A NUANCED REDUCTION OF HUMAN MISERY
IS A row of large rusted yellow dumpsters. People in blue coveralls scale the
sides and dive in. They root around and toss their findings out to others
standing on the asphalt. There are cries of triumph and delight emanating from
within the metal bowels. A man with a megaphone shouts encouragement: "Very
good, Maureen. That's Chicken Tikka. Hot bar stuff." Nearby, a converted school
bus, painted down the side with letters five-feet tall: Underbelly Tours.
"Ours is a simple philosophy," the man with the megaphone informs me. "Don't just see how the other half lives- be how the other half lives." He is Kyle Harris, founder and CEO of Underbelly Tours, an innovative new addition to the tourism paradigm. The dumpster dive takes place behind The Fresh Market, a gourmet supermarket in Asheville, North Carolina, and the people joining in are a new breed of tourist-affluent, educated, on the hunt for authentic experience.
"We do dumpster-dives, panhandling tutorials, we have our Under the Bridge excursion series, Salvation Army overnight lockdown, Plasma Center tours-" Kyle interrupts himself to pick something up off the pavement. "Hey, I just ground-scored a bagel." He lifts the megaphone to his mouth and calls out, "Hey everybody! Gather around!"
The people in coveralls scramble out of the dumpsters and gather around. Everybody sports stick-on nametags printed with black Sharpie: Jim and Doris, Shelby and Regina, Lenny, Alvie and Lewis and Holly, Kirk and Maureen, Opal and Reginald. "Look here," Kyle says, "See this bagel? It's fine. See? It's fine. Look." He takes a bite. "Mmm. Red currants and nutmeg. You see? Opal? Shelby?" He holds it out, making sure everybody gets a look.
"Guys, this is what we call a ground score. Can I get you all to say that with me? Ground score."
The tour group murmurs ground score.
After everyone has had an opportunity to witness the bagel, Kyle pulls me aside and in a confidential tone says, "I need to show you something."
I follow him around to the front of the building, through the lot, through the sliding glass doors of The Fresh Market. The AC offers welcome relief from the July heat. A tasteful string arrangement piped in from somewhere above gives the shop a nebulous Angela Lansbury sort of feel.
"This is where it all begins," Kyle says. "To understand what's happening out there, you have to understand what's happening in here."
He leads me through the aisles. "It began in the eighties, with the introduction of slightly better coffee," Kyle tells me. "Used to be you had normal everyday goods, like TV dinners and Wonder Bread. There were luxury goods like caviar and champagne, but they weren't for you. Then, unexpectedly, in the newly popular bookstore coffee shops, you could get a mug of fresh-ground French Roast that tasted like hazelnuts. Middle America was blindsided: 'What the hell is this?' they wanted to know, 'What does this signify? Who are we now?' A lot of people retreated to Folgers, 'I want my normal course-ground Robusta coffee,' they said, 'I'm not a Parisian.' But a few courageous individuals bought the coffee mills and the beans and started grinding it up at home.
Now look. Bluefoot mushrooms! White truffle oil! Yubari melons! Sevruga caviar! Devon crab! Swedish moose cheese! Wagyu steaks! Everything is upmarket. Everything is artisanal. Everything is fit for a king. Meanwhile, those normal everyday goods are getting harder to find. You have to trek all the way out to Wal-Mart to find macaroni and cheese. Soon there will be NOTHING BUT luxury goods.
This is an echo of the shift towards Epicureanism that is taking hold of our personal lives. Used to be you retired to Florida, got skin cancer, and died playing solitaire. A Florida retirement was the Folgers of life experiences. Then came the bucket list: 'You absolutely must swim with the dolphins at least once in your life.' But a retiree can work through the most wide-ranging bucket list in a couple of years. After they've swum with the dolphins, ridden a camel past a pyramid and learned Urdu, what's left?
They start looking for experiences that are more nuanced. Eventually they travel to Sardinia to eat casu marzu, the cheese with the maggots in it, or visit the Karni Mata rat temple in India. Or they go on one of our tours."
Our panhandling instructor is a nondescript man with sandy hair and aviator-frame glasses named Randy. We gather around him in a doorway between a sushi bar and a bong shop. On either side of us, competing panhandlers work the tourists on small sections of sidewalk, called turf.
"Now I could simply say spare change." Randy says. "There's nothing wrong with that. Lean into pedestrian traffic, stick my hand out, and mutter spare change. But who would listen? Nobody. They'd skip over me and give their money to somebody with a more poignant hard-luck story. A generic pitch like Excuse me sir, I'm from out of town, and my car got towed, and I need twenty dollars to get it out of impound isn't enough. People are more discriminating than that.
I have a rare genetic illness. Sounds bleak and mysterious, doesn't it? Now you're interested, now you're involved. I suffer under a curse. See how that works? I hail from coal-mining country, where I lost my wife to ovarian cancer. Bleak, right? Detailed. That's an engaging pitch. Now that you have their attention, ask for a specific amount of money. I need 47 cents for a bus ticket.
