the bargain basement of Brandeis.
One of my many haunts included Kresge’s Drug Store down from Brandeis on Harney. It was a wonderland of movie magazines, costume jewelry, and cans of Aqua Net. Kilpatrick’s and Goldstein Chapman’s were also on my treasure map; and of course, part of the downtown shopping experience had to include eating at Bishops Buffet, where the assortment of a la carte dishes excited me as much as the variety of bobby pins at Walgreens.
I kept watch over the time, vigilant not to miss the last bus to get me home by curfew. Walking briskly to catch the bus ordained to deposit me safely back from whence I came, I usually planned to reach my bus stop with time to spare for the trip home. Waiting with other travelers on 14th Harney in the alcove of Borsheim’s, I clutched one large bag from one of the major department stores that held all my treasurers. After boarding, I had 30 minutes of bus ride ahead. There, I’d relax and reflect on a job well done.
Staring out into the night, I mentally checked off my purchases as my reflection in the window stared back in agreement that I’d once again secured my membership in the in-crowd: White lipstick, fake nails, curlers the size of orange juice cans, Dippity Do, Clearasil, Max Factor cake mascara, and a 45 rpm single, “Love Potion No. 9.” But best of all, in my faux leather billfold contained two coveted receipts promising a windbreaker and madras shirt safely secured on layaway at Natelson’s Department Store.
Little did I know as I rode the metro bus back and forth to downtown as much as my mother allowed, my grandparents and the generation before them were making history, and helping to form part of the downtown culture today. I couldn’t possibly have appreciated it then, but I’m completely indebted to them now.
My ancestors immigrated from Lentini, Sicily to Omaha as early as 1912 with the hope of work at the Union Pacific shops, and settled in at a boarding house on 10th & Howard. Besides the rail cars that needed to be repaired, sewers and tunnels needed to be excavated. Articles needed to be written for the newspaper and costumes needed to be sewn for the opera. Leather shoes needed repair and the courthouse needed drapes. And the foreshadowing of the most popular culture of downtown today: The market district needed vendors for flowers, produce and Christmas trees.
My ancestors didn’t stay long at the boarding house. They moved into their own homes, and became restaurateurs, florists, grocers, dry cleaners and professional photographers throughout Omaha, supplying the needs of the growing city while establishing their own village, Little Italy.