“I guess you could say I grew up with one foot on the plow and one foot on Lexington Avenue. You know that Aerosmith song, ‘The Last Child‘? That was like my anthem for a while.”
I know the song. And I assume he’s referring to the verse that goes:
Get out in the field,
Put the mule in the stable
Ma, she’s a cookin’
Put the eats on the table
Hate’s in the city and cow’s in the meadow
Hands on the plow and my feets in the ghetto
Born Kim Arthur Bailey (Kim after Rudyard Kipling’s mischief-causing character) in Asheville, North Carolina, Cornbread acquired his nickname by always sneaking a slice of fresh-baked cornbread from his grandmother’s counter and slipping it into a side-pocket. Cornbread describes growing up on the streets of downtown Asheville like being in a movie; like being at the fare. “I looked like Spanky and I ran this town.” Cornbread even had a gang; a wily bunch he named My Gang.
But when he didn’t have his feets in the ghetto, so to speak, Cornbread was living the life of labor and plow.
“My people were growers on the sides of these mountains. Forty-five hundred to five thousand feet – that gives you the best tea, the best pot, the best coca and the best tobacco. You can grow ‘em in Columbia, or you can grow ‘em in the hills of Western North Carolina. You can also grow Poppy. And I dated a Native American girl named Poppy one time.”
Cornbread’s dad was a teacher, but spent the summers growing and measuring tobacco for the Department of Agriculture. Cornbread worked alongside him. “You used to measure tobacco with tape and an equation. Chains and rods, the way Noah’s big boat was measured. We were out there measuring leaves 12 inches wide, and three to four feet long. But when the Blue Mold set in, it shrunk the tobacco and the equation no longer worked. That’s when they switched to weighing tobacco and that’s when my dad had to find a new summer job.”
Cornbread can talk at length about his family – the famous Callahan Brothers, his Aunt B who was on the Bourbon Street drinking team and “beat the hell out of a lot of men”. He’ll tell you about his great-great-grandfather who came over from Nice, France and worked as an organ grinder. And how that great-great-grandfather had this monkey that would collect tips and pick pockets; how eventually he was able to use those vagabond earnings to buy land in uncharted Madison County for a penny an acre and named the area Puncheon Fork.
But when walking down memory lane and out onto the limbs of his family tree, it’s only the stories about one person that will bring tears to his eyes – Grandma Desi Callahan Porschè. Although Grandma Porschè went on to be a successful city woman, running the dormitory at Blanton’s Business College (on College Street) and buying up real estate along Chicken Hill, she grew up in those wild country woods of Madison County – “picking Lilac, roots and Trillium and making sick cows well.”
“Grandma, became a hands-on healer and when I was little, she blessed me to be a healer and a preacher to others. And maybe that’s why my life has had so much turmoil. I haven’t been listening to God. But I’m trying to. I’m trying so hard. Because Grandma shook the ground. I’m telling you, when they buried her body, she shook the ground.”
He goes on, “One time, Grandma was 15 thousand in the hole because she had donated to so many evangelists. Well, word got out that she was in the red and within three days she was 30 thousand to the good. Twice as rich as she was poor because of her faith.”
A foot on the plow and a foot on Lexington Avenue.
It’s true. By eight years old, Cornbread was a Trout fishing guide, but also pulling hours at his Uncle’s Lexington Avenue Market Café. Then come Sunday, he’d be singing and playing music in the church. If you know Cornbread, you know those famous vocal chords – full of rasp, blues, joy, hope, and all the pain of the world.
In fact, Cornbread is planning on playing guitar and singing today in church. He catches the time on the wall, and shouts, “I gotta go! I gotta warm warm up! Shoot, but I still gotta tell you how I ended up at Haywood Street. Ok, here we go.”
In nearly one single breath, Cornbread says:
“I was a playboy, and a rockstar and then I moved to Florida and I became a professional mechanic; working for restaurants, fixing everything. The Italians really loved me. Look. I worked all the way form Asheville to Tampa and back. Fixing stuff. Then I got more into Trout fishing, bringing in Cocaine and helping fund Noriega. And then I had a truck get confiscated.”
Cornbread notes the ‘What the huh?’ look on my face, but there’s no time to slow down now. He barrels through his involvement with drug trafficking linked to the Iran-Contra Scandal and Reagan administration. “[That administration] made a lot of jobs out of the war on drugs and I was part of that and I’m not proud of it. But, I made a lot of money and I snorted a lot of Cocaine and when I moved back to Asheville, I moved here with this monkey on my back named Sister Coke and I loved her. And she separated me from my family, God and even from myself. To the point that I didn’t know who I was or what I was. And I got in a lot of trouble. Ended up with 22 felonies. From 1998-2009, I did two years, one year and seven years. All pretty much drug-related. And then I got clean. And I got married too fast, made a bad judgment and went back for eight and a half years. When I got out this last time, it was in July of 2019. I was living at the VRQ. But I got busted with some table wine (I like it and it’s healthy for you, but it is against the rules) and found myself living on the streets. In August, I got robbed and beaten almost to death by someone strung out on Meth. And that’s how I came to be at Haywood Street Respite. And it’s been because of all the love I’ve received here…because of the Haywood Street Fresco…I just got inspired. And I’ve been here ever since. Now I come on Wednesdays and Sundays and I try to play a song and so far, I think it’s worked. Everyone tells me they love my music. But, I don’t do it for my glory. I do it for the Glory of God.
But any who how, I’m not trying to be a rockstar, I’m just trying to sing something from the soul. And that’s how I got to Haywood Street, and I just love it here. I’m cherished here. I’m blessed. And I’m playing in church in five minutes, so sister I’ve got to go.”
It’s kind of weird what’ll stick with you when someone tells you their story. For days now, I’ve thought about that Tobacco Blue Mold. The way Cornbread explained it to me – when you’re growing something in North Carolina earth, and you’re working so hard to do everything just right, and then seemingly, out of nowhere, a blight sneaks in and takes everything away. And I think about how matter of fact he put that. And I think about all the metaphorical Tobacco Blue Molds we’ve all been through. All the loss humans endure. All the changes that get thrust upon us. And all the brilliant places we end up because God…because time…because we have to.