A sunburned tourist couple walks past. Randy approaches them. "I was bitten by a very rare spider," he says. They pause for a moment exchanging glances. "A six-eyed sand spider," Randy continues. "I need fourteen dollars." The couple begins to move on. "My daughter was a concert pianist before she died of leukemia," Randy says. The couple pauses again. "I need fourteen dollars."
The woman digs in her purse and hands Randy a five.
"See how that works?" he asks, returning to the doorway. "You just have to season it right. OK. Now I want you all to get a chance to try out the pitches you've been working on. Doris, what have you got for me?"
Doris, a small-boned woman from Pensacola, steps up. "I was a ballet dancer before I was injured in a fall," she says. "My career was ruined, and in my depression I turned to prescription painkillers. I need a dollar and seventy-five cents."
"Good." Randy says. "It's bitter, like Seville orange rind."
Doris approaches a tourist family and tries out her pitch. They give her two dollars.
She comes back beaming. "Very good, Doris!" Randy says. "Nicely done. Now you, Lenny."
Lenny steps up, a former insurance adjustor from Bellbrook, Ohio. "I was an insurance adjustor," Lenny says. "My boss stole my wife and fired me. I need three-fifty."
"Nice one, Lenny. I like the authenticity. Maybe the sauce is a bit bland, though. My boss kidnapped my wife. Try that."
Each of us gets a turn. I earn seventy-five cents with my story about growing up an orphan in rural Kentucky, until the orphanage burned down.
On the outskirts of town, at the end of an unmarked dirt road, is Lilliputania, an intentional community of tiny houses. We have come to meet our next instructor, Johnny, and his wife Caitlyn, who live in a ten-by-ten house made of recycled juice-boxes. They share an open-concept living room/dining room/kitchen/bedroom/bathroom.
"We took the road less travelled by," Johnny says.
He and Caitlyn remain standing, having offered me the only chair, a milk crate. "We take turns sitting," Caitlyn says. The rest of the tour group crowds outside, peering in through the windows.
"It's good for your circulation to alternate between standing and sitting," Johnny says. "And sometimes I go lie down outside. There's a grassy mound."
Caitlyn and Johnny are unintentional spokespersons for the tiny house movement. Originally from Ohio, they moved to Asheville in search of community.
"We'd had enough of the rat race and the plasticity," says Caitlyn. "We wanted to go somewhere authentic. So we traveled south."
"I like mountain music," Johnny says. "Bluegrass-with the banjos and the fiddles and all that-it's authentic. I traded in my laptop for a really nice washboard and finger-thimbles. I became a washboard player."
"He grew a long beard," Caitlyn says. "We started wearing costumes from depression-era stage shows."
"These came in really handy," Johnny says, slapping the leg of his denim overalls.
But the city swallowed them up.
"In the beginning it was fine," Caitlyn says. "Our rent was a thousand a month, but it was doable."
"I was getting a lot of washboard gigs."
"There were a lot of jug bands then."
"Then Caitlyn lost her waitressing job."
"I got caught stealing melba toast from the salad bar. I was so hungry."
"Then the washboard gigs started drying up."
Eventually, they were evicted from their apartment.
"We needed a solution, fast. We'd heard about tiny houses, of course, everybody's living in tiny houses these days. It's affordable, because you can make a house out of almost anything. Wooden pallets. Sticks. I know a man who lives in a refrigerator box, and another one who lives in a packing crate. It's retro. Like living during the Hoover administration."
"I like boxed juice," Caitlyn says. "So it was kind of a no-brainer."
"We always sort of wanted to live off-grid anyway," Johnny says. "To eat food that we grew with our own hands."
"We grow truffles now," Caitlyn says.
"Wild pigs have eaten most of them."
"Still, we're hopeful."
In the meantime, Johnny works for Kyle Harris and Underbelly Tours, giving lessons on the theft of urban chickens.
BUK BUK BUK BUK BUK BUK BUK
We tool around the darkened streets in the bus, pausing to gas up at CitiStop. A man in pajamas lingers in the lot scratching a quick pick lottery card with his fingernail. He scowls, tosses the card on the ground, and drives off.
We head down into Biltmore Forest, skirting the edge of a gated community of towering McMansions. The windows in the houses flicker and flash with the light of immense televisions. Johnny cuts the engine and we coast into a darkened cul-de-sac. Standing in the aisle, his face half-illuminated by the streetlight, he gives us a short speech about the historical significance of chicken-thieving, referring to it as a lost art. He runs through a list of protocols: be quiet, be stealthy, be quick. Visualize the weasel. He hands everyone a burlap sack.
We pass through a vacant lot and up a steep wooded hill at the rear of the subdivision, blue coveralls flashing moonlit through gaps in the forest canopy. Shelby and Opal are both significantly challenged-he has a bum leg, she's overweight-but we all finally make it to the crest of the hill.
