Gene Kwak

Dirty Work

The quaver in your dad’s voice unkinks something in you. Something deep and coiled. It comes from the very bottom, from where your ankles feel like they’re made of water. You are not a crier; your father is less of one. Even through the crystal-clear sound of the latest phone technology—like your ears are pressed up against each other’s heads—he sounds distant, like he is talking to you from one corner of the room with the phone in the opposite corner. He says the Korean word for grandfather, instead of Dad or Father or Pop. He says, Grandfather is dead. He says, come home, come home now.

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A Single Word, A Life Changer

By Gene Kwak

Moreover, not one of those big, obvious gut punches like AIDS, death, or cancer, think a tiny word, an innocuous word. A word so connected to a downy, ideal-life sensibility that it conjures forth images of popsicle-tinted teeth, flying kites, and being buried in blanket forts. A little hand wrapped around a separate hand’s larger first finger. Think: child. A word so innocuous, in its single syllabic, right off the tongue soft lilt, it's nearly a non-word. See, the lawmakers in Nebraska neglected to define the word on the proverbial books. So, hordes of parents up and packed their kids and drove them to Nebraska, Omaha, specifically, or if a native of the state, found the nearest hospital, said their goodbyes, and left their kids still pawing at sleepy eyes, the parents but dust and tractive rubber burning west on I-80. Bye-bye child. Anyone up to seventeen years and three hundred and sixty-four days being considered one. Quentin, of the constant dirty wife-beater, six-feet three, ropy musculature, with a spotty mustache that makes him look like he's smuggling Oreos whenever a back is turned. Quentin, who's probably more a man than the one who lent his sperm to half him. Or Linelle. The high school sophomore a semester away from junior year. Linelle eats grass and swears Jesus rides the MAT bus every other Wednesday. She also wants to someday be doing En dehors pirouettes across the stage at Lincoln Center. There they were, the unwanted. The left behinds. Scrubbed free from their parents’ social calendars, like some backward Biblical cleanse. The Omaha hospitals that served as buffer zones dubbed, “safe havens,” though mostly comprised of third-shift nurses willing to placate the younger children with forgotten toys or freebie suckers, ignoring the older ones, until an actual emergency whereupon all would be seen as little more than a nuisance. The white walls and thumbed through magazines sucking any energy from the room. The too-clean chemical scent used to mask the sick smell. This, being the haven of safe.

Follow this with police custody for the first forty-eight hours. Something that is not alien to a few of the children. Those first forty-eight are the worst. Every backhanded comment and hard stare shared between parent and child gets replayed in the child’s head like the animated films they watched on loop in yesteryear. Some wear reminders. Bruises, like dirty coins, mark their backs and upper-arms: the hideaway places. Every detail of the drop-off is memory-etched. The salt-crusted old ball cap he wore fishing. The expensive looking but Payless-purchased shoes she wore for church and work functions. The inside of the car smelling like gasoline and old fast-food bags. The kids wonder how much was pre-planned. The difference between manslaughter and murder being the thought before. Was it premeditated or was it something the parents felt they were driven to? More important, what was the final straw? Did some of the parents drive up hoping to scare some sense into their children only to find that as the odometer shifted in its slow tick and the hospital loomed, the reality of it seemed genuine, a possibility, a what-if brought to what-now? The children are nothing but wonder in the first forty-eight.

Next, they're shuffled off into homes. For some, again, nothing new. For the older of the ilk, this is scary. Not scary-for-young-ones-scary. Not like under the bed, boogie man scary, more popularity contest playing on their nerves. Imagine being a pre- or just turned teen and knowing the foster family would preferably start with a toddler or someone they could mold into a smaller, not physically representative but at least of a closer moral fiber, version of themselves. Someone the family would be proud to carry on their particular surname. Add in the oddity of getting used to a new home, not being able to shit for at least a week until everyone else left the premises. Mistaking a linen closet for a bedroom. Being overly apologetic for using a spoon. Also, most are not from around Omaha. Not used to the cold that could snap off a car key in a car door or the humidity that feels like walking through soup. Not used to the Saturday morning tornado sirens. Or the sheer lack of high rises. The nothing but Walmart, Target, and Home Depot trio every other block that feels like running past cartoon backdrops. What's worse than this, however, is being from down the street. Reassigned home and school-wise, but still in a city small enough to see the same faces. So what do they do when they see those familiar faces? With the whys and whats? How do they answer those questions is the question.

