The Asheville, North Carolina Tourism Catch-22

The Asheville, North Carolina Tourism Catch-22

A server's hatred for the tourist industry, but also utter dependency for survival.

It's 2 p.m. on a Thursday -- I work at 4 p.m. It's my friend's birthday and I know that all she really wants is that framed Mucha painting that is in the window of some vintage shop on South Lexington. The entire process of driving downtown, parking, buying the painting, and heading home should take no more than 15 minutes ... right?

Not today. Turns out my internal ETA measurements are set to 2011 downtown Asheville, North Carolina, standards. Instead, I sit in traffic for 20 minutes while watching hordes of people with Tops for Shoes bags and leftovers from Tupelo Honey stroll past my car. I miss a green light because a couple stops in the middle of the road to consult the Asheville Brewery Map, gesturing like conductors as they try to figure out if Jack of the Wood is the same thing as Green Man (it's not). All parking garages are full so I park in a customer-only lot whilst telling myself that now that the car situation is out of the way, it won't take long enough for anyone to give me a ticket.

Wrong again. I spend the next 10 minutes walk-jogging through clusters of like-dressed people who all keep staring up at nothing with that "I'm taking it all in" dopey face that tourists are prone to. A group of girls ranging from their 20s to 50s who are all wearing tacky crowns and sashes call out to me for directions, prefacing their inquiry with, "You look like you live here." Is that a compliment? What are they implying? Are they referring to the "Oh Christ, please, no" look I've most certainly been sporting since I left home? I don't know, but after a couple of exchanges, I hustle my way, finally, to the store -- and then spend another hour reliving the same hell to get back to my car and on my way to work.

There is a reason no sane person I know goes downtown anymore. In some ways, it feels like some distorted version of Disney World where the attractions are the Bohemia and Art Deco streets, and all the locals are caricatures for beer-sloshed out-of-towners to poke and prod. It's no secret that Asheville is a bubble of arts, liberalism, and hefty amounts of alcohol, but that shouldn't mean that we should turn our town into a tourist attraction either. Most of us moved here for freedom in a vibrant, accepting culture not to be a part of a show... right?

But that's just it. It turns out that with all this corporate money pouring in alongside rich entrepreneurs who are trying to make this city on every top 10 travel list in the world, the regular people, like myself, can no longer afford to live here -- unless we play along, i.e. work in the service industry.

So this becomes my existential crisis: How do I fight back against tourism when my job depends on tourists' satisfaction. The answer is sadly that I can't. As much as I hate the tourists who give me forlorn half-smiles as I tell them I am an aspiring author ("Oh, Richard, did you hear that our server is going to school for poetry? How quaint.") I know that as long as they find my artistic endeavors as charming as my good service, I might get a nice tip, which they will consider their act of charity for the day. It's also easier for me to do this because I had expected it anyway -- I am a college student and a poet, so it's kind of in the cards. But this city isn't all college students and arts degrees. Local newspapers and social spheres are finally taking note that people with doctorates are having to live out the same service industry jobs because it's just too damn expensive any other way.

Of course, I could delve into a whole separate discussion of job markets, but I think this topic is quite depressing enough. The hard fact is, no one can afford to live here anymore. The best example I have seen recently is a couple I knew decided to travel the country for about four months. Before they left, they lived in a turn-of-the-century home right near the outskirts of downtown that only cost them about $400 a month without utilities. As they came back to the city and looked for a place to rent for the same price (even with sharing the house with other people), they could not find anything below the $750-$800 bracket. I would love to say that this situation is an outlier, but it isn't. Ask anyone who has tried to move in the past year and they will tell you that prices have skyrocketed -- and not just for real estate.

The truth is, we are being pushed out. This city which gets its allure by the people who live here and cultivate a culture are being driven out by the people who are trying to sell it. Most of us can't afford to eat where we work if we were paying regular price. Most of us also can't pay rent unless we live off of generous tips from customers. Whether or not the people who are trying to make our city a commodity notice that we can only survive by being tip hoarders, they certainly aren't making it easier. Yes, they are bringing in jobs, but if their standards are raising the cost of living, then what's the point?

So the question is, what do we do now? If we get rid of all the tourism -- which means hotels, restaurants, breweries, etc., what jobs will be left? It's a nice thought that everything will go back to normal, but sadly, it's not the case. We've gone too deep and to backtrack means people who live here will lose jobs. We've raised the bar too high, and now we might not be able to pull it down again.

I know I'm not the first one to say any of this -- and I certainly will not be the last. We have four more hotels slated for the downtown area in 2016, which means more tourists, more expansions, and more service industry jobs. Who knows, maybe one day or another a recession will hit and a cleanse of tourism will begin with hopeful results. But I am not an economist; I can't predict those things.

