Have You Ever Seen The Rain?
[EXCERPT from my book in progress, “My Life as a Greyhound.” First published in The Indie; Loved by the Buffalo Publications. 2007. Asheville, North Carolina]
But what am I doing somewhere south of downtown, roughly 29 minutes and 25.4 miles away?
Technically, I was still within the periphery—at Ingles Grocery in Asheville Hwy, Hendersonville. As I lined up towards the cashier, intently examining a Lindsay Lohan spread on Entertainment Weekly, a slight dude on beige carpenter shorts, Tar Heels shirt, and soiled Oakland A’s cap behind asked me pensively, “You are Pasckie, right? Why aren’t you in Asheville?”
It didn’t take me a blink to respond (though I doubted my snappy retort), “Uhh, it’s Bele Chere, that’s why.”
Normally, I would wonder out loud—nervously, frantically—when asked or approached by a random fella. A CIA spy, an MIB emissary, an ex’es vengeful BF, an overzealous John Deere salesman, a Snoop Dogg urchin? None of the above, I reckoned. But this particular unexpected query cut me like, “Hey, this is my `hood—why are you here? You’re not supposed to be here!”
“I’m here, in your `hood, because I’m not in Bele Chere.”
I reckon, that was a more confident follow-through. The dude simply nodded, yet unsmiling like a stoic Sitting Bull on US Marine coiffure… “Okay.”
Relieved, I continued examining the Lindsay Lohan spread.
UMM, BELE CHERE. I used to love that lovable feast of lovable humanity, you know. And mind you, not just because of the expostulating ocean of psychedelic muses with sexy, healthy hips, puzzling (and puzzled) hairdos, and cute Meg Ryan smiles. It was on my first BC July weekend, maybe year 2000, when I found—and eventually, fell in love—with what I later on called as My Asheville Downtown Menage-a-Trois: Malaprop’s, Pritchard Park, Lexington Avenue.
I wallowed on Bele Chere’s libertine exuberance and radical chic that time. Of course, you can always dispute that—although it doesn’t really matter much these days. My Appalachian guilty pleasure has miserably evolved into nothing more than secondhand guilt…
Oh yes, it could’ve been awesome to be right there at Biltmore Stage on that gloomy-sky Saturday night, shakin’ my skinny little butt to Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, right? Nah… It didn’t take me 3 seconds to decide to instead spend my last $35.55 at Ingles—on fresh produce, catfish fillet, chicken cuttings, white rice, and 6-pack of PBR—than scrimmage my acerbic girth and brooding snout downtown. A quiet, cooking gig in Terri The Terra’s humble abode was unmistakably that particular moment in time’s last frontier – sublime, ethereal, transcendent.
“WHY AREN’T you in Asheville?”
Was it a compliment that the random dude easily identified me as a “bonafide” Asheville spirit? For a brown-skinned, black-haired, horribly-accented shortie to be recognized and acquainted with (out of town, at that) as a resident/inhabitant of a predominantly white community in the South of the US of A… that is something. I am really “home.” Dig?
Four summers ago, as I wearily, tearfully strode along Wilmington’s coastline, a heartbroken Corona Lite on hand, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees on my Walkman—a girl (I mean, a 9 year old kid) approached me.
“You look sad, you should be home—I know you, you’re from Asheville! It’s Bele Chere, y’know! Me and my Mom saw you read poems at Beanstreets!”
When a random kid reminds you – 331.9 miles away – that your home is Asheville, you should be proud, right? Right! I got a home—and I am not even somewhere near South China Sea or the Pacific Ocean! I am an Ashevellian! Afront the waters of Fells Point in Baltimore, amidst Adams Morgan’s militant chic in Washington DC, along Bleecker Street’s incendiary allure in downtown Manhattan – I trumpet and howl my acquired ID as a true-blue Asheville spirit.
“What is your ethnicity, where’re you from?” I am not bothered by these inquisitions anymore. I just say, cool as a pistolero (a-la Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western), “I’m from Asheville. You got a problem with that?” At least, I never got into weird exchanges again, in the mold of—
“Where you from?”
“I was born in the Philippines, I am half-Filipino, half-Cherokee…”
“So you are from India! That’s cool! Do you like padthai? You drink a lot of sake, right?”
“No, I don’t, I am sorry. But I throw down bigtime on grits and taters and chase them down with ice-cold Busch.”
For seven consecutive summers, since some distant wind blew me away from New York City’s plasticine bubbles and crashlanded my undernourished anatomy in the Appalachias, I have always declared that Bele Chere is my weekend birthday party! This fantabulous feast of fun sort of happens exactly on my birthday weekend (July 23)—until the just concluded episode/s. I didn’t mope—what the hell!