And this is when they start to seethe. Everything before: shock, sad clouds, acclimatization. Now they’re just pissed. Jamie, the redhead. He knows it, everyone knows it. Redheads don’t mesh well come family-picture time. Grace, who knew an omen when she saw her Playskool Kitchen and other accoutrements: plastic pots, plastic pans, plastic buttered brioche, all in perfectly upstanding condition albeit with a few crayon scribbled surfaces, being dragged away by donation collectors. Safe haven drop off: next day. They grit their teeth. Eat the overly starchy meals and say the prayers of their new families (this commonality of religion an obvious one) and sleep on beds not their own. The discomfort of using a bathroom in new environs is tenfold with regard to beds. They'll go months only sleeping the sleep that their bodies force them into, the just enough to stave off dying sleep. The right before they konk out there's a slight tweaky pain in their elbow sleep. And the cunts and fucks and shits will pepper their murmurs. And some won't even pretend to speak softly. Anything and everything will be a motherfucker. Most of all, their new fathers. This rage trumps the typical tantrums over the wrong nail polish. An ill-fitting pair of jeans. This is burn the nerve endings off, running hot. Veins pulse in foreheads and necks. Hands go through drywall. Things are thrown. Words and associations that can never be unsaid are said in stadium voices.

But eventually it gets easier. They’ll tell themselves to use the anger. Go to school. Get into extracurricular activites. Make better than good grades. For many, this will be easier said. Linelle dines on dandelion heads. Still. Plant saplings with their new, religiously-endeavored families. Help set the table. Fold your hands this way, fingers pointed skyward in supplication. Say Grace, Grace.

And as days pass and they're on their way to the Big League Dream (the picket-fence scenario: summer homes, 401ks, three children to better their parents’ two-point-five), they'll take time. Assess. Try to understand. Was it just too much? The onus, still on the parents, but could they have done something different? Not cut half the liquor cabinet with tap water? Not turned all eye-level clocks back two hours and still hemmed-and-hawed about thinking curfews were a.m. not p.m. set? Helped more with daily chores, swept better? No, they decide, no, it was still up to the parents. By sheer amount of life lived, the parents had the enlightened purview. But the children get it, they get it. Or at least they try. Some of them seem hard-wired for long-term hatred, but even this is probably due to nurture over nature. They thank their parents that at the very least the parents didn't snuff them out early under heavy blankets or drive them into lakes with the automatic windows rolled up. There's that. But the parents have gifted the kids this: Life probably won't be able to grant them a bigger let down human-relations wise. Being that in any other relationship, they'll have, at minimum, fifty percent say.

They’ll keep this with them as a reminder that trumps any sticker or badge or rubber band around the wrist. It will always be a low, deep ache. Will stick with them, like the memory of chicken pox or mumps. A bad haircut due to complacently set gum. Childhood pains. 

Originally published in Redivider.

The Last City I Loved: Omaha, Nebraska

By Gene Kwak

Say Omaha and most think cow town, feedlots, fly over. That panhandled flatland between points A and Z: a badly seamed green-and-yellow pastiche that provides the grain and steer for the bigwigs and small mouths of the larger Republic.

The Black Frame Crowd or Messenger Bag Riff Raff may posit this is Oberst town, Saddlecreek central. What’s the last best thing to come from Omaha? Top 40 radio? The Russian-dressed Reuben? Elliott Smith was born in a mid-town apartment complex like a million other mop-topped white dudes with premature age lines, all the better for the underage purchasing of hard-packed cigs or a six-pack of tallboys to be punctured and drunk under the fuzzed-out sodium lights of a Walmart parking lot.

Nebraska. The Good Life.

Rent here is dirt-under-your-fingernails cheap. Car keys left hanging in car doors will still dangle there come morning, and strangers will remember your name, greet you with said name when reacquainted, and hug you with the warmth and generosity of some third cousin seen in the grub line at an annual family reunion—two people kowtowing to subliminal niceties under the banner of Being Decent.

Five years ago, I left my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to get a piece of paper that certified my mastery of fine arts. Boston gave me seafood, bad sinuses, and a frizzy-haired girlfriend who told me she didn’t believe in monogamy seven months in.

Come graduation, I’d barely stepped off the dais and palmed the fake diploma holder, when I was ready to shuck the robe and become a dust blip beaten back across the Missouri. I wanted no last seaside views, no last late-night South Street Diner dinners, and no last Orange Line rides. I had friends—no, brothers—I needed to be back beside in the panhandle: Chickinelli, Fletch, Shad. Not to mention I needed to reunite with bloodlines. My younger sister just birthed her first baby boy, Enoch, my first nephew. I needed to see him grow. Say his first words, gnash his tiny teeth over America’s threadbare interests. I also needed to drive. Apologies to bikers and environmentalists, but there is no mode of transport near as romantic as a car. Being able to get from one point to another with the soundtrack of a country crooner finger picking and warbling as you drive toward some blind horizon trumps all.