I am a server, though, and, in some cases, an optimist. While I might want to scream at tourists as they take pictures of the "retro" shops downtown, at least I know that there is a culture behind it all that is still fighting to be alive, and in some ways the tourist industry is helping. If there is anything this town has been built on, it's dreamers, and the thing about dreamers is they have a lot of life in them. Whether in a service industry or not, people in this town are going to work for their goals, even if it's just a shot. Tourism might continue to grow, but if we are still fighting for what brought us all here in the first place, maybe we can find a light at the end of it all.

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4 Times I Took A Punch From My First Career Job

You need to take a few punches before you learn their strategy.

I took a job that felt like the next best thing. It offered more salary than I’ve ever made, more responsibilities than I’ve ever held, and the opportunity to grow in skill and status. An excited novice in the company, I began with bright eyes and the highest of hopes. This was my first job in a career that I had dedicated my entire college education in. I was willing to continue to learn, even though I felt more than ready to start applying my textbook knowledge.

Life never hits harder than when we think we show up prepared. Here are four things that punched me in the face of perception and helped me realize my own potential and value in a new workplace.

1. You are your own boss of success.

Be your own worst critic. Evaluate yourself and be attentive and faithful to integrity. Make a conscious decision to act in benevolence, and practice honesty and principle. Instead of taking the energy to formulate excuses, own up to failure or flaw and build off of it. If you want to succeed, manage yourself closely.

2. Ask questions to learn your way up.

Ask Questions. While you are training (and even after!) be that kid to raise your hand and ask the questions the rest of the students pretend to know. Let your brain be a dry sponge: observe, and soak in. Learn the systems to start out. Be that as it may, also do not assume the processes and functions in use are always the best. Make notes and don’t be afraid to want to improve systems once you are familiar with the ropes. Take advantage of being the fresh eyes.

3. Workout and sweat the insecurities.

When we put ourselves in different environments with different stimuli, we learn about ourselves in new ways. We find out what makes us uncomfortable. We figure out how we work most productively. We learn our strengths and weakness. Weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and insecurities are like parts of our body we need to strengthen with exercise and good posture! If we want to grow out of them we need to start lifting the weights that will build mass and cultivate ourselves into willing, innovative, and confident workers. I’m learning my strengths, but more importantly, I’m learning where I’m weak.

4. Be appreciative.

Thank the people who train and challenge you. I’ve never heard of anyone disliking appreciation; let your gratitude be the buffer between who you are/where you’re at and who you want to become/where you want to go. After all, Gertrude Stein said “Silent gratitude isn't very much to anyone.”

It only took a few punches, but I believe I’m better for it. I was scared at first, because I was taking the next step in my career. Working a position in my desired career was a huge challenge because I had not yet learned to apply my education to the real world, which is forcing me to learn patience with myself. It’s new and exciting and I always look forward to what tomorrow may bring.

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Foreign: A Short Story

As the water drips down my body, I lean my head back so the flow of the water can gently rush on to my face. I attempt to open my eyes but the water overtakes my vision. And then I hear it.

“MOM!!!” I take my head out of the shower and in a moment of panic, I shout

“What? Is everything okay?” When I don’t hear their voices call back, I turn the knob of the shower and finish getting out. Wrapping the towel around me, I rush into the room.

“What’s going on in here?”

“Mom, tell her to give it back.”

In a teasing manner, she mimics him “tell her to give it back.”

“Stop, it’s not yours!”

“Guys! Stop! I haven’t even left to go to work yet and you two are already arguing! How am I supposed to leave you alone? And whose is that? Where did you guys get it? We can’t afford anything like that!” And then they do that thing, where suddenly I don’t understand my own children.

“Es porque te lo rejalo la novia verdad?”

“Deja me en paz, Y damelo!”

“Como se llama? Pa-ula… verdad?”

And then I can’t take it anymore… “STOP! Give me the game. None of you are getting it, and for the last time, we speak English in this house, you guys know I don’t understand you!”

“But mom—“

“But nothing, now tell me whose is this?”

“Carl has a new friend at school and she’s a gir—“

“STOP! She just let me borrow her gamegirl, no big deal!”

I begin to calm down. “Carl, I don’t want you borrowing anything from anyone at school. If you break it, we can’t replace it, so please give this back to her first thing Monday morning, understood?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Alright, now I’m gonna go get ready for work, I want you both in bed by 10.”

And then I wait for it… In unison they begin their choir of complaints, “but mom!”

“But nothing! Bed at 10, and I’m asking Mrs. Fernandez from upstairs to come down and check on both of you to make sure you're asleep!” Defeated, they agree.

As I go back into the bathroom to get dressed, my steps seem to get more sluggish every time I walk. I look at the clock on the wall and it reads 5:15, 5:15 and then I plead asking the clock not to change and then 5:16. In a little less than an hour I’ll be back at the gas station, cleaning off the gum from the doors of the restroom. Watching as truckers pass by saying things that are supposed to creep me out but only leave me asking what the words they were saying meant, and then it’ll be 3am and I’ll be home again.

I kiss my kids goodnight, hopefully not goodbye, and they promise to behave. I go outside and see the landlord on the porch sipping on her coffee.

