I was desperately hoping that a car wasn’t parked in Chicken Alley—20 more feet, and I would finally own a piano. Instead a slim man wearing a suit swaggered up Carolina Lane demanding, “Where are you going with that piano?”
My boyfriend, Adam, quickly jumped in, “Oh we found it at the corner.”
“It’s my piano,” the man said.
“Oh, wow, so sorry! We just moved here from New York, and when stuff is left on the street it’s usually up for grabs. We were going to give it a good home.”
“Just put it back.”
As we started pushing the piano (it was on wheels), the man called back to us, “If you’re from New York, you must like good music, come see my band play at 5 Walnut tonight.”
Walking back to Chicken Alley where we live, I grumbled to Adam about the loss of the piano: “Who leaves a rolling piano on the side of the street without a guard, or at least a threatening note? And it was completely out of tune; some of the keys didn’t even work. Finder’s keepers! Seriously, it’s a legal principle—as long as it’s not buried treasure because that automatically belongs to the Queen! No one even looked at us funny.”
Of course, no one looked at us funny. Two yokels pushing a piano late on a Saturday night is mundane in Chicken Alley, which exists in the heart of downtown Asheville. In the few months I have lived here, I now expect the weird.
There are tourists gawking at the large, impossible-to-miss chicken mural at the corner near Woodfin Street, which explains the nomenclature and history of the alley. They’re actually pretty normal. There are the bright young things plugged into their iPhones, Instagraming the graffiti with smug delight. (Or am I the only person who does that?) OK, still pretty normal (right?). And there are the teenagers who come to make out and smoke pot. Normal and American as apple pie.
But there are also the days when I turn the corner and find a lonesome baton-twirler dancing to M.I.A. taping herself on her phone, or a character from the LaZoom tour in full costume waiting for the purple bus to appear. There is a statistically anomalous amount of professional photo-shoots happening here. Mostly these are families staging their annual Christmas cards. (“Season’s Greetings! Look at how cool we still are!”) When my parents were visiting, it was a photographer shooting a very pregnant woman wearing only a bra and tight pants. We all remained silent about what we had seen much like the time we all watched Laurel Canyon together. In case that one didn’t make the Netflix queue, Frances McDormand has a threesome with her son’s fiancée and a musician in a pool. The soundtrack is awesome. Both my mother and I bought it.
I think people are drawn to Chicken Alley by more than just the funny name and abundance of graffiti (though those are what initially attracted me). Chicken Alley has history, which is beguiling in an otherwise sanitized downtown. And the history is amazingly literal. The alley is so named because there was a chicken slaughterhouse (kosher and non) here long ago. Apparently, butchering chickens used to be one of those stolid and respected middle-class professions; the owners of the slaughterhouse lived in relative style on Cumberland Avenue in Montford—away from what must have been overwhelming stinkiness on Chicken Alley. I can attest that the alley now smells quite good—I think it’s the tasty smells wafting up from Mela on Lexington Avenue.
There must be a few people who are drawn to Chicken Alley due to the supposed supernatural happenings. This person is not me. I don’t believe in ghosts. I think I don’t believe in ghosts. I guess I believe in ghosts enough to find them scary, and wish Google hadn’t alerted me to the fact that my street has a resident spirit. He’s a doctor, so I’m hoping he is a kindly ghost along the lines of Doc Graham from Field of Dreams. Unfortunately, Dr. Jamie Smith died during a bar brawl at the old Broadway’s and has been haunting Chicken Alley ever since, which doesn’t seem exactly evocative of the most kindly nature. But I would never imply something unseemly about the dead. You hear that, Doc Smith?
Perhaps the haunting is the reason that “Pat H.” provides the dubious tip on foursquare: “Don’t come here if you aren’t invited.” I can’t imagine this warning is due to the living residents of Chicken Alley. I can only figure that Pat. H is attempting to thwart any threats to his foursquare mayoralty of Chicken Alley. I only know the inhabitants to be uniformly quick with a greeting and a smile, as well as extremely patient even when I (my movers, technically) backed a 22-foot moving truck down the alley blocking car and foot traffic for hours.
There was one time that a pair of French-kissing teenagers glared at me. I made them move from their perch so I could drive my wagon out of the alley after unloading a haul of groceries from Earth Fare. While I didn’t worry so much about feeling unwelcome, I did have the unwelcome realization that I had entered a new phase in my life where I am now the yuppie-douche establishment—at least on some sort of Chicken Alley pecking order. Whatever. I love it here, and it’s not like I can even afford a piano. So if you’ve got one, you know where to find me.
Elizabeth A. Newman is a native of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Having recently passed the New York Bar, she is very aware of the difference between lost and stolen property.