The feast awaited.
Jerk turkey and smoked ham. Chitlins and greens. Mac and cheese and corn bread. Sweet potato pie, banana pudding and, his favorite, red velvet cake.
This year, for the first time in a decade, Niles Paul was coming home for Thanksgiving dinner and loved ones prepared to stuff his stomach.
“We have special dishes just for Niles,” said his stepmom, Shunta.
Paul, former standout at North High and Nebraska, played more NFL games this decade than any Omahan, but football didn’t leave time for holiday homecomings. He spent most of those turkey days in Washington thinking about the Redskins’ next game plan.
This Thanksgiving was going to be different. The bird was in the oven. The pressure was off. Then, hours before his plane left for Omaha, Paul sent his stepmom a text message.
Change of plans. He couldn’t find a place to board his pit bull and French bulldog. He had to stay in Florida.
Truth is, three months after retirement, he wasn’t ready to face family and friends eager to know what he’s doing now.
“What am I supposed to tell them? Oh, I’m battling depression. I’m seeing a therapist. I’m supposed to tell them that? I’m ashamed to tell them that. I’m ashamed where I’m at. I gotta shake this.”
Long admired for his dedication and toughness, Paul spent this fall lost and alone.
“People think, oh, you got it made. You’ve made millions of dollars. You can have any girl you want. You living the life. How do you tell them it ain’t really the life? I’m fighting some demons.”
He missed the Thanksgiving jerk turkey and red velvet cake. He missed decorating the Christmas tree and drinking eggnog in Omaha. Instead, he ordered a meal and curled up with the dogs in his windowless theatre room, watching the sport that gave him glory but took away something more essential.
* * *
Seven years earlier, they all watched him on TV.
Thanksgiving Day 2012. Redskins lead the Cowboys, 28-13. Fourth quarter. Third-and-inches.
Robert Griffin III fakes a handoff and spots No. 84 running toward the end zone. Paul couldn’t believe he was open. He squeezed the spiral as he fell to the turf, got up untouched and backpedaled across the goal line.
He celebrated his first NFL touchdown before roughly 29 million TV viewers. How’s that for a big stage?
One month later in Washington, Paul returned a fourth-quarter kickoff 48 yards in the must-win season finale against the same Cowboys, clinching the division title.
“It’s the difference between winning and losing,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said afterward.
Paul, an All-Big 12 punt returner in 2010, always had the skills to reach the NFL. He covered 40 yards in 4.45 seconds. He understood the nuances of the game, too. Uncle Ahman Green used to take him as a high schooler to Green Bay to train with NFL receivers.
But fifth-round draft picks are hit and miss. For every all-pro — Richard Sherman was chosen one pick ahead of Paul — there’s 10 guys who never play a game. Paul found an edge.
“The warrior spirit,” Paul says.
The grit he developed as a kid under his mentor, Jimmy Smith. Paul grew up at 24th and Fort Streets, a neighborhood short on success stories. At 12, he lost his mom to a prolonged illness.
Sports gave Paul purpose. An outlet for his fury. He promised his mom he’d be a pro football player. When he received his first NFL paycheck, Paul bought something he never had as a kid: a nice mattress.
Redskins teammates called him “Rambo.” He took pride in pain, resisting the training room because it might hurt his reputation. Accepting roles others wouldn’t. How many NFL receivers become tight ends, kickoff returners, punt-team gunners and eventually fullbacks?
His favorite moment of game day wasn’t the opening kickoff. It was post-game handshakes when an opposing coach or player praised his heart.
“Being the underdog and earning respect.”
* * *
Just when he advanced to the head table, the problems started.
In 2014, Paul caught 39 passes for 507 yards. The Redskins rewarded him with a three-year, $10 million contract. In August 2015, Washington named Paul its starting tight end. His work had paid off.
But in a preseason game in Cleveland, Paul blocked a defender as a Browns tackler rolled up on his leg, fracturing his left ankle. Redskins coach Jay Gruden called it a huge loss. “One, he’s a great player. He’s worked so hard to get himself where he is. But two, he’s a great leader. ... We’re sick about it.”
Paul’s doctor called it the worst ankle fracture he’d seen. He needed pain pills to fall asleep. Even after months of rehabilitation, he couldn’t walk without a limp. He wrestled with visions of suicide, seeking out therapy.
