On this Friday evening, the Drum Circle has formed in Pritchard Park. The drummers, many of them on the downhill side of 40, follow the lead of a tall black man standing before them. The music is primitive and repetitious, like the drumming in one of the old Tarzan flicks. In front of the drummers five women in their 20’s are swaying their hips. Soon they are joined by a drunken, shirtless white man. Around them are several hundred onlookers, many of them tourists holding cameras and taking pictures like amateur anthropologists.
North Carolina’s largest zoo is in Asheboro, where visitors walk five miles of paths looking at elephants, rhinos, lions, zebra, and other such creatures. North Carolina’s second-largest zoo is in Asheville, where visitors from May through October walk the middle of the town, looking at Rastafarians, New Age gurus, tattooed women, people of various sexual preferences, cross-dressers, musicians and street entertainers, and other such creatures. Not for nothing did Rolling Stone call Asheville “America’s Freak Capital.”
Here in our fair city and the surrounding mountains you will find all sorts of freaks: crypto-Buddhists, crystal gazers, vegans, Greenies, neo-Nazis, socialists, witches, satanists, pagan worshipers of Diana, Tantric priestesses, Atlanteans (not the ones from Georgia), astrologers, magicians, sex therapists, ghost hunters. Pritchard Park, Lexington Avenue, and Haywood Street offer a marketplace stuffed as full of exotic ideas as Smiley’s Flea Market is stuffed with jimjams. One New Age website claims that Asheville sports more than 600 purveyors of goods ranging from psychic healing to intuitive faerie readings. Here you may contact Ra, a woman who leads tours of the area’s vortexes, which many claim draw “spiritual” people to the mountains. You may run into the StarDoves, the space brothers of the Ascension Process. You can even meet someone who has traveled to distant planets and spoken to aliens.
Asheville owes much to this conglomeration of postmodern transcendentalists. Twenty years ago, the downtown was nearly dead on its feet: dirty streets, closed stores, sidewalks deserted from dusk until noon. In the late 1980’s, hippies, homosexuals (bringing to Asheville the appellation “The San Francisco of the Southeast”), and New Age believers (who came looking for their own treasures of the Smokies—crystals, elves, Cherokee spirits, aliens) brought life back to the city. Alongside these groups there soon sprang up the usual supportive industries: food co-ops, head shops, vegetarian restaurants, spas, bookstores, massage and yoga parlors.
Today, the numerous restaurants, the pleasant summer weather, the art galleries, the performing arts centers, festivals like Bele Chere (this name, taken from the Scots, means “beautiful living”), and the lovely architecture—the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, the Grove Arcade, the art-deco buildings erected during the 20’s, nearby Biltmore House—attract both locals and tourists alike. They dine, drink, shop, and attend events, all the while gawking and gaping at one another.
One summer morning, several months after we had moved into Montford, one of Asheville’s older neighborhoods, a place of large Victorian homes, spacious lawns, and towering maples and oaks, my 11-year-old son and I walked out of our apartment. On the sidewalk opposite, dressed all in black and sporting a purple Mohawk, strolled a young man. Steel ornaments decorated his nose and lower lip, and a variety of tattoos covered his bare arms. After a moment, my son turned to me and said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a dream.”
My apartment, built in the late 20’s with a second-story porch overlooking Cumberland Avenue, is within a ten-minute stroll of the downtown. To ramble these streets is a delight for the senses: the sidewalks crowded with pedestrians and diners at outdoor cafés, the evenings cool with the mountain air, the young women like walking flowers (if flowers had tattoos). These days, when I head out on a walk, I generally wind up at the Battery Park Bookshop and Champagne Bar, which, with its high ceilings, scattered sofas and chairs, and friendly staff, is the most accommodating bookstore I have ever visited. Weekend evenings find this watering hole of civilization jammed with patrons young and old, listening to live acoustic-guitar music, drinking wine and champagne, reading and conversing. Other favorite places include the basilica, where I attend Mass; the recently renovated public library; the Thomas Wolfe house; and a half-dozen restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops where I occasionally dine.
But it is the streets that are the most electrifying feature of the downtown. On summer nights the air crackles with energy, music, color, and movement, and the irresistible charm of these twilight hours does indeed make Asheville seem worthy of its other moniker, “The Paris of the South.” These evening streets carry pedestrians like dreamy rivers, presenting with each new turn an unexpected vista.
Beneath the gaiety and tolerant spirit of the city, however, there lurks a riot of contradictory philosophies and beliefs. Like Saint Paul’s Athens with its gallimaufry of ideas and faith, Asheville worships a thousand gods. These contending deities live uneasily side by side, producing, when they do collide, a sense of public madness.
It is October 26, 2008, and Sarah Palin, running for vice president of the United States, has come to speak at the Civic Center. Around the block on this bright pre-Halloween Sunday afternoon are lines of well-dressed citizens, many looking as if they have come from church, waiting to hear Mrs. Palin. Across the street, contained by the police, a group of protesters, raggedly dressed but also clearly middle-class, wave signs and shout insults at the Palin supporters. Meanwhile, scores of zombies, men and women, mostly young, who have dressed in black and painted themselves with hideous wounds, leave their Halloween Zombie March and mingle with the protesters. The bumper sticker of a beat-up van in a nearby parking lot urges “KEEP ASHEVILLE WEIRD.”
