Thursday, July 24, 2008

The summer is zipping by and I am now in the wind-down period leading up to Abner’s and my departure for our road trip. We are leaving the morning of the 25th of July and heading west to Natchez, Mississippi. From there we will go south to Baton Rouge, press on through Houston and spend a night in Austin. Then on to Las Cruces, NM and Santa Fe for a couple nights to visit with my friend Beth whose visit to me a year and a half ago was pretty well documented on these pages. After that, Abner and I will spend one night in Las Vegas and then head up to Sacramento, arriving on August 1st.

There is a reason for our departure date and one for the beginning of the return on September 7th, but pretty much everything in between is supposed to be a loosely outlined vacation. You might wonder why a person who doesn’t work much (if at all) needs to go on vacation. I will tell you. It is primarily to keep variety in life and to keep up with friends from 33 years of living in California.

We are leaving on the 25th for a very specific reason. Asheville has an annual music and art festival downtown that draws up to 425,000 people over the course of 2-1/2 days. Much of downtown is barricaded to vehicles (and in fact, people with dogs) and it is turned over to marauding hordes of frequently drunk festival attendees. Bands play all over downtown, and there are hundreds of booths set up where artists, artisans, craftspeople, and in many cases outright hacks whose opinion of their own work is a lot higher than the public’s, display and sell their wares. There are also food booths and most significantly, big Annheuser-Busch beer trucks to keep the rowdies rowdy. I am certain that there is a significant group of people who attend Bele Cher who don’t get drunk and don’t puke on passersby, but there are enough who do that it isn’t anywhere I want to be. For better or worse, the condo I am living in is right smack in the middle of the action. In fact, I learned from one of the other residents who survived last year’s version, that one of the beer trucks parked outside the front of our building and ran it’s compressor 24/7 during the whole festival. This was not, I gather, conducive to either enjoying his balcony or sleep.

The barricades go up at 5:00 PM on the 24th so the people involved can start setting up in order to absorb the opening crush at noon on Friday when things officially get under way, so I will need to obtain a pass from the City to get in and out of my own condo that last night and morning, but after that, it ain’t my problem.

Much of my time in the last couple weeks has been focused on the final planning for this trip, but not everything. There has been a scattering of events and incidents that merit reporting on these pages.

Before I forget, I want to mention another road trip besides my own. My friends Dan and Kim Delaney have embarked on a road trip to Alaska on their motorbikes and it is being documented on a website devoted to people who are road bike enthusiasts. will take you to their thread on this site. Dan is really into photography and both he and Kim are very articulate writers so you might enjoy following their exploits from Sacramento to Kodiak Island and back.
The downtown experience continues to both delight and vex me. With the crowds of tourists, negotiating my way around Abner’s evening walks can be pretty trying, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. There are places where I cannot make more than about 10 feet of progress before being stopped and interrogated about Abner. It is almost always the same set of questions to which I give the same answers. I try to be nice about it, but after awhile it gets hard to not sound like a recording that plays back the answers after you push a button. It is particularly hard when I have heard the same corny line about how he is either a horse or a polar bear, or some variation on those two, about 150 times on a one hour walk. On the weekend nights in particular, I am getting pretty good at routing us around streets with fewer people. Still, there are some places we have to pass simply because of where we live and the size of downtown Asheville.

I should say, by the way, that the vast majority of people we encounter are perfectly pleasant and relentlessly admiring of my sweet pooch. On occasion, however, we hit a sour one. About a week and a half ago, on one of the quiet mid-week nights, we were passing the outdoor dining area of a restaurant called the Flying Frog. We generally go past this as fast as we can due to the crowd that dines outside and the fact that it seems most of them smoke. Since I implemented the rule that only non-smokers can pet Abner, it is generally better to race by tobacco zones like the Flying Frog, making an effort to avoid eye contact with any of the diners.

On this particular night, I had successfully negotiated the corner and was staring up Haywood St toward Walnut when we came to one of the sidewalk benches the City of Asheville has thoughtfully placed all over downtown as spots for the weary to rest. Unfortunately for us, the occupants on this occasion were three street people and a Queensland Heeler that belonged to one of them.

The group consisted of two young men and one young woman, sitting between them with the dog. They were all visibly filthy and unkempt as are many of their compatriots in this lifestyle. The stench of their lack of personal hygiene was discernable from the moment I turned the corner so I had planned to just continue past them at the same pace that I had established to clear the Flying Frog but it was not to be. When we were right in front of the bench the dog leapt off the bench and began attacking Abner. Queensland Heelers, in my limited experience, can be pretty aggressive and this one definitely fit that image. She was small, as they usually are, but very vicious and she immediately went after the side of Abner’s mid-section. We were both pretty stunned and the woman who had had the dog with her didn’t seem too interested in doing anything about it. The dog was dragging her leash around as she attacked and retreated a couple times. Abner is pretty good at avoiding aggression and when the dog came for the 2nd or 3rd attack, I took the side of my foot and pushed her away.

