Eight years ago today, the city of Asheville lost one of it’s most beloved freaks and the queer community was never the same. I’ve been writing a piece about Talya’s death so and its aftermath for years. At this point, it’s so sprawling that I think it will only work as a book. The story ended up being as much about gentrification and the loss of community as my friend’s beautiful weird life and untimely death. This is the conclusion.
I traveled to the city of Asheville for the first time in the summer of 2004. I was a fresh faced 23-year-old punk rocker from the big city, hitchhiking my way through the south. My friend and I were sweaty and dirty when our last ride dropped us off at the gas station just off the Merrimon Avenue exit. My friend and I had vague walking directions to our friend’s house where we would be staying, so we hoisted our backpacks over our shoulders and started walking. Small towns made me nervous. While some of my most exciting, and formative years were spent falling wildly into punk rock just five hundred miles to the north in Rural Pennsylvania, those years were also stifling and sometimes downright dangerous for a young weirdo. I came to hate small town life. My mother and I moved to a bigger city just before my 17th birthday and I endeavored to never return to a small town again upon leaving Appalachia.
Yet here I was, making my way through the familiar Appalachian architecture and sleepy neighborhoods of a city that I had no idea how much would affect my life for the next fifteen years. I first heard tell of the city of Asheville in 2003, while on a different hitchhiking trip. My partner and I were headed cross country to South Florida for a protest mobilization in the city of Miami. We were to meet up with three friends who had left a week earlier than we were able to, riding trains instead of hitch hiking. In an age before the ubiquity of cell phones (and even worse, smartphones) we kept one another informed of the progress made in our journeys through a series of emails from library computers and calls made from payphones using pre-paid calling cards to either dial in voicemail services or to the rare punk with a cell phone.
I remember distinctly calling from a truck stop somewhere in Alabama to inquire on the wellbeing and whereabouts of our friends. Two of them had indeed made it to Miami. They had gotten separated from our third friend somewhere on the road. The voice on the other end of the line sounded almost haunted through the payphone connection and against the din of the nearby highway. “We got separated from Justin when he caught on the fly, and we couldn’t. He’s okay though. He ended up in Asheville and will make his way south in another day or two. That place is a mecca. I think they put punk in the water there or something.”
I could hear the slight envy in my friend’s voice before I returned the receiver to the cradle and walked back to the highway to put my thumb out. I began to wonder if there wasn’t something magic happening in Asheville and if I shouldn’t reassess my relationship to small towns.
Less than a year later I was on Lexington Avenue, stomping up the stairs leading to Rosetta’s to eat a seven-dollar plate of vegan nachos with two friends, a massive plate of food that would keep all three of us free from hunger for the rest of the day, a major concern considering we were all broke vegans who never ate enough. When we were finished eating, we headed up the street to the ACRC to grab some zines to read during long hours on the road. We stayed at the Little Side house, and cooked Food Not Bombs with the punks who lived there and headed north a few days later (incidentally, to the city where I now reside.). At the time this was all fairly standard fare in the life of a young punk rocker on the road, save for a few glaring differences.
I was young and idealistic, but also viciously depressed and deeply insecure at the same time. The insecurity originated in simply not knowing how to exist within a wider culture that so relentlessly stamps out the sensitive individuals who cannot conform or simply refuse to do so into fucking powder. I didn’t know how to be, in college. I didn’t know how to function at some job, or around kids my age outside of the small subculture I surrounded myself with. I didn’t know how to talk to them, to outsiders. I found that I could let my real face show just a little bit more in punk, but still struggled even there. What shined through in Asheville though, was the overwhelming friendliness of the punks I encountered. It shone through with an authenticity that I didn’t see in other cities. I was used to feeling alone in a crowd, even amongst outcasts but I noticed the ways I felt less guarded around my new friends, and I felt grateful for it, especially after a week’s journey essentially at the mercy of strangers who likely picked us up for company or someone to talk to for their long drives.
My friend and I hit the road after a few days, and Asheville became a place that I would return to often before finally coming to call it home.
I arrived on East Chestnut Street for good in September of 2008, just after the financial collapse that ushered in the great recession. I was driving west on I-40, despondent from leaving a toxic relationship in another town behind (but so unaware I was running straight to another one!). All of Western North Carolina suffered a gas shortage, with empty pumps and long lines at the few stations that did have gas, giving the countryside along I-40 a foreboding, almost apocalyptic feeling. There were few cars on the road, and the people I encountered at rest stops all seemed stressed and wary, the opposite of the usual politeness one encounters in the south.