The subdivision is surrounded by a ten-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire, with guard turrets flanking the main gate. Johnny produces a set of snips from his overalls and begins cutting a hole in the fence. We duck as the headlights from passing cars sweep the darkened yards, but we remain unobserved, and Johnny makes quick work of the remaining links. He squeezes through the aperture first and then holds the fencing back so the rest of us can squeeze through. We creep across the yard, keeping to the shadows of the trees.
The chickens are clucking softly in the henhouse, brooding in the dark. Johnny stops us to give us a final whispered briefing. "All right. Now, when I open the coop, these chickens might start raising a ruckus. We need to get them into the sacks quick as possible and get the hell out of here. Remember: be quiet, be stealthy, be quick. If you get separated from the group, we meet at the bus. If you get there late, we're leaving without you."
Johnny lifts the latch, swings open the door to the coop, and we start pulling the chickens out, passing them down the line one by one, and stuffing them into the sacks. They are surprisingly docile.
But somebody trips an electric eye, a dozen spotlights click on at once, and the backyard is suddenly ablaze in white light. In the chaos of the moment everybody starts running, some in the direction of the house, in a blind panic. "Make for the fence!" Johnny shouts. We grab our chickens and dash through the yard, squeeze through the hole in the fence and crash down through the woods, stumbling over roots and fallen branches in the dark. I see Kirk fall and roll. Something gouges my knee and the pain is excruciating but I stumble on, and a moment later we're back on the bus, careening wildly through the dark, triumphant and exhilarated.
Lenny is missing, but no one seems to care.
On the way back to Lilliputania, we stop by a parking lot jammed with gourmet food trucks, everyone chattering, giddy with the excitement of the haul, comparing stories and war wounds. Johnny gathers up the burlap sacks full of chickens and exits the bus. He raps on the back door of the Faisinjan truck, rap-rap-rap, and then a pause, rap-rap. The door opens and a thin shaft of light streams out. The woman in the aperture seems wary, scanning the lot with squinted eyes.
Johnny climbs in and the door swings shut behind him. Somebody inside keeps peering at the bus through a gingham-curtained window. There are a few food trucks in the lot still open, a bibimbap truck, a lobster roll truck, and a couple others. When I get out to stretch my legs a homeless man approaches me.
"I was bitten by a very rare spider," he says. "My daughter was a watercolorist who died from a brain tumor. I need twelve dollars."
"What are you going to do with the money?" I ask.
"They have a lobster roll over there that's to die for, with lemon vinaigrette and garlic butter."
In a few minutes, Johnny exits the food truck with empty burlap sacks. He is covered in blood and feathers. He tucks some bills into his pocket.
That night I have the dream with Angelina Jolie in it again, the one where she's wearing the black headdress from Maleficent, but this time instead of giving me the enema she leads me down a rabbit hole. Midway down the tunnel, she stops and grabs one of the roots sticking through the dirt wall and tugs it out, clods of dirt raining down. She turns to me and says, "Stick this in your mouth and chew on it."
I chew on the root. It tastes like Scottish lobster marinated in cognac.
"Mmm." I murmur.
"Try another one."
She tugs another root out of the wall and hands me the end. This one tastes like sautéed shallots. The next one tastes like caviar soaked in champagne. Then smoked salmon. Then quail eggs.
I feel tingly all over.
"It's all so delicious."
"It's human misery," she says.
"So many intricate flavors."
"I know, right?"
A doe-eyed teen with a My Little Pony forelock and tight trousers like the leggings of a medieval pageboy drops a dollar into a hat on the sidewalk while a wiry man with a tumbleweedy beard picks out a contrapuntal dirge on a pawnshop banjo. Tourists in capacious white shorts and blue casual shirts with back vents-like the billowing sails of New England schooners-drift past. One points out the Thomas Kincaid in the shop window-an English cottage, yard choked with flowers, dumbfounded by illumination-mentally measuring it for the space above the sofa. My final interview with Kyle is coming to an end. We sit in the busy open-air courtyard of a craft brewery, drinking pints and watching the passersby.
There is a pregnant woman panhandling, moving from patron to patron, keeping a wary eye peeled for the servers. I can overhear her pitch: "I was training to be a nun, but the convent was destroyed in a fire. Then my brother, who has Down's syndrome, had to be admitted to a full-time care facility. I need eight dollars."
Kyle tells me of his plans for the future. "We're going to franchise this bitch. We'll have Underbelly Tours from here to Portland."
"Well, I'm not supposed to talk about it, because it's still in the planning phases, but-" he lowers his voice, "-we're thinking about doing a Foxconn sort of thing. A lockdown experience."
"The beauty of it is we'll get to retail the products our groups are forced to manufacture."
The homeless woman's water breaks on the sidewalk.
Several tourists go over and take selfies with her.
Originally published in The Weeklings, July 23, 2014