“I was in and out of the dark place just trying to fight to get out. The only thing that kept me sane was getting back on the field.”
Paul made it back in 2016, earning distinction as the Redskins special-teams captain. But during a Week 8 overtime game in London, he dove for a pass, absorbed a hit and landed awkwardly. His shoulder dislocated. He missed the second half of the season.
Here comes the paradox of his career. Every time Paul emerged as a feature player, his body failed him. So to affirm his reputation — to retain his value — he kept saying yes to jobs that jeopardized his body further. Most notably, fullback.
“If you would’ve told me in college I would play fullback, I would’ve laughed at you,” he said.
In 2017, Paul led his tailback into a goal-line hole against Cowboys all-pro linebacker Sean Lee. The Redskins scored, but Paul’s helmet popped off as he lay unresponsive.
When he regained consciousness, his trainer called for a cart. No, Paul said. He’d left the field via cart when he broke his ankle. Once was enough.
“I want it to be known that I ain’t no b----,” Paul later told reporters. “He got the best of me. He knocked me out, but we scored. I did my job.”
Paul missed the next two games. The following week, he told his therapist — an NFL employee — that he couldn’t remember his plays. She alerted the team doctor, who wanted to hold out Paul.
No, Paul said, I’m good. He lied. And then he played.
* * *
Even now, he can’t stand long without his ankle aching.
His shoulder constantly feels like it might pop out of place — he can barely do a push-up. His knee buckles. His fingers point in different directions.
Paul jokes with his dad that he feels like a 60-year-old man.
Paul knew two years ago his body was giving out. He was constantly in rehab. After practices, he sat and waited on the sideline until he could limp his way to the locker room. But he had a goal to play 10 years. He wasn’t done.
In 2018, Paul signed in Jacksonville. It took a while to show what he could do, but in Week 5 at Kansas City, Paul caught seven passes for 65 yards. The following Sunday, Jaguars coaches designed several plays for him, including handoffs.
“That game plan against Cowboys was lit up for me,” Paul said.
His first touch, on the same field where he caught his first career touchdown on Thanksgiving 2012, Paul took a reverse and sprained his MCL. He didn’t know it, but he’d never play an NFL game again. He spent the rest of the season on injured reserve.
Paul considered retirement last spring as he waited for another contract. He regularly woke up with pain or headaches. Be patient, his agent said. Sure enough, the 49ers called. Paul flew to San Francisco and beat out three free agents in a tryout.
But once he joined the team, “I just wasn’t feeling like myself anymore.”
Did coaches notice it, too? In training camp, the Niners told him they’d found a younger tight end available on waivers. They released Paul.
The Raiders called immediately and wanted him to come across the bay for a tryout. But Paul knew that if he made the team, he’d be one of the last roster spots. A “camp body” who receives a lot of reps — and beatings — from the starters.
“I wasn’t mentally or physically able to do that anymore.”
Paul turned down Oakland and flew home to Jacksonville. Three days before his 30th birthday, he announced on social media his retirement.
“Although my NFL journey has come to an end, life must go on,” he wrote. “I am looking forward to what the future has in store for me.”
* * *
For years, Paul heard the warnings. A player’s first season of retirement tests his sanity. Still, Paul wasn’t prepared for a new routine.
Without the camaraderie of the locker room. Without the adrenaline rush of Sunday afternoon. Without an outlet for his warrior spirit. Suddenly there was too much time to think.
“It’s like, dang, who are you?” he said. “You’ve always been known as Niles the football player.”
He tried boxing, bowling, bike riding. He almost signed up for karate. He traveled to Vegas to drive race cars. He traveled to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa. Tried to open his mind to other interests.
Don’t get caught up in football, mentors always told him. But singular focus was precisely the reason he played eight years in the NFL. Now he’s just supposed to shut it off?
On Sundays, he mostly avoids football unless he knows the players on TV. He sees old Huskers like Will Compton and Ameer Abdullah and he lights up. I should be out there with them! He sees players he beat out and shakes his head. That could be me!
Occasionally during the action, he grabs his phone and calls his agent. Can I come out of retirement? What do you think? A few hours later, he comes to his senses.
