Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I was given a drag show for a baby shower ... time to show the teen

I'm thinking it might just be time to dust off and pull out the old VHS player - yes, we still have one - and show the teen the tape of the drag show baby shower I was given by the owners and customers of O.Henry's in downtown Asheville 16 years ago about this time of year. I was one month away from delivery and the owner approached me about wanting to do something for the new little Hyorth to be. He wanted to put on a drag show.

Yes, a drag show. It were not a show full of the glamour girls in today's world of female impersonators, wearing sometimes fake and sometimes not fake jewelry, but always lovely, sparkly gowns and make-up that takes hours to get just right. No, the 'stars' at the Hyorth baby shower were crusty, older, passionate, hearts of gold who donned XXXL one tone dresses in either bright or neutral colors, depending upon availability or personality. There was no attempt at making the wigs look real. They were god knows how many years old and probably even passed around from one performer to another that very same evening.

To be fair, there were some other performers also, and they were a hoot. But it's the ug ... uh hum - not so beautiful drag queens I want to show the kid for a good laugh.

O.Henry's is the oldest gay bar in North Carolina. They were also one of the few pubs open in downtown Asheville when we first moved here. "Closest thing to a New Orleans bar Asheville has," is how my husband introduced me to the place. He worked at the newspaper two blocks away and knew it would be my/our kind of place. Full of characters with never-ending quips and totally interesting stories to tell. And sometimes retell. That was in 1985.

Once we owned our own business downtown, O.Henry's became one of our neighborhood pubs. It being a gay bar didn't matter. They didn't care we were heterosexuals; we didn't care they were homosexuals. We all were looking for the same thing: a few laughs, a cold beer, some interesting conversation and people who were happy to see you when you walked through the door.

Those 'queens' started Zach's college fund. Oh, yeah ... they're good people. Maybe I'll get the VHS revamped and post it on facebook ... Happy Birthday, Zach!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A look back at the YMI and a shout out to a young man on a mission

I met a young black man on twitter named Timmy Smith. Found him through his twitter handle @SocialLifeAvl. He and I have become friends outside of the twitter community. In fact, Timmy has developed face-to-face personal relationships with many of his twitter friends. Timmy says whatever he feels like saying. He holds nothing back. His blog is called Social Life Times, and you can link to it here: http://www.sociallifetimes.blogspot.com/.

Timmy is on a mission. He was born in Asheville and he loves his community - all of it. Black, white, brown, red, whatever. He wants the races to come together, to make friends and better understand one another's culture. He wants everyone to start talking to each other. He believes there's a lot for us to learn. So a few months ago, he started having conversations on twitter called Drinks & Dialogue, hashtagged #dd. When I learned about them, they were taking place on Sunday evenings at 8 pm, via twitter only.

Since then, Timmy has gradually grown his dialogue from an online community to monthly meetings at various Asheville venues to taking it to the airwaves with such topics as "Why is Asheville Segregated?" It is my opinion, and that of many in Asheville, that Timmy is on to something big. He's leading the way and opening the doors for a much more understanding Asheville.

His conversations sent me back to my Out 'n About archives in hunt of a story we published 13 years ago about the history of the YMI, so here it is. I'm glad Timmy has started these discussions and he and I both enjoy looking back at some Asheville's black history. Timmy, I am oh so proud of you!

The mission of the YMI Cultural Center is to celebrate African American culture & diversity in the community. - http://www.ymicc.org/mission.html

A look back at the YMI – Out ‘n About, Feb. 21, 1997

By Alphie Hyorth

It’s a cold mid-February afternoon. Just over 100 years ago. Seventy representatives of Asheville’s Black community are at a meeting to organize the Young Men’s Institute. They discuss progress in work on the building. The lights aren’t connected yet so the meeting has to take place before sundown; it happens at 4 p.m. They set a time for another meeting of the following week to announce the names of officers and standing committees.

