Asheville And Our Times

The Biltmore Estate. Photo by me, 1980s.

The last time I was in Asheville, North Carolina was in the late 1980s as a teenager. I was there with my parents and we did what most first-time visitors do in Asheville which was to tour the Biltmore Estate. It was much cheaper then and not the price equivalent of a day at Disney World in those days. It will not cease to amaze me the price the public will pay to tour the home of a rich person.

That was a long time ago, too long ago, and tourist attractions have changed with the times. Places now are events and experiences designed to be consumed as such. Try going to a museum without someone posing for a selfie in front of a painting you would like to admire in the moment. I remember when museums strictly forbade photography and security harassed patrons for even considering it. I shall never forget that incident from my childhood at the High in Atlanta when I was accosted for daring to stand an inch too close to a painting. I was scarred, I tell you.

Everything and every place is now cheapened to an experience that is a cross between a Chuck E. Cheese, a traveling carnival, an outlet mall and a theme park. Thank you and now please pay twenty-five dollars for this photo; we made you stand in line for. Places do not exist now solely for their beauty or history or maybe they do not generate enough cash flow to satisfy the greed of the owners. There must be distinctions of access between the masses and some years later we can brag to our cousin at Thanksgiving that we skipped the lines with a VIP All-Access, behind-the-scenes pass for which we paid a month's mortgage. The cousin will surely be impressed and will have seen the posts on social media and posted a jealous emoticon. We need neon signs that tell ourselves and everybody else that we are having fun and that food is a fetish worthy of sexy photography while we pose for a fake smiling selfie in front of a mural with a craft brew in hand – gosh, are not we a special and hammy lot! Hashtag that! None of it is genuine, it is done to present an image to our “followers.” In these times, we are all in the public relations business. Not only have the attractions changed, but society changed too.


The 1920 art-deco Asheville city hall.

Asheville is more than the Biltmore, I think or I hope it is. It must be, with over 94,000 people living in the city limits and they cannot all be a Vanderbilt. Can they? After spending time there as an adult, I came away with different impressions though they remain distant and unclear as though I had met a person from the past for a reunion over lunch. I was never close friends with that person, I kind of knew them, could remember fuzzy details about them, but never had a firm opinion on what I thought of them. Asheville was like that; a murky, nonthreatening fast food fish sandwich.

After my recent trip to Asheville I came away without a full understanding of the city, but my impression was that it did feel smaller than a city its size. It reminded me of a teenage boy wearing his father's clothes that needed to be grown into. The city has what every city has today that wants to appear trendy: breweries, breweries, breweries, coffee shops and colorful cartoony murals that either strive for a deeper social meaning or exist to be Instagrammed as a selfie background Рyou know the ones where we see more of your face than what you are actually standing in front of. The downtown scene seemed like a clich̩.


The Grove Arcade built in the 1920s. Atlanta had one of these too (built in 1917), but of course it was torn down in 1964. Progress and all that. Photos by me, March 2023.

One night I sat at dinner with my back to a table of women in their fifties and sixties. They were locals and the conversation was mostly about religion and charity work. I am a notorious eavesdropper. My country fried steak with gravy came and I nibbled it. The women were waiting on one more person to join them before they ordered more than tea and sodas. One woman said, “You'll love my niece, everyone does. She should be here any minute; she works at Biltmore.”

The inescapable Vanderbilts appeared at dinner.

I tuned out their conversation until the niece arrived. She was a woman in her late twenties. The waitress was eager to get this party moving along, took their orders and then the table went through a round of prayers.

My fork and knife sliced through my steak and I did not fall in love with the niece that was inches behind me. I did not even get a whiff of her fragrance.


Probably a Vanderbilt. Photo by me, March 2023.

I have entered the invisible age or mercifully I have existed in that space for most of my life, but I am truly living there now. I am on the wrong side of the clock of life, where I can sit unnoticed by the young – the beggars are another matter as they have pinpoint vision, but seem unable to hear the word no. I sat outside the hotel one morning, sipping coffee and shooting Bach into my ears through my earbuds. I was jump-starting my brain; it takes longer these years for the gray matter to function in the morning with the fog of melatonin a hazy veil that lifts in small increments like a stubborn shade.