These ideological differences can startle even the casual observer. The leading downtown bookstore, Malaprops, known throughout the Southeast for its promotion of literature, is frequented by some conservatives and Christians of my acquaintance, yet the store promotes homosexuality, the occult, and New Age ideas. Billy Graham lives 15 miles away—his organization, The Cove, yearly attracts thousands of Christians—yet atheism thrives on this side of the mountain. One of our city councilmen recently broke North Carolina law by refusing to take his oath of office on a Bible, and I have sat in Books-A-Million, grading student papers or reading, while the local atheist society gathered around nearby tables for their monthly meeting. (This group provided one evening of high entertainment discussing their “seasonal” party while trying assiduously to avoid the words Christmas and holiday). I have attended a Starvation Banquet sponsored by Jubilee, a downtown church whose services include not only the name of Christ but a passing of the peace pipe as an offering to the four winds. The minister, Howard Hanger, appeared at the Starvation Banquet dressed as a nun, and the event concluded with a woman accoutered as Ceres pulling a red wagon loaded with fruit around the hall. One of my students who insisted that she had the right to join the local Catholic homeschool group later made the Asheville Citizen-Times when she announced that she had supernatural mental powers and had visited aliens on distant planets.
The Presbyterian minister whom I have joined for coffee at Barnes & Noble has spent the last three years battling a neo-Nazi clique within his tiny church. He recounts some of the beliefs of these white supremacists—my favorite, which I had not heard before, was that “Hitler built 500 churches.” The minister asks me what I am writing now, and I tell him I am putting together an article about the attractions of supernatural evil. “Why do you think we’re attracted to supernatural evil?” I ask him. “Power,” he says.
The minister affirmed my own conclusion—that those who reject an omnipotent god are forced to find or create gods of their own. Henley’s “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul” jumps boldly from the page, but that proclamation rings hollow when put to practice. Alcoholics Anonymous is full of fate-masters and soul-captains. Most human beings feel an acute need for worship.
For a few, of course, the loss of God and the consequent search for something to fill that void leads directly to Old Scratch himself. Rumors abound here of black masses and animal sacrifices, and Halloween in particular brings tales of doings that go beyond the trick-or-treat of childhood. Any young person attending a local high school knows of certain students who dabble in the black arts or declare themselves minions of Satan.
But what of our New Age gurus and granola gangs? Traditional Christian teaching condemns many of their ideas—idolatry, divination (which includes horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, and mediums), and sorcery. But to protest these in our age of liberality is to beat against an impossible headwind. To accuse the wizard who wanders my neighborhood carrying a staff and cloaked like a medieval pilgrim of being a minion of Satan might sound harsh in our Harry Potter climate. Despite the warnings of C.S. Lewis that the great trick of Satan in the 20th century was to convince people that he didn’t exist, surely, we tell ourselves, these innocents are not promoting the work of Beelzebub. Even Satan must have more dignity than to pin his hopes on a potbellied drunkard in the middle of a drum circle.
A driving force behind this philosophical potpourri is a lust for power. Having abandoned the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, many Ashevillians have filled the vacuum with the likes of Gaia, Buddha, and Diana. From crystals, from spells, from myths of all kinds, these divines seek a power to give strength and meaning to their lives. Concomitant with this desire for power are the twin deities of self and sexuality. If we look at the crypto-Buddhists, the gurus, the zombies, the magicians, if we read the literature and advertising for classes in yoga, meditation, enlightenment, and other esoteric venues, we find all of them touting the primacy of the self. The therapeutic culture centers on words like senses, feelings, self-expression, personal growth, synchronicity, and relationships. Pick up a copy of the Mountain Express, google “New Age Asheville,” and these words swarm up from the print. The old Christian ideals—abasement of the self, works of spiritual and corporal mercy—are missing from the polytheism of my city.
Promiscuity accompanies many of these beliefs and provides its own perfume. Asheville drips like a honeycomb with sex. We have adult bookstores, strip clubs, massage parlors, and escort services. We have sex workshops and Tantric priestesses. On the other side of the fence, there are gay clubs like Scandals, the drag club Hairspray, and mixed clubs like Tressa’s. There are gay-business directories and lesbian meet-up groups. Recently, the city council approved benefits for gay partners. In addition to the usual arrests for wayward teachers and priests, we have occasional broader scandals, as in 2008, when police broke up a sex-slave operation involving 14-year-old Mexican girls and Hispanic overseers, or in 2010, when the Blu Lounge was charged with encouraging patrons to engage in public sex.
Power, self-enhancement, sexual freedom: Add a touch of Miltonic rebellion—“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”—and you’ll find the allure behind Asheville’s multicultural religions and diverse philosophies.
“In the South,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “the general concept of man is still, in the main, theological.” Asheville seems to bear out her remark. If you look closely, if you can cut past the weirdness and eccentricities, you come to see that a war is being waged here, and that the battlefields of that war are the human mind and the human soul.
Bele Chere, July 2011. Tens of thousands of visitors jam the streets today, wandering among the tents of crafters and chefs, drinking beer and wine, sweltering in near-record heat. In Pack Square a local preacher with a microphone shouts at the crowd: “Some of you are in trouble. That’s trouble with a capital T, brothers and sisters. But you gotta know that you’re the reason Christ came. He came to get you out of trouble and keep you out of Hell.” Some onlookers, including a group of young people in identical T-shirts who belong to the pastor’s church, applaud. A few jeer. Most just pass on by, looking for the next amusement or a piece of shade.