Greater Omaha

Downtown Omaha at dawn, May 2012. From Kiszka King.

Omaha, Nebraska sits about 190 miles from the geographic center of the continental United States. A large green sign suspended over Interstate 80 welcomes those entering from the east to “The Good Life.” If you stop the car on your way through, you’ll find that the city is home to a whole lot of large, cheerful Americans of mainly German, Swedish, and Czech ancestry. Here, hard work and Christian values are extolled—as Skip James sang in “Omaha Blues,” “The people there’re so nice and kind/ They’ll make you work in rain or shine.” There are also some places, near the outskirts of town, where if you stop your car for very long the government does not look kindly upon it. But we’ll get to that. First: how we lived.

In high school I made $10 an hour working a summer job at West Corporation, a telemarketing firm based in West Omaha. Though it now bills itself as “the leading provider of customer contact solutions,” with offices in India, Singapore, Mexico, Canada, and Europe, it began as a humble inbound telemarketing service bureau in 1986. Its employees dealt with incoming orders for products advertised on TV and with customer service on those orders. In our city, West was one of many telecommunications companies. A 2001 Newsweek article on emerging “Tech Cities” identified Omaha as “the place where the blue-collar work of the information economy is done.” At the time, there were twenty-three corporate call centers in Omaha, taking 20 million toll-free calls each day (“in flat, Midwestern English,” Newsweek couldn’t help but add). At one point, a regional phone company’s advertising slogan was even “Dial 800 and get Omaha.” These days, of course, there is more competition from centers abroad, and so West Telecommunications has expanded its reach to tap into the lucrative debt collection industry. This hasn’t come without growing pains. Last year, West Asset Management Inc. paid $2.8 million in penalties to the Federal Trade Commission—the largest FTC settlement ever in a debt collections case. West’s dutiful employees, it turned out, had used “aggressive and deceptive tactics” to collect money from debtors.

When I started at West in the late 1990s, I worked in a building with the fluorescent lights, low ceilings, and mottled carpet that the industry is known for, complete with rows upon rows of low-rise cubicles. Here you could find young and middle-aged workers wearing oversized dress shirts and talking to people from all over the country. It was a mixed group—mostly high school and college students, zoned-out daydreamers, and fuck ups. The single-divider cubicles were set up so that your boss and coworkers could see you at all times, perhaps as a means of discouraging masturbation or other unsavory activities that could tarnish the good name of the company. It was not hard, however, to detect a bit of sadism in the design, which forced us all to make eye contact with one another and gaze into the emptiness within.

We were supposed to dress “business casual” even though our only interactions were over the phone, probably to demonstrate to ourselves that our jobs were white collar and therefore important. If you wore jeans, stained clothing, or other unprofessional attire, your manager would document the offense. I can’t remember if there was a three-strikes rule specifically, but it was something similar to that. People were frequently written up, because it was that kind of place.

When I started working at West, I always brought a book with me, but I quickly realized that this was a bad idea. Although there is a fair amount of downtime when you’re working as an inbound telemarketer, someone could call at any moment. I’d read a few sentences of my book, and then a tone coming through my itchy headset would alert me to another incoming order. Each time the phone rang, my computer screen provided a new message to deliver to the caller (including hearty salutations and sign-offs). The caller saw an ad on TV, dialed the toll-free number, and then there I was. From NRA memberships to exercise videos, the patient West employee moved products of many different types. I spent a lot of time fielding calls from lonely elderly people wanting to know where I was and what the weather was like, but I also calmed down a deeply distressed man who had not received his Richard Simmons Sweatin’ to the Oldies workout video on time. After my introductory spiel, I would click through to the next page, which guided me through the process of “upselling” other items the caller might like. Callers could often pay these off in installments, or even just a low, one-time fee on a credit card. I repeatedly got in trouble for asking, “Are you sure you want to complete this purchase?” I worried about each person who called. Why did they need so much stupid shit?

