Almost 25 years ago, I rode a Greyhound bus from Jackson, Mississippi, to Asheville with nothing but two suitcases of clothes and a plastic pink flamingo. My friend picked me up from the bus station and drove me through downtown to West Asheville, where I would live in Malvern Hills. It was just daybreak as we drove through the tunnel and I was treated to my first view of my new home — sunrise spilling light over snow-covered mountains, as it has done for billions of years, and the Art Deco city hall building glowing dusty rose. I oohed and aahed at the gargoyles on the Jackson Building. It was day one of a life-long love affair with this city and the people who call it home.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in those days, Lexington Avenue was pretty much boarded up from College Street all the way down to the I-240 onramp. The few businesses that were downtown closed by 3 p.m. on Saturday, and the only thing open on Sunday was church. West Asheville was called Worst Asheville and Haywood Road was dead; only the really poor people who couldn’t afford to live in north Asheville lived there.
Only a few brave souls like Constance Ensner, who owned Constance Boutique on Haywood Street, took a chance on downtown in the early 1990s. There was Malaprop’s, a few doors north of where it is now, Jewels that Dance by the library, the Haywood Park Hotel, and the gay bar O’Henry’s. There was a Woolworth’s, Tops for Shoes and not much else. (One night a friend and I were standing on Haywood Street when a guy ran past in a panic, yelling, “Call the police call the police!” Two sketchy dudes caught up with him, yelled some anti-gay slurs, and proceeded to beat the snot out of him.We called the police because we thought it was a hate crime in progress, but it was just another drug deal gone wrong.)
I moved to Asheville in 1990 fresh out of college, never having been here, through a friend’s invitation; I didn’t even have a job when I first came here. But a young Jeff Fobes took a chance and gave me my first reporting job. Through my work as a reporter with Green Line and my other job at another alternative newspaper, Out ‘n About, I met so many talented people during those early years — like Connie Bostic, a Fairview artist who owned an art gallery across the street from John Cram’s gallery on Biltmore Avenue. It was at Connie’s gallery that I first saw a performance by notorious Asheville female impersonator Cookie LaRue, who preached the virtues of not wasting tissue paper to blow your nose but using your finger instead (“as nature intended,”), coaxing 30 or so squirming, laughing audience members to stick their own fingers up their own noses. “Now, I ask youse, ain’t that a perfect fit?”
That kind of humor doesn’t appeal to everyone’s aesthetic, but the vibrant arts scene that Asheville enjoys today would not exist without people like John Cram and Connie Bostic who took risks and were willing to step outside the safe-for-tourists art genre. (Seriously, she’s a dang goddess and you should send her money right now; mail it to Art Goddess Connie Bostic, c/o Mountain Xpress, PO Box 144, Asheville NC 28802. Anyone making art in Asheville today owes her a huge debt.)
Cookie and I rode in the lead car of the Gay Pride parade and were welcomed by some Jerks for Jesus standing in front of the old Woolworth’s building with their hand-made “Fagit” signs. At the Christian Pride rally the next week, my gay friend wore his hand-made T-shirt that proudly proclaimed his “Fagit” status. I still remember the sign held by the woman who told us loudly with great conviction that we were going to hell: “Almighty Indignation Will Destroy the Sodomites.” Another friend, a video artist, spliced footage from the Christian Pride rally with footage from Klan rallies and Nazi marches. It was a thing of radical beauty. In art, you take your inspiration where you find it.
In 1991, I moved from West Asheville to Merrimon Avenue to be closer to my jobs downtown. During the day, I worked in the Miles Building and the Flatiron Building, and at night, I went home to the Jefferson Apartments on the corner of East Chestnut Street and Merrimon, across the street from where Trader Joe’s is today. Built in 1925, it still featured many of its original features and retained much of its original charm. Rent for our 1,200-square-foot, 2-bedroom apartment was $250 a month. $250 a month. We spent more on beer than we did on rent.