The truth is, I did actually wrangle my reluctant self for few hours out there on the first day, July 27th, primarily because I had a visitor—Jeri Carter, an architect from Philly—who requested that I join her there. No prob. I always toured my visitors wherever they wanna be, whenever—just part of being a gracious host, you know what I mean? I need to perform this kind of “hospitality gigs” sometimes. When I was living in Brooklyn, I haphazardly/painstakingly/achingly accompanied obnoxious relatives and irksome sisters-of-ex’es up the Empire State Building in uptown Manhattan and Statue of Liberty near Staten Island – until I couldn’t take it anymore.
But then, I never called or “owned” New York as my “home.” Nobody says, I am a native New Yorker, come on! But Asheville is different. It’s home to me. This is my barrio. So I just gotta tour visitors to every nook and cranny, hale and hearty, grime and grace – of my “home.” That’s the way it is.
I can’t mistake it, no matter what we say – the Bele Chere Festival is an Asheville tradition for 29 years, according to Jeri. Before she flew into town, she googled WNC and Bele Chere... (But, heck, she didn’t succeed in coaxing me to sacrifice my $35.55 weekend dinner/cooking budget to finally visit The Biltmore Castle. An intimate dinner with another friend Terri Smyth was it, no second thoughts whatsoever.)
HOW COULD one pass this one up? A humanity of “350,000+ that flock to downtown Asheville each year for three days of Bele Chere.” Six stages provide performances by 80 local and national musical acts. Lots of food, great art and crafts, and many other activities make Bele Chere a fun event for all. Some of the best local and regional artisans showcase their best handcrafted jewelry, pottery, and clothing, along with photography and painting.
LizBeth McQueen, the fantastic 86-year-old matriarch of the first-ever North Carolina clan that I shared a compound with (in Barnardsville Hwy in Weaverville) five years ago would always groan and growl each tailend of winter.
“Bele Chere is just few months away, honey! It will be all fun—I can’t wait, Lordy Mother of Mercy!”
She did relish and savor the fiesta, I tell you! There she was (on my first Bele Chere in 2000)—a beautiful octogenarian blondie shakin’ her booty to Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”—hip by hip, sweat to sweat, lowriders and all—with a dozen or so river of turbo-boosted teen-age bodies at Battery Park Stage. Rock `n roll!
Indeed, there was a time when Bele Chere owned up to the PR. Downtown’s number one summer dalliance is oft touted or hyped as “The largest free outdoor street festival in the Southeast.” I have been and seen a lot (of May to October festivals) in all my seven years in North Carolina… But all I can say is Bele Chere still mystifies and intrigues the doubting uninitiated and the unsuspecting stranger. And we in the mountains are always ready to eat it up like a funnel cake chowdown over poboy and Miller Lite. That is not an opinionated guess, that is a documented fact.
Southerners spend about the same amount of money on clothes ($1,507) as they do on entertainment ($1,561). According to a study (c. 2005) by the US Department of Labor, Southerners spend 5 percent of their budgets for entertainment and another 5 for clothes, jewelry, and shoes. “Entertainment” expenses are things such as fees and admissions (to concerts and festivals), televisions, radios, or sound equipment, and also money spent on pets, toys, and playground equipment.
“TURUMBA” is a late-summer community religious festival in the south of Manila (capital city of the Philippines).
In honor of the The Second Image of Virgin Mary, “Turumba” is a traditional community feast held in Pakil town in the province of Laguna in the Philippines. The holy relic is a replica of the image of Nuestra Señora de las Antiguas from Spain. According to tradition, the image belonged to missionaries who crossed Laguna de Bay in a launch. When the launch was shipwrecked, some of its relics were washed ashore including the image of the Virgin.
Some local fishermen found the image in the nets. Believing it was a religious image, they decided to drop it off at a parish church. When they started to carry the painting, they found that it was heavy. They tried to carry it in many directions, until it was near the church of Pakil. While they headed that way, the wind and current aided their course; and when they landed, they left the image on a rock so they could continue their fishing duties.
One Sunday morning, a group of women found the image. Although it had rained during the night, the canvas was dry. When they tried to take it away, they could not move it; even the strongest among them, Mariangga, could not lift it. They quickly told the parish priest, who in turn called the sacristans, choir members and churchgoers to get the image. As they lifted the image, the people around begun to sing and dance. To their surprise, the image gave way.
And So the Tarumba to Our Lady was born.
The word tarumba is from the Filipino phrase "natumba sa laki ng tuwa" or tremble in great joy. The first Tarumba in Our Lady's Honor was held on September 15, 1788.
MONTHS before the September fiesta, a traditional “working committee” or village council start mapping out or physically preparing for the one-week festivities. Nobody gets paid and seldom legal tender (or cold cash) circulates. Residents assume specific tasks – from construction/design of giant papier maches to carpentry work of theater/concert stages to fundraising trips to bigger cities (for necessary materials that aren’t found in the barrio, and to personally invite popular national personalities).