“That’s not what I want. As much as I’d love to be on that field, I just don’t think the sacrifice is worth it anymore. I made a decision that was best for me for the longevity of my life.”
Longevity is great. But these four months have felt like years.
“I kinda locked myself away in my house. I don’t go out. I don’t socialize. As far as working out, I have a gym in my house. I don’t really feel the need to leave at this point.
“I sit on my couch until I fall asleep. I wake up and sit there, it’s pitch dark in the room and I watch TV. And I pass back out.”
He tried anti-depressants, but they made him feel like a “zombie.” He wants to work through this with a clear mind. Paul’s biggest support system is back in Omaha, but he isn’t comfortable returning yet.
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“I’m still trying to figure myself out. I need to do that before I go home to show face. … I ain’t never been looked at as weak. Nothing like that. And I kind of feel weak right now. I feel weak. I gotta build myself back up.”
He wonders about his reputation in north Omaha, especially with a generation he inspired.
“I let the kids down. I know I had an eight-year career. That’s great. But I know what I set out to do. I kinda just feel like I quit! And I ain’t never been a quitter.”
He knows it’s foolish talk. The shame is mostly in his head. But on dark days, he can’t see through it.
When one of his brothers stops by his Jacksonville house, Paul perks up. He banters. He laughs. But aside from weekly therapy sessions, he never talks about his struggles.
With one exception.
* * *
Four days after Thanksgiving, I was reporting a story about Nebraska’s 2009 Big 12 championship loss to Texas. I called Niles Paul for his memories.
I’d written about Paul several times since his North High days, including a feature story the day in 2007 he signed with Nebraska. I asked about his first season away from football. How he was doing.
Paul slowly opened up. After an hour on the phone, he expressed surprise about what he’d revealed. “I promise you, I don’t know how this happened.”
Motivated by our conversation — and follow-up discussions with his therapist and financial adviser — Paul scheduled a visit to a Florida sports rehabilitation center, where neurologists conducted a series of tests.
His doctor told him 60% of his patients test positive for head trauma. Based on Paul’s career and style of play, he had all the initial symptoms.
Test results won’t be conclusive until after Christmas, but doctors assured Paul they could help him. He found comfort knowing he wasn’t alone.
“That was a turning point,” Paul said Friday.
He can’t restore his body or heal his regrets. He can’t go back to 20 or 25. But as Paul searches for a new identity — a place in his head that feels like home — maybe honesty can ease his burden.
He hid too long behind the warrior’s spirit. People should know the whole story, he said.
The woman's voice is soft and mellow.
"Go ahead, lean back, put your feet up," she says. "And relax to some of the calming sounds of the airport."
The calming sounds of the what now?
What follows is nearly nine minutes of low-key boarding announcements and musings set to a soundtrack of footsteps, crowd voices, keyboard-tapping fingers, rolling suitcases, planes taking off and landing, and other sounds typically associated with air travel. The audio is inspired by JetBlue's Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and it's the airline's way into the YouTube trend of videos for autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR.
JetBlue posted the video, which it's calling "AirSMR," on its YouTube channel a week ago, ostensibly as a way to ease holiday travel stress, and it plans to promote it on other social channels.
"We loved the juxtaposition of taking what is often associated as one of the most hectic places during the holidays — the airport — and reimagining it to create a calming experience for travelers to enjoy," Elizabeth Windram, JetBlue's vice president of marketing, said in an email.
ASMR videos are meant to create a pleasurable sensation, described as tingly to the head and scalp, for people who watch and listen. The trend started to gain in popularity earlier in the decade and has since gone relatively mainstream.
JetBlue is the latest corporate brand to wade into the soothing waters of ASMR videos. Ikea made a 25-minute version in 2017 that Adweek called "one of the most satisfying ads ever." McDonald's put out a video the next year called "ASMR(ish) with John Goodman," featuring the actor whispering about a Quarter Pounder over the sound of sizzling beef. And Michelob Ultra took the concept to the big leagues this year with an ASMR Super Bowl commercial.
Craig Richard, a professor and researcher at Shenandoah University who studies ASMR, said in an email that brands are realizing that "customers appreciate calm ads, which are soothing, instead of chaotic ads that are alarming and stress-inducing." He was a consultant for the Super Bowl ad and worked with JetBlue to create the soundtrack.
