Red Light Special: Inside the Sandbox

I could see the blue-and-red strobe lights erratically pulsing in the distance as I drove down Leavenworth Street Saturday night looking for a place to park my POS Geo Tracker where it wouldn’t get gutted. Four, maybe five police cruisers had surrounded a convenience store just down the block past the building that houses The Sandbox. I tried not to look as I slowly glided by the hysteria, but couldn’t help myself. The cruisers were parked in a semi-circle, another parked at the corner. I expected to see some shirtless redneck or meth-head with his torso buried in the sidewalk ice, hands behind his back, plastic cuff bands biting into his wrists, trying desperately to breathe as a cop pushed his face onto the cold concrete. But instead, nothing. Just the flashing party lights signaling the drama going on inside.

I thought about turning around and going home. Instead, I drove around the block and coasted to the curb right in front of the place. A guy was standing on the sidewalk smoking, and I asked if it was okay to park there. “I don’t see any ‘no parking’ signs,” he said. I figured the small army of hookers that make this part of Omaha their home would never consider rummaging through my SUV here, where the street lights were so revealing. Still, I made a mental note to check the back seat before heading home up St. Mary’s.

When I was a teenager back in the ‘80s, we used to drive around this area and hassle the working girls, one night even giving two of them a ride in my buddy Ross’s Capri. “You boys are a little young for this sort of action,” said the younger of what we were told was a mother-daughter team. “Maybe you could buy us some Old Milwaukee.” Instead, we let them out of the car by Kountze Memorial. Ross played it cool, but I was scared shitless. Being scared is part of the fun.

I told that story Saturday to a guy who said a hooker had rolled up to him on the way to the show that night and asked if she could “play his banjo.” He told me I was lucky I didn’t get killed back then. I said we were too young and stupid for something like that to happen, but now, 20-some years later, I realize he was right.

I write the above because The Sandbox could be an amazing music option if it wasn’t located in such a seedy part of town. It’s the kind of place that Omaha has needed since the concrete bunker known as The Cog Factory -- located just a couple blocks down the street -- closed its doors for good. The room is a large open loft space covered in graffiti and spray paint with a makeshift stage constructed along a back wall. Couches surround the perimeter beneath windows that overlook the street below. In one corner sits a homemade bar with a small refrigerator filled with Pabst and BOXER, a beer that resembles beer only in name. Walk toward the back of the room and the floor ramps downward to a large dock door that opens into a back alley where people smoke, talk and piss. The Sandbox has a functioning bathroom, but it’s more like a bathroom you’d find in a college kid’s apartment than in a place of business. Bath towels were piled on the floor as if someone had just taken a shower in the bathtub that was concealed behind a mildewed curtain. A peek behind it revealed a patchwork of mold, filth and shampoo bottles. Later that evening, someone would take a dump in there. 

Turns out The Sandbox isn’t really a venue at all, but someone’s home, and that this “show” was really just another in a series of house parties. There was probably a kitchen hidden somewhere, maybe behind the huge plastic tarp that blocked off an area near the stage. Whatever the Sandbox is, it’s a fun place to see a rock show – very laid-back despite looking like a squatters’ flat. In the crowd of 50 or so I recognized a lot of faces from nights at O’Leaver’s and The Brothers, midtown punks and rockers away from their usual haunts to support a trio of great bands: Baby Tears, The Blind Shake and The STNNNG.

Lucas Wright of Black Heart Booking books parties at The Sandbox, which turns out to be his pal Joe Benson’s apartment (and The Faint’s old practice space, The Orifice). Wright books larger punk shows at The Waiting Room and Slowdown, and uses The Sandbox for small gigs. Anal Cunt played there in April. So did Nappy Roots. And local band Snake Island! is hosting its CD release show there New Year’s Eve.

“A lot of people like the place,” Wright said. “The sound is usually pretty good (depending on who’s running it), the atmosphere is very casual and the space is just plain rad. It's a nice alternative to the other spots in town, and all shows are all-ages with no notary BS to worry about.”

True, but what kind of parents would let their kids go to Whoreville to see a show late on a weekend night? I guess the same kind of parents that let kids go to the Cog Factory back in the day. Actually, what kid asks his parents permission to go to a punk show in the first place?

Despite its rep, there’s no reason to fear “Destination Midtown.” Probably. Besides, being scared is part of the fun.

By the time I left the Sandbox at around 1 a.m., the cops that had surrounded the convenience store were long gone. But like cockroaches hidden in the shadows, I’m sure the hookers were still out there in the cold, looking for someone’s banjo to play.


Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim's daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at lazy-i@thereader.com.

posted at 08:23 am
on Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

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