Sidewalk angels

Asheville, North Carolina.

First vacation in two years, owing to my husband’s cardiac surgeries and the pandemic. He wants to see the mountains. They remind him of his childhood. They’re in his blood, like rivers and bays are in mine.

We’re not campers, though. We stay in town.

Late arrival, chilly summer rain, deserted city streets. Apparently everything closes early on a Sunday night. Downtown is eerily vacant, as if we’ve landed in a time warp or the Twilight Zone. Where have all the people gone? We walk in the desolation, huddled under our umbrellas.

On the sidewalks, random pink granite squares bear strange designs of some secret code: a feather, a horseshoe…

“Did you see that angel?” I ask my husband. I think I recall seeing this here before, on a previous visit.

“No. Where?”

“Back there, on the sidewalk. An angel pointing up, with a star on its head. We just passed it. I’m sure it has something to do with Thomas Wolfe. You know, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’…”

“Oh yeah, I bet it does.”

The rain slacks off. We round a corner to discover people dining under a café awning. A stocky, stubble-faced man lurches along the sidewalk from the opposite direction; his countenance lights up when he sees my husband: “Kris Kristofferson! Jerry Garcia! Can I get your autograph?” He fairly ripples with his own merriment.

Aside from the mountain panorama, this may well be the highlight of the trip for my hoary-curled, gray-bearded husband. Never mind that he’s a Baptist preacher. He’s a lifelong fan of these artists. He laughs: “My autograph won’t get you very far, brother.”

As we press on, trying to determine if any other restaurants are open, I glimpse blanketed bodies nestled in recessed shop doorways. The homeless, sheltered from the weather, settling in for the night ahead. Disparity, like cold mountain rain in midsummer, seeps all the way to my bones. I shiver.

They are still cocooned there the next morning when my husband and I hunt for coffee and bookstores, navigating around other vacationers who are now out and about, pushing their dogs in strollers. One lady on the sidewalk has risen and is sitting by her rolled blankets with a small basket by her side and a little black dog in her lap. Over the course of the next two days, as we try to decipher the odd hours of stores and restaurants (we discover that some are closed on Mondays, others on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and that some don’t open even when their signs said they will; how apropos is the ‘Stay weird, Asheville’ slogan?) —we see this petite lady several times. She remains there on the sidewalk by the same shop while other people of the street come and go, apparently checking in with one another. She is of indeterminate age. Slight wrinkles, blondish hair pinned up. Blue eyes. The little black dog stays right with her, cuddled close, never making a peep, watching the world walk by. I note that they get visitors. Some bring food. As my husband and I wait for the walk signal to cross the street, a young man from the Ben & Jerry’s shop comes out with a tiny cup of ice cream for the dog. I wonder how often he does this, how many other shopkeepers share in this caring…

I wonder how long this lady has been here, what her story is, if she has any family, if she’s ever stayed at a shelter. Not all shelters are safer than being on the street, especially with COVID. I find myself trying to imagine her daily life, her subsistence, the haunting freedom of living on the street; in the lyrics of Kristofferson: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” She doesn’t appear to ask anyone for anything although she has a red plastic container sitting out for donations. I begin to worry about someone taking it from her…

On our last day, as my husband and I approach, she greets us: “Good morning.” She smiles. I know she’s recognized us as having passed this way before. It’s a familiar, familial tone. Full of warmth, the way a mother speaks to her waking children.

We respond in unison: “Good morning!”

“Your little dog is precious,” I say. “And so good.”

“Thank you.” Her voice is raspy but pleasant. “She’s a girl.”

“Such a sweet girl! What’s her name?”

“Raspberry.”

My husband and I learn the woman’s name, too. We chat with her for a moment. My husband takes some cash from his wallet and puts it in the red tub where the woman has an inconspicuous cardboard sign with the words ‘Thank you and God bless youG. and Raspberry’ written in red marker, accompanied by a small drawing of a cross.

We say our goodbyes. The image of Raspberry’s moist dark eyes stays with me as my husband and I walk our last through this beautiful city of Look Homeward, Angel: The Story of a Buried Life. Wolfe set the novel in a fictionalized version of Asheville, his hometown, to explore the “strange and bitter magic of life.

G. and Raspberry remain on my mind as we head homeward through the majestic blue-shadowed mountains. What is homeward if you have no home? Which way do you look then?

I have infinite questions, but this I know: there’s more than one sidewalk angel in Asheville.

*******

It is estimated that over half a million people in the United States experience homelessness. This includes those in shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charities or government programs as well as those who sleep in cars, parks, camps, and places not meant for human habitation. While many misconceptions persist, among the the primary causes are lack of affordable housing, poverty, disabilities, and domestic violence.

