I’m writing this from Lincoln, Nebraska. Capital of the almost-rectangle that frames plains, buttes, and parking lots. Sky like a giant flashcard to help you memorize blue.
Nebraska is right in the middle of the map. It’s where the map of the United States says “United States.”
I’m at a small bar near the edge of the city, about five yards from the train tracks. Comedy night. The walls are brick, but different colors – some wine-colored, some beige, some black. It’s like everyone in Lincoln made a brick and brought it in one day to make a wall.
Nebraska actually means “flat water” – stillness even as things move. You feel that a lot, here. You realize how still your body can be, even with so much stuff happening inside. How still the lampposts look on the side of the lettered streets – on P street, for example, you feel like you’re walking one of the only perfectly straight lines you’ve ever walked in your life.
A man named Lincoln with a Lincoln beard, who was raised in Lincoln and is twenty-six, makes a joke about driving a Lincoln on Lincoln Street.
I’m here to see some friends. I guess. That’s not really why I came. I came because I wanted someone to sit me down and teach me things – to explain exactly what a sky is, what stars are, what a city is. I’m from New York, where you don’t get those kinds of lessons. Everyone just assumes you already know.
There are three Native American themed coffee bars. There is one Live Nude Girls establishment, five blocks from one of the Native American coffee places. There is one French restaurant, The Green Gateau, one block from the Live Nude Girls. The restaurant and the girls are both on “Q” Street. There are lots of quotation marks.
“There aren’t any black people here, right?” asks Lincoln.
He says he volunteers at a YMCA in the poorer part of town. He says there was a party to commemorate Emancipation Day. Someone brought a big bucket of marijuana to the commemoration, and everyone started to smoke, and the police arrived and told all the black people to go home.
“Happy Emancipation Day.”
Walking through Lincoln’s downtown earlier that day, I went to the local public library. There was only one man in the magazine room, who looked like he was sleeping, though he was holding a copy of the Native American Times. He looked vaguely Native American, like a few people I’d seen slowly circumnavigating the state’s capitol. The second floor, above the magazines, was empty except for one silent police officer. There was an entire multi-tiered shelf about Nebraskan history, and I pulled out a big square book written by a man who had traveled by train all over the state and taken black-and-white photographs of each town’s red brick post office.
The comedian says he got his act together in Omaha. He thanks us, all twelve of us, for being quiet.
He tells us he will tell us a story. And the bar gets that great lull, the kind where you can almost hear the creaky manufacture of nostalgia. In ten minutes, just before midnight, everyone in this tiny cellar bar – the one next to a store that sells railroad memorabilia wrapped in acetate – will get in their Lincolns and drive through Lincoln, past Lincoln Street onto Cornhusker Highway, past the water towers that shoot upward like index fingers, past buildings with black holes for windows and deliberately misspelled chain stores and live nude girls sliding their clothes back on and going back to Omaha or Bellevue or Fremont.
His story is about what it feels like to masturbate for a whole day in a house on Lincoln Street. He says that one day he masturbated four times and then eked out a fifth time. He says nothing came out on the fifth time except a little white flag.
We laugh. We let the weight of our heads carry them back. We look up at the ceiling, at this brick ceiling that could’ve been there in 1850 when someone made rectangles out of steel a few feet away. We look at the bricks – some the color of charcoal, some the color of dust, others the color of hands or fingers or faces – and eventually let all our air out and stop laughing, and start to leave.
When I considered coming here, I thought Lincoln would be standing around shaking hands with anyone who walked by open faced and empty handed. Now I know he’s standing on a ledge in a dark room doing standup on Tuesday nights between 9:30 and midnight, telling a story about jerking off as trains churn behind his head.
There is a one-room airport in Lincoln. From the terminal’s glass walls, you can see long straight yellow lines – air traffic control demarcations bleeding into dirt roads that outline almost perfectly square fields. And when your plane takes off and you look down, it’s like someone made that easy jigsaw puzzle on the ground so people like you could feel proud when you put it all together.