At this point I was pretty angry that this foul smelling filthy excuse for a human didn’t seem to think she needed to do anything and I shouted to her that she needed to get her damned dog under control to which she replied that she had a rope burn from the leash and that Queensland Heelers do this kind of thing so it wasn’t her fault. This pissed me off even further so as she was finally scooping up the snarling little turd of a dog is informed her that she was living in a city with a leash law and that it didn’t matter whether or not this breed tends to be aggressive, it was her responsibility to control her dog. She then slapped the hand with which I had been gesturing and told me “Fuck off old man” and “Walk on!” as if Abner and I were the ones in violation of some arcane rule of the dog world by having gotten close to her still snarling beast.

This made me even more angry so, not being good at withholding my wrath, I informed her that if anyone had to get the hell out of that situation it was the one with the dog that was unlicensed, ineffectively leashed, no doubt uninoculated and clearly behaving outside the animal laws of Asheville. She then jumped up and shoved me in the chest so I stumbled backwards a little. I have to say; being slapped and pushed by this stinky troll didn’t sit well with me so I informed her that she had just committed assault and that I was calling the police. All this took place in a matter of probably about 40 seconds but her companions clearly were not in the mood for a police escort for the night so one of the grabbed her and pulled her away, still screaming that I should “take my fucking Never-ending Story dog and walk on”.

There were a few other remarks between her far calmer but equally loathsome male companions and me and then they dragged her and the dog down Haywood toward Pritchard Park. I had so much adrenaline pumping at that point that I could barely function, but Abner and I continued along our route for another 20 minutes or so. When I later encountered a very lovely young couple at Pack Square who wanted to pet Abner, it was all I could do to behave civilly because the incident on Haywood had been so distressing.

We got home and settled in for the night, but it bothered me so much that, on top of a number of incidents that were less offensive but still disturbing, I decided the time had come to call the Neighborhood Services Coordinator for the Asheville PD. I was referred to Officer Jackie Stepp who returned my call quite promptly and with whom I had a very edifying conversation.

I told her about the previous night’s encounter and a number of others I have had since the crowds arrived downtown in late May and expressed my concern that it is getting to where I am not always all that comfortable walking around on the nights when downtown is busy, and that I am certain that other people are experiencing this as well. Between the drunks and the street people, it can be a challenge that most people just don’t want to deal with.

Officer Stepp was very aware of what was going on. As a matter of fact, she was even familiar with a couple of the groups I described for her that had created problems for me or for other people I observed them hassling. One group of 4 sits around on the pavement at the entries to stores that have closed for the evening and panhandles the passersby, but one guy in the group plays a guitar and sings lyrics about the people who pass them. The lyrics are very vulgar and insulting when the passerby doesn’t contribute to their request for a few dollars. There is a vague but discernable aggression in their attitude that makes them seem a little threatening, although with a large dog as my companion, I doubt that I would be a target.
As we talked she told me some of the problems they, as police, have in doing anything about these street urchins. Most are between 18 and their early 20s and as such, are no longer minors and can make their own decisions. Furthermore, she told me, there are cities that routinely round up their indigent and/or mentally ill populations and buy them one way bus tickets to Asheville, effectively dumping them onto our social services networks which, she tells me, are good but pretty overloaded.

In the end, Jackie gave me her direct number as well as the APD’s non-emergency number and said to let her know of anything that happens downtown that shouldn’t. They really want to make it as good a place as they can. This is just one more positive experience with the Asheville Police Dept. As a whole, I am really impressed by all the first responders here.

For every bad experience downtown, though, there are probably 15 good ones. As Abner and I have settled into some routines as far as where we walk (and where he marks) we have started to get to know some of the other downtowners and they are, as a group, a pretty wonderful set of people to know. Many of the stores here are quite pet friendly but probably our favorites are Robin at La Dolce Vita on Wall Street who keeps treats for Abner in her shop and is always so happy to see him when we go by in the mornings, and Lisa at Mobilia on Haywood whom we also seem to bump into frequently at night when she is out socializing with her friends. There is something very warm and neighborhoody about seeing these people almost daily and knowing them in the limited but still very positive way.

