Cumberland, 2000-2002


(This is part nine of a series. Part eight is here.)

In fall of 2000, days before the election, Jordan told me she was moving to New York.

“My old friend and her brother have rented a place in the East Village,” she said. “I feel like New York is maybe a thing I should do.”

I felt like New York was maybe a thing I should do, and that I was endlessly squandering my best life by not having done it years ago, but I was still living with my parents and paying off my failures in weekly installments from my paltry paycheck, so like, beggars on horses, comrade.

I pouted. Jordan reminded me that she’d never been to New York, strictly speaking. I reminded Jordan that I’d never been to California, strictly speaking. That didn’t mean I was just going to up and vamoose to San Francisco.

“It’s different for me, though. I’ve already moved across the country. And I’m—“Jordan shook a desultory hand around at the patchouli-reeking, beanie-wearing wannabes at the hometown coffeehouse, “here.”

I couldn’t argue with her. It was a depressing scene. The week before we’d been to a reading, where one of the town’s most arrogant tryhards had tried to pass off a Baudelaire poem as his own, and literally no one, save Jordan and I, even noticed, let alone cared. Fuck these provinicial assholes, she’d said. Because most of them were assholes. They’d been assholes since high school. I could verify. High on their own supply. Even before they discovered cocaine, and David Foster Wallace.  “The only decent people from here leave,” I told her, then, and meant it, too. Even though I appreciated the irony. She was decent, so she should leave. I was doomed, at least temporarily, to stay, until I earned back my decency.

Sitting here in Limbo. I think they were even playing Jimmy Cliff over the PA.

Jordan leaving meant I was stuck at my parents until I could find someone else willing to move in with me. If I begged her to stay, what would that say about my relative decency? Might as well embrace the worst parts of myself.

“New York’s the most overrated city in the world,” I lied. “You’d probably hate it.”

I wish I could tell you I felt bad when she told me she’d decided not to go, but I didn’t. I felt relieved.

One thing for sure, Jordan had to get out of her apartment ASAP. The situation at my parents’ house may have felt crucial but we had about 4000 square feet of tract mansion to lose each other in. The garret shithole Jordan lived in was about double the size of Mom’s closet. And she shared it with the nearly 7-foot tall stoner son of my father’s girlfriend. We’ll call him Jeb. He was a mess, but a qualitatively different sort of mess—the underacheiving, inauthentically folksy, WASPy southern good old boy kind– than me and Jordan. I couldn’t quite figure out how Jordan, a French speaking aesthete with a fondness for gold lame, had hitched up with him in the first place. Neither could she, from the sounds of it. She spent a lot of her time sighing at him across their tiny apartment and frantically scrawling down notes for the memoir she was writing about their time together. Working title: Whatever, Jeb.

We decided to move in together and undertook the process of looking for a place. I was picky. I wanted something historic, ideally, high ceilings, chandeliers, all that. North/Central to downtown. It needed to look nice, but no more than 40% renovated. “Ideally the paint will be chipped in an artful way.”

First we visited the town’s preeminent local property manager, whose office was located in the renovated ballroom where I’d once taken ballet. He led us through the old hotel and showed us an alarmingly renovated apartments that looked very much like a yuppie dorm and not at all like the cobwebbed haunt of hippie soup kitchens, skittish cats and emphysemic Jazz Age relics that it had once been.  “I remember when this hall was nothing but pigeons and an old lady with marcel waves that called me Young Dolores when I was five and escaping ballet,” I said to Jordan, while young leasing agent prattled on about fitness facilities.

The next two places we looked at were unhygienic basement shitholes in nice neighborhoods that smelled like scorched potatoes and incontinence. But when I went to look at Cumberland, I knew it would be the one, even before I saw it. I’d loved The neighborhood with  its blocks of shady streets with limping Victorians, edged by downtown, a huge baroque cemetery, the local Shakespeare Reperatory Company, and the former mental hospital where Zelda Fitzgerald burned alive and a child Nina Simone (apocryphally) took piano lessons, since forever. For most of my life, middle-class white parents spoke in low tones of the horrors of The Neighborhood, but I’d always gone to school with kids that lived over there. Most of them struck me as completely normal, not even remotely scary, but parents tended to be full of shit, especially otherwise liberal white baby boomers, who would do pretty much anything to avoid saying, the neighborhood is scary because it’s mostly black people that  live there.  

My middle school bus route took me right down Cumberland. It was a stunner of an avenue, lined with enormous trees and sidewalks. I’d rest my head on the window glass and crush on the shingled turrets and the embroidered porches. The pretty dormers embedded in overgenerous mansard roofs. The overgrown gardens with the serpentine paths. “All those houses look haunted,” Irish Name would say to me when we rode past. And I’d think, yes, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if they actually were.

I wasn’t the only one to harbor such fantasies. My hometown is a mecca for castle fans and visionaries of grand and romantic squalor, armed with just enough money and spare time to remake The Neighborhood (and since, countless others) into the Tesla-driving, Whole Foods-shopping version of what they are today. By the time I was in high school, the gentrification had begun in earnest. The houses looked better, I guess—cleaner, safer—and the residents of were significantly whiter, if still reasonably young and not-rich-exactly. And seven years later, when I went to look at Cumberland, The Neighborhood boasted a decent bookshop and an extremely fancy bodega (R.I.P) where you could buy cappucino, a bottle of Barolo, and Brie and green apple paninis, along with your cigarettes and toilet paper.  The house catty-corner across the street from the apartment building, a rambling old stone and shingled mansion with a Rapunzelish tower over the port-cochere, had gone on the market in 2000 with a historically high price tag[1] for The Neighborhood.