Both the building and the original concept of the YMI have survived to this day through what one might safely call a turbulent history. Today’s YMI Cultural Center is a coalition of African-American churches, civic groups and individuals. The building houses a museum, meeting rooms and offices. A multi-million dollar renovation project, utilizing grants and funds raised locally, was complete in the 1980s and earned statewide recognition for its excellence.

George Washington Vanderbilt would have been proud. It was Vanderbilt who put up the $32,000 for land purchase and construction back in 1892. He funneled some of the artisans from Biltmore House (still under construction at the time) to the YMI work site at the corner of Eagle and Market streets. Richard Sharp Smith, who headed up the architecture department at Biltmore House, drew the plans for the YMI building. Smith’s legacy is in the several buildings he designed downtown that went on to define Asheville’s cityscape for generations to come.

Vanderbilt formed the Young Men’s Institute at the urging of Edward Stephens and “to furnish a much needed society for the advancement of the colored men of Asheville and vicinity,” as Fenton H. Harris wrote in his 1937 Short History and Report of the Young Men’s Institute Inc.

That kind of public-spirited generosity reflected Vanderbilt’s belief that those of his immensely wealthy class must be altruistic. Up to a point anyway. Through two trustees Vanderbilt retained ownership of the building and took back whatever money came in from dues and rent to pay off what he had laid out to get it built. To further cover his investment, “All of the colored men working for the Estate were required to carry memberships with the institute and the dues for the same being taken out of their pay envelopes at the office,” Harris wrote.

The original plan, again, according to Harris, was that once Vanderbilt had been paid back for his generosity ($32,000) he would turn over the building to the community. But things did not quite work out according to plan. As construction on Biltmore House drew to an end in 1895-96, many of the Institute’s members lost their jobs and the Institute lost a ready source of income when those members could no longer afford to pay their dues. This helps to explain a story in the Feb. 13, 1896 edition of the Asheville Daily Citizen which began: “If all the colored men of Asheville showed as much appreciation of the generosity of George Vanderbilt as was shown by the ministers of their race at the Young Men’s Institute last night, then the reports would have been much more satisfactory.”

The occasion was a gathering to celebrate the third anniversary of the YMI and the reports were financial statements which were not good. Between December 1894 and Jan. 1896 the operation lost some $1,200. So Vanderbilt, who was expecting to get back the money he’d spent on the building, was actually putting more and more in as he agreed to cover shortfalls on the budget. On the other hand, the YMI continued to be a great success among the members of the community it was meant to serve. The YMI grew into what we would now call a Community Center. It was a meeting place where civic organizations had social events. It had its own kindergarten, a band and well attended Sunday afternoon performances by local singers.

To his credit, Vanderbilt continued to offer financial support until 1906 when he “decided that the Institution should be self-maintaining,” according to another newspaper story dated June 12, 1906. Vanderbilt announced he wanted to sell the building and he told the community leaders who operated the YMI that he would sell it to them for $10,000, based on a statement by W.J. Trent who ran the YMI from 1900-1911. (A newspaper report states Vanderbilt was asking $12,000 and later lowered the price to $10,000.)

Trent said Vanderbilt gave the group six months to raise the cash after which time he was going to put the building on the open market for $15,000. Time ran out on the offer May 31, 1906 and Trent wrote that the group had raised only $2,500 in contributions. At that point a group of African-American businessmen, professionals, working men and clergy who had joined together to save the institute, borrowed the other $6,500 and bought the building. They paid back the loan making payments of $1,000 a year at a six percent interest.

Over the next several decades, the YMI became the “center of social cultural, civic, commercial and religious life for Black Appalachians.” Its ground floor had space for a drug store, a lunch counter, a funeral parlor and the offices of Dr. James Byron, one of Asheville’s first African-American doctors. It housed the South Market Street branch of the YMCA. Congregations without church buildings worshipped there and the Sunday afternoon song services continued. Nationally known entertainers performed there and the city’s black public library operated at the YMI from 1926 until it was closed in 1966, two years after the Asheville-Buncombe Library System was desegregated. The YMI was recognized as the center from which a black commercial district grew on Eagle and Market streets.

