Thanks, Baxter

One of downtown Asheville’s most familiar faces has left us. Baxter Miller died this past November, and as much as he’ll be missed, he will also continue to be celebrated for having lived among us and for contributing his particular, peculiar Baxter-ness to our eclectic, unique urban culture.

Baxter was one of those people you saw often but probably never got to know, except as a comfortable, familiar presence. He was most often seen with a cup of coffee and his ever-present squeegee and window-washing bucket, sitting outside Beanstreets, Malaprop’s, Max & Rosie’s or whereversoever the “street elite” meet. And though Baxter was legitimately disabled, he would do any honest work he was able to do.

Baxter Miller was also the current holder of the coveted “Most Colorful Downtown Character” title in Xpress‘ “Best of WNC” readers’ poll. At a lanky 6-foot-4 with an unruly shock of bright blond hair, Baxter Miller would have been hard enough to miss even without his odd, original — and bright! — attire, which came to be his trademark.

Ah, so maybe Baxter is now taking on some image in your mind? You’re getting warm? That “funny” man who was so gentle, so generous and so noticeable, yet so familiar a sight that you may well have paid him little or no attention. That’s him! Baxter Miller, as unspoiled and innocent a soul as anyone you could hope to know. That tall, blond man with the funny clothes who was as much a player in the downtown scene as any of the many other wonderful, eccentric folks without whom A’ville might well be just another dreary, unremarkable small Southern town.

Baxter was always ready to shoot the breeze — both with folks he’d known for years and with any newcomer or disoriented tourist. Many a visitor to our fair city, lost and in need of directions, came away from an encounter with Baxter Miller not only with a better idea of where they were and how to get where they were headed, but with the memory of an interesting personal encounter, and a vivid sense of our Southern friendliness here in the rich cultural community that is downtown Asheville. A notable sidewalk philosopher, Baxter was observant, often dryly witty. Maybe he was “crazy,” but he was not a fool, a coward or a pushover. Baxter Miller simply heard a different drummer.

Baxter was a native Tar Heel who called Banner Elk home. He also spoke of having a brother. Before moving to Asheville, Baxter’d been a fixture in Boone. Some of his friends from there — Tamara McNaughton, Sara Legatski, Kerry Layden and several other noted dreamers, artists, students/teachers, mystics and players — became Ashevilleans too. They recall specific Bax-isms ranging from the humorous to the profound — those occasional great, insightful moments of clarity and intuitive acuity.

McNaughton and Legatski tell of a harmless entertainment Baxter used to amuse himself and others with back in Boone. He staked a claim to a stretch of street and sidewalk in Boone, calling it his very own. And, explaining this to folks, he’d point out that — in all fairness, since it was his territory, his pride and joy — it’d be nice (though it was by no means required) if he got a tip once in awhile from friends who used “his” stretch of pavement. He took care to pick up the trash within his turf, and many did tip him or buy him a cup of coffee for his labors. No one else looked after such urban “land claims,” so he took it on himself, providing a quirky service. No money asked, none expected. Good will, Baxter used to say, is “just for passing on, anyway.”

Kerry Layden tells of sidewalk-sitting with Baxter in Boone, just watching people and life ease by. That’s what Baxter did best. And years later, here in Asheville, Kerry was once again sidewalk-sitting with Baxter. She relates:

“Baxter and I were watching the antics of a wildly gesticulating, inexplicably perturbed shopping-bag-lady-type, marveling at the agility of one so ancient. Out of nowhere, Baxter asked me, ‘Was I ever that bad, back in Boone?'”

Layden laughed, then answered, “No, Bax, you aren’t and never seem to have been ‘bad.'”

On learning of Baxter’s death, Xpress’ own “Clark Kent,” Brian Sarzynski, wrote: “He will be missed. To me, Baxter represented everything I liked about this town. He was crazy, eccentric and, most of all, a kind soul.”

It’s tough to top such simple eloquence. But others of Baxter’s friends were as moving as any ink-stained pro at prose, because their tributes to Baxter Miller came straight from the heart.

Flute John said simply, “Bye, Bax — good to have known you.”

Susie Mosher said, after musing awhile, “Well, thanks, Baxter.”

Talented local free-lance writer Michelle Bostic chronicled the man’s generosity, kindness and unspoiled innocence in a short work titled simply “Ode … to Baxter.”

“I don’t really know Baxter, but I feel him,” Bostic wrote. “Baxter is and will, forever, remain a part of what one friend (Mickey Mahaffey) called ‘the heart of downtown Asheville.'”

Local genius/cyber-entrepreneur Haywood Max Mitchell recalled: “Baxter was one-of-a-kind, but for someone as supposedly ‘insane’ as he was, he was industrious and hard-working, honest and well-respected among the downtown merchants he’d work for — as much, certainly, for his industrious approach and hard, honest work as for any particular quality or perfection to his work (which was, itself, comparably average). Comparably average results are singularly outstanding when you consider how intensely he had to work to achieve average, but acceptable, quality to those who gave him work and paid for his work. Baxter labored despite his perceptual and emotional challenges.”

Indeed, on Baxter Miller’s death certificate, he is labeled not as a “disabled” pensioner but as “self-employed” in a “Cleaning Service.” And, in fact, he was always trying to get his earned income substantial enough to put an end to his disability payments, commenting once that it made no sense to stretch the pittance he got from the public teat out over an entire month if he could earn that much every week, or even just double the monthly amount, from his own labors. Good ambition, worthy goal. He meant well, and he was honest.

In fact, Baxter was legendary downtown for honesty, having once returned a substantial wad of cash he’d found outside Beanstreets to the frantic, rightful owner (by way of Richard, the owner of the Bean, who frequently hired Baxter to do cleaning and odd jobs).

You made a fine role model for folks to aspire to in many ways, Baxter, despite your symptoms and the traumas you survived. And they were your very own peculiar, personal ways, too. Asheville is a better place for having you and your eccentric legacy as a permanent part of our local heritage.

Thanks, Baxter.

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