My heart, all of our hearts really, were broken by the recent grisly murder of a person dear to the scattered community of traveling punks of which I was a part. She hovered somewhere on the plane between acquaintance and friend for me, but I was devastated. We hadn’t been as tight as I had been with some of the other people around me who cared about her, but we shared some times that shaped, and stayed with me. When the news came that she was gone, I was devastated, not just at the loss of our friend, but at a brutal reminder of how much evil exists in the world, and how little we are all actually insulated from it. We chose to live our lives on the outside looking in, and here was a reminder that we had done so: When our friend’s body was found, the pigs barely investigated, instead making statements to the media questioning her drinking habits and sexual proclivities, essentially asking if she had somehow been the instigator of her own assault. The law left a void, where a crew of punks to did their job for them and apprehended our friend’s murderer. Apprehend him they did, beating him within an inch of his life before dragging him to the police station where he would eventually be charged with second degree murder. I spent a lot of those first few weeks drinking and in tears, occasionally cracking my knuckles trying to punch out the windows of the abandoned building that now houses the Moog museum.
The city had an empty, the party’s over, hungover feeling all that fall and winter, but the warmth and kindness of the punks often thawed any reminders of winter when you were in their company. The love in that small city was staggering, unshakable. Having lived a life accompanied by a sense of loneliness that runs soul deep, I had never seen anything like it. From that first day on Chestnut Street, until this one, I have still never felt so wholly embraced by a community, and so quickly. Surrounded by a sense of almost romantic despair against the world around us, but one that seemingly lacked hopelessness, the punks existed on a different plane entirely from the citizens around them. They could see into our world, and we could see into theirs, but we knew some things they would never know.
We should have known it couldn’t last though. We watched the Hotel Indigo go up on the corner of Haywood and Montford. We had a perfect view of the construction from Josh’s bedroom window overlooking the city. At night the steel girders that made up the building’s skeleton stood silent and eerily illuminated by a few lights on each vacant floor. I’d glance out the window, and get the feeling that someone was trying to sneak the construction in under our noses before anyone noticed. We often joked about what a shame it was that punks didn’t have access to heavy weaponry. A cruise missile, or even a rocket launcher might do a thing or two about that shit set to ruin our neighborhood in another few years.
We went on though, finding cheap rent where we could, with the ever-unfolding crisis of late capitalism as the backdrop. To say that the personal tragedies and global disasters spanning the years of this story affected each and every sensitive character in deep and life altering ways would be an understatement. To say that those disasters coupled with having been raised in this malignant culture, along with every other external force beyond our control did not affect our abilities to relate to, and not damage one another would also be grossly dishonest. To put it very plainly, and to reference a beloved punk rock song: We were fucked up kids. Past that, we were fucked up kids that reached an adulthood so many of us never expected to see. In trying to escape the violence that molded so many of our lives, it was inevitable that we would bring some of those phantoms from childhood to our refuge with us. In our powerless to effect the real and lasting change we so desperately screamed for at the world outside from the safety of our punk houses and show spaces, we turned inwards and cannibalized one another.
Case in point: While attempting to jog some memories for this work, I came across an old photograph taken less than a month before Talya’s suicide, July 13th, 2012. The photo is a crowd shot from the first show of a short-lived band which my friends and I made music in. The smiling faces frozen in the photo now look like a virtual who’s who of Asheville punks and queers who would go on to lay waste to one another in under five years’ time. Some of whom did so with such a casual ease, that one couldn’t help but think it mirrored the discarded pile of empty PBR tall cans in the recycling bin outside the door at the end of the show.
I’m aware that I am not always charitable with some of the characters in this story, many of whom are based on individuals I have loved, or continue to love deeply. To this I would point out to the reader that the characters in this story based on myself do not exactly paint a charitable portrait of my own conduct either, both within fiction, and outside of it. While I refuse to grovel like some spineless fuck, forever beholden to the shaming ceremonies radical communities and the greater left love to drink themselves to death on, I am also in no way holing myself above reproach here. I have fallen to such depths of abuse and self-abuse that it has taken years to crawl back out of. In some cases, I am still atoning for harm done to people I love.
With that I say again, to the individuals reflected in this work who I have hurt: I am so sorry. I didn’t know better, and will forever regret that the lessons bitterly learned in how to be better, all too often come at the cost of those we care for. To the people reflected in this sorry who have hurt me, I say this: I forgive you. That’s it. No conditions. No fine print. Just the season for moving on.
