BY ABIGAIL HICKMAN
I’ve been feeling decidedly uncool and disconnected from my little city of Asheville. For one thing, I’m not young, and Asheville is a city for and of youth. In a population of almost 88,000, 25.6 percent are between 19 and 29. Asheville’s 29-year-olds entered the world not long after Motorola introduced the first mobile phone, and its 19-year-olds were birthed around the time telecommuting took off. By the time those babies turned 1, Google was flowing into their homes like mother’s milk.
I, meanwhile, was born into a house with a wall-mounted phone sprouting a long, curly cord, enabling us to walk up to 6 feet away. The Montgomerys across the street were the first in the neighborhood to buy a microwave oven. We used to say “oven” after “microwave.” Many of the local children were told to keep their distance from that property. I heard my mom say more than once that she was afraid my brother would become sterile from the “radioactive microwaves” floating across the street from the Montgomerys’ microwave into our house. We had three channels on our TV, all of which played the national anthem at midnight, with an American flag waving on the screen. At the end of the song, the station would go off the air, leaving only the poltergeist static to stand guard until morning.
No, I am not young and would not succeed in fitting in to Asheville by pretending to be so.
For a brief time, I considered getting a tattoo so I could feel more connected to my people. Tattoos seem to be the great age equalizer in Asheville: They’re not just for the kids anymore. The Asheville Yellow Pages (it’s something old people use) lists 30 tattoo parlors within the city limits. They seem forbidding places, with names like Man’s Ruin — and those are the ones with permits. Many tattoo artists work out of their homes or else in dark backrooms with a Bob Marley poster on the wall and a puddle of stagnant water festering in the bottom of a neon-colored bong.
Still, any casual Asheville street panorama will reveal tatted arms and necks and bellies proudly on display. These graven images become a talking point, a way to interact and connect with our neighbors. People like to discuss them, gushing over their originality and ingenuity.
“This butterfly represents my rebirth,” I heard a cashier tell a customer yesterday at a local grocery chain (the kind where old people shop because we can’t understand the store layout at Trader Joe’s or Greenlife.) Her name tag said “Willow,” but I didn’t believe it. She was of a generation close to mine, when people were still cautious and practical about names. I figured her for a Jennifer or a Pam.
Willow was eager to talk about her creation, explaining that the butterfly was her own original design. I had to roll my eyes at that. She didn’t create the original design for a butterfly: God did. Jesus, everybody knows that!
Willow told the customer that the blue on the wings symbolized the blue sky, which symbolized her ability to fly. But the arm that carried the butterfly was definitely too old for her Peter Pan-and-Wendy aspirations, and I felt embarrassed for her. The skin around the blue butterfly was angry. It was hot red, and both the insect and the surrounding area had been smeared with vaseline or something that reminded me of the shiny seagulls after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Nonetheless, the woman attached to that arm expressed true affection for her new tattoo.
The customer seemed to share Willow’s enthusiasm, chatting happily about intricate artwork and using words like “depth” and “tone” while unloading her groceries from the cart. I guess she must have known what she was talking about, because her own arm was covered with what appeared to have been lifted from one of the River Arts District’s graffiti-covered bridges. She briefly stopped unloading to hold out her arm for the cashier to admire, telling Willow she’d been working on her “sleeve” for two years. Each little illustration and squiggly line meant something special to her.
Meanwhile, Willow was showing such enraptured interest that I began to fear the customer was going wax eloquent over each and every symbol, from her wrist to her unshaven armpit. I had a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food up on the belt that was looking like it might undergo a chemical change from solid to liquid before Willow remembered that her oil-laden butterfly arm had a job to do. So I gave the universal impatience signal, a little fake cough, and she snapped back to scanning the customer’s groceries.
But getting a tattoo to feel a part of things would never work for me. Not because of the needle thing, or the market saturation that makes a mockery of the idea that this is a way to express your originality, but because my brain is already crowded with indelible memories: I don’t want to give them space on my skin as well.
Tattoos, though, aren’t the only thing every second person in Asheville seems to own. What about dogs? I see them sitting on people’s laps as they drive their cars, lying on patios licking scraps from plates at popular restaurants and even, on one occasion, shopping at Lowe’s. On the days when my husband, Simeon, succeeds in luring me outside for a walk with a promise of chips and salsa afterward, we run into all manner of dogs, and not just in the citified Carrier Park. I let him take me to the wilder parts of Bent Creek as well; in both places, many owners let their dogs run free. I have a healthy fear of animals: wild and unreasonable creatures that would happily chew on my forearm, paying not the least attention to the cat tattoo I might have gotten precisely to ward off such snacking.
So I always jump behind my husband when we run into one of those rogue dog owners who carry the leash rolled up like a lasso, leaving Bear or Roxy free to snarl, unfettered, at my juicy looking ankles. Simeon has promised me, on hundreds of occasions, to break the neck of any dog that attempts to attack me. But this is clearly braggadocio, because he stands guilty of having owned two Chihuahuas that he treated like porcelain baby dolls. When we first met, I sometimes feared I might find a baby bottle among his dishes for midnight doggy feedings.
Those dog owners who recognize my alarm tend to offer me a cheeky grin. “Oh, Mr. Whiskers wouldn’t hurt a fly,” they breezily assert, chasing after their little dear like a nanny pursuing a naughty 2-year-old who’s wielding a bloody ax with an eyeball stuck to the blade. And Asheville has, quite literally, gone to the dogs: We have 49 pet shops in our town. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce lists only seven Mexican restaurants. This makes me question the city’s priorities, though these restaurants probably serve their nachos to dogs as well. So perhaps there’s still hope. But there’s absolutely no hope for me as a dog owner. I simply can’t picture a world where I carry a poodle in one arm, to spare Annabelle from having to use her little poodle legs, and a small blue bag of her indiscretions in the other.
Nonetheless, I remain determined to find a way to feel more a part of our city. I asked Yahoo Answers for some good things to do in Asheville, and it told me to “go downtown and pick up a Mountain Xpress.” Exactly.
Abigail Hickman lives in Weaverville. Her book This, That and the Third is due out in July.