I went to Asheville last weekend with Eli who’s a lawyer. She’s an anarchist, first, but wanted to do more good so she became a lawyer. Now she’s got major college loans to pay off and a job at a non-profit supporting prisoners who get assaulted by guards and forgotten in prison, doing time after their term is already up because no-one’s keeping track anyway. She puts in a lot of hours and makes a little more than a teacher would make. It’s a rough life to live, especially when nothing at home has changed, the same housemates and second-hand furniture and curried lentil dinners.
“Do you want to play fugitive?”
“Ok, but I’m exhausted.”
At work she sits by herself all day and reads letters from prisoners. Prisoners who are neglected, prisoners who are sick. Some of them Eli’s nonprofit can actually help- those who aren’t getting medical care, those who were beaten by the guards and have injuries visible enough to stand as evidence. Those who hurt themselves as a result of negligence. The rest are turned away- there is only so much Eli can do. And in the end, it sort of breaks her heart. US prisons are horrible places- they don’t make anyone better- if you are sick they will make you sicker, and in the meantime they’re making someone a hell of a lot of money– and there are more of them every day.
Eli tells me she’s going to Asheville the next weekend for a law conference. She asks if I want to tag along and I say, Of course!
“I get to stay in a fancy hotel,” she says. “my work is paying for all of it.”
Folks like us never stay in hotels. And so most any hotel is ‘fancy’. Eli picks one a little outside of town, because it has a pool and a hot-tub and a ‘fitness room’. It also has an ‘atrium’, whatever that means.
On the way to Asheville we pick up a hitch-hiker. He’s running away from his wife, has a thick Tennessee accent, talks fondly of the changing seasons.
“I’m starting a new life,” he says. I think of the fine line that exists between starting anew and running away.
When we arrive in Asheville, it’s cold and rainy. We get to our hotel room and crank the heat, drop our things all over the floor. Our room has the biggest bed I have ever seen, anywhere.
“I think it’s just a king,” says Eli. “I think a lot of people have those.”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “It’s definitely bigger than any bed that has ever existed before.” It also has a down comforter on it, making this officially the fanciest hotel room I have ever stayed in. Eli wants to swim in the pool. She has two vintage bathing suits, and picks the white one. I put on my new faded-olive army shorts.
“For the fitness room,” I say, and we make our way to the lobby.
The first thing I think of when I see the ‘atrium’ is the town of Whittier, Alaska, which is a sort of indoor city left by the military in 1960. Two massive buildings with everything you need indoors, tunnels connecting everything underground, so you never have to go outside into the crazy deep-cleft-in-the-tall-mountains-next-to-the-ocean Alaska winter. As I walk through the ‘atrium’ of our fancy hotel, I think of how useful this place would be in a hostile winter environment.
There are acres of gleaming carpet, and soft empty jazz music. There is a sauna, a small, chlorine-blue indoor pool, and a hot-tub bubbles ominously. There is a plastic playground, even a green-carpeted space for mini-golf. There is a game room with air-hockey, pool tables, and three or four fake livingrooms, each with its own fake fireplace. There are plastic potted plants everywhere, and empty hotel rooms with shuttered windows facing the center, giving one the feeling of being “outside”. The whole place is, of course, empty. Eli laughs and jumps into the pool while I look for the ‘fitness center’. I find it, a small square room with a few machines, a giant flat-screen TV on the wall. The machines are, incredibly, broken. I turn on the TV anyway and play with the machines, after a while I get bored and Eli gets tired of doing tiny, claustrophobic laps in the pool, so we give up and head back to our room, so Eli can get ready for a sort of Lawyer social at a wine bar she’s supposed to attend. We head into town and she drops me off at a coffeeshop where I can hide from the cold and afterwards she meets back up with me, laughing, a little drunk. The social was at a really fancy place, she says, and none of her coworkers from the non-profit were there. And so she was stuck drinking expensive, free martinis, and mingling with a bunch of run-of-the mill attorneys, many of them middle-age men. And of course not one of the other lawyers could understand why anyone in their right mind would want to work for a non-profit, supporting prisoners, when you could be making gobs more money doing personal injury cases, or whatever- frustrating Eli to no end and further solidifying her belief that almost everyone who gets a law degree does it for all the wrong reasons. No-one, it seems, is interested in using their powers for good. The event was also awkward for Eli because although she was wearing her fanciest clothes- a buttery leather jacket, nice top and tasteful skirt, under the dim lights of excessive wealth she suddenly felt as if she’d gotten dressed in the dark. One year at a ‘real’ job will not, after all, hide a lifetime of punk.
Later that night, as I eat grain-sweetened carob almonds at the co-op, I think about Asheville, and why I never spent more time here. I have all of two friends here, and when I lived in NC I would come visit, now and then, hitching here with my bike. It always seemed like someplace I would really like- it’s in the ‘mountains’, there is ‘nature’, people live in shacks and eat bear fat, fry their sandwiches in bear fat, grease their cast-iron skillets in bear fat. People play old-time music and ride freight trains. The woods are full of nettles and winters aren’t that harsh. But every time I come here, it just feels… strange. It’s something I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to find the queers. Maybe it’s because when I’m here I feel like just another traveling kid, nameless and unappreciated, invisible. Like this place could care less whether I come and go.
Yeah, that’s probably it.