My new landlord mentioned this to me as I toured a third floor walk-up with vines growing in the windows and a kitchen straight out of 1925. There was a table and benches that folded out of the wall beside an ironing board that did likewise. Most magnificently there was an expansive west-facing porch, its high roof supported by Corinthian columns whose peeling paint merely made them look more embellished. I looked out over the treetops and the street below, only half listening when he mentioned that the building had asbestos, lead pipes, lead paint, and no metal fire escapes, and that with the lease, I’d need to sign a waiver stating that I wouldn’t sue if I got brain damage or cancer or burned alive because I couldn’t get downstairs.

“Fine,” I said, and asked for a price.

We moved in on New Year’s Eve, on a day so frightfully cold, the air hurt to breathe. I assembled a motley crew of helpers, including my parents, my stepfather, Dad’s girlfriend, Art Night, Ringer, and the bass player and rhythm guitarist of Apollo’s band ( Apollo himself deigned not to show up) to haul furniture, accessories and countless boxes of books and records up three flights of highly flammable, lead painted stairs. Jordan brought along Jeb, and her two brothers and future sister-in-law. It took all fourteen of us something like nine hours to get in.

The toilet stopped working two days later, around the same time that we were made aware that, even with windows closed, the draft was such that the wind would push objects off tabletops and scatter unsecured paper. We called the landlord. He told us the apartment was for charm, not for comfort and that he recommended we hang blankets and use a bucket to flush the toilet. Jordan threatened to rent strike. He threatened to evict. I waited she was gone to work and mentioned to the landlord that my stepfather owned a large local commercial real estate brokerage and development firm. And that my stepfather, upon visiting the apartment, had casually noted that his friends at the County Inspector’s office might be interested in Cumberland’s myriad deficiencies. Like, nice building, shame if it were condemned.

I felt ashamed to do it. I didn’t think I’d ever played the don’t you know who my parents are? card, but it worked. And from that point on, we had no problems with the landlord.


The building was a not-quite-first wave mix of gentrifying underacheivers. Across the hall were a friendly pair of young women I initially believed to be a couple but revealed themselves, at a zealot-eyed party they invited us to–full sparkling grape juice and Christian folk–to be a couple of evangelical cultists. Downstairs was a music student, who played Chopin with the door open when she thought no one was home. The second floor was a surly couple of motorcycle enthusiasts and, in the basement, a couple of locally famous junkies, so lovely you could almost believe they weren’t careening toward tragedy.

I spent a lot of time marching up and down the backstairs after innocently depowering half the building (you could not, say, make toast andcoffee at the same time without—literally– blowing a fuse). I made friends with neighborhood cats. I walked up to the fancy bodega for coffee. I was offered a job by an actual pimp on the overpass that crossed the freeway between The Neighborhood and Downtown. “Girl, you could earn a lot of money if you came to work for me,” he said.

And I was like, “Dude, I’m already whored out to the advertising industry, and I’m pretty happy with my insurance plan. But what are you offering in the way of a 401k?”

We walked back and forth from town for anything and everything—Sunday bagels, art films, books, endless nights at the 2 ½ marginally decent bars in downtown Asheville at the time. It felt tremendously cosmopolitan. It was such a relief to walk places after my months in Deep Suburbia and my years in the wasteland surrounding my college apartment. I was happy when I walked up to my apartment. Even when I was broke (I always was) or lonely (often) or annoyingly preoccupied with the bullshit business of finishing my obviously bullshit college degree at the bullshit local outpost of the state university (I did, finally).  

The first summer we lived in Cumberland, Jordan went home, and spent the season some two thousand miles and three time zones away. I had endless parties in her absence. We drank cheap beer and chilled red wine on the porch because the apartment was hot and the only place the air moved in the summer was outside. I tried to start a band (didn’t take). I applied for a job as a rock critic (got it). When Jordan came back in the fall, it didn’t surprised me when she said it was only temporarily. Until Christmas. She was a creature of the West Coast. I’d always known she’d go back.

And I was leaving too, bound for Chapel Hill on what must have sounded like a lark ror most people, but seemed reasonable at the time, back when I thought it was just a stop off on the way to New York City.

I cried when Jordan moved out, but loved the feel of the apartment as mine alone for my last five remaining months before I left my hometown, finally, for good.

Those five months were the best time I’d had in my hometown since I was a kid, maybe the best time I ever had there.  There was way too much drinking and too many parties with the same three dozen or so people, at least half of whom were also on their way out of town. All the decent people leave. I’d come home wondering why I was leaving, things are kind of great, maybe I could stay here forever, which is exactly when you know it’s the right time to leave a place.

We hired a couple of guys to get me out of the apartment on a mild May morning. It took them about an hour and a half to strip the joint of furniture and boxes. Afterwards, I left my key in the mailbox and drove away to my new house.

Cumberland still stands, still unrenovated, on its gorgeous corner. Whenever I’m back in The Neighborhood, I find reason drive past (easier now that I have one close friend living up the block and another close friend that opened a bar two blocks behind it). I’m always astonished it hasn’t burned down or been sold and transformed into fancy condos. I’m always a relieved that it’s still there. It probably still has vines growing in the bedroom window. It probably still howls with wind in January. It probably still operates like a sweet, drunken chapter of someone’s season that almost goes on for too long.

[1] 600K. Locals will note this would be a reasonable asking price for a much smaller house in The Neighborhood these days, and that equivalent properties and now regularly sell for seven figures. Which no one who actually works for a living in my hometown can actually afford. Which means The Neighborhood is, these days, increasingly the province of Assholes From Other Places who have priced out the first and second wave gentrifiers, because real estate irony is a beast of a thing.

The Author

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