Sunday, September 21, 2003

Getting to Know You: A True Southern Gentleman

Jack Parsons, Toronto, February 2003

:: If you'd told me a few months ago that I would be spending part of my autumn in North Carolina, soaking up the pleasures of small town life, nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains bordering on Tennessee and South Carolina, at the very least I would have glared at you. I'm pretty much an urban bunny and while Toronto may not be Manhattan, it passes for cosmopolitan in my country, Canada. At about 70,000 people, Asheville, NC, does not a metropolis make.

But what a marvelous town it is! Schumacher got it right: Small can be beautiful!

Jack at home at his piano, Asheville, September 2003

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to meet a youthful man of the theatre and arts, Jack Parsons, who, while he was raised in West Virginia, settled in Asheville in 1987. Like many of us, he's had his share of good relationships, and sorrows from the loss of departed loves. Today he lives in a modestly sprawling home steps from a quiet lake near a bird sanctuary and just a ten minute drive from the centre of town and his successful corporate career -- and you sense immediately that this is a man who comes home for lunch.

You don't know Jack? Come closer and let me share some reflections about a few hours he spent with me displaying his energy and quiet compassion for life.

After a somewhat harrowing experience actually getting to Asheville from Toronto, via huricane Isabel, Jack met me at Asheville's exceedingly modest (ok, ok -- small) airport on Thursday evening. He drives a bright sunny yellow Cooper Mini (now made by BMW, these legendary English "bugs", at one time called the Morris Mini Classic, reek of a bell-bottom, flower-power age). I was already some nine hours later than expected but Jack was gracious and attentive.

Home is on a hill, with a variety of trees and shrubs dotting the sides of a steep, curved driveway which provide shade and beauty to the front of the house. At the back, there is a wooden porch which we later held a party on, and an outdoor stone bar-be-que. And inside, a well-appointed and functional kitchen; a spacious living room with a baby grand in the front bay window; a dining room (or more accurately a dining room table in the dining room and very little else); two baths; two bedrooms; and a mainly self-contained wing plus a full basement. A lot to dust for one!

Alexander and Jack the weekend they met at Kirkridge in Pennsylvania, January 2003

Photographs are everywhere. In amongst some very attractive paintings by local artists are scattered dozens of frames, of all sizes, showing off different facets of Jack's more recent years: his loves, his family, and most of all, his many friends. I was somewhat taken aback to discover a half dozen pictures of myself already displayed in various locations (we had met already three times this year, once in Pennsylvania and twice in Toronto). He "curates" his picture gallery in logical groupings, with labels; still other frames rotate from storage for variety.

Barley's brew pub, Asheville, NC

:: On Friday morning we took a tour of Asheville, beginning with Malaprops, a local independent bookstore which is aggressively author-friendly and has a very well-chosen and broad selection of books. Its gay and lesbian section, and the atmosphere itself, was my first clue that Asheville truly has more than a hint of mint and displays it matter-of-factly. A cafe, and performance space, adjoins the front room. Part of the tour included viewing the town's biggest pun, a sculpture of an iron in front of the historic Flat Iron Building. (Get it?) Lunch consisted of some local fare at a modest venue called Early Girl Eatery which overlooks Wall Street from the second floor. The corn bread was especially scrummy. Beer seems to be a local pastime and more than a few bars and pubs could be found with at least a dozen brews on tap (one boasted 48). These folks are serious about their beer and they have every right to be proud. After sampling one at Barley's Taproom and Pizzeria, we headed back to the car (parking fee 50 cents) and returned home to freshen up.

The early evening found us back in the town centre for the Downtown After Five street festival, a recurring summer event, held at the base of the Vance Monument in Pack Square. After showing my passport, I was branded with a sticky yellow polyester tag and allowed to buy another brew in a plastic cup as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band revved up the large and appreciative audience.

