ON A THURSDAY, AS RUSH-HOUR TRAFFIC BEGAN to weave and hook, Ukiah Morrison found a patch of downtown grass, stripped to his tie-dye lime-green thong-style underwear and plopped himself onto his belly. He lay there, half-naked, a citizen of the town of Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville had recently become America’s new freak capital. The place overflowed with hippies, neohippies, punks, witches, pagans, the homeless and lost, the homeless and found, fairies, dykes, braggarts, dreadlocked bliss ninnies, thieves, crystal worshippers, free-Leonard Peltiers, free-Mumias, potheads, anarchists, performance artists and so on. They’d converged on Asheville. More arrived daily. They came for the majestic, electrifying charge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, for the kick-ass bud of the region (so well reviewed in High Times) and for the peace, love and understanding that ought to be concomitant. But mostly, they said, they came to this place for reasons yet to be discovered.
Morrison took a swig of water and pulled down his underpants, freeing his buttocks to the sun.
Some giggling girls in a Ford yelled, “What’s the goal?”
Morrison waved. “To be happy. Good goal, huh?”
His full legal name was Ukiah Sativa Morrison, though it used to be Ronald Abraham Matthews. He had long dark hair parted in the center, a handsome soul patch, the torso of a body-builder and the bowed legs of a grass-hopper who’d been carrying too much weight. He was twenty-six. He’d arrived in Asheville two and a half years earlier, from a crappy Florida town, and since then had been a baker, a waiter, a male stripper, a nude model for local painters, a bartender, a personal trainer and a laze-about who occasionally lived in his car. During the greatest bull market in history, he earned less than $15,000 a year. He’d been twice married, was once in the Army and once a jail guard. He would gladly see his mother dead. He smoked lots of weed and swallowed many wrinkled mushrooms. He often made a pesk of himself at Asheville City Council meetings — and most recently had compounded that peskiness by running for a seat on the Asheville City Council, which so stirred up the state of local politics that everyone in town soon knew who he was, and most of the Establishment wished he would just dry up and blow away, like a tumbling tumbleweed.
In truth, he was the freakiest freak in the whole freaking town, and this was quite an achievement, and he had been happier only once in his life, and that was when his daughter, Angel, was still alive.
Taking a deep breath, he scratched himself.
“I love this town,” he said. “It’s a great town for me to be in. It’s extremely perfect. It rocks. It’s just the place. I don’t know how anybody could not fall in love with it. Heaven. I may go away, but I’ll probably never leave. So I try to get involved in everything, just because I expect this is my future.”
His cell phone rang. ” ‘Lo?”
It was his lawyer, George Oliver. He told Morrison to swing by the office at 8:30 Monday morning. ” ‘Kay.”
Afterward, Morrison frowned and stretched out again, staring at the traffic that curled by him down the hill, past the Buncombe County courthouse and City Hall and toward the tunnel leading to Asheville’s suburbs. Across the street, metal scaffolding rose up one side of the Asheville police station. Four construction workers were taking a break. They fanned out at the stoplight in their dusty hard hats and smelly T-shirts, and when the light turned they bulled forward over four lanes onto Morrison’s triangle of grass.
Morrison didn’t lift his head. He liked the view where it was, the passing cars, the occasional friendly horn honk, the clarifying green smell of the grass beneath his nose, the pleasant remains of a good buzz, heaven.
One of the construction workers puffed up his muscles and squared his jaw, his face turning scarlet. “You can do whatever the police will let you do, but I tell you this,” he said at last. “If my kids and their mother come down the road and see your naked ass laying out, I’m going to stomp the shit out of you the very next day. You can take it to the bank. You can believe it or not. But that’s a fact. You follow me?”
Morrison didn’t say anything.
“I don’t give a fuck what rights you think you got,” the construction worker went on, “but you don’t need to lay out naked in public.”
the contrary, Morrison thought, that’s just what the public needs, men, women and children, all of them — a good rattling of their chains and fetters, set them free.
He wasn’t like them, he didn’t think. He was already free. He could do whatever he wanted: smoke pot on a bench at the Radisson in the middle of a police convention or do this striptease in the park. He thought of it as teaching by example. He was a kind of teacher. He was doing the community good. How could anyone fail to see that? Nor did he think that he was on a collision course with anything but increasing and everlasting freedom to be himself in the most perfect town in the entire country.
