Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Old Hippies

I was 10 years old the last time I was in Asheville and my grandparents took me there to see the Biltmore House.  I was heavily influenced by its architecture and thought all houses should be required to have indoor atriums; winding staircases even in one story structures and hallways large enough to house a marble statue collection. 

On this trip I decided I loved Asheville, not because of Biltmore, but because it’s full of hippies. 

My best friend and a life long North Carolinian told me it was the most progressive and art filled city in the state and she was right!  I have heard it referred to it as ‘the San Francisco of the South’, ‘Paris of the United States’, and ‘the bohemian capital of the East Coast’.  Although ‘Paris of the United States’ is a bit of a stretch, I must say I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s much smaller than I expected but, it has a vibrant and active downtown full of shops, cafes, restaurants and wine bars – lots of wine bars. 

But, leave it to us to turn a normal little trip into a bizarre experience.

We got into town late one afternoon and after getting settled at our hotel we forced ourselves to try out one of the local wine bars.  This particular place was a combo wine bar and library.  It was a multi level large space with miles of book shelves.  There was an older conservatively dressed gentleman seated at the bar and he suggested we try a nice North Carolina Chardonnay.  Instead I scooped up a glass of prosecco and rambled off to browse the great selection of books.  Old guy, who seemed eager to talk, told C his name was Frank; he had recently sold his Midwestern business and moved to Asheville.  A few minutes later, C politely excused himself to join me.  Later while sipping wine and flipping through coffee table books, we noticed Frank heading for the exit.  C acknowledged him by smiling and saying hi but Frank ignored him, grunted and shuffled off.

View of a downtown street...
That's a hippie in the distance...
Later that night, after dinner we retired to the bar in our hotel for one (ok…maybe two) after dinner drinks.  Moving from left to right, here’s who was at the bar, a very beautiful Middle Eastern Women in her late 20’s and her Asian husband.  Next to them was an attractive Caucasian man in his early 30’s.  He was intensively engaged in the World Series game on the television behind the bar.  Seated next to him was his wife.  She was black and had dreads down her back.  She was intensely engaged in a conversation with the guy next to her.  He was mid forties, gaaaaaay, pumped up, expensive jeans, tight sweater and well on his way to being over-served.  Since it was quite easy to hear their conversation from about a mile away I learned he was with the guy on his right – his partner.  The partner was about 10 years older, smaller, feminine and in similar expensive jeans and tight sweater which on him were not age appropriate.  He was having a conversation with his mid seventy year old mother.  She was drunk and busily doing damage to a cocktail while bouncing back and forth in conversation between her son and the women on her right – her female friend, who was about 80 and almost asleep or dead.  I’m not sure which. 

Then there was C and I.  Oh, and the white, straight, 30 year bartender who was statistically in the minority.

The next morning we got up early and went to Biltmore House.  Not much to report there – really big house where some really rich people lived and had really big parties. 

That afternoon we wondered around downtown Asheville.  Parts of it had a Haight-Ashbury 60’s vibe and there were lots of hippies. I generally like hippies and by that afternoon decided I was going to move there.  I especially liked sitting at an outdoor café, having an afternoon cocktail and listening to a street band.  There were six of them and most of their instruments were made of laundry utensils and wire.  And, they were damn good!

One thing puzzled me.  There were a lot of grunge, young hippies and a lot of old hippies, but I did not really see any middle age hippies.  Although I may have mistaken the middle age hippies to be older than they really are.  In general hippies just look older. 

Clearly at some point the young hippies leave Asheville for hippier pastures or either assimilates into mainstream Asheville society.  And clearly the old hippies come from miles around, because Asheville is a cool place to get your hippie on.  But either way, I didn’t see a lot of hippies my age.  I haven’t had time to research it, but I’m guessing there are a lot of communes in and around Asheville.  And, you know there’s a lot of hooch growing in those hills.  On the east side of downtown, near the government complex there are several blocks of head shops, hippie art stores, tee shirt stores, wine bars, vegan restaurants and tattoo parlors. 

You gotta love a city with a store totally
dedicated to gourmet chips!
That night we had dinner at a restaurant focused on locally grown organic food.  Moments after we walked in, I noticed Frank walked in behind us.  Having just made a previous stop at a wine bar and feeling very social, I suggested we invite Frank to join us. 

I introduced myself and told him we remembered him from the night before and asked if he was alone and would he like to join us for dinner.  Asheville seems like such an interesting place and we’d enjoy hearing more,” I told him.

“That’ll work,” he responded.

The waiter seated us and I quickly learned that Frank had few social skills and was not much for conversation.  It was like I tried to help a stray dog, which seems like a good idea and nice thing to do, but instead realized I’d made a bad mistake. 

For one brief moment I thought of saying, “Sorry.  I miscalculated and now realize you’re a douchbag.  Do you mind moving to another table?”  But, I’d brought this dog home and now I was going to have to feed it. 

Frank was eager to order and get on with it.  He ordered without looking at the menu.  He seemed a little off put when I asked the waiter several questions about the organic pasta and the hand made goat cheese and particularly perturbed when it appeared I intended this to be a leisurely dinner.  Clearly Frank was not into the Slow Food Movement.

We manage to have a decent conversation over dinner, only because I asked a lot of questions and Frank answered with short sentenced responses while generally staring off in the other direction avoiding eye contact. 

My favorite store was called Olive & Kicking
and sold only olive oils and balsamic vinegars...
I managed to learn a few things about Frank.  He had been married 3 times and he considered one of the wives to be dead ringer for Bridget Bardo.  He also wished she was dead.  He was a master of the accordion and often strolled around the streets serenading passersby.  He was approaching seventy and even though he appeared to be a conservative retired businessman he really was an old hippie at heart. 

The reference to his age puzzled me when he referred to Asheville as having a lot of people “our age living here” and I realized he meant all three of us.  Strangely Frank didn’t seem to grasp the fact he had decades on us.  But, we were enthusiastically chatting up Asheville as what seemed to be a great place to retire so perhaps he thought we were older (much fucking older) than we are.  However I later learned Frank considered himself much younger then he really was!

Once dinner was over, out on the side walk and exchanging goodbyes, Frank suddenly became pleasant for the first time.  He seemed to pep up and suggested we take a look at his new apartment since we seemed so interested in Asheville.  “It’s just a just a few blocks and on the way to your hotel,” he said.

A downtown park near Frank's place...probably
where he can be found playing the accordion...
My first thought was he was either going to put the moves on us or try to kill us with a hatchet.  Considering the age difference and there were two of us, I thought we could handle the situation.  Also, having a fondness for real estate, I wanted to see a condo in downtown Asheville. Much to C’s horror I consented and off to Frank’s lair we went.  You must remember at this point the wine had flowed and I was under the hippy spell of Asheville and convinced I would be relocating there very soon.

Frank’s condo was tucked away in an older renovated building.  It had lots of charm and character and a really nice private outdoor space.  There was some interesting artwork, over stuffed simple but comfortable furniture, two cats and a shit load of accordions. 

Frank told us to feel free to look around and he disappeared into the kitchen.  I assumed he was making drinks, but instead he emerged with a small pipe and lit up. 

“Here,” he said as he passed the pipe to me.  “This is really good stuff.  Locally grown.”

I took the pipe.  C politely said no and stood there continuing to look stunned. 

Almost immediately Frank’s personality changed.  He became upbeat, funny, and much energized.  Within moments he said, “Ok, it’s time to go,” and he moved us to the door.  “I’m going dancing,” he announced.  “There’s a great place down the street.  Some really great music.  Lot’s of people our age.  Want to go?”

“Sure,” I answered before C had a chance to say anything.  As soon as I said it I realized I had probably made yet another mistake.  The first being asking Frank to join us for dinner and the second one following him home, although that hadn’t turned out to be so bad in my opinion.  But, agreeing to join him for ‘dancing’ when we could have escaped spelled danger.  C and I didn’t have to speak.  At this point we were communicating telepathically and we both were thinking the same thing.  This has ‘old queens’ and Judy Garland written all over it!  I wasn’t even sure Frank was gay, but gay or not with each block we walked I guessed this could only get stranger.  But it was too late now.  If we’d reneged we would be the ones who were looking like douchbags, especially since Frank had gotten me stoned, so we trooped on!

A stoned hippie or a statue at Biltmore...
I don't remember which...
A few minutes later we were being greeted by a doorman at a large brick building.  Once inside I realized it was once some type large meeting hall or public space.  There was a bar in the back right corner, a band playing in the opposite corner.  A large dance floor with a few tables filled the remainder of the space.  The bar served only beer and after ordering one for each of us Frank rushed over to the band to say hello.  A few minutes later he came back to where we were standing and told us he’d been following the band around town and he thought they were quiet good.  He admired the young female singer because she chooses to sing ‘decent shit as opposed to the crap most people her age know.’ 

In fact he was right.  Her voice was husky and reminded me of a softer Janice Joplin.  Her song choices were all from the forties or reminiscent of swing style and the band play them with an interesting bohemian twist.  They were very good. 

Other than the band, a bartender and the three of us the place was empty except for the two couples on the dance floor.  One was a mid-fifty year old couple.  The women reminded me of my fifth grade math teacher and the man of a used car salesman.  The other couple was mid-thirties.  He was most probably gay.  She had on a tremendous amount of makeup.  They were clearly semi professional ballroom dancers and my stare was fixed on their feet.  They were amazing.  Actually, the other couple was quiet good too.  Frank informed me that it was jitterbug night.  After about three songs the band and the dancers stopped. 

Rich fish at Biltmore...
Frank then began to apologize for the place being empty and closing up so soon after our arrival.  He attributed it to our overly long dinner and that it was a Tuesday night.  I told Frank not to worry and ‘it was better to have experienced something I would not have otherwise experienced, so even a small taste was better than no taste at all.”  He found this to be very profound.  After that brilliant statement, we excused ourselves, bid Frank farewell and agreed to look him up the next time we were in Asheville.  Then we left.  Being that he was a groupie, he was staying behind to chat up the band while they packed up.  I guess since he was ‘our age” he was not ready to call it quits.

I liked Asheville, but I’m not going to move there.  I would have to send C to hippie school otherwise he’d never fit in.  In fact, I doubt I’ll go back anytime soon.  Been there, done that.  Besides, I don’t want to feel obligated to look up Frank, not that he’d give a shit or even remember!

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