Joe Orton, acclaimed, gritty homosexual British playwright

:: We didn't have much time though because by 7:30 Jack had whisked me around the corner to a presentation by the North Carolina Stage Company of Joe Orton's classic, Loot. This 1966 British dark comedy -- about a young gay man who is in cahoots with a sexy bisexual undertaker, and attempts to hide some stolen money in his mother's coffin (!) -- was extremely well done. The theatre seats barely 100 but both production and acting was first-rate. Kermit Brown starred as McLeavy, the widower, and despite a distinguished career elsewhere, returned to his hometown for this three week run. Charles McIver as Inspector Truscott wavered just on the cusp of ham -- but his thespian acrobatics were perfect for the role (he is also Artistic Director of the company). Anne Thibault as Nurse Fay and Matthew Detmer as son Hal filled out their roles professionally. The very sexy Steven Campanella, originally from Alaska, in playing Dennis didn't give away that this was one of his very first professional gigs; many eyes stayed glued to his, er, performance.

David Hopes, a friend of Jack's, and a fellow writer, academic and theatre lover, had joined us for the show and afterwards the three of us strolled over to Smokey's Tavern on nearby Broadway for a pint (or two or three). At this particular gay bar you "sign-in" as a member at the front door. There are a couple of pool tables in the back room; the front area features a bar seating perhaps ten with three more high tables opposite. The music was recent but familiar, mainly pop and dance tunes; the lighting afforded the ability to actually see who was there; and sound and smoke levels made it possible to comfortably have a conversation and a good time. We did.

Jack in his sexy yellow Mini at Devil's Courthouse, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC

:: Saturday morning, after a reasonably early start, Jack and I tumbled into his lemon coloured chariot and we were off for a gorgeous day driving toward Tennessee on the Blue Ridge Parkway through the mountains. The weather was perfect for driving, and for hiking; we did both with aplomb. The roadway in this area leads up from Asheville's elevation of about 2200 feet to over 6000. The deliberately scenic follows a series of twists and bends and goes through a number of short tunnels. Much of the original roadwork was done in the 1930s as a depression era make-work project; the craftsmanship and engineering feats remain clearly in evidence even today.

Scenic vista at Pounding Hill Lookout, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC

We stopped at numerous lookouts, admiring the vistas, taking pictures and tickling each other. At Grave Yard Fields we took a trail down the mountainside to a rocky stream. At Devil's Courthouse, we hiked up to the highest point of our journey -- 5720 feet -- which afforded some truly spectacular views of the neighbouring forests and mountains. From this vantage point, and on a clear day, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennesse and Georgia can all be seen. On the return journey, we stopped at Mount Pisgah Inn for a bite of lunch in an efficient and reasonably priced venue with, again, an awesome nature view from our table.

Cantaria, Gay Men's Chorus in Asheville, NC

:: The day would have been complete as is but Jack, ever the social butterfly, had other plans. We returned home shortly after 4 pm and a little more than an hour later, the first guests arrived for a laid-back potluck. Jack not only performs in musical theatre in his spare time (including starring in a highly successful revival of "Falsettos" last June) but he also sings in Cantaria, a gay men's chorus; several members came to party. Most of the folks already knew each other and none made me feel out of place. The crowd was broadly in my age range -- 30s to late 50s -- and the conversation, and laughter, was evidence enough that Asheville boasts a rich population of genuine and welcoming souls.

About to be married! Amy and Douglas, Asheville, September 2003

As the evening wore on, it became apparent that the final part of our day's plan, to visit a gay dance club called Scandals was not to be. By 11 pm, we were down to a few stragglers, including Amy and Douglas, who are to be married in mid-October. These are clearly long-term deep friends of Jack's -- and salt-of-the-earth folks, too. Douglas, who at 43 has a 21 year old son (whom he spoke of lovingly and proudly several times), has led an adventurous, checkered life including his current profession as a master story-teller. His partner, Amy, is equally delightful and has the warmest smile and most genuine laugh -- half giggle, half guffaw -- that I have encountered in a long time. When she bubbled, we all glowed in response.

But all good things come to an end and Jack had some obligations early the next morning at the Episcopal Cathedral of All Souls. The four of us had been enjoying a good time, and immodest amounts of liquid cheer. This canny Canuck came to the rescue with a spare contact lens case for Amy and so it was decided the pair would spend the night safely in the spare bedroom. After a few more hugs, and well before the cock crowed, we all said our good nights.

Jack and Alexander, Toronto, February 2003

I hope, gentle readers, and kind Toronto friends, if I don't return to Ontario as soon as planned, you will forgive me -- and be able to guess why.

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