“I’ll stomp the shit out of you,” the construction worker repeated before leaving, “the very next day.”
And then the freakiest freak shut his eyes, more or less pretending he had not heard a word.
IN THE LATE 1800S, if you suffered from tuberculosis, from fever, weakness, loss of appetite, cough, sputum, phthisis, bronchitis or catarrh, and you wanted to live, you went to Asheville. TB was the Number One killer in the nation. Asheville was the Number One cure. It was a place of hospitals and sanitariums, and from all over the country it attracted the very rich (most notably the Vanderbilts), as well as the suffering poor. And what these outsiders came for was the air. It was the air, rising pure and crisp and fragrant from the great welcoming cleft of the French Broad River, that patched you up and sent you on your way. “Asheville air affects me like champagne — it goes to my head,” babbled one visitor of old. “I’m apt to do things for which I will be sorry in the grim dawn of New York.”
A century later it’s still the air that draws outsiders to Asheville or, rather, what’s in the air: the feeling that somehow, here, everything might turn out OK. It doesn’t matter that the Rev. Billy Graham maintains a major training facility six miles east of Asheville; or that the Southern Baptists are a militant force in town, especially with regard to pagans and porn; or that the cops have started hassling the homeless kids at the main downtown hangout, Pack Square, for breaking the curfew laws, letting their dogs crap willy-nilly and washing out their armpits in the lavatories of the finer restaurants nearby. The feeling is still that life may have sucked up until now, but in Asheville it will pan out. The lingering scent of incense and innocence on the skirts of the pretty young hippie girls kicking along Lexington Avenue is the lingering scent of hope. There’s the sense here, too, among the kids, that pretty much anything goes. If you want to be a radical fairy, that’s fine; if you also want to paint yourself from head to toe with mud and call yourself one of the Mud People, that’s even better. If you’re homeless and want to camp in any of the half-dozen makeshift camps pitched in the woods down Broadway past the interstate, you’re welcome to it, though of course the police will occasionally hose you out like you were no better than head lice.
Sipping coffee at Beanstreets, snacking on pizza at the Mellow Mushroom, Dumpster-diving for dinner, standing in the middle of an intersection eating jelly pastries out of a plastic container and offering some to passing strangers (“Hey, how are you? Hungry? Try it. Fantastic stuff!”), the kids arriving in Asheville don’t have too much of a quarrel with anyone, except maybe the cops. And they aren’t too bad, either, for cops.
“It’s the best town ever,” said Myah Hubbell, a high school dropout who wears her hair twisted up into horn shapes. “It’s really, really creative. Everybody’s really enthusiastic about expressing themselves. It’s just amazing.”
“You’re supposed to graduate high school, go to college, get a job, work until you’re sixty, retire, buy an RV and die,” said pigtailed Aaron Funk, leader of a local performance-art troupe. “We aren’t on that plan.”
“I am a queer man, and this is the most beautiful place in the country for who I am,” said a radical fairy named Joel.
“The second I got here, I picked up on something,” said Ukiah Sativa Morrison. “It was immediately apparent. There were all these people in the downtown streets being cool. Every-body being cool. Just walk up to a stranger, smile, hug, eat lunch, ‘What you doing later?,’ smoke some pot. There’s that wavelength, that connection. One night during open mike at Beanstreets, I got up: ‘I just want to talk to everybody: I love you people. You’re really cool.’ “
At the time of his Beanstreets soliloquy, Morrison seemed like just another dude passing through. But he didn’t leave, he stayed, and he wasn’t just another dude. After settling in, he began showing up at Asheville City Council meetings regularly and speaking out on such issues as typically concern a pot-smoking, male-stripper-type guy. He got to meet and know the people who ran the town. One day, while talking about his fledgling male-stripper business to Asheville city attorney Bob Oast — private parties only, $300 a show, using the stage name MoJo Risin’ — Morrison learned that in North Carolina it is legal to expose one’s buttocks in public. Shortly thereafter, on Easter Sunday, he showed up downtown, near Pack Square, and stripped to his bikini underwear for the first time. Dressed like that, he sometimes picked up litter or handed flowers to tourists. Other times, he arrived with his body painted with advertisements for his business. The city toyed with the idea of busting him on an illegal-sign beef but could not find any existing laws that applied. Asheville would have to put up with Morrison, and maybe put up with him for a long time, for it looked like he was in town to stay.