The Gray Rock sat there on the edge of downtown Asheville looking a little old and weathered. During its years it had been everything from a brothel to a church. But for the longest time it was a rooming house: cheap small rooms, no air-conditioning, and weekly rent.
I started spending time at the Gray Rock Inn while visiting my friend Frank who stayed there. The inn had the original coal fireplaces that didn’t work and a radiator heat system that did. There were so many rooms in this house; some small rooms were tucked away in hidden little places. Dave lived in one of those rooms in a basement apartment with an outside entrance. I had been visiting the Gray Rock for more than a year before I ever spotted his space. When we first met, Dave had lived in that basement for 13 years and worked as a landscaper.
The next summer, updates were being made to the basement, so Dave had to move into a regular room on the second floor. Everyone shared a couple of bathrooms in the house, one on each floor. It was a good place for someone trying to get off the street, or someone new in town trying to make a start.
Asheville was the coolest town. So many different types of people lived in sweet harmony. Biltmore Avenue, which ran in front of the Gray Rock Inn, was lined with art galleries and nice restaurants. At night, well-dressed people visited the clubs and eateries.
The street behind the Inn, however, ran dark and down into alleys. At night, sex and drugs would filter up to the Gray Rock, preying on the weaknesses of some of the tenants.
But the inn was a positive, safe space for many who lived there. The lonely person trying to make a fresh start could find friendship and support. People would help other people.
Dave moved into a room next to Frank’s. At first, he would quickly say hello and then close the door to his room. But then he started socializing with us a little and invited us into his room for a few beers and music. Dave was big on the blues and had a great music collection.
He told me that he had known of me for years. He said, “Whenever you would be visiting, your laughter would filter down into my room.” He said he used to cut the TV off and just sit and listen to me talk and laugh. We quickly became very good friends, and he became more social, opening his door to me and the other guys in the house. Sometimes there would be six or more of us. We would play music and order pizza.
Dave and I had each traveled a lot, so we would talk of New Mexico and Colorado and other places. Dave used to camp and pan for gold in Colorado. Sometimes he would say, “Let’s sell everything and pile in my car and head out there.” But on other days when I was alone with him, we talked of family. He spoke of his family living in Mississippi, including a daughter, who he had not seen in a long time. Other times our conversation would go into dark places: Times when mistakes were made that couldn’t ever be fixed, things like that.
I thought we could say anything to each other, but there was one moment when he came close to telling me something private and disturbing. Just as he was about to share his big secret, he stopped himself, firmly changing the subject.
Time passed and I moved out of the state to be closer to my daughter. A friend from the Gray Rock Inn wrote to me, “Dave has kidney failure, he is really sick.” I quickly wrote Dave a letter begging for a reply, but he never wrote back. I called the Gray Rock and found out Dave was bedridden. Next, I heard he had moved out of the house and was in hospice care.
I was trying to arrange time off work to visit Dave when I came home to a message from Hospice in Asheville on my answering machine. I called them right away, and they informed me that Dave had passed away. While in their care he had refused to tell them about any friends or family to get in touch with, but they found my letter in his room while they were cleaning it out. “You’re the only human contact that we can find for this person,” said the woman on the phone. I told her he had mentioned family in Mississippi.
The woman at Hospice had some information for me. She said Dave was not his real name, and he was using another person’s social security number.
I felt so sad that I had not made it there to be by his side, that we hadn’t had more time to talk and unearth secrets.
After a few weeks, social services called back. They had found some of Dave’s family in Mississippi by posting his picture in newspapers all over the state. Dave was buried at home with family and children present.
Edited by John Senechal