To say I was heartsick for home would be like saying a perfumed turd still smells like shit. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. I chalk it up to him being a fey six-foot-tall writer built like a refrigerator from Asheville, North Carolina. He probably felt ill in any orbit. Before my return, I fretted over whether or not Things Would Be The Same. During my three years in Boston, I’d come back to Omaha every six months or so, and my good friends would drop everything to accommodate my ridiculous intrusions into their everyday schedules. Tag along at this wedding. Hop on this long-planned road trip. Pull up another chair. Regardless, their lives went on without me, and the joys and heart pangs and shared memories were all happening in my absence. Fletch almost losing an eye after falling off a roof. Lizzie’s Budapest boyfriend on his Heartland tour. The house party where the roasted pig was picked clean by bare hands. The first question on my brain and heart was: how would I fit in? When those in the know guffawed at inside jokes, how many pregnant pauses would have to pass before the conversation got back to an even keel? How many back stories would have to be given, long-wind, to catch me up? The answer, luckily for me, was none. The best part about being a true and honest-to-goodness pal is that there is little to no discomfort in the headlong tumble of the awkward pause. Not every beat needs to be filled. There can be a solace and a knowing in the unsaid.

Here I could give you the stats, the hard sell. Unemployment numbers hover at a nationwide low, rental prices have friends in coastal cities cursing economics, and we’ve got five major Fortune 500 companies headquartered within our fair burg.

Omaha is atop every best-living list. Boon times. Business folk flock here trying to suckle at the teat of the Berkshire Hathaway Grand Poobah, glean whatever bits of investing knowledge they can from Buffett. Once, before the Boston move, I sold a book to Stephen Baldwin, who was in town for the annual BH stockholder’s meeting. He told me he wanted to buy Warren a gift—his self-penned religious awakening memoir. We had one copy in stock.

Young artists and artisans understand the harsh realities of balancing rent and costs of living while trying to make sure no nick or hard cough leads to an unexpected hospital visit. Omaha makes this balance allowable. Every coffee slinger or fry cook is a drummer or bass player in a band covered by Pitchfork. One can live and work in an unfettered way, or at least a way less fettered than is possible in any major metropolis. All the Bigs are flush with young, mad for the glamour and the look—the artist lean and wardrobe—but it’s too damn pricy to give it an honest go in those spit-shined towns. Those willing to give all in the way of art are living in the little pockets of America: Athens, GA; Oxford, MS; and Omaha, NE.

The city is big enough to support and sustain local arts and music, while still being small enough that everyone knows everyone else’s name. Last count on the official census was 400,000 in city limits. Add in all the outlying and abutting counties and nooks and we’re sitting at over a million, easy.

Of course, no city is without its blights, its bruises. One drawback is that it’s still quite segregated. North Omaha is primarily African-American, South Omaha primarily Hispanic, and everything else is the land of Caucasia, though thanks to our wide and easily accessible thoroughfares, no two points in Omaha take more than twenty or twenty-five minutes to get to via highway. Unfortunately, those lines of demarcation fall into being in the same way they do in most civic instances, due to bullshit redistricting, the invisible hand of economic oppression, and some of that old junior high like-with-like internal distancing. But, at the very least, you won’t get the stink eye for treading in the wrong part of town.

Also, we could be doing a lot better when it comes to being LGBT-friendly and having more than one semi-vegetarian option on any given menu (this is the land of prime beef, after all). Though a federal judge recently ruled Nebraska’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, and Isa Moskowitz, vegan chef demigod, recently pulled up stakes from her longtime Brooklyn home and resettled in Omaha, opening a vegan-only restaurant that’s been wildly successful.

Though Omaha bears its brunt of antiquated ass backwards laws, no city is perfect, and those of us who choose to make this our home are set on digging our heels in and fighting for the changes we deem necessary. We pick fight; there’s no flight in our bones. 

Omaha’s at this weird crossroads where history is on our side, but time is also trying to curry favor. We’re equal parts train yard, meat plant, and River City Roundup, while also being home to The Slowdown, Secret Penguin, and The Union for Contemporary Art.

It’s no accident some of the most successful hubs of the city have made nods to The Next while still preserving elements of the past. Like a relic cast in amber, only that relic is displayed in a futuristic museum shaped like a metal kidney.

But beyond any architectural wows, flora or fauna (there’s a reason it’s called the Plains) or number crunching, the best thing about Omaha is the people.

