Maybe you stared and wondered, stared and wondered, for years. Who painted that billboard? For whom? Why?
And then one day your curiosity can no longer be contained. One frigid Monday morning you slam on the brakes, veer right into the Smoke Pit BBQ’s cracked parking lot and speed-walk to the locked front door.
A woman named Kim Dubinsky is alone inside, nursing her second cup of coffee. And because sometimes the loveliest things happen inside closed BBQ joints at 9 a.m., she unlocks the door, sits you down at a booth, sips her cup of coffee and slowly, lovingly, tells you the tale behind the Forever in Blue Jeans billboard.
It’s a story of spare ribs, cooked here for so many years that the sweet smell seeps from the walls and climbs into the fabric of your coat. It’s a story co-starring cops, criminals, judges, hookers, Prince, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and of course Neil Diamond.
Mostly, though, the story Kim tells you is a story about a 5-foot-6 man who once weighed 125 pounds soaking wet. He once finished his first marathon on a dare. He once read to their only daughter each and every night, until both their eyelids sagged. And once upon a time, after he got sick, he promised Kim the biggest anniversary card she had never seen.
“I would say, ‘I don’t know, Joe,’ ” Kim says. “ ’I don’t know if you can get one bigger than the one I’m getting you.’ ”
They met sometime before Ronald Reagan was president — Kim won’t tell you the year, because she refuses to let you count backwards and guess her age.
Joe Dubinsky moved to Omaha fresh out of high school, a boy from Pennsylvania coal country transplanted to this land of steak and corn.
What this city needs is BBQ, he thought. So, in 1961, he opened the Smoke Pit.
Kim started working for him years after that, when he was an established business owner and she was fresh out of high school herself and in need of a steady paycheck.
She needed more than a paycheck, actually. She came from a messed-up family. Joe paid her. And he helped her, too.
“I talked, and he listened. Sometimes for an hour.”
In return, she worked harder than any other employee. Back in the old days, the Smoke Pit was a hopping, 35-seat restaurant down the street from its current location.
Kim showed up at 1 p.m. to set up. Joe unlocked the front door at 4 p.m., and people started streaming in for dinner. It grew more crowded, and more crowded still, until a 2 a.m. line of half-drunk bargoers snaked out the door. They closed at 3 a.m. Kim left around 4 a.m. She waitressed 15 hours a day, five days a week.
“And I think he saw how hard I worked, and that meant something to him.”
Joe co-signed her lease on her first apartment. Each afternoon, he picked her up at her apartment and drove her to work.
One day he picked her up like usual, stopped the car at the first red stoplight and turned toward the passenger seat.
“I love you,” he said to her.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said back to him.
But it was, and soon Joe and Kim were married and running the Smoke Pit together. They moved the Smoke Pit to a larger spot on 25th Street — “moved it to west Omaha,” Kim jokes — and bought a house in Dundee. All sorts of famous people came through the restaurant: Jay Leno stopped in and signed autographs for all the employees. Jesse Ventura was a regular each time he came to wrestle. They delivered BBQ to Prince’s tour bus, and to the tour bus of Gladys Knight, Ratt, Cheap Trick and a hundred other bands that they quickly forgot.
A group of Omaha police detectives came in regularly. So did several county judges and one-time Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown.
They had other regulars, too: A half-dozen prostitutes. Hustlers out on bail. A gangster that Kim knew only as “Smiley.”
When Joe and Kim got off work late they would come home, crank up their favorite Neil Diamond song and sing at the top of their lungs.
Money talks But it don’t sing and dance And it don’t walk And long as I can have you Here with me, I’d much rather be Forever in blue jeans
Kim teasingly called Joe “Chicken Legs.” Joe decided to do something about that. “I’m going to run a marathon,” he said. Three months later, he did. He ran another, and another, so many that the marathon T-shirts overflowed his dresser drawer. He refused to let her throw away a single shirt. I earned those, he would say.
Joe teasingly bought Kim a coffee mug that said “Rather be 40 Than Pregnant.” One of the waitresses accidentally busted the coffee mug. A couple of months later, Kim took a pregnancy test. Positive.
That night Joe and Kim talked for hours, deciding how to rearrange their lives to accommodate the soon-to-be third member of their family.
And so, when Kim gave birth to Natasha in 1990, she went back to work at the Smoke Pit, this time as manager. Joe waved goodbye as she pulled out of the driveway.
