If you’re going to sit down with Aaron, buckle up. He comes with 42 years of peaks and valleys and an urgency to recount all the journeys in between.
For a man who describes himself as the thing that doesn’t fit, Aaron grew up in the considerably form fitting tradition of Jehovah’s Witness.
His knowledge of the religion is extensive. Aaron can rattle off biographical information about Charles Taze Russell. He can lay out the details of district conventions or cite you all of the scripture he memorized as a child. He can also articulate his opinions on the religion’s high-level marketing strategies, like use of neuro-linguistic programming. Aaron hints at abuses and cover-ups that sound similar to those now associated with Catholicism.
He says his childhood was full of trauma.
But for all the parts of life that Aaron feels his religion took, he can’t deny that it was also the foundation for his success as a performer. By age seven, he was professionally slinging the good word and he’d knocked on enough doors to earn a Master’s in confidence.
By early adulthood, Aaron had signed with an entertainment company in New Orleans and was making a living as a musician.
Sometimes though, when talent and charisma collide with drugs and trauma, a man can get stuck in a spin cycle of debauchery. And that’s eventually where Aaron found himself—lost in the company of dealers, strippers, and all those who work precarious night shifts.
It was at about this point in Aaron’s life, eight or nine years ago, that he caught a bus from New Orleans to a gig in Colorado and met a woman who suggested he come through Asheville on his way back. Aaron followed through on the stranger’s suggestion and soon arrived in the hills of western Carolina with nothing more than a guitar strapped to his back.
Taking barely a moment to settle in, Aaron hit the busking circuit and quickly found his sweet spot. “It was right outside Malaprops. The acoustics were insane. My voice would shoot off the wall…”, he closes his eyes and points, “Go all the way back down toward Pritchard, past the convention center and down the street. People would be like, ‘Man we heard you three blocks away!’
“And I had this strange repertoire for a black dude,” he goes on. “The world I know by Collective Soul…The Toadies-Possum Kingdom…” he trails off. Aaron tells me that he found his voice in New Orleans; that he had lost it twice, once to overuse and once to drugs. He tells me when it came back, it came back with the grit and rasp you hear today.
On Wednesdays, Aaron would take breaks between sets and play chess with the folks at Pritchard Park. “I started noticing”, he says, “everybody would get up at the same time and say, ‘Gotta go!’ Finally, one day I was like ‘Where you all going?’ And they all said, ‘Haywood Street.’”
“So that’s how I ended up meeting Pastor Brian. He had this associate pastor with dreads then. They were cool. And you know Pastor Brian–how he leans back and looks at you like this,” Aaron tilts his head back and to the side and makes his eyes a little softer. “You know how he hits you with one of those…” he laughs. “How he puts that voodoo on you. I remember he looked right at me and said, ‘You come here anytime.’”
And Aaron did. For years he came to the meals, often playing the old piano in the corner of the hospitality room.
He left town for a while, but returned a little over a year ago, right at the beginning of COVID. “It was a ghost town. Nothing was open except Haywood Street. I was like, even if this place is evil, even if this place is having satanic worship services in the basement, I’m going to be here because it means something to me; it means something that when the world shuts down, Haywood Street stays open.”
Aaron may confuse you because his homelessness and his drug use does not present itself in the ways you may be used to. He is more than well-kempt. He dons a perfectly placed fedora and the bayou fashion gods simply will not let him go. But Aaron is homeless, and drugs do continue to be a part of his story.
“What would it mean for you to be housed?” I ask Aaron.
“It would mean I could get organized. It would keep me safe and protected. It would put me in a position to help others. And that’s really what housing is all about.”
“What do you get when you come to Haywood Street?”
Aaron takes a moment to collect his thoughts and then says, “I get a chance to be a senior member of a community that has survived through some tough shit. I get a community that has seen the growth in me, and through them, I get the chance to remember I’ve grown. I get to be beat down some days and know that it’s ok. I get a meal. I can show my face here.”
“I always tell Brian I’m supposed to be doing something at Haywood Street I just don’t have it all together yet.”
“And what does he say?” I ask.
“He says, ‘I already know. We’re here. You let us know when you’re ready.’”
Aaron has a budding organization called Twelve Note Tapestry. He says the mission is to build stronger community relationships through the visual and performing arts, focusing on the youth.
Aaron brings music to the Haywood Street campus most weeks. If you’re trying to find him, just follow the sound of the Bayou and the Blues and the voice of a man who is desperately singing his way back to himself.
Click on the image above for video produced by Ben, Haywood Street’s Lead Videographer.
To help keep Haywood Street the place that stays open even when the world shuts down, please consider making a donation.
Story by: Brook van der Linde, HSC Lead Storyteller