A blast for the pioneers

Hello, Asheville. It’s me again. This time I’m feeling nostalgic, which is not a good thing for Zen Master types. Masters are supposed to live in the moment, unattached. By that logic, every person at a certain point in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease becomes a Master — since, at that point, they forget all previous moments — which suits them just fine. This thought brings me some comfort because my father is in the early stage of that diagnosis.

But where I find myself at this moment has taken me away from the nostalgia I was speaking of, To wit: Soon it will be the one-decade anniversary of my introduction to the criminal life. I’m not a felon, mind you. One should enter the criminal life in stages; “they” say that’s how it usually happens — in much the same way “they” say that each and every junkie began by smoking pot.

No, I Was Not Busted For Any Drug — Including Pot. Heck no. Any idiot can meet that fate, as many have. I truly doubt that smoking pot leads to anything but a buzz and the munchies, and I would categorically say that pot is less dangerous than alcohol. I am an alcoholic, and not proud of it. Still, my introduction to the criminal life had nothing to do with that sad addiction, either.

So what led to my downfall?

Fireworks.

That’s right, illegal possession of pyrotechnics started me down the road to a life of crime. Never mind that I am blind and confined to a wheelchair. (No sane, blind cripple would ever mess with fireworks … would he?) When the law arrived, I was in possession “by proximity,” as the assistant district attorneys argued in court.

So as to fully develop this story, it’s time for a flashback.

About 10 years ago, downtown was different. Those of us living downtown were your basic urban pioneers. I’ve been working on a novel about that pioneer process for years — a work that will probably never see print. It chronicles the weirdness of living in a loft on an alley that’s slowly decaying in the heart of downtown. Crime was common, winos slept in the courtyard below, and less than a block away were the drug dealers and ugly hookers. And let’s not forget the muggings and car vandalisms.

None of this put the Alleyrats off, though. We had grit and madness to burn. Charlene helped form a neighborhood watch to protect us: Let the law handle the riffraff while we watched each other’s backs, struggled to make ends meet, improved our living spaces, and partied our brains out at any opportunity.

Which brings me back to the beginning of my criminal life.

A week after the Fourth of July, Alleyrat Kraut had just returned from a road trip somewhere far away. His gig was selling hot dogs and the like at events that tended to spring up around July 4. Cabinetmaker Rudi, Stained Glass Steve, designer Ollie and others gathered — with beer — for a spontaneous July party. Triggering my life of crime was a kid who wanted to set off a sparkler. Suddenly, a group epiphany occurred: We all had some fireworks left over from the big holiday.

Soon, the alley was ablaze with kids and sparklers. Other Alleyrats had soon broken out fireworks from their various stashes — including bottle rockets. We’re having fun NOW!!

Naturally, no one let the kids light the firecrackers or bottle rockets. I had all the duds sitting by my wheelchair, to ensure that the young’uns didn’t try to light them again. Safety, doncha know? And it was getting even more fun because Gail Two — the woman I was living with then — and Rudi had started a firecracker war. Gail Two wired two packs of firecrackers together, hooked ’em on a huge down spout, and fired ’em off. The entire group was suitably impressed — save for Rudi.

He lived down the alley on the third floor and had four packs — which he then wired together and cut loose, right about dusk. Each burst boomed, bounced and echoed down the alley.

Did I mention the sweet granny lady who lived across the alley, below Rudi? She thought that the badasses from the club above the alley were cutting loose with automatic weapons, and called the law.

Where are seven police cruisers when you need them least? At all four corners of our block, barricading the alley at both ends. The seventh squad car carefully crept down the alley, looking for World War III. And Randy, the seventh cop, caught us cold. Alleyrats scattered, performing ritual magic with their beers. Kids clung to parents with frightened eyes. To add to the ambiance, it began to drizzle.

I, of course, sat in my wheelchair watching what was akin to a bizarre movie — sort of a Southern-fried version of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant “masacree” (Arlo spelled it that way, not me).

Randy’s partner began gathering the evidence. As for me, I was unaware that my Alleyrat friends had tossed their fireworks onto the pile of duds I was guarding. Meanwhile, Randy was explaining to Kraut and me that somebody would have to take a hit (a citation) in light of the seven units that had responded to World War III at dangerously high speeds. Fair enough, I thought. Feeling that I had been the official safety marshal — and holding only duds — I volunteered to take the hit. I got a ticket, and the others agreed to chip in for the fine.

However, this dastardly deed mandated a court appearance, which I thought absurd. It meant I had to invest more time on this foolishness, which irked me. You won’t like me when I get irked: You may well appear in my column. Or worse. I alerted WLOS-TV and the Asheville Citizen-Times that a blind, crippled war hero was being railroaded by the law. At my court date, the media were out in force. I aimed straight at the absurdity of the situation; it worked. The media loved it, especially when I was found guilty. There’s nothing quite so much fun as watching a semiarticulate martyr illustrate the absurdities that surround us. (By the way, every pyrotechnic I was busted for has since been legalized in the state of North Carolina.)

A great deal of fun was had by all — the judge, the assistant D.A., me and the Alleyrats. Well, fun was had by everyone except for Randy’s partner (totally devoid of a sense of humor) and my former wife (also devoid of a sense of humor), who felt I had besmirched her name.

But all that was almost a decade ago. It’s a memory that always brings a smile to my face. Ah, the good old pioneer days — the stuff from which nostalgia springs. But time inexorably passes, for better or worse. I think for better, mostly.

The urban pioneers hung in, and now rental spaces in the alley are trendy, as well as pricey — too much for the pioneers. Most of the Alleyrats have moved on to other urban frontiers — though Kraut, Rudi, Ollie and me still hang in. As with the westward expansion, other pioneers have followed, some pursuing entrepreneurial interests. There have been about as many successes as failures. I know about the failures best. I lost a bunch of money on a failed venture — a tie-dye shop. I learned that Deadheads don’t have disposable incomes. Hence, much of mine was.

You cannot stop pioneers once they start (ask any Native American). They keep on coming and going, and coming again, and the local government offers minimal help. That’s just my observation. Ask random entrepreneurs what they think. I could be wrong. After all, I’ve already admitted to being divorced.

But look at us now. In the decade since the fireworks bust, Lexington Avenue has been revitalized. The same goes for Broadway. Beanstreets, our first — and still favorite — coffee shop opened. We have restaurants in Pack Square where folks can dine al fresco or el outside-o. Call it quaint or European: It’s Great!

We now have brewpubs and bakeries downtown. My favorite bookstore, Malaprop’s, expanded — proof that a local business can still compete with the corporate Mall Monsters. What’s more, the originals abide: Tops for Shoes still has a helluva business.

Come Downtown, citizens of Asheville. And not just for Bele Chere (which really translates as “it’s gonna rain”). Spend your hard-earned money where it will stay, and share in the pride of what the dedicated pioneer spirit can do for a formerly depressed area.

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