Here is the kitchen counter, but it is not just a kitchen counter. Look at the pink granite, Bonnie commands, tapping it with perfectly painted fingernails. It came from a bathroom at the old Methodist Hospital. “Isn't that neat?” she says. “Save something old from Omaha and make it new!” Here is the enclosed deck, Bonnie says as she sashays to the front of a friend's condo for sale. But it is not just any ordinary deck. No way.
At the end of a hard day you can sit on this deck, pour yourself a glass of pinot and peer down from your second-floor perch at 11th and Howard Streets.
Listen to the high schooler strum his guitar at the corner and dream he's Dylan. Eyeball the young couple pressing hand into hand as they hurry into M's Pub.
Inhale the big-city bustle of Omaha's Old Market — inhale it just like Bonnie does — from the comfort of your own front porch.
“One of the best views in Omaha!” Bonnie says, and she nods her head to dot the exclamation point.
So here is a condo tour with Bonnie Leonhardt, grande dame of the Old Market, real estate agent extraordinaire, supporting actress in countless mini-dramas where we search for houses, and then find one, and then we live our lives, and then we don't.
She is wearing her customary cotton sweater over leggings. She is sporting a new and necessary wig that imitates but can't duplicate the cottonball-white hair she wore in a bun for decades. She is leaving a warm trail of floral-and-clove perfume as she walks room to room, condo to condo, and touts high ceilings and roomy master bedrooms and perfect views.
But you'd be a fool to think this is about real estate. No way.
These Old Market condos, these grand old dames made of old brick and old wood and old pink granite — these will stand long after the high schooler strums his last G chord and the young couple breaks up and we all move six feet below ground.
This entire Old Market, this is Bonnie's living room. And all these people, the crowds that Bonnie calls “Market People” — these are friends, even the ones Bonnie doesn't know yet. Market People are family.
“There's just something about this place, something about knowing that no matter how I'm feeling, no matter how tired I get, there is always life,” she says. “Life is right outside my window.”
Bonnie likes to pretend she had nothing to do with the stunning transformation of the Old Market, nothing to do with the quarter-century that started with head shops and a vegetable cart and morphed into high-priced condos and a packed farmer's market.
Don't believe her.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|
True, she is not a politician or a developer or a mover-and-shaker. Bonnie's role is unpaid, the job description unclear, the duties including both wine drinking and nodding knowingly the millionth time someone complains about Old Market parking.
She is a historian for the way things once were. She is an ambassador for the way things can be.
She is the constant. She is the glue.
“I've always told people that if I'm going to live downtown, I'm going to live right in the Old Market. Right in the middle of everything.”
Bonnie and her husband Gail moved to the middle of everything in the mid-'80s, when there was one condo development above the French Café. When bankers wouldn't even give you a loan to move in there because this was a silly experiment sure to fail.
They ran an occupational therapy business out of various vacant Old Market buildings. They parked their car in a nearby garage and walked everywhere. They fell in with a group of artists and business owners and hangers-on who called themselves the Slime Dogs and had meetings — OK, drinking sessions — at the M's Pub bar.
She started to notice that when she took the two-minute walk to her favorite Old Market restaurants, it would take 15 or 20. She was always running into someone she knew. She was always running into a stranger who had become a friend.
In 1998, they bought a condo in a building that was once a tavern. They moved in. Bonnie fixed it up. They sold it. They bought another condo in a building that was once a 19th century hotel. They moved in. Bonnie fixed that one up, too.
All the while, she was preaching. All the while, all around her, the congregation kept growing.
“I couldn't stand it when people would say, 'Are you afraid to walk at night down there?' And I'd say, 'Heck no, I'm more afraid to walk out where you are!'” Come on down to the Old Market, Bonnie would say. Come check it out yourself. It's neat!
And then Bonnie found a new job, a calling so true it's hard to believe she ever did anything different.
She attended a real estate workshop with a friend. The friend did not go into real estate. Bonnie did. She started selling condos to friends and strangers who became friends.
Soon the woman with the cotton ball-white hair — the woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to a slimmer Paula Deen — was selling houses for NP Dodge all over Omaha. Maybe she was too busy to feel the pain growing on her right side.
Soon she had transformed into the sort of person who floats into other people's lives, makes their lives a little bit better, and floats out again.
She was a one-woman welcoming committee. A human confetti explosion.
I know this because my wife and I were two of the lucky partygoers.
Almost every Saturday for a year we piled into Bonnie's powder blue Mercedes and sped all over town in search of our own private perfection. She taught us about the Old Market. She asked after our families. We laughed a lot.
On a fall day in 2010, we found what we sought in midtown. That day Bonnie practically busted open with pride, as if we were her own children, as if her commission was our joy.
And then she floated off to help other people, especially Market People who shared her love for downtown living.
It was all so exciting, Bonnie thinks, all so neat, all so perfect, all so permanent — “My relatives live to be 100!” — and then it wasn't.
She felt something that felt like a muscle jutting from the right side of her abdomen. I'm 65, she thought. I don't have muscles anymore.
She called her doctor's office, described the lump as “the size of a hoagie roll.”
The diagnosis came April 25. She quit real estate. The next month: a blur of oncologists and second opinions, grim faces and grim meetings at the Mayo Clinic.
Its scientific name is leiomyosarcoma. It attacks the body's soft tissue. It presses against the organs.
Bonnie calls it, simply, “The Big C.”
“Four out of a million people get it,” Bonnie says. “I always told people I was one in a million. Turns out I'm standing with three others.”
When the shock wore off, Bonnie found that a lovely thing happened on her way to chemotherapy.
The Market People transformed. They were Bonnie's Battalion now.
They offered rides to chemo when she was too weak to drive and cooked her meals she couldn't taste. They sent flowers and homeopathic tips — try wheat grass! They stop her on the street now and stretch Bonnie's two-minute walks to fifteen as they ask after her health, true concern in their eyes.
When this happens Bonnie usually makes a joke, gets them laughing.
She does not tell them there is no curing leiomyosarcoma. Only in her truly unguarded moments will she say that doctors gave her a year, give or take. “We've decided to try for 11 years instead,” she says, and she means it — she's going back to chemo in late January.
Something else happened as Bonnie fought through six months of treatments, as she lost weight and the cotton ball-white hair but kept her laugh.
She started to think about what is forever as we all live our lives, until we don't.
These brick buildings that she so loves will stand the test of time, will stand as old taverns or new condos or something else entirely for new generations of street musicians and young lovers and people very much like herself.
And there is something even more everlasting in the Old Market, Bonnie says, something you can't build with old bricks and old wood and old pink granite.
So here is a story about cancer, but not just a story about cancer. No way.
Here is Bonnie, walking into M's Pub packed and pulsating on a Sunday night in January.
She takes two steps inside the door. She stops. A woman hugs her. She takes three more steps. She stops. A man squeezes her shoulder.
She gets past the bar, and she stands near the middle of this iconic Old Market restaurant. She is swarmed.
She does not reach her destination at a table. She does not care, because this is what Bonnie Leonhardt realizes now.
It's the two minute walk that stretches to fifteen. That's the glue. That's forever.
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