He said the idea was to offer a "calmer interpretation" of sounds that might typically be interpreted as chaotic.
"Any jarring sounds — including squeaking shoes, coughing, random or abrupt thuds, beeps — were not included in AirSMR or considered a part of ASMR," he said.
Also noticeably absent from the audio: Transportation Security Administration agents yelling about emptying your pockets at the security checkpoint, requests for volunteers to gate-check their bags because the flight is completely full and the weary toddler having a meltdown right before a flight boards.
It’s a Thursday night, and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana is electric.
The bar is full. The restaurant is nearly so. The kitchen tick-tocks through the clockwork of meal-making, meal-perfecting, meal-delivering as owner Nick Strawhecker rapid-fires descriptions on a quickie tour of the restaurant he opened in southwest Omaha 10 years ago. A decade can be a lifetime in this business.
Here is Jaime (hi, Jaime!) working the paddle at one of the few wood-fire ovens in a city of 1,200-plus restaurants. Wood-fired pizzas set Dante apart.
Here is a dish of just-plated lasagna, steam rising from the bubbling sauce. This only happens on Thursdays, which makes it special, which brings people in. (The standing Thursday night special of half-price select bottles of wine also helps.)
Here’s the cooler loaded with produce, a bucket of cut Brussels sprouts so big and green that, even cold and raw, they look delicious. Dante goes with whatever produce it can get locally, though these luscious Brussels did not come from Nebraska in winter.
Here’s the catering list, which is another way this restaurant gets its name out. That Thursday lasagna retails for $135 a pan, and Dante sells a lot of pans.
Strawhecker is walking fast and talking fast, living the motto he had painted on his stainless steel cooler door in red and in all-caps: SENSE OF URGENCY.
“ ‘Sense of urgency’ means move with a purpose,” he explained. “Know what you’re here for, know what you’re doing and get it done quickly.”
This has practical application in the kitchen and in the life of a restaurant, which can be fleeting and tenuous. Strawhecker can’t stomach wasted time.
The 40-year-old chef is a Skutt Catholic High School graduate who went to culinary school in Rhode Island and Italy. Walking and talking. Larger than life but earnest, charismatic and loquacious, especially on the subject du jour tonight — Omaha restaurants that make it and restaurants that don’t.
The recent closing of Petrow’s, which locked its doors for good on Dec. 14 after nearly 70 years, was another gut-check in a changing city.
Petrow’s was just the latest in a string of Omaha restaurants that have closed this year. Jazz Louisiana Kitchen closed suddenly in November after 13 years. Michael’s Cantina closed in September after 32 years. Amato’s, 45 years in the business, and Gerda’s, 40-plus, both closed in June.
Petrow’s, Michael’s, Amato’s and Gerda’s were all family-owned establishments with either aging or overly stretched owners and no succession plans. They were caught also by changing tastes and an increasingly diverse array of places to eat in Omaha.
But this isn’t about ramen pop-ups replacing mom-and-pop specials. New restaurants are hard to keep open, too, as evidenced by the revolving door at seemingly primo locations in Dundee and Midtown Crossing. Both 5018 Underwood Ave., on its third restaurant in three years, and 220 S. 31st Ave., where Della Costa lasted two years after Brix’s four, must be the Bermuda Triangle. Nothing yet has taken root there.
Location is key, and I’ve written before about north Omaha’s struggle to keep restaurants reliably open. Enzo’s in Florence closed last month after five years. Skeet’s Barbecue, which had been open for over half a century, closed this year. Big Mama’s is scheduled to finally open next month at a new location off 30th and Parker Streets, but that restaurant’s success will depend on whether people follow the business, based in the Holy Name area, there.
Restaurants, to be sure, are notoriously tough businesses to run. They are physically demanding, 24/7 operations that require heavy financial investments and leaps of faith. That’s even when the stars align with a winning concept, location and service.
Then, a restaurant has to be both consistently good to keep regulars coming back, all the while evolving to draw newcomers through the door.
Regulars aren’t so regular anymore, said Matt Brown, general manager and lead sommelier at V. Mertz, an Old Market mainstay that has survived for over 40 years. Omaha diners have so many options that many are choosing to try new spots instead of sticking faithfully with old ones.
