The Gospel According to Jerry: Sin city

Commentary by Jerry Sternberg
Commentary by Jerry Sternberg Image courtesy of the author

If Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep in the pristine little village of Asheville back in the 1930s and woken up today, he’d have to take a Stanback, a Goody’s and a BC powder, smoke a cigarette and wash the whole thing down with a shot of white lightning just to settle his nerves after confronting the shocking moral decadence that now abounds in our fair city.

In the ’30s, the Sunday morning church bells had to penetrate the smog from the coal-burning homes and factories, and the flavored scent of fumes from the American Enka plant and the Champion Paper mill, to call the town to worship. The scores of churches that dotted our landscape preached against sin.

In those days, the most notorious nonviolent criminals were the ”likker” makers, haulers and sellers, who mainly peddled corn whiskey and homebrewed beer. You could almost see the fire and brimstone roaring through the pews as the preachers shouted at the top of their lungs about the evils of “John Barleycorn,” the scourge of our society.

There was a story about one local farmer who put a generous contribution in the collection plate each Sunday. Needing some additional money for a church project, the preacher decided to visit this farmer and solicit his help.

When he got to the farm, the kids said their father was down at his still. The horrified preacher found the farmer there and, keeping his fundraising mission in mind, gently chided his parishioner about the terrible sin of drinking alcohol.

The farmer responded, “Preacher, likker ain’t for drinkin’ — it’s for sellin’.” Thus was another unholy alliance born.

Next up in the criminal pecking order were the lowlifes who ran various gambling games, preying upon the innocent. Then came the lewd and lascivious flesh peddlers, whose wares ranged from hootchy-kootchy shows to tiny porno comic books to full-blown prostitution.

Meanwhile, yet another sin — growing and selling tobacco — was very conflicting, since it was homegrown and, like corn whiskey, was one of our first sustainable, organic, farm-to-table products. It also gave the local econoomy a significant boost. “Chew backer,” snuff dipping, pipe smoking and cigarettes were glorified in movies, magazines and signboards, anyway, so what could be so sinful about it? Of course, women also smoked, but only in private, because it was considered unladylike.

Interestingly enough, illegal drugs were not so rampant or even discussed. Why should they be when you could go to the apothecaries (now, not surprisingly, called “drugstores”) and buy a witches’ brew of most any kind of narcotic or alcohol-based “nerve tonic,” and speed and barbiturates were sold over the counter.

I can see the incredulous look on ol’ Rip’s face now when he sees corn whiskey and homebrew being distilled and sold right out in the open in downtown Asheville, and City Council and the Chamber of Commerce bragging that we’re the “Craft Beer Capital of America.”

Imagine his further shock when he sees lottery tickets on sale, sanctioned by the great sovereign state of North Carolina, to help us teach our schoolchildren and, furthermore, that by driving only 50 miles west to what used to be the remote outpost known as Cherokee, he can gamble to his heart’s content in a casino that rivals the biggest and best in Las Vegas.

He can also legally indulge his lust at a number of topless bars and porno shops or by renting X-rated movies, and though it’s not exactly legal, the oldest profession in the world still seems to flourish unabated.

On the other hand, cigarettes and cigars have been outlawed in many areas, and when was the last time you saw anyone smoking a pipe? Snuff dipping and tobacco chewing have become very inconvenient, since most public places, including the fancy hotels, have done away with those ornate brass spittoons.

With the controls imposed on the apothecaries, illegal drugs are now rampant, and the drug dealers are the new public enemy No. 1, replacing the bootleggers. It’s worth noting that marijuana, the most recent addition to our growing roster of farm-to-table products, is now the most popular recreational drug next to alcohol, and it’s on its way to becoming legal, as has already happened in many other parts of the country.

I tell you, folks, ol’ Rip was so upset by our little Sin City that he had to go to Vegas to reset his moral compass.

In future columns, I’ll have more to say about how all this sin evolved over my lifetime. I’ve waited many years to tell this story, until more of the “sinners” have gone to that great Sodom and Gomorrah in the sky. And since so much time has passed, I hope that, unlike Thomas Wolfe, I will still be able to come home again.


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One thought on “The Gospel According to Jerry: Sin city

  1. Dionysis

    While a bit humorous, the so-called ‘sins’ sure cover a broad swath. Sin is defined as “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law”. Where are divine prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco, drugs and lotto tickets to be found?

    Perhaps scientists will invent time machines so those wistful for the stench of ‘coal-burning smog’ and spittoons gracing upscale hotels can enjoy them. And compared to such places as Washington, D.C., some parts of New York and Las Vegas, Asheville is almost prudish.

    To each his (or her) own. What the writer calls ‘sin’ just makes me grin.

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