Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ghost from a blizzard past

I sit in the quiet of a magnificent building in Asheville that dates back to the zenith of the 1920s. The creaks I hear could be related to some ghosts that others say they have seen or heard here, but I doubt it. I have had no such supernatural experiences here. Yet.

It does, however, take me back to a time in Asheville that I most definitely saw a ghost. It was early March 1993. Nineteen inches of snow dumped on Asheville during a storm the national media dubbed as ‘The Storm of the Century.’ It heavily affected the entire eastern part of the country. Power was out throughout the Asheville area and the city literally shut down for about a week. We may live in the mountains, but we do not have the machinery to keep streets cleared when it snows 4-5”, much less more than a foot.

At the time, we lived in the historic district, known as Montford, a neighborhood on the edge of downtown, dating back to the Victorian era and filled with shabby homes that had not been cared for in years.  Most were occupied by creative folks who needed cheap rent. Those homes are no longer bargain deals, and most have been renovated to the grandeur of their beginnings. People looking for rental deals these days look elsewhere in Asheville.

Back to 1993. We were lucky. We didn’t lose power, but we did lose cable and were more than bored. The snow had stopped and we’d run out of milk, kerosene and that most valuable of all necessities in a snow storm - beer. Having been able to find convenience stores to replenish our goods, it was time to pay a visit to a friend who lived about 12 blocks from us.

We traipsed there fairly easily but did not stay too long. We had to make it back home before dark. Snow had begun to fall once more and the wind had kicked back into high gear. We bundled up yet again and began the journey home, but not so easily this time. It felt to me like the winds were topping out at 100 mph, but it was probably closer to 40. I just know that it was difficult to walk and those of us out, were fighting to push one foot down in the snow, followed by the next foot, and keeping every inch of skin covered by some sort of material. My husband’s mustache froze. It was that cold.

About a block and a half from our apartment, we were grumbling through our scarves, realizing we had waited just a tad too long at our friend’s house and were hoping to get home by our own two feet and not blown around the corner by the whipping winds.

I looked to see how much further we had to go and noticed a woman about 20 feet away from me coming down the steps of one of the old homes. She was clothed in a dark green coat that stopped just above her black, high-heeled boots that were laced up and tied neatly in a bow just above her ankles. A black hat sat atop her pinned up hair and her hands were stuffed in a black muff. She appeared to be a character straight from the Victorian ages itself. She walked effortlessly. Key word here - effortlessly. We were struggling against the winds, but she seemed to not pay it a bit of attention. She walked down those steps, straight out to the middle of the street, turned to her left and walked lightly on top of a foot of snow as if she were gliding. Indeed, when we checked, there were no footsteps belonging to a pair of high heeled boots. Only the tracks of hiking boots or tennis shoes - the chosen footwear of that storm - were to be found. She went down the street for about 30 feet, made a right turn and walked down a set of steps that led to nowhere. Yes, we checked that out also.

Now before you think my brain had frozen, or I’d enjoyed one too many Coronas (my beer of choice at the time, and long before Asheville had much of any other kind of beer to offer, except Budweiser), I looked at my husband who had stopped in his tracks. His mouth was agape and looking as if - pardon the cliché - he’d just seen a ghost. It was not, nor do I expect it will be, the only ghost I come in contact with in Asheville.

I do love a good ghost story, don't you?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's a painful picture: Retail corporate slavery alive and fully in action

The battered economy and my on-going faulty eyeball issues have definitely had me munching on my share of humble pie this year. This time last year, I thought that by now I'd be the proud owner of a slightly used, but brand new to me cornea and madly typing out stories, marketing spins, or whatever else I had been doing before my vision in my left eye began to slowly darken.

Nope. Not yet. Instead, I've been dealing with sky-rocketing glaucoma, blurry vision, headaches and little ability to spend quality time on my computer. Couldn't handle the monitor glare, rendering me unable to keep my consulting gigs regular and up-to-date, and my checking account looking bleak. With my saved up surgery year funds almost depleted, I recently sought out a lousy paying part-time job at a large retail department store that I shall now refer to as 'Jack's.'

Guaranteed low wages to help somewhat cover my ever rising NC Blue Cross Blue Shield premiums. (I dared to use the policy this year, and therefore am being punished with an above average premium 'cost adjustment,' in my opinion. I don't care what *they* say.) Just enough hours to keep you coming back in, settling into the shuffle of a “Jack's Retail Robotron.”

