My hearing aids have been working very poorly. I was tested, the hearing aids were tested, and we were tested together and there seemed to be no significant deterioration in either one of us, but I also found out that hearing aid technology has taken a big leap since I got my last set, and the manufacturer would no longer work on the pair that I had. They were old technology. The decision was made to order a new set of the new and improved aids.
So, we set off yesterday for Asheville, several hours away, for a couple of appointments at the VA hospital. One was to pick up a replacement set of aids from the Audiologist.
Because it was a long trip we found a motel that gives veterans a break on rates and spent the night because the hospital visits were early morning slots.
We used to go to Asheville a lot before I retired. It is unique in many ways. It would probably have never been anything other than another North Carolina mountain town but for the influence of the Vanderbilts. Most first-time visitors take a tour of the Biltmore mansion. It has been described as America’s castle, and it exhibits the degree of extravagance and excess that was possible before the days of anti-trust laws. The Grove Park Inn is another must see. It looks like an enormous munchkin house from the outside, and the great room as you enter has fireplaces at either end of the room that could serve as a bedroom, they are so large.
The Grove Park housed many celebrities for extended periods, most notable of which may have been F. Scott, and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The Vanderbilt mansion required a large crew to build and an equally large staff to run. A small town - complete with an Episcopal church and a train station - was built to house and service the employees. Biltmore Village is a tony shopping area now.
So much for the monuments to rich dead men, the really interesting parts of town are elsewhere.
If you like expensive, exclusive communities Asheville has them. If you like the neighborhoods where the interesting people live you better look fast. The town is becoming a victim of its fame.
Many people have remarked on the fact that the city has a very heterogeneous mix of conservative, church going, citizens, and a diverse mix of people who don’t fit that mold. There is a large gay/lesbian community, a large number of folks who would have looked at home on the “Ave” in Seattle during the early ‘90s; people with multiple piercings, tattoos of large and intricate design, dreadlocks, hair in colors that don’t exist in nature, and imaginative combinations of clothing. Asheville, also, seems to be the place where a lot of old hippies landed when they finally got off the electric cool-aid acid bus.
For the most part these folks all get along well.
In most of Northern Georgia and Western North Carolina, the television in the motel lobby will be tuned to Fox News. In our motel, yesterday, it was tuned to MSNBC. That small fact is emblematic of the liberal and open attitude of Asheville.
The city is proud of its eccentricity.
We first started to go to Asheville when we had the time in the early 1990s. The town hasn’t changed that much in character, but in the early 2000s it began to surface above the radar in magazines that pick the best 10 small cities to live. The housing bubble was large and unbroken at the time, and as people in places like Santa Fe, Southern California, and parts of the Northeast sold their homes at huge profits many relocated to Asheville greatly inflating already rising property values. Recently rent, I am told, is becoming so high that the people who work in town can’t afford to live there. We’ll see how that works out.
Amid all the street level storefronts there are occasional entries to homes located above the shops.
The new hearing aids are to my old ones as a computer is to an abacus. They are blue tooth compatible, and can link directly to the television, cell phone and computer. I feel like “Seven of Nine”, the Borg member played by Jerry Ryan sans the slinky cat suit.
The biggest change is that, linked or not, I hear so much more. High pitched sounds which I had lost making it impossible to understand some consonant sounds now are audible, if somewhat metallic sounding. . I’m not sure the world was ever so noisy when I was young and could hear normally. The upshot is that I can now hear a lot more of conversations in noisy areas than I could with my old appliances.
I still have some reading to do about linking with my laptop, and television. The cell phone is linked and I can now be one of those people walking down the street talking to an imaginary friend.
Back to Asheville…
One of the most interesting areas of town is south of I-240 along Haywood and a few blocks to the east and west. It is an area of bookstores, galleries, eateries, and clothing stores. Like many areas with a lot of small businesses there is turnover. It seems like there has been a lot of change over the last 2-3 years.
Institutions like Max and Rosy’s a vegetarian restaurant have closed. It had been around for decades. I don’t know the details about why it closed. Other new businesses – many of which include words like Cosmic and Karma in their names – have sprung up. They sell everything from beads to beans. There is a place that grinds and mixes its own herbs and spices, sells teas, sea salt, and such. Another attractive little shop sells coffee, wine, and snacks.
Some of the more interesting shops along Lexington Avenue
We stopped in Mast General Store. “Mast” is a general store in the L.L. Bean tradition. They are urban and outdoor outfitters. While waiting for my wife to shop I found myself surrounded by smiling, somewhat goofy looking people in matching slacks and t-shirts. I knew they were selling something, I just wasn’t sure what. They weren’t dressed right for either Mormon missionaries or Amway salesmen. I waited for the pitch. They were missionaries from Dallas, Texas in Asheville to spread the Gospel and save “these people” from their life of sin and perversion. I escaped. They clearly didn’t understand that there are plenty of Evangelical Christians in Asheville and if “those people” wanted to change, or if in some cases it were possible, they would have.
We ate at LAB (Lexington Avenue Brewery) which brews its own beers and sells food for the adventurous. I had a Korean Rueben which consisted of corned pork, kim chee, and some sort of spicy mayonnaise on toasted white bread served with spicy fries and their own pickles. The pickles were a surprise. They weren’t cucumbers, but carrots that tasted like they had been pickled in whatever spices bread and butter pickles are prepared in. The beer was very good that I washed it all down with. I’ll probably try something else next time, not because I didn’t like my sandwich, but because it all looked good.
One of my wife’s favorite places to shop is a clothing store, Ad-Lib. Lynn first met Anna when she had her first store in Boone, NC selling inexpensive clothes to college students at Appalachian State. This was sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. Anna gradually went upscale in her line, opened the store in Asheville, and opened a store in Wilmington, NC. North Carolina is a long state and maintaining stores in the mountains and on the coast proved to entail a lot of traveling. Ad-Lib is doing great in Asheville. The stores in Boone and Wilmington are closed now.
Who knows which of the little “Cosmic Karma Whatevers” will survive and which will close? How will the ones that make it have to adjust over time to do it? Their survival will all depend on location, product, service and whether they have enough capital to last.
Entrepreneurs are supposed to be the ones who drag us out of the economic morass we are in now. None of these little shops have to become the next Wal-Mart, they just have to be an Ad-Lib, to make it and hire a few people.
Photographs belong to the author.