The Asheville niceness factor

I had to go to the FedEx office off Patton Avenue the other day. (Anyone who’s ever successfully navigated this stretch knows that once you get off the expressway—assuming you’re headed in the correct direction—you just keep bearing right until you get there.)

Once again, my insurance company had changed its name (buyout after buyout), not sent me an invoice showing what I owed, and I was late making my payment; and not wanting my house to burn down while I was unprotected (a completely conceivable scenario), I made the trip to FedEx.

They say their employees make more than the folks at the (going postal) post office. Apparently, however, they don’t trust them to keep actual greenbacks in the office. A sign on the door said “NO CASH,” and an older couple attempting what might have been expected to be a simple procedure had to rely on the kindness of a 7-foot customer who volunteered to make change for them. Apparently these folks didn’t realize they’d entered a zone where their cash didn’t count anymore. That must have been a jolt to their take on reality.

Must be company policy, I mused; the good people of Asheville aren’t going to rob FedEx. If I was at the Forsyth Street FedEx in Atlanta, I’d understand.

The other night on TV, a writer spoke about what it’s like to move through the California redwoods like an orangutan, walking on rope ladders some 30 stories up. The “floor” below is actually the lower tree canopy—which, thankfully, prevents one from seeing how far down the ground really is. The writer went on to paint a picture of a completely different reality: different animals, perspectives, dangers and pleasures.

The man in the FedEx towered over his stack of boxes. After making change for the older couple, the FedEx lady thanked him, and he spoke about having been interned in Fort Lauderdale for the past two-and-a-half years. “I never met people so rude,” he said. “I think we’re gonna have to help each other out more, you know? The magazines talk about how friendly people are in Asheville—I say you just come here, take a look around, and head on back home.” (Apparently, he shares the widespread local hatred of the rampant development we’re seeing these days.)

Then, abruptly shifting gears, he said: “This is a North American rain forest. People don’t know this—there’s a lot of species of plants here that are nowhere else. Cures for AIDS, other diseases, male baldness” (pointing to his shiny pate). This kind of friendly, informal exchange is not unusual in Asheville.

When I was a young child, I used to travel to Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta with my grandmother. I marveled at the way the conductor would jump off and use a long stick to knock the cable back onto the electrical harness that powered the trolley. Sparks flew.

That was a city associated with enslaved blacks, and its legacy follows it to this day, even as the largest black middle class in the world makes its way into the upper echelons of power. In the worrisome 1960s, white Mayor Ivan Allen defined it as “a city too busy to hate,” but Atlanta separated and divided nonetheless. And the whites who flew to the northern suburbs now suppose that they should be released from the burden of paying county taxes.

Georgia was actually more progressive three decades ago: Having weathered Lester Maddox and his pick handles, we figured we were in the clear regarding race relations. Jimmy Carter came along, made us proud, and then was defeated by Republicans who were the harbingers of today’s neocons.

Atlanta: hard tensions, white mayors, then nothing but black mayors. White flight and inner-city fear. When I’m in Atlanta now, I leave nothing in my car. To do so is to invite a brick through the window.

Here in Asheville, however, I never lock my car or my door. Funny how this race business surfaces for me in a city with a very sophisticated black woman as mayor. According to local historians, Asheville was a black freeman’s town: no plantations, no cotton, relatively little slavery.

And the people here are genuinely nice. They chat; they look you in the eye; they make the system accountable with their statements about their surroundings and their personal histories.

This is an effort to document that perhaps-naive social circumlocution—a roundabout way of making note of a special people, living during a particular point in time, in a Southern city that’s full of magnanimous intentions.

Hats off to you, Asheville.

[Psychologist Marsha Hammond is a local political agitator. She can be reached at hammondmv@netzero.com]

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