The pink granite squares with designs in Asheville’s sidewalks are part of the Urban Trail, comprised of thirty different stations with sculptures representing historical periods. The Trail tells the story of the city’s past. The angel represents The Times of Thomas Wolfe, 1900-1938.

Right now, as the sun rises in my part of North Carolina, it’s raining again; I wonder how G. and Raspberry are faring this morning.

with special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for providing a venue for sharing Slices of Life.

15 thoughts on “Sidewalk angels

  1. I love this story, how you take us walking through Asheville with you and meeting G and Raspberry. Our family will be there after Christmas for a family vacation. I will look for her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fran,
    Part of me wants to make a found poem out of this. It is not what I thought in my mind about Asheville. I am curious and wonder if so much of this is a result of the pandemic and the lack of workers out there which is a typical problem. When we head to our spot in Maine we know to check open times because some are only open certain days. And we are going in the fall so that the college/hs help will not be there. And who knows about the variants. Do you know about Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell’s Zoom about publishing coming up in Aug.? Perhaps I mentioned this. I have been away and unable to participate of late. Very behind on certain things. But reading your work is nourishment when I need it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Janet, I do think some of the weird hours I mentioned are connected to COVID shortages etc. One breakfast place we liked from before is closed permanently, which saddened us. There’s a lot to this pretty city, with its focus on arts and any number of spiritual connections…fascinating place, a blend of many things. Lots of hipster vs. hippie now, as “old Asheville” used to be. No, I don’t specifically recall the Zoom with Wong & Vardell – I need to investigate! You’re always a wealth of resources, and I always appreciate your words.

      Like

    • Thank you for your gracious words, Vivian – I felt it was a story that needed to be told as respectfully as I could, in regard to G. & Raspberry. They remain in my thoughts, pulling at my heartstrings. I’ve been compelled to do more research.

      Like

  3. Fran, what a peaceful retelling of your time in Ashville. I know nothing about Ashville, so I learned some things here and about Thomas Wolfe, I love the Kristofferson and Garcia reference for your bearded hubby who is a fan. That was a sweet moment. Your story of Raspberry and G. is precious too. It is lovely that you are being compelled to do more research, as you told Vivian. Blessings, and I’m glad you two were able to get away!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My husband is quite a character, Denise! Big personality with a big laugh. I wrote only of downtown Asheville here but the whole of it is fascinating and offers much to see and do – there’s also the Biltmore (Vanderbilt estate, largest house in America, often drawing comparisons to Downton Abbey). The words that haunt me, that won’t leave me, are ‘disparity’ and ‘dignity’. Too much to expound on in a comment but constantly in my mind. G. spoke to us first. A simple “Good morning!” that pierced my soul. Thank you for your words and blessings to you also.

      Like

  4. G. and Raspberry! What a story. I started reading When Stars Are Scattered last night, describing life in a refugee camp. Just the few pages I’ve read so far has me connecting more to the idea that so many people in the world live a completely different reality than me. I know that sounds babyish and like I should know that- but I think I just forget. Your story also made me think of people who don’t have even the basics. I don’t know how to begin to fix this or change this but I do believe the first step is opening your heart and awareness. Your story did this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for this straight-from-the-heart response, Kathleen. When my husband began preaching three decades ago, he started out at a rescue mission. While there are many organizations, coalitions, and programs to help people without housing and the basics, we still have over half a million living without…it’s a hard estimate even to ascertain, as it changes daily. I do not think you sound babyish. You speak the truth about different realities and “seeing” – that IS the first step. These are our fellow human beings. I think of the incongruity of dogs (which I love myself, granted) being dressed and pushed in strollers past G. and little Raspberry there in her lap…

      Like

  5. I love how I felt that I was walking along the streets with you and your husband. I’ve never been to North Carolina, but have always heard wonderful things about Asheville. These words from your post were especially poignant: “What is homeward if you have no home? Which way do you look then?” Difficult questions with no easy answers. You’ve given me food for thought tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you’ll come visit one day, Ramona! It’s a beautiful state. I’ve loved it all my life. My roots are deep in eastern North Carolina – I was raised on the Virginia coast and spent summers with my grandparents in a tiny community nestled in the coastal NC farmlands. I longed to live here when I was growing up. For nearly thirty years now I’ve lived in the central Piedmont region, the “foothills.” The beautiful Blue Ridge mountains around the Asheville are so worth seeing (which I didn’t do until I was grown!) In this post I wrote only of downtown. The Biltmore is also in Asheville, of course – the largest house in America, icon of the Vanderbilt estate; gorgeous to a mind-boggling degree. The tour guides enjoy pointing out many similarities with Downton Abbey. So, now I’ve leaped from homelessness to opulence almost beyond words… the words ‘disparity’ and ‘dignity’ will not leave me…there are so many like this lady G. throughout our nation’s cities. That should be equally mind-boggling to us all. Thank you for your reflective response.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s