A young man came out of the hotel and sat twelve feet away. His music, the music made in labs with lyrics generated by Mad Libs, begins to blast. The young are immune from ear buds or headphones, they need their music surrounding them and everybody else to project their self-image. I was a teenager once, but we had boom boxes, car stereos and of course our music was real music.

I gave him an accusatory squint, but he ignored it and I increased the volume of my injection of Bach. Ah, soma! Hotel mornings are disorienting with coffee that never is as good as home, puffy-faced strangers, half-dressed and with bed head leaning over their phones in search of something more entertaining than their reality – the next experience, the next dose of dopamine.

I did recently have a fine cup of coffee at a Bloomingdale's cafe at the Mall of Millennia in Orlando, but that is another tale for another time.

In the time I was in Asheville, I turned fifty years old, I put on my invisibility cloak that is a permanent one. The cloak came with an AARP application and welcome card stuffed inside the pocket. I am on the wrong side of time where the years ahead are shorter than what is behind. I could get depressed about that, but that would be like getting depressed about another Dollar General opening down the road – it is undeniable and inevitable. I raise a lighter into the air to my youth, torch it and sing along to Bon Jovi's I'll Be There For You swaying back and forth. I understand those lyrics, “these five words I swear to you.”

Ah soma...

The regular kind of graffiti, not the touristy, social messaging mural kind. Photo by me, March 2023.

A 1920 art-deco gem turned food hall. Photo by me, March 2023.

As I looked at the sign I could hear the voice of Georgia native Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire cat. Photo by me, March 2023.

Kress buildings are kind of a thing with me, I have photographed them in various cities. Photo by me, March 2023.

I wandered around downtown Asheville on a cool early evening through the streets bounded by Patton Avenue on the south and Broadway to the east. Reviews on the internet said this was a hip area and there was a Hotel Indigo so it must be. There were unique shops, restaurants, bars and enough people to not make it feel desolate. I enjoyed the human-scaled architecture that had survived the ages and the general grit that had not been pressure washed into the gutter. I found Lexington Park antiques on Walnut Street interesting in a grungy and dusty way and rummaged in there for too long. After a time spent walking the streets and browsing shops I felt I was missing some cool place that was always just around the corner and I never found. 


If everything in Atlanta is Peachtree, then everything in Asheville is Vanderbilt. Photo by me, March 2023.


Asheville, you are one elusive creature.


Rusted and vine covered machines outside the Antique Tobacco Barn. Photo by me, March 2023.

Antiques shopping was why I was in Asheville and I enjoyed shopping at a large place south of downtown called the Antique Tobacco Barn.

Hi yo Goldie! Photo by me, March 2023.

Over the past few months and in three states, I have been seeing these metal horse clocks. I saw the first one in 2022 at an antique store in Monroe, Georgia. I was so taken by their tackiness that I wanted one, but it was grossly overpriced. I have since seen them more reasonably priced at other antique stores and online. I am patiently waiting to find the right one for my office. I was so curious about these horse clocks that began appearing before me that I did some internet searching. These clocks were novelty clocks often made by the United Clock Company, that is the brand I have been finding, and were mantle clocks made during the 1940s and 50s. Some refer to these clocks as “carnival clocks” as they were often the top prize that could be won at a carnival booth. I have noticed that these horse clocks have sometimes had their bases replaced with stone or wood and not the original metal.


Ripped from history. Photo by me, March 2023.

It will never not stop me cold whenever I come across family photos for sale in an antique store. There are some fragments of lives that are too precious, too private to ever be sold and those are family photos. I would rather see them shredded, thrown away, burned or donated to a museum collection than sold to strangers looking for a bargain. The context and history of the photo are lost and it is likely to be stuck to a refrigerator with a six dollar magnet from some experience as decoration.


Photos by me, March 2023.

There were some interesting pieces of furniture and decorative objects. I would gladly return here.

Leaving Asheville and the mountains around it. Photo by me, March 2023.

I left Asheville with more than I came and thank you for the memories elusive, Vanderbilt, craft brew drenched city. I left not feeling like I knew the city any better and in closing, it did not feel like it had any connection to the mountains surrounding it.