Captured in that photo and in this story is a ghost of a community on unknowingly standing on the precipice of devastating loss and catastrophic transformation to the landscape of their city. Gone are so many of the punk houses, the show spaces, the community centers. All bulldozed and renovated, “revitalized” to make way for another brewery, boutique, or fancy restaurant; terraforming the city to a playground for monied and privileged outsiders. Seven years later, and so many of us have moved on. Pushed out of the city by rising rents and lack of opportunity. So many of us are gone, drifted away, or driven apart. As I write these words alone in my apartment in a different city, the nightmare police state and eternal wars we screamed about in songs and graffiti is no longer some distant future or worst-case scenario, it’s here.
There are fascists on the streets and another clandestinely (or not so much so) directing them from the white house. Our every move is monitored daily by an all-encompassing surveillance state apparatus, and none of us are truly safe. There are concentration camps on the border while modern day Gestapo prowl our streets looking for immigrants. Seven years later, with the world burning faster than ever and most of us aren’t even friends the way we used to be. This shit couldn’t have gone down better if the architects of COINTELPRO themselves planned it. It would not surprise me in the least to learn in another 30 years (should we all live that long) that somewhere, some soulless company maggot figured out how to manipulate subcultures to self-destruction and has been successfully repeating the process for fifty years, much to the delight of power. The last generation’s LSD and heroin are this generation’s infighting and aiming our guns at the soft targets closest to you, both literally and figuratively. That is to say, it is easier to, and carries less consequence to lash out at, without empathy or mercy the oppressive behavior your loved ones have learned since birth than it is to strike against the forces running our cities, our countries, and our very world into rot.
And lash out at one another we did.
All the while, the prisons stand unburned. Police issue firearms snuff out black lives with impunity. The cop cars prowl the streets. Appalachian mountaintops are obliterated through mountaintop removal. Fracking poisons our air and our water. Plastic fills the ocean while carbon dioxide clogs the air, literally burning the world to death.
My friend Cinder once argued that Asheville’s heyday was short lived; roughly 2003-2006. Aaron Cometbus and Cindy Crabb arrived sometime in the late 90’s and laid the groundwork for a thriving DIY community, setting up shows and enticing touring bands to stop in the mountains on their way out west. A few years in, other lonely freaks began to gravitate towards the city from elsewhere, and a punk mecca was born. When Mosca Avocado died just at the end of summer 2006, many brokenhearted punks and queers moved on. Their ache and their loss just too huge for this tiny town to contain. I would argue that Asheville’s heyday lasted until sometime in 2012 or 2013. I am not making that argument because that’s when I left, or because I think Talya’s death just at the end of summer, 2012 was any more devastating than Mosca’s untimely passing. It has more to do with the perfect combination the emotional devastation of an entire community, and economics. While we were drinking alone in our bedrooms, or commiserating in bars, the developers and breweries moved in.
Though there are similarities between these two lost friends that remain undeniable. Both were beloved in their communities. Both were loved by punks and queers alike. Both individuals radiated a unique and beautiful strangeness that made them impossible not to love. Both of them exhibited the kind of rare and quirky genius and independent spirit that somewhere deep down, you always worried might never last. Most of all, both of these beautiful individuals had precarious relationships with their own mental health and a suffered lack of resources or options that would allow them to thrive instead of simply survive. That their spirits would be crushed to the point of annihilation until they felt they had no other options, other than to go to early graves came as no real surprise. Talya’s ending just happened to coincide with a wave of gentrification that forever marred the soul of Asheville.
While I have always been angry at the injustice of these two endings, I am angrier still at the city of Asheville’s willingness to commodify and exploit the unique spirits that once flocked to it, giving it the “character” so craved by tourists and developers. The rebellious spirit once carried by all the punks, queers, freaks and outlaws became ever more commodified and watered down, used as a selling point for developers and real estate moguls. The unique spirit of what a city once was became an enticement for tourists and outsiders, while all our friends who serve the drinks, play the music, and make the art are denied affordable housing, living wages and healthcare. It’s like the city wants it both ways: Come here to be your freaky rebellious selves, but you better be ready to work sixty hours a week to afford a $1,600 a month one bedroom apartment and don’t you ever talk back to tourists while you’re here.
Talya’s death coincided with an influx of money flowing freely into Asheville, but nobody I know saw any of it, regardless of how hard they worked.
So many of my friends are gone, destroyed at the hands of one another, their dying dreams driving them elsewhere, or death taken them. So many of them toil onward into annihilation.
So many more now do not expect to make it to old age.
For this, I am unforgiving.