My phone buzzed at 6:34 a.m. one Tuesday morning this October. It was an email from a stranger named Lola.
Lola had already read my morning column, one I focused on a 15-year-old Bellevue West sophomore named Ellie Kolesik. Now Lola had something she wanted to say.
I had written about Ellie because she was born with a rare dental condition that caused painful infections to rage in her molars and unstoppable cavities to form atop cavities. She needed root canals, her dentist told her. Nine root canals. What she really needed was $50,000 for dental implants. Her insurance company refused to pick up that tab.
But Lola didn't email me to bemoan the skyrocketing cost of dental care, or to call the insurance company nasty names, or to suggest a special spot in Hades for the people who write the fine print into insurance policies.
Instead, Lola had a single, simple question for me at 6:34 a.m.
How can I help?
And then my phone buzzed again. And then it buzzed again. And again.
As you may have heard, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I won't lie: I'm into this holiday mostly because it's the day when I host a secret one-man challenge I like to call, “How much stuffing can Matthew eat?” (Answer: Too much stuffing.)
But, after six Thanksgivings as a World-Herald reporter, this is my first Thanksgiving as a World-Herald columnist — a new gig that gives me ample reason to do what our mothers and our teachers and the wise people we meet along the way always urge us to do. To slow down for a moment, and actually think about what I'm thankful for.
So, yes, I am thankful for the Old Market awakening on a wintry Saturday morning, when it is only you and the delivery trucks and for a moment you feel like you live inside a real-life snow globe. I'm thankful for Benson on a sweaty summer night, when there's a good band playing and the kids have spilled out into the street and the future stretches before you endlessly. And I'm thankful for the last, quiet lap around Memorial Park as the sun dips below the century-old trees and the UNO students play Ultimate Frisbee in the grass and celebrate the first true day of spring.
I'm thankful that Omaha is a place where my wife and I could buy a nice old midtown home for roughly the same price you might pay for a broom closet in Manhattan. And I'm thankful that Omaha is a place where the various old owners of this old house sometimes stop me on the street, just to ask how the place is treating us.
I'm thankful that businesses called Stoysich and El Dorado and Laos Thai all exist, together, on South 24th Street. I'm thankful for the old Italians who argue about Orsi's bread versus Rotella's and the Sudanese cabdrivers who sit on plastic lawn chairs and watch al-Jazeera between shifts and the Afghan-Americans who have taught me so much about their country, simply because I asked.
I'm thankful that an Omahan made a black-and-white film and opened it in Omaha so that on a recent Friday I could sit in a darkened Film Streams theater and watch Bruce Dern say more with his eyes in 115 minutes than most actors say with their mouths in a career. I'm even thankful for the movie's title: “Nebraska.” Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
I'm thankful for Blue Line, which is sort of a coffee shop and kind of a daily affirmation that we are all still here and we are still happy to be alive and yes, I will take an Americano.
I'm thankful for the spaghetti bolognese at Dante and the double-secret fry sauce at Block 16 and pretty much everything that Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik and Jon Seymour put on a plate.
I'm thankful for the burgers grilling at Dinker's and the eggs Benedict at Dixie Quick's and a double-scoop of chocolate at eCreamery and how you can walk into Johnny's Cafe and think, for one glorious moment, that it's 1967.
I'm thankful my editor let me use two paragraphs on food.
I'm also thankful for the mezcal cocktails at the Boiler Room and red wine on the patio at La Buvette and an Infusion Brewery pale ale because, hey, I'm a 33-year-old reporter and not your teetotaling great-aunt Evelyn.
But, even more than food — and yes, even more than booze — I'm thankful for the people I have happened across during my first year as a columnist.
I'm thankful for Larry Dwyer, who gave me a tour of St. Cecilia Cathedral and made me think about what it meant that Omahans built it, brick by brick, with their hands. They worked through a world war, a Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and then another world war. It took them 54 years. They finished.
I'm thankful for Selina Sanchez, a librarian at the Douglas County Correctional Center, who made me think about what it means to bring joy to the bleakest places. And what it means to do it day after day, even when it seems like no one is looking.
I'm thankful for Tre Brashear, a co-founder of the Maha Music Festival, a summer day that makes this city feel bigger and better each and every year, even if he is zero-for-five at booking Wilco.
I'm thankful for Megan Hunt and Sarah Joy Lorsung Tvrdik, who run an online boutique that carries plus-size clothing for women who don't fit into our preconceived notions of beauty, and Andy and Angie Norman, who are building a nonprofit that cherishes and cheerleads for local music, and all the other Generation Xers and Millennials working to make their corners of Omaha better places to live.
I'm also thankful for Tom Gouttierre, who has worked to make Afghanistan better since before I was born, and Col. Tom Brewer, Nebraska's most battle-tested soldier, and Salvatore Sambasile, an Italian-American who survived a Nazi POW camp in World War II and an even scarier thing — getting married at age 87 this year.
Oh, and one non-Omahan to thank here: I'm thankful to former Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski, the man who I read as a college freshman and thought, “I wanna do that.” The man who annually wrote a Thanksgiving Day column that may look suspiciously similar to the one you are now reading.
Omaha stealing ideas from Kansas City. Seems about right, doesn't it?
And most of all, I am thankful for every time my phone buzzed on that Tuesday morning I wrote about Ellie. I'm thankful to Eric who offered to help set up a fund for her, and Terry who suggested that she check out foreign dental options, and Jim who thought the Shriners Hospital or Creighton University might be able to help.
I'm thankful to the 137 of you — 137! — who took the time to ask that simplest of questions. I'm thankful in part because Ellie is getting her new teeth ... for free.
And I'm also thankful to you because it's so easy to succumb to cynicism and irony and snark. It is so easy to bemoan what is wrong with this city, shake your head, and watch football instead.
That's why Lola and the rest of you are so important. You serve as solid proof that we're residents of a city that can and will and does ask the question: How can I help?
I guess that's why I should write it down, so I remember.