Days before the feast, villagers come together — farmers donate baskets and carts of fresh produce and fruits, fisherfolk commit their week’s catch, “richer” ranchers give out cows and hogs and chickens, youths start rehearsing musical and dance numbers, others prepare parlor games and pick-up basketball games. A day before the fiesta, an entire ricefield is turned into an open-air kitchen—where everybody cooks on humongous woks on firewood and charcoal. A separate “committee” travels by foot, carabao-pulled carts, or “jeepneys” to send out invitations to neighboring towns and solicit prizes for the games.
There are no concert fees, food is free, village-deputized “tanods” (no guns, just bamboo sticks) keep the peace and order. Warring tribes and battling Communist rebels and government troops declare automatic “cessation of hostilities.” (Most “wars” are ended following a fiesta or Christmas/New Year’s Day ceasefire.) Food, peace, fun, community, laughter, family, friendship. Relatives and barriomates visit from abroad (games prizes come in the form of “imported” Nikes, $50 cash, or an autographed posters of Yao Ming or the Black Eyed Peas)... tourists and visitors savor the harvest convergence, like blessings from God. You can’t get any simpler than that.
All these happen a month or two before raging typhoons batter the barrios and towns again. Misery beats them up – almost six months a year, every year of their lives. But they gather as a community, everybody is proud of their community, everybody thank God... Despite sharing whatever that they could’ve saved for “the rainy days,” they don’t thank no one, except God. “May awa ang Diyos” (God provides). That fatalist wisdom of simplicity, camaraderie and sacrifice make them laugh and dance during summer fiestas, like there’s no more tomorrows – from the advent of 100+ degree heat to the first downpour of incessant rain. That is peace, that is humanity – calm and joy before and after the storm.
There was a time, in a not-so-distant past when I saw the beautiful spirit of “Turumba” in downtown Asheville – Friday Drum Circle, Downtown After Five, Shindig on the Green, Bonfires for Peace at Pritchard Park, and yes, Bele Chere…
Now the spirit seemed lost, gasping or dying. Even the rain scared us away...
WHY AM I not in my home city—on Bele Chere weekend?
A week before the 3-day spectacle, we held a “Bonfires for Peace at Pritchard Park.” This is my “Turumba.” Me and Marta The Nicer almost literally “panhandled” the $$$ that we paid City Hall so that we may be able to continue holding this 4pm to 10pm “low-key fiesta” in the heart of downtown.
I think we had around 200 or so people (old and young, kids and parents, locals and tourists, dogs and cats) – dancing, smiling, shaking hands, hugging — as we winded up the (4pm to 10pm) concert around 8 or 9pm. The main act N-2-Soul, a local act whose lead singer Jim Barnes works at a Merrimon Avenue store called Cash Converter, donated the PA/sound equipment. The lead guitarist David Tedford rendered free soundperson job. All the bands—and emcee Nancy Rollins—gave their one hour time, free. Food was donated by Mellow Mushroom, bottled water by Ingles. We sold few Bonfires shirts that were donated by Terri Smyth and her sister Renee Ratford. (All these beautiful spirits have been living in WNC for more than 20 years.)
Midway through the concert, Mark Anderson (bassist of bands Hippie Shitzu) walked to a pub across Pritchard Park to use the bathroom. His band played in this club for years with a weekly fee that is 50 percent or lesser than what most clubs pay “visiting acts” these days. His band played free for community residents and tourists via the Bonfires for Peace in the last four years…
Mark, more than anything else, is a native Asheville dude. He was born and raised in this town, he works in this town all his life, he pays his taxes in this county. But he was refused access to the bar’s bathroom because he didn’t want to buy liquor. That’s the rule.
A day after the event, I received a phone call from the City Government’s Parks & Recreation Department saying we may not be able to hold our concerts at the park anymore—because of “noise.” Local businesses and downtown residents are complaining about the noise emanating from Pritchard Park. The person I talked with said that we can probably hold our events if we don’t use amplified music. The “noise” distracts local downtown business and condominium residents.
Does this mean that there will be no more Downtown After Five, Shindig on the Green, or Bele Chere concerts from here on—because of “noise”? Our free concert distracts and bothers local business or new residents—a concert by “non-marquee acts” at Pritchard Park—that we painstakingly put up in the last four years?
We organized almost 50 concerts to date, with money that come from our hard-earned salaries and measly tip-box earnings. We pay City Hall for use of the park so we can entertain people for free—when we could have just saved the money to help ensure that we pay our rent on time, or that we could score a few PBRs at a local pub to relax our small-town funk and forget our working class blues.
