Asheville, and the fine art of obscurity

25 January 2013, from Writings

Arriving in Asheville, the first thing I notice, past the surrounding hills now brown with winter, past the comfortable Craftsman homes nestled on quaint lanes, past the cars bedecked with progressive bumper stickers, is the gaze. Or rather, the non-gaze: the lack of eye contact.

I walk the downtown streets, my eyes open with the observing look of the visitor, and all eyes go elsewhere. I think it’s coincidental, but no, it’s consistent. People look past me, or down, or across, but never at me. Even waiters or shopkeepers minimize their visual exchange.

The gaze, and the attitude towards the gaze, is one of those distinguishing features of human places. I’ve been in tiny towns whose residents ignore the stranger — but of course notice his every move. I’ve been in large cities where the gaze is an interruption, a distraction, a question unwilling to be answered, a threat. And I’ve been in places where the gaze is welcomed, becomes a conversation, becomes a friendship.

It is rumored that in Glasgow — or is it Liverpool? — a direct look is an invitation to a fight, so one gazes at their own risk. In the cloistered research stations at the poles, in the remote desert outposts, in the tiny fire outlooks in snowed-in mountain ranges, people are said to gaze the thousand-yard stare: looking out through the mouldering long night to the lights of their homes and families, far away. The insane stare deep into their own purgatory.

But Asheville is not an isolated village, nor a cacophonous metropolis; it is neither remote outpost or an asylum populated by the mad (though some may debate that). Asheville is a pleasant place, with a climate both meteorologically and culturally comfortable.

It does seem to have the tendency towards a sort of widely accepted flakiness. More than once on this visit have I contacted a potential photographic subject, and get back an enthusiastic agreement to participate, coupled with a vague offer to ‘drop in’ or ‘stop by’ — but without any actionable information such as an address or a time. Yesterday, I spent an unfruitful hour searching the general surrounds of the site of what must have been his former workshop, to no avail. An inquiry to a neighboring potter ended with a puzzled look — but at least his look was direct and genuine, and his friendly tap on my shoulder felt, in this city of non-gazing, like a bear hug, comparatively.

Travelers tend to be chameleons, and indeed I find myself imitating this local art of not-looking — averting my eyes when passing on the street, looking away if I realize I looked too long, straightening my usual smile upon the close exchange when passing in a tight doorway. I am disappointed in myself, but also amused.

Today, the weather has turned inwards. Blue skies shift to gray, the temperature plummets, the wind howls throughout the bare branches of this forest-city. For most of the morning, I peer out through the windows at the frigid day.

Finally, hungry and wanting to walk, I venture out, and discover a thin layer of invisible ice that coats everything. One step out the door, I immediately start slipping, right myself, and begin a slow creep-slide up the sidewalk, enroute to the downtown. I stick to the grassy median strips, fallen leaf piles, landscaped edges of doctors’ offices — anywhere that texture breaks the ice’s slippery grip. I inch myself block by block into the city, up the hill, down the hill, holding onto passing light poles, signs, walls, trashcans, benches.

I meet a cluster of people also inching along. With what seems like a visual roar, they look at me: we acknowledge this strange untrustful world, share a grin, a smile, a shaking of our heads, even some talk — ‘Be careful, now!’

At the bottom of the hill, I relax under the freeway underpass; its shelter from the ice-rain gives me a temporary respite from the need to be fully away of my balance. I pass a man walking out of a parking lot. ‘Be careful,’ I warn, ‘it’s really slippery.’ He smiles and thanks me.

As I turn to walk up Woodfin Road, another man, dressed in a gray track-suit and white sneakers, cautions me to watch my step. He trudges into the bushes, and emerges with two stout sticks. He gives one to me, and we walk together up the slick path, the sticks making us into more stable tripods. We talk of how, in days not so long ago, men wore canes as a part of fashion, along with handsome hats and good suits. He wonders how it was that people cared so much about how they dressed, and how that’s changed. A chilly wind whips around us, and as if repeating the whispers of an old, fashionable ghost, I say, ‘I think people dressed well because they respected other people, and they respected themselves.’ He nods. ‘Ain’t that the truth,’ he says, wishes me good luck in my walking, and I wish the same to him.

It’s still icy downtown. I look at the other pedestrians trying to grapple with the ice, and notice them doing the same to me: we are observing each other, detecting in our steps and slides what is passable, and what should be avoided. ‘Try the street,’ someone says. ‘Watch that corner,’ says another. People skid along the sidewalk bricks, reaching out feet to test the slipperiness of the next step. An older woman with worried, reddened eyes looks at me and admits, ‘I’ve never seen it this bad before.’ I flash a sympathetic smile, and suggest she walk on the edge of the street, where there’s friction. ‘Walk in the street?’ she says, incredulously, but I turn around and she’s making her way along the asphalt, grabbing a car door handle for stability.

I pop into an Indian restaurant for lunch. As my chilled bones warm, I look over my steaming plate of navratan korma and chicken masala and watch the street. The sun slowly breaks through the icy clouds, and I can tell by people’s normal gait that the ice is dissipating.

Across the street I notice an odd quartet of enrobed figures: all in white, faces painted in chalk, all wrapped up in capes and crinolines. One creature wears the feathery wings of angels; another carries a huge paper flower; another has an enormous hat topped by a white teddy bear; and the front figure pushes an ancient, empty baby stroller.

The procession slowly twists and turns down the sidewalk, contorting around trash cans and falling against shop windows. One of the creatures passionately whips a telephone pole with what looks like a string of white-painted bicycle inner-tubes. This strange butoh troupe, these monochrome monks, this silent mimetic circus, performs an impromptu ice-dance against the slick and invisible dangers of the road.

I am not the only onlooker: a few passersby also stop, frozen to the cold and to the white creatures who have suddenly appeared. We, the most current residents of this place, this moment, we all stop, we all gaze, gaze upon this sight, and that gaze breaks the spell, brings out those avoided smiles, brings up those averted eyes, brings us out of ourselves and into each other.