South End in Second Person

by Jeff Sykes

You park at the usual spot, in the lot with the pre-pay meter that sometimes eats your dollar or refuses to process your debit card. No one asks you for a five-spot or calls out to you from across the way “Hey big man, gotta’ minute?” and so you think maybe the mayor and the police chief followed through on their idea to get tough with the beggars that normally swarm you as if you have a neon sign hovering over your head that reads “I got the hookup.”

Since it’s a nice day in early spring, you decide to wander over the tracks and passed the dilapidated structure they call The Saloon, which sits adjacent to the train tracks you step over as you wonder what would happen if your foot got stuck down in there like in some silent movie from the Twenties.

After you’ve passed The Saloon and its vacant front and boarded up windows you can see down Barnhardt Street to the parking lot where they hold the City Market on Thursdays. You’ve been there a few times before and momentarily get a hint of nostalgia for the vibrant energy that electrifies this street at times, when excited people hustle to the market to meet up with friends or buy some handcrafted goods or items that tout their sustainable supply chain.

But it’s not Thursday and the street sits empty for now and so you press on down the sidewalk, deeper into the South End, searching for some nascent sign of distinction.

The first block seems nice, with well manicured storefronts, an eclectic salon and a unique façade decked out in blue that seems enticing, otherworldly, even mystical. This is what an enclave is all about, you think, reminding yourself of that stretch of Lexington Avenue in Asheville that comes up from the highway overpass right into the center of everything.

Up ahead you see a cross street and so you continue on. Maybe a train rumbles by in the distance behind you, or a fire engine screams out above the everyday din of cars emanating music that anchors the city soundtrack. There’s a tattoo shop, well maintained and inviting, along with a first-class antique shop you hesitate to enter even though the train and the sailboat, both with shiny brass polish, tease you beyond the window glass.

The street sign reads Lewis Street now and you remember eating at the restaurant with sixteen tables. You walk down the street to where the work crews are finishing the concrete floor for the new brewery going in to a once vacant space. Maybe you did a story on them recently and so you peek between the work trucks as a man retrieves a tool or a pane of glass. It’s not that hot today, but you get a sense of what a fresh pale ale or an ESB might do for your thirst in the moment.

Back up the street as a couple passes by with their large dog on a leash and you hit the corner. Down, ever down, this slightly declined block until you see a young woman popping in and out of your view as she swings in the opening of a storefront. Next to her on the street a man shines shoes.

“Want to come in?” the woman asks from her swing, perched like what elsewhere might be described as a sideshow circus. “It’s only a dollar.”

Not now, you say, I’m just wandering about.

“Can I shine your shoes?” the man asks. “It’s only a dollar.”

You say no, you want to just wander to the end of the block and back up. He warns that it’s vacant storefronts and a rougher crowd down that way, but you carry on. Just past them a woman with a large canvas stands outside of an art gallery. You pause and watch as she applies brush strokes to the scene, a space perspective looking back on Mother Earth in all her blue glory. Beyond her you notice pencils hanging from thread strung from a tree branch, a note asking you to “Tell your story about having the blues.”

There’s no paper left, the storefront window behind you filled already with the notes of strangers. Maybe you greet a few passersby as you hit the bottom of the block as the sun lights a parking lot and a street filled with rushing traffic. You cross the street to the other side, but before you head back up maybe you pause and envision what this intersection will look like once they build the combined university campus here and redo the streetscape. You’re a visionary, a poet they always said, and so you envision the bustle and the glass atriums and the cobblestone walkways.

But for now you gaze across empty parcels of grass to where the white flour mill stands in all its remodeled glory and you shake your head and smile at the accomplishments of the Frenchman who gave you the tour of his “castle in disguise,” which now is home to two corporate offices.

Amazing what man can achieve when he puts his mind to distinction, you say, maybe even out loud to no one. !