The work really started to eat at me. There I was, facilitating all of these useless transactions, except they weren’t even useless—they were the backbone of Omaha’s economy. But did these people really need another video, another magazine subscription, another vacuum cleaner that could Do It All? Once, on purpose, I intentionally screwed up a man’s order—he had called to renew his National Rifle Association membership, and I had been shocked and angry to see the order appear on my screen. I, a teenager who spent too much time listening to Dead Kennedys, had taken a small stand, but then another call came in and I returned to my duties, droning on in a pleasant Midwestern accent.

When I first got the job, my manager proudly informed our group that Omaha was a telemarketing hub because its residents spoke so clearly. I recently called West’s Human Resources department to ask if this was indeed the case, but it turns out that our even cadence was just an afterthought.

A few miles from downtown stands Offutt Air Force Base, which in 1940 became the site of the largest bomber factory in the country. In 1945, workers at the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant assembled a B-29 named Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and soon after that they built the Bockscar, which dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. More recently, in 2001, former President George W. Bush was hustled out to Offutt to hide in an underground command bunker after the September 11 attacks. Offutt is also home to Strategic Air Command, or STRATCOM, the nation’s nuclear arsenal command center. In 1947, when STRATCOM was just starting out as the bombing arm of the US Air Force, the powers that be decided to build a large communications network that could withstand a nuclear assault. Peter Kiewit Sons Inc.—currently known as Kiewit Corporation, the enormous construction, mining, and engineering company—finished the job by laying fiber optic cables, and in 1987 the company put up an initial investment of $10 million to build a large phone network in the city. When West began to put down telemarketing roots in Omaha, it wasn’t because of our pleasant diction, but because the company was able to buy cheap access to Strategic Air Command’s excess infrastructure.

Almost twenty years later, STRATCOM and Omaha are getting along just fine. In 2006, Kiewit Corporation paid for the construction of a Global Innovation and Strategy Center (GISC) on the University of Nebraska at Omaha south campus. The 43,400-square-foot facility, according to an opaque press release, “will help USSTRATCOM provide non-traditional solutions to challenges by linking flexible networks of experts from sectors of the private community together with government agencies.”

The GISC essentially functioned as a bridge between the Department of Defense and the private sector, helping to provide information to the government about online threats, data fusion, outer-space affairs, nuclear deterrence, and “persistent ISR,” or Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions, which include the use of unmanned aircraft (a.k.a. drones). When the US launched its pre-emptive strike on Iraq in 2003, some 70 percent of the missiles and smart bombs involved were guided from outer space. STRATCOM, Air Force Secretary James Roche said, had just directed “the first true space war.”

In 2010, the Department of Defense restructured the GISC, reallocating its resources and terminating the $5.5 million lease on the building at 6825 Pine Street. However, Lt. Commander Stephanie Murdock, the Deputy Chief of Protocol at STRATCOM, assured me via an incredibly obtuse email that “the J9 Directorate continues . . . to leverage communities of interest and capabilities developed during the GISC years to accomplish their current mission set.” Whatever these programs actually are, or do, it seems that their presence in Omaha is fixed.

STRATCOM’s emblem is a freakish metallic gloved hand clutching three red lightning bolts. These symbolize “lethality and speed.” There is also a thin green olive branch, an obligatory and laughable nod to peace against the backdrop of a half globe that only features North and Central America. On the tautologically fraught website, the Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike wing of STRATCOM (JFCC-GS) assures interested Americans that “when directed . . . [JFCC-GS] defeats adversaries through decisive joint global kinetic and non-kinetic combat effects.” In case you were wondering, JFCCGS also has an emblem: a giant sword with a winged yellow hilt plunged deep into a bulls-eye with sparks flying out from both sides of the center of the circle, implying irreparable damage to both land and air. A 2006 report from the Federation of American Scientists states, “In its most extreme sense, Global Strike seeks to create near-invulnerability for the United States by forcing utter vulnerability upon any potential adversary. As a result, Global Strike is principally about warfighting rather than deterrence.”