And although I like to live in the woods and I like country music, fiddle-playing crusty punks are not really my scene. Once upon a time, when I first moved to Portland, they were, but after a while I found them to be too macho, dogmatic, and hetero for my tastes. And by and by those folks left Portland, anyway, as rents went up and dumpsters turned to trash compactors, many of them settling here, in Asheville, which is much closer to the source of traditional Appalachian string music- the mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee. I am still friends with some of them, they play beautiful music, we never see each other, life goes on- but in general I no longer have any ties with that timeless, DIY, back-to-the-lander subculture, even though we share many of the same hopes and aspirations. Now, when I’m looking for community, I turn to the kinder, gentler, and far less dogmatic queer scenes of Portland and the NC piedmont, even though I often feel like the only one in the room harboring a grudge against civilization as a whole, and a secret desire to run off to the mountains of British Columbia to play Annie Dillard in a cabin built of logs I felled and peeled myself. But my friends are incredible, and I couldn’t ask for better people in my life, not ever.
The next day, we are wondering what to do, marooned in the sprawling outskirts of Asheville as we are, at our hotel.
“Is there someplace we can go hiking?” I ask. “Like, walk around in the woods?” And of course there is, and so we find the woods, fall colors burning the forest floor, and we realize we are just in time, for “leaf season”. What luck!
The clear air empties us, the walking makes us feel loose and free. Suddenly we are walking on a ridge, the mountains rolling away around us, and then somehow we are far from the road- through half-naked woods quiet and pure, pulling at us like an important engagement we had somehow forgotten.
“Let’s just keep walking,” I say to Eli. “Let’s just walk and walk. We can build debris shelters. And, um- walk some more.” Eli smiles, but I know she’s got loans to pay off, a job, a partner, a life, everything. And it is I, somehow, who manage to always have nothing.
That night, Asheville is having a dance party. I haven’t been to a dance party in forever, and never one in Asheville. We spend a few hours in our hotel room ‘warming up’ before hand- doing youtube tae-bo, badly, and then just dancing crazy to random shit we find, until eleven at night, when we finally eat a snack and drive to the party in the cold.
I walk into the house and the first thing I think is Wow, it’s like I’m 21 again, and the second thing I think is Except everyone is really, really drunk. The place is dark, crowded and small, a good handful of people are dancing and everyone else is just sort of standing in the doorway or in the kitchen, awkward, drinking, shouting above the noise. I push my way into the kitchen and hover over the snack table, thankful for the little broccoli florets and the activity they provide. I always feel this way at parties, because I don’t drink, so I have nothing to do with my hands, and I don’t like shouted small talk. Unless I dance, in which case I have a great time, but right now I’m not into the music- some sort of obscure electro- and so I don’t feel like dancing. Instead I stare at the crowd, and am awash in a feeling as if I have stepped through a portal into a parallel universe, only five years ago. Everyone just looks so much like people I used to know, back when all I cared about was getting things for free and looking like I slept outside every night. Only, I don’t know any of these people, and they’re all ignoring me anyway, and plus they’re totally wasted- unlike my friends of yesteryear, who were all pretty much into the idea of having fun sober, which is, looking back on it, sort of incredible.
Suddenly the crowd parts and a familiar face is there, looking past me into the kitchen.
We are only acquaintances, from far away, but right now, in this strange and yet familiar place, a friend of a friend is good enough. We shout, and he tells me he’s come down from Denver to visit for a few days, and is headed to the mountains next, in eastern Tennessee, to spend time on a friend’s land, chopping wood. He has that look on his face like chopping wood is just what he needs, like he can’t even think of what to do next, like he just needs to get away from all of this, and breathe the fresh country air, and then he can figure out what to do next. I tell him I’m riding freight trains back to the west coast mid-November, and that if he wants, he can come along.
“Come ride the train with me!” I say. It is, of course, what I say to everyone- at least everyone I know who is not in school or tied down to some sort of job. Just do it, I think, and sometimes they even say yes. But mostly, no-one, anymore, wants to travel like I do. Riley disappears into the crowd and I look out at the dancing, drunken punks- with their ratted hair and dirt-colored clothing, scuffed boots and large, ironic glasses frames, and I think- These kids travel the way I do. These are the kids I learned to ride trains with, the kids I learned to dumpster with, the kids who taught me to use my touring bike like a pickup truck, taught me to scavenge everything I need. Only, this is a new generation- it’s like a sort of high school, a culture of eternal twenty year-olds, who cycle out and disappear when they get older- going to library school, going to grad school, becoming school teachers, getting depressed, getting sick, falling off, dropping out. Abandoning free art in exchange for a paid job, what we used to call selling out- because what else is there?
As I look out at the crowd and think these thoughts, the night is growing late and the people are getting even drunker. The same song plays twice and I realize, then, that there is no DJ- only an ipod and some speakers, and a sort of drunken ADD musical chaos. So in the interest of having something to do I busy myself with the IPOD and start compiling a playlist, finally giving people something simple to dance to and freeing them from the electro. It’s a song I’m not sick of yet, especially at this hour, with my melancholy thoughts and pent-up energy. I just need to dance. And Eli and I do dance, in the badly lit room, on the floor slick with spilt beer, under the low, peeling ceiling. We dance and we are a little disappointed to find that there is no room, in a crowd like this, to do any of the moves we ‘practiced’ earlier, but it doesn’t matter, and we dance anyway, because all that matters right now is this.