“You have to continually reinvent yourself,” he said.
That didn’t quite work out for Petrow’s. Shelly and Nick Petrow poured more than $100,000 into the restaurant Nick’s grandfather started at 60th and Center Streets. Over the past decade, they bought the next-door Chinese restaurant and demolished it to expand their parking lot and added a patio. They revamped the menu and the interior.
At the same time, dining options in the neighborhood were growing, with the booming Aksarben Village just blocks away. While goose-neckers on social media complained about Petrow’s food or service after the restaurant announced it would close, people lined up to eat there in Petrow’s final days.
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Shelly Petrow noted wryly that, with the announcement came a big rush, a line and a wait. But the lawyer-turned-restaurant-owner said she and Nick didn’t see a future with a continual struggle to find enough workers and the always-on-call nature of the work. Plus they want their three daughters, all in their 20s, to pursue their own desires.
Each restaurant closure comes with its own story. In the case of Gerda’s, owner Gerda Bailey had died in 2018. Daughter Kim Reefe was stretched trying to work full time for Conagra while raising two boys in Gretna and keeping her mother’s midtown place open in an aged building that needed too much work. She tried for a year, and then had to close it.
Michael Henery, whose Michael’s Cantina occupied a key Old Market corner for decades, cited age (he’s 80) and competition from new restaurants in midtown and Benson.
One of the owners of Jazz, 1421 Farnam St., said sales were inconsistent and depended on events happening downtown. Also, the combination of the city extending parking charges past 5 p.m. in 2015, which kept some customers away, and last year’s snowy, cold winter did them in.
Blackstone, where there are two dozen restaurants and bars, and Benson, which has a hopping bar scene, have become destinations in the way the Old Market is.
Brown of V. Mertz said Omaha’s restaurant market is tough right now because of the diverse array of places to go. He is president of the Omaha Restaurant Association, which represents 100 local restaurants and 80-some restaurant purveyors.
Brown said the increased competition makes an already tough business harder.
Another factor hurting restaurants is a crimped labor force. There are not enough servers or cooks or dishwashers to staff Omaha restaurants. Strawhecker says the average hourly wage of his back-of-house staff at Dante and Forno is $15.50.
“There’s not enough people,” he said. “You’ve got to pay them.”
Some loyal staffers have been with Strawhecker from the start.
Strawhecker’s experience is worth noting. Dante, in the Legacy development southwest of 168th Street and West Center Road, has lasted a decade in a strip mall that, while in a high-end neighborhood, is nevertheless off the beaten path of trendy night spots and not real easy to find.
The restaurant threw a big party to ring in the decade.
His other restaurant, Forno, sits in hopping Blackstone near 38th and Farnam Streets. Forno is Strawhecker’s second effort to make a restaurant work there. He tried opening a fast-casual version of his west Omaha Dante at first, but that didn’t work. He closed it and reopened the restaurant as a full-service Italian restaurant.
Strawhecker said the jury is still out on whether Forno, which opened earlier this year, will make it 10 years. Eyeing the fast-developing Blackstone, where an eight-vendor food hall is slated to open two blocks away, Strawhecker wonders how the area will sustain so many restaurants.
There were plenty of people in Dante’s modern but cozy and subtly punk rock space (the devil wall art is a nice nod to Italian poet Dante Alighieri) the night I visited with my 13-year-old daughter. After the tour, we split a margherita pizza for $13.50 and a creative take on tiramisu for $10. I like red wine that isn’t too sweet or dry, and the server chose a $12 glass of Zeni Valpolicella that was worth it. A $3 espresso completed the meal.
I could see why Dante had lasted a decade. But longevity in the restaurant biz is no guarantee.
“You could have a killer, killer, killer month but then next month, wow,” Strawhecker said. “The A/C unit goes out. You lose a sous chef and general manager.”
He speculated that only a few Omaha restaurants “are crushing it” financially and that neither Dante nor Forno are in that category. He described restaurant culture as tough and said a chef he once worked for in Chicago called owning a restaurant “a money hole” and advised him to “never, ever” open one.
So why do it?
Strawhecker likes the creativity. He likes the pulse, the rush after “a tough, well-fought-and-won dinner service.” He likes the staff’s esprit de corps, and says a good night feels like winning a war. A war for dining tastes. He likes making people happy and feels proud of adding to Omaha’s dining scene.
So Strawhecker rightly held a party for Dante’s 10-year birthday. Better to celebrate another birthday at this stage in his career than hold a wake.
Terry Winston knew the credit-card bills were nonsense, but her difficulty proving it in court shows how America's two-tiered justice system — one for those who can pay for a lawyer, the other for those who can't — has spread to civil litigation.
Asset Recovery Solutions had sued Winston for unpaid debt in what she saw as a clear case of identity theft. She couldn't afford an attorney so she defended herself. What followed was months of tripping through a bewildering legal maze.
"You're finding yourself trying to know what question to ask," said Winston, 53, a medical assistant in New York.
Americans are guaranteed legal counsel in criminal cases. But when it comes to civil suits, they're not. Many go without because they can't pay for it and, like Winston, they're increasingly representing themselves — with unequal outcomes.
Just one in four civil defendants has a lawyer, down from nearly all of them in 1992, according to a 2015 study, the most recent, by the National Center for State Courts. The number of litigants without lawyers has continued to rise in the four years since the report, according to a dozen experts interviewed for this story.
A fair shot at justice is a bedrock value of the American legal system, yet litigants who represent themselves against attorneys are unlikely to win their cases or settle on beneficial terms, said Bonnie Hough, an attorney at the Judicial Council of California, the rule-making arm of the state's court system. This reinforces the reality that America is split into two camps — the haves and the have-no-lawyers.
"It's really a crisis," said Trish McAllister, head of the Texas Access to Justice Commission. "People aren't able to get into the courts and they're not able to navigate them once they're there."
The most common snag is no surprise: money. Many litigants can't afford counsel, and most attorneys won't take cases where potential payoffs are too meager to justify the effort, said Stuart Rossman, director of litigation at the National Consumer Law Center.
In 2018, the Trump administration effectively closed the Justice Department's Office for Access to Justice, created in 2010 to make lawyers available to everyone.
Many civil cases involve debt collection, landlord-tenant disputes and home foreclosures. With the frequency of self-representation, lawyers build their strategies around their opponents' inexperience, said Terry Lawson, a legal aid attorney in Missouri.
"Their hope of hopes is that nobody will go get lawyers," Lawson said.
In Winston's dispute, Asset Recovery Solutions didn't have all the paperwork it needed to prove its case, she said. Exposing that was her biggest challenge.
"You're spinning me around and spinning me around, and once I stop, I really don't know where to go," Winston said.
Steven Fishbein, Asset Recovery Solutions' CEO, said he couldn't comment on the actions of the company's counsel.
It's true, of course, that not every person who self-represents has a winnable claim, and getting an attorney doesn't ensure victory in court.
But the issue isn't always simply winning or losing, said Silvana Naguib, an attorney at Public Counsel, a California pro bono legal firm. Lawyers can help negotiate better settlements, she said.
Under procedural rules, courts have little mercy for litigants who go pro se, a Latin term meaning "for him." Some of them offer resources, such as volunteers who can explain procedures without offering legal advice, and third parties make forms available online. Judges, however, are required to hold the doit-yourselfers to the same standards as licensed lawyers, though they may be more tolerant of mistakes.
Linda Leyva, who last year lost her Yorktown, Texas, home to foreclosure, said judges could be perplexing. In October 2017, she said the court rejected a motion for continuance she filed so she could have more time to prepare. But a month later it approved the other side's continuance motion so the attorney could take a vacation.
There are efforts to change self-representation rates. Civil Gideon, an organization named after the 1963 Supreme Court case establishing free legal counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases, is trying to expand the right to certain civil disputes. The American Bar Association backed the effort in 2006, but questions remain about how states would fund it.
Months into her case, Winston was getting nowhere. She'd provided an identity-theft report from the Federal Trade Commission to show the debt wasn't hers, but the case continued.
Winston finally found a lawyer to represent her without pay. Soon after, Asset Recovery Solutions dropped the charges.
If any dispute could've been resolved by a self-representing litigant, this was the one, said Ariana Lindermayer, Winston's attorney.
That leaves Lindermayer with a nagging fear: "What's going on with all the other cases?"