Back then, Asheville had few places to party and eat, and even fewer places to eat late-night. Our mainstay was the Hot Shot Café in Biltmore, open 24 hours back then. After the bars closed, we’d eat some deliciously greasy diner eggs cooked by a griddle chef who, just an hour earlier, had likely been onstage at O’Henry’s singing a rousing patriotic God Bless America/Looking for a City/I’ll Fly Away medley wearing nothing but a jock strap, American flag, tiara and size 13 white pumps. Because it was Fourth of July weekend in America. Rest in peace, Cousin It. When your spoon stood upright on its own in your bowl of gravy at the Hot Shot Café, you knew it was time to pay your tab and stumble home.
Years later I revisited the Hot Shot, when they reopened after being flooded in 2004. The diner was no longer open 24 hours a day and it eventually closed, another victim of the rent inflation and upscalification that was happening all over the city. I spoke with one of the waitresses I thought I recognized from the old days and told her that I used to come there when it was an all-night diner. She said, “Oh lord, honey, those were the days! I would go home so tired, but
I loved it so much. My customers were so much fun and they tipped good, too!”
We were all earning minimum wage and living paycheck to paycheck. With limited resources, we made our own fun. We’d play on the playground equipment at Montford Park at 3 a.m. We’d steal flowers from the meticulous landscaping of Biltmore Forest homes. We broke into empty buildings and scavenged for anything of use. One night we came across what we thought was a dead body, but it was just a sleeping homeless guy wrapped in a piece of carpet he’d cut from the floor. That was the end of our late-night building raiding.
We smoked weed and rolled downhill on the Grove Park Inn golf course, before they put up a fence. We ate magic mushrooms on the Blue Ridge Parkway, marveling at the family of koalas we saw in the treetops. We took photos to send to National Geographic to document our discovery of koalas living in the trees on the Blue Ridge Parkway! We were going to be famous! Someone asked what a group of koalas was called and no one knew, but one of our friends said it had to be a “koala-ition.” Later, we laughed ourselves silly when we had our photos developed and realized that our miraculous koalas were, in reality, squirrels’ nests.
We sang along with The Staple Singers and fell in love with Bo Diddley at Bele Chere. We saw Blondie, and then Lou Reed, at the Orange Peel. We heard Koko Taylor sing the blues at 45 Cherry, birthplace of the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, which is now, sadly, a gated parking lot. We danced to the Neville Brothers and B.B. King at the Civic Center. We saw B.B. King again at a Biltmore Estates concert in 2008. It is a gorgeous venue, but security behaves more like actors in a bad version of Footloose: No Dancing! (I heard that the B-52s played a concert at the Biltmore Estate and stopped the show to complain about security not letting people dance. B-52s were all like, “I thought this was a party. Let’s dance!”)
I remember Asheville. I remember my first sight of the city on that cold winter morning. I remember whitewater rapids on the Nantahala. I remember soaking in a hot tub at Hot Springs on the bank of the French Broad River, sipping cognac with my sweetie and watching the stars appear. I remember endless bagels at Malaprop’s and countless beers at Gatsby’s. I remember acting swanky on the Sunset Terrace at the Grove Park Inn, sharing appetizers because it was all we could afford. I remember Julian Price, a gentle giant who helped fund so many projects and nonprofit groups that helped make Asheville a better place to live. I remember meeting John Waters in Seattle in 2004 at a gallery exhibit of his mixed-media artwork and him autographing that plastic pink flamingo I brought with me when I first came to town. I remember drinking char moonshine with the men who distilled it. I remember friends getting married on a mountaintop, I remember the surrealistic Tim Burton vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway under a harvest moon, and I remember the fellowship of many good friends. They represent the best that this city has to offer.
Most of all, I remember having the time of my life. I remember Asheville for all it was, is and will ever be. You can grouse all you want about not enough parking or too many hipsters or the way things used to be. In a city with growing pains, these may be valid complaints. But love it. Just love it. Love it for all you’re worth. Asheville will always love you back.
Andrea Helm was a staff reporter for Green Line (predecessor of Mountain Xpress) from 1990 to 1992, where she was a frequent thorn in the side of co-workers, employers, and various city officials. Due to circus dances beyond her control, she no longer resides in Asheville. She misses it every day.