What is rapidly becoming one of my favorite restaurants is Carmel’s at the corner of Page and Battery Park Avenue on the outside of the Grove Arcade. This restaurant, which is now probably a year old or so, is a hopping place almost every day and night but the employees, and in particular Hank, one of the hosts, and Loren and Heidi, who are both servers go out of their way to greet us and chat when we go by. I also really like to eat there and not just because they have protected outdoor seating that is dog friendly. The food is very good and service is, without exception, excellent. Abner and I are becoming such regulars that they don’t even ask anymore if they should bring him a water bowl. They just bring it like it is his setup. Great place.

We are also becoming pretty chummy with a number of the residents of a seniors’ apartment building that is just north of the Grove Arcade. There is a woman named Pat who lives there with her Yorkshire Terrier Mollie whom we see almost every day. Pat and I started chatting months ago when Abner and Mollie first encountered each other and got along famously. Mollie actually kisses Abner most of the times we see them. Abner has become progressively less interested in Mollie and more in Pat since he has determined that she never leaves her apartment without dog treats.

There are some street performers who are starting to be pretty familiar as well. . .the piano player who sits on the sidewalk by Bistro 1896 and plays a mean piano for the outdoor diners at the 4 restaurants that sit cheek-to-jowl on that corner always smiles and nods when we go by. Fortunately, Abner doesn’t pee on his piano. We have also gotten to know some of the other downtown dog walkers. There is one guy who lives a few blocks away from us with his daughter and their German Shepherd who, one night, told me this great story. It seems that when his daughter was young, they had a mixed breed dog and she wasn’t happy that she didn’t have a title should could tell people when they asked what breed her dog was, so he told her that it was an Appalachian Lap Hound. Apparently she embraced this as the truth and told everyone who asked until the dog died many years later. She didn’t know that it was a made-up breed until she was 11 years old. According to her dad, most of the people she told this to believed her as well.

The funniest thing that occurred this month though, was at the Abner’s all-time favorite store in town. . .The Three Dog Bakery. We go in every week to purchase a new supply of treats and occasionally he will pull me in just to sniff around a say hello to the women who work there and lavish him with treats and attention. One day, we were in when there was a young couple shopping as well but no other customers, when in walked a youngish black man dressed well in vaguely tribal looking clothing. He very seriously told Merritt, one of the women behind the counter, that he wanted to buy one of the hats and he gestured to a standing rack in the front of the store. Merritt looked over to where he was pointing but didn’t see any hats so she asked which hat he wanted. Now you must understand that this is essentially a pet bakery with a stock of pet accessories like beds, bowls, collars and the like. There are, to most of our knowledge, no hats.

The young man walked over to the rack and removed a collapsible dog bowl that is intended for water when you are hiking or traveling with a dog. With a serious, almost somber expression, he brought it to the counter where he told Merritt that he wanted that one. She rang up his sale and watched as he headed out the door, put it on his head at a rakish angle, and walked down the street, whereupon she and Pam, the other woman working that day, completely lost it. Both absolutely broke down in hysterical laughter. I thought Merritt was going to have a stroke she got so read from her laughter. The other customers and I had a good hoot over it and I even tried on a couple of the larger bowls myself. Pam took a cell phone picture of me wearing one of them and I told her that if I ever see it on the Internet, she will lose one of her good customers.

I gather the owners of the store and all the women who work there have seen him go by several times, always wearing his new hat proudly. I think this may start a trend although with the plastic liner needed for it to be waterproof, I would think it might be a trifle hot.

One of the issues that arises when you move to a new town, as I did 3-1/2 years ago when I left Sacramento and moved to Asheville, is that you have to start over in the process of finding people to take care of all the personal services upon which most of us are dependent. I have had varying degrees of luck in this regard. I still go to the hair stylist my friend Kristin Query recommended to me more than three years ago. I still have the same wonderful housekeeper who was a referral from the owner of the hair salon. Those of you who have been reading my adventures since the days when they were emailed as journals before I started posting them to the blog will remember that my first try at a gardener was less than successful, but the second one, Stuart Smith, was a jewel. If I do build my house, or even buy one, I will certainly seek him out again.
I didn’t have good luck with real estate lawyers but have finally settled on one whom I really like, trust and upon whom I know I can depend. Mark Rudow was a recommendation from my friend Hedy Fischer and a great recommendation he was. My first primary care doc was not a happy fit and I will not mention his name so as not to cause him any discomfort, but my relationship with him and his incredibly cranky nurse didn’t go well. That was resolved a little over a year ago when I started seeing Steven Brown, on the recommendation of Eric and Regie Walburgh. Another fortuitous event.