The Institute fell on hard times again beginning in the 1960s and gradual deterioration forced its closing in 1976. It was again rescued by another group of local churches, residents, property owners and merchants who worked to put the property on the National Register of Historic places in 1977. In 1980, a non-profit group calling itself the YMI Cultural Center bought the property for $19,000 and began a $2 million renovation. Through diligent fund raising and with help of several grants the project was completed in 1988.

Dance and enjoy whatever times I'm pondering

Seems like yesterday. That was forever ago.

I go back and forth between those two sentiments. Sometimes, I'll think about an event and it is as clear to me as if it was yesterday. I can summon up the same feelings I had at that time, and as long as I don't look in the mirror I can just about imagine myself in that place and time. But reality always hits. It is certainly not yesterday. Other times, I'm shocked as to what someone tells me about a moment they remember about a discussion we had or something we did together because I have no idea. It's as if they're telling me a brand new story, one that I've never heard, much less was a willing and happy participant.

I'm curious as to why some points in our life seem closer to us than others. Is it the emotional value? Were we attached to something then that we just don't want to give up? Are we lacking something today? Is there an issue still unresolved? Was it a happier time? Or any other number of reasons unknown? Or does it even matter why? A lot of people say "Get over it, why dwell on the past, move forward," and on and on and on. They seem happy - almost adamant - to remind that it might as well have been in a past life, and you'd best be thinking about today before it too becomes one of those long ago memories.

I don't disagree with living in the moment. Makes the moment much more alive. Then you move on to the next moment and enjoy it. But, I don't think there's anything wrong with thinking about those "seems like yesterday" occasions as long as we don't get stuck back there. Then we probably do need a visit to the loony bin, but that's not what I'm talking about here. In the big scheme of things, over millions and millions of years, those yesterday times really aren't that far back. They can also help us keep people who may no longer be a part of our 'today's world' close not only in memory, but in heart.

So the next time someone points out that my sweet, or even not so sweet memory is old-time boogie, I'm going to pull out my ipod, (hook it up to its speakers so they can join in with me), and dance as if I were still able to move all those body parts as easily and wacky as I did 'way back when.' Because if I don't dance and enjoy whatever times I'm pondering, then I really have lost my chance to seize the joy of the moment at hand.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Someone kidnapped Asheville's cool summer breezes this year

No. No. No. There's a chill blowing through my bedroom window. My bedroom window will get shut tonight and probably for a few more nights while we experience the remnants of Hurricane Earl that only waved his hand at the East Coast as he cruised on by. The window will be back open in a few days.

While the cooler weather is a pleasant change, it represents what's soon to come next: THE DREADED WINTER. Let me say that again: THE DREADED WINTER. Do you get the point that I don't like winter here in the mountains of WNC? Particularly if we have one like last year that resulted in kids having to attend school almost two weeks into their summer vacations. (Winter is when I am jealous of our Floridian half-timers. I want one of them to take me back to Florida with them for the winter. Or even better, veer out of their way and drop me off at my niece's house just outside of Dallas.)

I know. Fall is a grand 'ole time of year and there is no better place to live than in Appalachia during the annual changing of the leaves. But we didn't get to really enjoy our summer this year. Someone kidnapped Asheville's cool summer breezes that make you feel like frolicking down by the river, fishing for who cares what. Replaced them with hot, humid daze and outdoor warnings for those unlucky enough to have asthma or any type of breathing issues. Closed indoors with air conditioners running full blast. Yuck! Really, that's all I can think to say about this year's summer. Just yuck.

So I'll look on the bright side of having to shut my window tonight. Perhaps when our last bit of summer returns in a week or so, it will be our ransomed and returned Asheville summer. Back at home at where the cool Carolina blue belongs. At least for a few more weeks. Then I'll be ready for the chill of fall and the bonfires we light to toast its arrival. And the horde of tourists that comes with the falling leaves, but the tourists will be left for another blog, another day.