I saw a movie once; it’s now almost entirely forgotten. It was called “Palookaville” and came out in 1995, although it came to Omaha in 1996, and was about a family of burglars. I saw it and liked it, and The Reader, which was less than a year old at the time, had just lost its film critic. So I typed up a review and sent it off, and a couple of days later got a call from the then-managing editor. “We can’t pay much,” he said. “It’ll pay for your popcorn.”
That was good enough for me. I saw between two and five movies every week for a year and a half, and sometimes wrote longer stories. I interviewed Peter Fonda, an actor with Omaha roots, for a movie he did, and that was a cover story. He told me he had once planted a fake bomb at the bus station downtown and stuck around to see what would happen – just this past year I found an old World-Herald article that confirmed it.
I did a cover story about Omaha’s Halloween haunted houses, and claimed I have visited a fictional haunted house, based on an urban legend about an attraction that was supposed to be 10 stories and cost $10. For every floor you managed to visit, they gave you a dollar back. Nobody had ever gotten all $10 back. It was too frightening. The Reader was inundated by phone calls from readers demanding to know where this haunted house was.
I took over as managing editor in my second year of writing for the paper, and, eventually, and very briefly, was editor-in-chief. I then moved to Minneapolis and spent three years as the theater critic for City Pages, the newsweekly there. The Reader was my first job in journalism, and since that first job, I have never been without a journalism job.
I also returned to work for the paper for about two years in 2003, coming aboard as a graphic designer. One of my jobs was to create in-house ads for the paper, to fill holes. There were always a few spots in the paper that were empty, because they fit weirdly between two ads, or a story didn’t completely fill the page, or we just didn’t have an advertisement for a spot that was earmarked for one. As a prank, I started to fill those slots with lunatic predictions about the future from a fabricated psychic, Dr. Mysterian. A year later I moved to New Orleans, and John Heaston asked me if I wanted to make Dr. Mysterian a regular column. I have now been writing the column for 11 years, which is a surprising lifespan for a column that began its life as a prank. Equally surprising: A lot of my predictions have come true. No matter how ridiculous I make Dr. Mysterian’s predictions, the world has a way of topping me.
This points to what I think is one of The Reader’s greatest strengths. We live in an increasingly homogenized media world, where everything is written for the broadest public tastes, and all the rough edges have been sanded down. But rough edges are part of what gives a place character – and Omaha, as much as any place on earth, sometimes seems to be nothing but rough edges. The Reader has always made space to allow for whimsy, for experimentation, and for a celebration of idiosyncrasies. We’d be a poorer town without it, and my life would have been poorer but for it.