The shuffle sets in at about the fifth hour of any shift that places you doing anything in the store other than ringing up the goods, collecting the cash and reminding the exuberant shopper just how much money they had saved that day by shopping at Jack's. When you’re behind the cash register, you’re at least standing in one spot, even if you do have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water. Jack’s is colossal and I truly believe the linoleum floor has not a stitch of padding underneath. The shock absorbing shoes didn't relieve my aching feet, nor did the Dr. Scholl's insets I added for super extra cushiony comfort.

These types of jobs are simply corporate forms of slave labor, in my opinion. My body physically hurt all over. All I wanted to do was get home, soak in a tub full of Epsom salts then fall out for the night hoping my body would be less painful the next day. At first, I thought I was the only robotron who felt wounded. After all my energy has been zapped far more than I care to admit with surgeries and expensive eye drops with not so lovely side affects.

However, I was not alone. As I became an expected and welcomed part of the daily grind, others shared their own pains of Jack's torture. They confessed to also feeling that on some nights it was a matter of finding a personal Zen spot and putting one foot in front of the other to get through the shift. It didn't take a lot of brainpower to hang up clothes or fold and refold clothes that inattentive adults, teenagers, parents and spoiled children had slung down in dressing rooms or shoved off shelves.

The majority of the employees are decent people, just trying to eke out a living and they take pride in performing their jobs to the best of their abilities. They possess much more monetary value than they are given. But Jack's is not about recognizing their loyal employees. Too bad. No surprise that turnover is so steep.  

To push my corporate serfdom theory further, the managers set daily credit and email goals. One youthful, mid-management climber even talked a young, pregnant employee making minimum wage pay to open an account with a 25 percent interest charge, just so he could reach that day's credit goal. And, why? So he and the other overseers could collect their end of year bonuses. What did the hourly employee get for their labor, besides a measly paycheck that never quite covered weekly expenses? Nothing. Just more prodding and being pushed over and over to possess the 'yes you can' attitude when it came to signing up more Jack's credit card holders.

I was thankful for the next to nothing wages that reminded me of my teenage jobs. I even heard the words “no shame in having legit work” come out of my mouth, telling my son, 'times are hard; sometimes you do just have to take any lawful job you can find,' on and on and on. But I'm even more thankful to no longer be in the retail shuffle since I've had another eye surgery.

To my friends still working there ... I wish you a Merry Christmas. I hope you can take advantage of getting just up to, but no more than, 40 hours (company policy – no over time pay allowed) while the season is upon us. January will be here soon and the hours will drop off and you’ll be lucky if you get eleven hours of work each week. I hope you're able to save up some of the extra money, but I know that will be most difficult. But above all else ... I wish you could tell those Jack's pit bosses to take those nightly credit goals and shove them where the sun don't shine.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas tree stuffed with ornaments made by tiny hands that have totally outgrown mine

I sit here in the quiet of our small living room, enjoying the colored glow from the not-so-large tree purchased from a friend whose family has been growing Christmas trees for generations in these mountains. Ours is not one that would be featured in Better Homes & Garden. It is much more superior. It is stuffed with ornaments I will cherish forever, made by tiny hands that have now totally outgrown mine. One day I will pass along that favorite glittered bread dough star. My eyes will overflow with tears of joy and sadness that a mother embraces. My little boy no longer needs that chair to help him place the Christmas star. I only pray he will always need me.
(This is a rewrite from one of my 2009 facebook posts. Still working on getting this year's tree done. The little boy who no longer needs that chair? He's a teenager with a broken ankle and needs help staying steady on his crutches.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Forbidden glimpse of Santa Clause at the Christmas tree was really just one of God's children trying to keep warm

It was this kind of frigid cold when we moved to Western North Carolina in 1985 from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Lived in Waynesville in a most beautiful 2-story, 5-br farmhouse that was almost 100 years old. The upstairs was literally blocked off during the winter time. The owner, Ms. Beulah, had moved there in a horse drawn covered wagon when she was 13-years-old from a very, very remote area of Haywood County that is still mostly occupied by old-timers with surnames that go back for generations in those parts. We had a kerosene heater set up in the kitchen, cabinet doors slung wide open to keep the pipes from freezing. At some point, I walked in and saw a mouse sitting in front of it.

Of course this was long before the advent of cell phones with instant cameras, so I have only my memory to keep it real. But, that's enough for me. He was sitting on his hind legs and in the beautiful, soft glow of the kerosene light, it looked to me like he had his little front paws up, warming them just like anyone else who stands near an open fire when dealing with cold weather. Of course, I could be making that part up just because I like the image it makes. But I don't think so. Anyways .... he ran as soon as I got close enough to get a good look at him. Back to his mouse house, hidden somewhere far enough inside one of those cabinets that I certainly never saw him again. I did go grab my 35 mm camera just in case I caught him sitting fireside once again, but he never let me. Now that I think back, I sort of felt like I caught a forbidden glimpse of Santa Clause at the Christmas tree or something.