After three decades running the Smoke Pit, he became a full-time dad. He changed diapers and heated up bottles by day. At night, he laid her on the couch and read her favorite books, again and again.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“He would say how much respect he gained for women,” Kim says. “And I would say, ‘You would respect us even more if you would do a load of laundry once in a while.’ ”
Natasha was scooting around the Smoke Pit in her baby walker at 2. She had learned the first verse to “Forever in Blue Jeans” by the time she hit kindergarten. She was running the cash register by the time she entered sixth grade.
Today she is a 23-year-old graduate student at Drexel University in her father’s home state of Pennsylvania. She’s studying to become a psychiatrist.
Natasha recently called from Philadelphia and told her mother that as she gets older, her list of what she’s looking for in a boyfriend is changing. She’s looking for someone who is financially responsible. Someone who sees the world around him, and isn’t a slave to his iPhone. Fun, hardworking, a good listener.
Kim thinks it sounds a little bit like someone who used to read Natasha bedtime stories. Kim didn’t tell her that, though.
“I just said, ‘Your list is getting tougher.’ ”
They had noticed the first signs when Natasha was still in junior high.
Joe stopped running. He started forgetting things. He lost his balance easily.
Soon life became a blur of specialists and tests, antiseptic rooms and hospital gowns.
Eight years ago, for the first time since Ronald Reagan became president, Joe and Kim Dubinsky were separated.
She ran the Smoke Pit in Omaha. He was at a hospital in Minnesota, undergoing more tests and trying to get well.
Each and every morning, she wrote him a letter and dropped it in the mailbox. And each and every morning, the mailman came and handed a letter back to her. Her daily letter from Joe.
In one of those letters, Joe promised her he would be sending her the biggest anniversary card ever.
And that’s when Kim told him she doubted it, because she had an idea of her own.
She hired the ex-husband of an employee to paint it. She didn’t want anything fancy. She wanted it to look homemade, like she had done it herself.
“Happy Anniversary” Kim had him paint in Valentine’s Day red. He painted a heart on the left side of the sign, and another heart on the right.
And then, at the bottom of the billboard, Kim knew just how she wanted to sign her name to this anniversary card to her husband.
“Forever in Blue Jeans,” painted, of course, in denim blue.
For the record, Joe sent Kim a 2-foot-tall anniversary card. The day she received it, her phone rang.
It was Joe. He had received his card, a normal-sized envelope containing a photo of a newly painted billboard.
Joe was laughing. He was choking up. He was having a hard time speaking.
“I guess I couldn’t beat that one,” he said, finally.
Joe and Kim live behind the restaurant now, in an apartment connected to the Smoke Pit. He is 71, and he has good days and bad, and since he has trouble reading now, his daughter Natasha comes home from college, sits with him on the couch and reads out loud until her father’s eyes sag.
Doctors aren’t sure of his condition. Lou Gehrig’s disease, maybe. Or a neurological disorder similar to that. Or something else buried in the mysterious gray matter of the brain, something that doctors don’t yet understand.
It doesn’t really matter, Kim says. There is no magic pill to let him lace up his running shoes and go for one more jog.
But there is something else in its place. Kim Dubinsky only opens up the Smoke Pit and serves BBQ four times a week now. When she’s open, she shuttles between jobs: She unlocks the door, then runs to the apartment to see if Joe is awake. She runs the register, then hurries away to make sure Joe takes his pills.
Sometimes now in the late afternoon she goes into the apartment to take a nap. If she’s late, the phone will ring. “Come to bed,” Joe will say.
The billboard is eight years old now. Some of the white paint has peeled off. The Valentine’s Day red is fading. Some of the people who drive by and look up are so confused — they have never heard of Neil Diamond or his song about blue jeans.
“It’s getting older,” Kim says of the billboard. “Just like us.”
But when she is with her husband, she can still glance at the young, chicken-legged man turning to her at the stoplight. She can look again and see him locking the BBQ joint’s front door after a nonstop Saturday night, and she can look a third time and watch as they drive home and crank up the song forever stuck in her head.
She doesn’t need to wonder about the billboard looming above the street at 25th and Farnam. She knows what it meant. She knows what it means.
Honey’s sweet But it ain’t nothin’ next to baby’s treat And if you pardon me I’d like to say We’ll do okay Forever in blue jeans
“It’s about figuring out a way to make life work,” Kim Dubinsky says as she sips on her second cup of coffee inside a BBQ joint that time forgot. “That’s what we’re doing.”