Mark’s rejected bathroom request exemplifies what has turned into this town we call “home.” Do we belong in this house? I could have just given Mark $5 for a beer, so that he could use the aforementioned bar’s bathroom. But I’m sure he’s not gonna take it—he has refused my offer of gasoline money (from the tip box) so many times in the past, I don’t think he’s gonna take it just so he could use a club’s bathroom. All the bands that played in the park – refused that tip box money, an amount that isn’t even enough to re-earn the $$$ that we pay City Hall.
Downtown is always the “life” of a city. Its people—the heart and soul, the heartbeat that makes the community live. A Bele Chere that is enhanced and “jazzed up” by the local powers-that-be that give more premium to market feasibility and sales quota – and whatever whim and wish that the new moneyed denizens of downtown could “suggest” – shoots down the primitive sublimity and ethereal wisdom of any community, such as Asheville.
What did I see in Bele Chere’s first day? Unadulterated, consumerist throwdown. Rain was like acid downpour, chasing humanity away. Like cold, frightened rats, we lumbered under shades, wearied and tired.
“It’s sad that you only saw that this year,” cousin Brigham Martinez emailed me, “I saw that three years ago, my man...” (Brig and wife, Kristi, instead, spent their “Bele Chere moolah” on a “quiet” 15th honeymoon in Guadalajara. Smart choice.)
IN CASE you are wondering... I am not boycotting Bele Chere as a protest move. This, despite the fact that most of my friends who’ve been here long before I did have already refused to step into this festival years before I did. Meantime, sad – I wasn’t able to catch LizBeth McQueen, the fantastic 86-year-old matriarch of Barnardsville Hwy, during the few hours that I clattered on Haywood St down to Lex Av on Bele Chere’s first day. Maybe she was there, I am not sure. Although a mere snow “drizzle” demobilizes her so easily, rain or storm doesn’t halt my longtime friend’s insatiable appetite for good ole Southern rock spiked with ice-cold apple cider. But who knows…
Despite my frustration, I wish that the City earned good from “the largest free outdoor street festival in the Southeast.” A Parks & Recreation staff (to borrow a Citizen Times report) disclosed that 2,000 were sold for July 28’s jam in a venue that holds 5,600. She also estimated the total festival attendance at 300,000. That Press Release would surely fly whenever an unsuspecting, “new-life seeker” visitor like Jeri Carter googles WNC or Asheville before she flies into town.
Meanwhile, a storeowner at Broadway Avenue complained that said weekend’s profit is their worst sales output—since they moved here almost a year ago. Even the tried-and-tested magic of the vaunted drum circle could only entice a few dozens of curious onlookers on that first BC day – definitely far from the sweaty, exuberant humanity that rocks Pritchard Park on a Friday night.
Was it the rain?
Sometime in distant America—that my Cherokee aunt, Marguerite Rainhawk Chenault and Filipino immigrant-grandfather Juan Carlos Valdez told me—rain means harvest, rain means life. A new promise of plenty, a celebration reborn. I don’t want to blame the rain for the saddest, most alienating Bele Chere that I ever had in all my seven years in Asheville.
But—again, I reiterate—Asheville is my home.
So after spending the rest of my Bele Chere weekend “hiding” in Terri Smyth’s humble abode in Hendersonville’s Lyndhurst Drive, off a “hidden” cross-street to Asheville Hwy called Greater Druid Hills Blvd—I went back to my `hood at Dunwell Avenue in the West side of town.
Few hours after, me and Marta The Nicer drove downtown to drop few, remaining copies of The Indie at Malaprop’s. On our way, I saw Mark Maloy, my Pritchard Park homey, bicycling down Patton Av afront Jack of the Wood, and I think I saw Charlie Thomas walking down Walnut St to Lexington Avenue... Charlie beat me twice playing chess at that same park’s shoulder fence the last time we did a Bonfires show (I shared him a slice of pizza donated by Mellow Mushroom’s Gerry Mahon). Five years ago, on my first Pritchard Park concert, I gave out four boxes of my old and new shirts to the “homeless” for free—in turn, two of them offered me food from the Mission. “We are going to protect you, my man...” one of them assured me.
As we snaked through Merrimon Avenue, I saw Clare Hanrahan chatting with a young man with grayish beard with a “Stop The War” shirt or something, near Greenlife Grocery. And I think I saw George Glass with a beat-up guitar on his shoulder striding towards Musician’s Workshop.
That night, as usual, I had two PBRs at Westville Pub, my neighborhood bar—while I listened to River Guerguerian’s and Stephanie’s Id’s new CDs on my Walkman. An hour or so after, I walked back to my house just a block away. A squirrel scooted out of my front yard tree as my neighbor’s cat greeted me, “What’s up, bro?” Then, the gentle rain fell.
I was home again at last.