In grade school, I was told that in the event of a nuclear strike we were situated at ground zero. Our teacher assured us that we would be goners—there would be no running when a bomb hit the area. Although my Catholic upbringing made regular nightmares about Armageddon a given, there was a certain pride in knowing we good-natured Midwesterners were holding the cards. We were important after all, even if the rest of the country chose to ignore us.

And yet, the city’s good cheer isn’t just some façade. Omaha really is home to some of the most pleasant people you will ever meet, including one of the world’s most beloved business magnates. If you type in “Wizard” and “Omaha” into Google, you get stories about Warren Buffett, the silver-haired director of Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company with a website that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the early ’90s. Berkshire Hathaway has considerable stock holdings in Coca-Cola, American Express, Wells Fargo, Wal-Mart, and other American giants, with a stock portfolio worth $89.1 billion, making Buffet the second richest man in the country (his friend, Bill Gates, is still on top). My mom’s friend is actually Buffett’s next-door neighbor, though her house has a very undemocratic fence while Buffett’s does not. A few months ago she was having some trouble with her computer. She enlisted the help of the Oracle of Omaha, he made a call and handed the phone to her, and the person on the other end of the line was Bill Gates. No, I am not joking. Even the billionaires here hold middle-class Midwestern values. If my mom’s friend had also needed a neighborly cup of sugar, the burger-loving businessman (who once confessed, “Cauliflower makes me sick”) would have likely gotten it for her without skipping a beat.

Buffett’s signature style—a kind of ostentatious plain living—has made him middle-America’s favorite anti-executive. Omaha’s most prominent corporations, doing their best to be seen as similarly nonthreatening, have tried to follow suit. Their names make for a mind-numbingly boring list: The Gallup Organization, ConAgra Foods, First Data, First National Bank, Omaha Steaks. As a kind of nod to the city’s past, there is also the Union Pacific Railroad, which conquered what one East Coast newspaper in the 1860s once called the “ruinous space” in between Omaha and Sacramento.

Which brings up the point: to grow up in Omaha is an exercise in confronting the void. The Void should be capitalized, though, because it is a big deal. Here, the buildings are stout, the streets are wide, and there are twice as many bars as there probably should be for a mid-sized city. In the winter, when the surrounding farmland lies fallow, the only thing in your rearview mirror will be sky—ominous, gray-streaked winter sky with giant clouds hanging low. It reminds you of your insignificance, of how fucked you would be if your car broke down.

It is a city bifurcated by I-80, the interstate running from San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey, which means that you can coast along at 60-plus miles per hour to get from downtown to more residential areas in a matter of minutes. It also makes it easy to enter and exit the city without stopping. Omaha is a rest stop, a short break on your way to more exciting places. We all know this, and we resent you for it. We also understand, though, that there isn’t exactly a lot here to catch the eye. Mega parking lots and chain stores are ubiquitous along Dodge Street, and public transportation may as well not exist at all. In Omaha, the car is and may always be king, but it can be a depressing realm. As a teenager, I’d pass the same aging strip malls from one end of the city to the other, and I’d curse the architects and urban planners along the way.

Montana traditionally gets to be “Big Sky Country,” but the same could be argued for Nebraska. In the summer, when corn and wheat are harvested, all you have are land and sky, with an oddly quaint city in between. I’ve noticed time slowing down as the twilight claims another day. Waiting at intersections, if you listen closely enough, you can actually hear the little electronic buzz as the stop lights change from red to green, and without streetlights, you’ll often need to flip on the brights as you wend your way home.

I left Omaha because the Void frightened me. The landscape was too large for my reptilian brain to handle, and I wanted to see a world outside of insurance agencies and tight military haircuts. It turned out, though, that I had stupidly underestimated the intelligence of Omaha’s good-natured citizens, and every time I come home I find my curiosity growing. When we’re not catering to the needs of those aging Americans who still order things over the phone, we’re figuring out what to do about Iran, or how to keep China in line. The people planning our geopolitical strategy and acting in the interests of national defense are living in a place you’ve probably never taken seriously. Welcome to The Good Life.

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