Within a few months after my return, I solidified my standing in certain circles, became another familiar face, found sources of adequate income. I did part-time bookstore work, slung falafel with buddies in Dundee, and got a position adjunct teaching composition classes at a satellite of top-notch community colleges. And I met new kith, and rekindled with kin and older connections gone cold.

Whether it’s Paige and Brigitte galvanizing the community in North Omaha to Conny bringing legitimacy to Nebraska hip-hop. Sam and Greg doing their weirdo genius songwriting on makeshift non-instruments or Teal making her art rock music, painting sticks, and creating safe spaces to expand kids’ sense of play. To The New Blk dudes (Shane, Anthony, Adam and crew) creating some of the best design work for local and national businesses and hosting weird, art parties in their basement.    

But the truest, big-hearted coterie of folks that I would jot my name down next to in the ledger of life as compatriots, pals, trench friends, family are the following five:

Paul Hansen, the wildest young writer I know. Paul has some of the most wide-ranging tattoos known to man, ink homage ranging from The Boss to Proust. He also plays in a band of shirtless marauders known as Pro-Magnum. Paul once dressed up for Halloween as a box of Franzia and has constructed the longest and most architecturally sound wizard’s staff I’ve ever witnessed (a “wizard’s staff” being the product of a drinking game wherein each finished beer can has to be duct-taped on top of the previous one until the “staff” is taller than the drinker).

Fletch is the most talented man on six strings. Plays a cover of “Clay Pigeons” by Blaze Foley that’ll bring you to tears. We met nine years ago now, at the local Omaha landmark, Hotel Frank, a generational pit stop for young Omahans to reside in for a few years while saving beer money and living free from under the thumb of parental supervision. A pretty girl in a leather jacket once took Fletch’s picture for a tintype portrait project. She asked all involved what the last words were that they had said before they went to bed. Fletch answered, “Good night, Gene.”

Shad is a former reservist who came back from Iraq keen on home ownership. A wild-maned DIY’er, Shad walks around shoeless as much as the weather allows (a habit he picked up after three months in India), and he’s currently in the small-batch soap-making business. I once saw Shad get tasered (twice, actually) at a house party, because he asked for it. And he wasn’t doing it in an act of look-at-me grandstanding, but in search of genuine I-want-to-feel-alive kicks.

Chickinelli is secretly (or not so secretly) one of the most talented visual artists in the city. Chick’s completed residencies in Montreal and Peru, and his organic, geometric line-driven paintings show leagues more talent than the name jockeys who ride their art school diplomas around. Chick manages the falafel shop and would rather get recognized for being a hard worker and a decent, beer-guzzling dude than a paintbrush-wielding holier-than-thou artiste.

Lizzie is a hands-in-the-dirt type, whether literally digging mud to clear paths for plants and herbs in urban gardening or boarding a bus to DC to support union rallies. Lizzie and I first bonded on a trip to St. Louis where we smoked hookah, ended up at an apartment party where someone was live-painting the narrow walls, and smoked cigarettes in one of the last allowable smoking spots in the city. We played pool and waxed poetic on Dharma Bums, particularly the need to be the right age to read Kerouac.

When I first returned, these were the five I called. Caught up with.

Though there’s so much overlap in our Venn diagram of life (Fletch and Shad went to high school together; Chickinelli was a few years behind them; they met Lizzie at a church retreat in high school; Paul once lived with Fletch at Hotel Frank; Shad lived in another wing; Chickinelli lived with Fletch at one point on 45th; Lizzie, Fletch, Shad, and I all lived together not too recently; Chickinelli and Paul recently lived together; and everyone works in Dundee), the only thing that really holds water is that no matter the time or distance that separates us, we all try. All put forth the effort. Because in any longstanding relationship, the tensile strength gets tested and stretched, sometimes on a day-to-day basis, but the friendships stay intact, still hold their shape, when you remember it’s less about what you’re being afforded than what you can afford. Not about what isn’t being done for you or to you, but what small gestures you can muster regardless of the turn.

Pick up the phone, set a date. Do the deed.

The five of us caroused late nights, stumbling through Benson back alleys, always ending up back at Shad’s house listening to Michael Hurley records, sipping whiskey, smoking cigarettes by the hard pack, and telling or re-telling stories. About the time we all took mushrooms in St. Louis to go see Radiohead. Or when we went to go see Prometheus and ended up in a fight outside a bar on Leavenworth where screwdrivers were scattered in the street. The time snowplows pushed up banks against Hotel Frank’s edges and we shot off the roof into white drifts. Then poured lighter fluid on the drifts, lit them on fire and tried again.

Or. Or. Or. Or sometimes, not needing to say anything at all.

Originally published in The Rumpus.