My biggest problem, though, was with dentistry. I had a rather unsuccessful experience with the first dentist I went to here and ultimately chose to try another, who was mentioned on this blog when I started going to her office. Kathryn Philpott-Hill and I also didn’t see eye to eye. I felt, after seeing her for a couple of months, that she was creating dental issues that didn’t exist for purposes solely of making work and money for herself and her colleagues. I ended the relationship after less about 3 or 4 expensive months, but I wasn’t particularly surprised when I heard that she had shut down her practice quite abruptly and left all her patients in the lurch. I don’t know the truth about why this happened although there is a lot of speculation floating around. The bottom line is that Kathryn offered discounted rates for services for which people were willing to pay in advance and apparently she has left a number of patients who had paid in advance and now are left to find someone else to provide the services at additional expense.

Now her license has been suspended, she is the subject of countless articles and TV news spots, and she has become quite the popular topic of discussion in the blogosphere. Unfortunately, other people’s reputations are being trashed along with hers simply because they were friendly with her. Speculation seems rampant about what has happened to her and where she has gone but my good fortune was that I felt so burned by her that I got advice from an Endodontist I had met at a party at Eric and Regie’s house on whom I should see for general dentistry, and he sent me to Adam Hodges. Adam has been treating me since early 2007 and I have been delighted by his services. He is likeable, punctual, dependable, reasonably priced, and does, from my experience, excellent work. So now, after 3-1/2 years, I seem to have found the support services I need to live happily and healthy in Asheville.

I am now in the final stages of preparation for Abner’s and my road trip. We leave tomorrow morning in order to avoid the Bele Chere crowds that will arrive at noon. I am eager to be on the road, but kind of panic stricken over the possibility that I will have left something undone that needs to be arranged. Going away for almost two months take considerably more planning than most of the trips I have ever done. Traveling with a 93 pound dog makes it that much more difficult. But we will be off. I will try to post a couple times en route.

So still another adventure begins tomorrow. I will see some of you along the way, but will stay in touch with the rest by way of this blog. Be well and have a good summer.

One of the things that I think is really wonderful about downtown Asheville is its signage. Our streets are relatively narrow due to the age of the city, and as such, intimately scaled signs that respond to the preponderence of pedestrian traffic really are important. Examples abound of excellent, informative, attractive and sometimes very funny signs proliferate downtown. In this post, I have photographed and displayed a number of them. It is not my intent to endorse any of these shops, although there are quite a few that I frequent. I do think other cities could learn something about the importance of signage in making and keeping urban areas attractive.
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This sign for Flip Side Board Shop is one of my favorites. The portion of the sign that says they sell snowboards has every other letter somewhat patinated and as a result, when you walk down the sidewalk on Lexington Avenue approaching the store, it looks like it says so bad. Hilarious and incredibly clever on the part of whatever graphic designer came up with it.

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I particularly like the sign at Nest Organics. It actually appears to be made of twigs. Very cool. Makes me want to patronize the store.

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These are all on Wall Street where the quality of signage is consistently high.

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The sign below is shared by a humor shop and the salon of my neighbor and buddy Guadalupe Chavarria.

The French Broad Chocolate Lounge is next door to us. I go there entirely too often. Yum yum.
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These shockingly beautiful white hydrangeas bloom every summer in the Spring Garden and this year they seem more abundant than in the past. They start out blinding white and then as the summer progresses turn green.

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For the second year in a row, Biltmore has planted corn in a number of patches in various areas around the estate in an effort to provide easy food for the deer population. The idea is that if there is a whole corn patch for them to eat, why would they eat the resident foliage that the landscape people would prefer that they leave unmolested? I didn't really think it worked that well last year but they seem to have expanded the program to more areas this year so maybe it did better than I thought.

The photo below is a closeup of Butterfly Weed. Unfortunately, at the time I shot these, they didn't have any butterflies on them.

These are some of the summer flowers that are coming up and blooming in little hidden areas in the Azalea Garden.
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I don't think I have ever seen June Bugs before. They are beetles that arrived her in July in spite of their name, and seem to be restricting themselves to staying within about 12 inches of the ground. I think they are in major mating season. The one to the right in the upper photo was distubed in his orgy when I got down to take these photos. As you can see, he still has an erection. Shocking public sexual display right in downtown Asheville. The one on the left and in the bottom shot had originally been trying to get in on the act but decided to retreat to a respectable distance when I started photographing their connubial bliss.

The trail rides are in full swing at Biltmore these days. Abner still has his fascination with horses in spite of the distance from which we see them.
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This particularly inquisitive groundhog got my attention but for once, Abner seemed to have little interest in him. We were only about 20 feet away from him when I snapped the last of several shots. Eventually he decided that heading into his tunnel was prudent but he sure wasn't in a hurry.

These butterflies come back here every year it seems. I don't know what kind they are but they are among the more cooperative ones when it comes to taking pictures. They seem to get very excited when they are on butterfly weed but otherwise pose politely.
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