“Hey Susan!” She says in her thick accent

“Hi Mrs. Fernandez. Enjoying the beautiful day I see.”

“Yes of course, going to your second job already?”

“Yes, I told the kids you’ll be down to check on them to make sure they’re asleep by 10.”

“Of course! Don’t worry about it, you stay safe. What time will you be home?”

“Around three.”

“Ay, Dios I’ll be praying for you! Good thing there is no school tomorrow so you don’t have to go to work.”

“Actually, I have to be there at 7am. The janitors have to clean the kitchen at the school since the inspector is coming on Monday.”

“Ahhh well mija, in this world we have to do what we can to survive.”

“Don’t I know it! Well, thank you again Mrs. Fernandez. Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Si gringita! See you tomorrow!”

I walk to my car, each step forward feeling as though I took ten steps back. As I approach my car, I see an officer hovering right over it and so I run.

“Excuse me! No, that’s my car! Please don’t give me a ticket!”

“Perdon? Es que senorita no se puede estacionar aqui, alli esta el rotulo”

“I’m sorry, No puedo- hablar.. esapnol.” He sees me struggle to get the words out and with a face of disgust, he looks at me.

“You no espeak Spanish? This isn’t America! Learn Spanish! I will let you out with a warning pero, the sign esays no parking okay?”

“Si senor, I’m sorry.”

And then he talks into his walkie and leaves. As I get into my car and turn on the ignition, I begin to drive as quick as I can. I look at the clock and it reads 5:45. As I turn into the gas station, I park the car in a secluded place and I close my eyes. As I feel the tears run down my face, I remember being back home in New York. The year was 2019, Carl and Kristin were only five years old at the time.

“Honey! Are you still asleep? I dropped the kids off at school, you should of seen their faces. They were so excited about their first day of kindergarten!”

“Babe, we need to talk.” It surprised me that he was already up and dressed. Usually he doesn’t get up until I have to leave to the clinic to meet my first patient of the day.

“Everything okay?”

“I got drafted.”

“What? But, I don’t understand I thought you weren’t likely to get drafted?”

“I know but there is so much going on and they’re trying to take anyone they can get.”

I took a deep breath. I understood that this wasn’t our choice and besides, he always comes back. He must have seen the worry in my face because then he adds, “but, don’t worry everything will be okay, I always come back.”

“Yeah, you better,” I say as lean my head on his chest.

“Can’t you take the day off? Let’s go do something just you and me!” He says

“Honey, I have a bunch of patients and you know I don’t get paid like I used to. We already lost our first house, we can’t lose this one too.”

“I know. Things are going to get better, don’t worry.” I laugh and then he laughs and for a moment it feels as though nothing is wrong. And then I look at the clock on the T.V. stand and it reads 10:00am.

“Well I don’t have my first patient until 1. What do you say I make us a big breakfast and we eat on the couch as we watch cartoons?” I ask in a convincing way

“This is why I love you,” he responds

As I’m cooking we’re both talking and laughing and he decides to turn on the radio.

“Let’s see if I can find any of the classics on here.”

“Honey, you could just put on Spotify or something.”

“Now you have been hanging out around the kids too long. Come on, the radio’s static noise brings back memories. Remember, when we used to hang out after school and listen to the radio until your mom called, yelling for you to get home?”

“Yeah, and that’s why my parents didn’t like you at first.”

And then our song comes on. As we’re singing along, we get interrupted.

“This just in. New attacks have been reported on parts of New York and New Jersey. We advise all residents of these two states to please remain alert of any attacks, and to not let anyone you do not know into your home. This has been a message from the U.S. federal government. Any further questions please visit us at www.-

And then he gets that call. “I have to take this, turn that off and try to relax before work.”

I nod, then go to the television and turn it on. I think about the twins, but then I remember they’re safe, the guards are all around the school. As soon as the T.V turns on, I regret ever looking. There were a lot of things I regretted that day. The gunshots on the television are so loud that it feels as though it’s coming from outside and then I realize it is…

My phone goes off and just like that, I’m back to reality. The days that followed were even more intense. My husband left and said goodbye for real this time and I kissed him on the lips not knowing it would be the last time. I took the kids to Texas to see my mother and even she told me that running away was the best option. We were always afraid to step foot outside and the kids had to stop going to school. I knew that if I left I would never be able to see my family again but I also knew that my children didn’t have a future there. We left, we left and seven years later we haven’t returned.

I scrape the gum off the floor and hear footsteps come closer and closer.

“Mira quien es, la gringa” I try to ignore him and then he kicks me.

“I’m talking to you, vieja tonta regresa a tu país, nadie quiere alguien de un país podrido”

And I knew this was just the beginning of our worries and this was going to be our new norm, because truth is I don’t belong but, I will keep fighting because my children do. As he walks away and goes back into his truck I release the tears and they gently run down my face. País podrido. Rotten country. The truth hits me and although I shouldn’t, I feel offended but what else can I do?

After that, the gas station is quiet and I hear the static noise of the radio and then our song comes on, but this time I don’t sing along.

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