But no, it was just one God's children trying to keep warm.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Did Asheville close schools because of the roads? Or, is there more to that decision?

Well, here we go again. Schools in Asheville have canceled today. Yet, I look outside and see just a dusting of snow and clear roads. Now, granted, there are areas that did get a few inches overnight and the roads had frozen. Icy roads are not easy for anyone to drive on, much less school buses. But, I still think there could have been at least a late start. The majority of students could have made it to school by 10:30 this morning. And for those who could not, then they could have been excused and given notes they missed.

I guess there is some reason for concern, however. Although there have been no issues recently with school bus drivers, Asheville City Transit drivers have had some bad accidents lately.... running over a lady which resulted in her losing her legs, hitting an elderly gentleman who died due to his injuries and some dude driving drunk. The City needs to be sued for those instances, in my opinion. They did settle with the woman who had to have her legs cut off. She was awarded $80,000. Not very much if you ask me. What kind of life is she going to have (don't remember her age) and is $80,000 really going to be all that she needs? And remember, her attorney got a third of that settlement, leaving her with much less.

But, back to the school buses. Asheville and Buncombe County are just not prepared for any type of bad weather. And I don't understand why. We live in the mountains, people. It snows. Some years more than others, but it does snow and we know there are roads that have issues and need more attention than others. Why haven't we spent the money to keep our roads clear? Perhaps if our City Council and County Commissioners had not given so many tax breaks to outside developers over the years to tear down our mountains, we could have bought a few more plows. What a concept, eh? Choosing our children over the developers. Won't happen. Not in Asheville, anyway.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Remembering the first in Asheville to lose their life to AIDS

I've been avoiding putting today's thoughts down on paper because if I go too far, it'll throw me back over an edge I climbed back from years ago. A place I never want to visit again. Dennis immediately became my best friend in Asheville soon after we moved here in 1985. And he's the first person I ever heard call Asheville, Ashevegas. He was a bartender at the old O.Henry's in downtown Asheville when just about everything around it was boarded up. My husband had introduced me to the place as the 'closest thing Asheville has to a New Orleans bar.' He was right. It became our neighborhood pub and was close to the newspaper where he worked. It was a bar full of characters, including a young reporter for Channel 4, and other interesting types. Real freaks of Asheville, including us.

Dennis came down with HIV in the early '90s and although he accepted that *positive* status and stigma , he never wanted to think about what it would be like when the time would come that he might have to experience full blown AIDS. He couldn't; so he didn't. He turned to drugs and alcohol.

Dennis blew his brains out about 13 years ago because he'd rather die by his own hand than wither away with AIDS and have to have his lover of umpteen years change his dirty diaper. They lived in Tennessee at the time. It hurt a lot of us bad. To the core bad. It was a selfish act to go that way, particularly since he left no note and he could've gotten some help. He wasn't at death's door yet. I cried for months and numbed myself with far too much alcohol, particularly when his ex and I would get together, at the cabin where they had lived. I couldn't deal with that place. Every time I'd go out on the front porch, I'd start looking for little pieces of brain matter or some other part of Dennis that might have been left behind.

Finally, I had to stop going to visit. For my own health - mental and physical. We'd still talk on the phone quite often and eventually he moved also. I don't booze it and bawl anymore, but I do think of Dennis quite often. Sometimes with a tear. Other times, with a smile. Always with a 'I wish you were here to see this.' I no longer can say whether it was a selfish act or not, though I tend to fall on that side when I see how his suicide has forever affected his partner. But other times I realize it was his life. His death. His choice to make at the time.

I also remember a lot of other people who went before Dennis, and after. I remember the time when one of the first infected who came home to Asheville to die was mourned at O.Henry's. His name was Charlie. Tommy was the first person in Asheville to die of AIDS. I didn't have the honor of knowing him, but his name was always mentioned at anyone's wake and funeral who succumbed afterwards. I have a friend who has a list. She quit counting at 181.

Thank goodness not everyone took the same path as my friend Dennis. But, many did die because there was no cure nor medicine to prolong their life at the time. It's a whole new world today and no one should ever have to die of this horrible disease again.

There is a Candlelight Memorial Vigil tonight, Dec., 1, 7-9 pm on the lower promenade of Pack Place, in Asheville. If you can find the time, please come and show your support for the fight to kill AIDS, or just to remember a loved one no longer with you. Whatever the reason. And, if you can't make the event, please give a moment of silence to think about the more than 25 million people who have died worldwide due to AIDS.

For more info: