The Gospel According to Jerry

Editor’s note: Asheville native Jerry Sternberg has been observing, pondering and commenting on the local scene for many years. Since 1994, “The Gospel According to Jerry” has graced Xpress’ opinion pages. Local historian, Socratic gadfly, community conscience and standup comic rolled into one, Sternberg encapsulates and preserves key pieces of his hometown’s diverse and remarkable story, delivered with his signature wit through the colorful lens of his own widely varying and often surprising life experience.

Now, however, some of the more recent pieces have been collected in a special edition in honor of the author’s 80th birthday (see box). All proceeds go to support the work of Helpmate, a local nonprofit providing education and support services in the fight against domestic violence. Here’s a taste of the teasers and treasures awaiting readers of this uniquely Asheville, uniquely Gospel Jerry volume:

Through the eyes of a child

“Sometimes I would go with the black laborers to get their lunches for them. They would stand at the back screen door while I would go into the kitchen (appropriately decorated with flypaper), where I would be greeted by Lavinia, a huge black lady, with a big grin and a vigorous, sweaty hug.

“For this young boy, there was that unasked question as to why the black men had to stand outside when black people worked in the restaurant.

“Next to these stores was the Glen Rock Hotel, already in its declining years because of the competition from the many fine new hotels in town. Listening to many of the men in the barbershop, I got the impression that the Glen Rock Hotel was some kind of animal shelter. They called it a cathouse, but in all my comings and goings around there I never saw any cats.”

A budding businessman

“Across the street from my dad’s business was a red-brick railroad “company store” called Sands and Co. They sold mostly dry goods, such as work clothes and boots. The store was open to the public, but the railroaders had the perk of being able to buy on credit against their paycheck.

“I discovered by accident that the railroad men used this as a sort of ATM when they could find an accomplice. As I entered the store one day, a railroad man asked me what I was going to buy and how much I was going to pay. I told him work gloves that cost $1. While I waited outside, he went into the store and came out with the gloves he had bought on credit and sold them to me for 50 cents cash.

“I quickly realized that this was a common practice with these folks and became a middleman for our workers. When they needed shoes or clothes, I would buy them from the railroad guys at half price. I would sell them to the employees at 25 percent off and everybody was happy. The employee got a bargain, the railroad man had cash … and I would end up with a profit. Obviously a win/win for all, and another valuable lesson in the ways of business.”

Timely advice in tough times

“I know that the last thing this better-educated, high-tech, up-and-coming generation wants to hear is free advice from an old curmudgeon, and of course it’s worth exactly what they’re paying for it. Well, I have 50 words left, so I am going to give it anyway.

“You’ve been told all your life that someone will take care of you. Don’t believe it. Many of those people who told you that are now in financial trouble themselves.

“Prepare for the worst scenario you can imagine. If you have a job, even if you don’t like it, respect it for now, and do your best to keep it.

“Save every dollar you can.

“If you don’t have to have something, don’t buy it. Forget about new; try to extend the life of what you have. You are in a real-life reality show, and it ain’t going to be fun.”

— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at

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