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Michael Bettencourt

Flea Markets

In a former life in a far distant galaxy, my second wife and I had a weekend table at a local flea market held in the parking lot of a local dance hall.  We took turns manning the table (tedious work, standing there dumb while thoroughly indifferent people scrutinize the equivalent of your dirty linen), and on my off-hours I wandered around the lot taking down notes about what and who I saw. 

At first glance it all looks like junk.  But that is deceiving, for there are subtle species here, delicate yet distinct gradations among the inhabitants, like Darwin's finches.  One species is not really a flea marketer at all, if one understands by that tag a person who cleans out his basement to make a little extra money.  He will offer new sets of tools, for instance, that will rival what the local hardware store has to offer in quality and price.  Or stereo equipment.  Or handmade furniture and gee-gaws.  Or plaster statues.  Or antiques. These people are out for business, to make a living off the crowds.  They have the same spot week to week (usually with the choicest shade, having made a deal with the owner), they arrive at the same time, and their wares are inevitably set out in the same pattern on the tables: sockets on one end, wrenches in the middle, the leaping panther towards the back, the ancient cog-wheeled hand mixer among the flat-irons and tarnished baby spoons.

These people aren't any fun.  They're no different than going to a store or a shop at the mall, and they see the activity as a business, as something which, either by itself or in tandem with something else, will support their living habits.  In this sense they violate what a true flea marketer really is.  They want profit, not just a little extra money.  It's that "little extra" that provides the motivation for the true flea marketer, that and a desire to carve out some more room in a crowded house or attic. 

Flea marketers are not profiteers, or if they are, it is only in the merest sense of the word.  They are more like rag-and-bone men who shuffle and trade amongst themselves the cast-offs of an industrial society.  And in doing so they expose to the scrutiny of the world the vigorous foolishness that charac­terizes American manufacturing power.  One can cry out in dismay at the tremendous waste on display here, the flotsam of a society that has more than it knows what to do with.  Yet, if one is going to be honest, one also has to admire, while laughing at, the raw vitality laid out in gaudy array on these tables, the outward signs of the American society's inner decision to be the biggest, best, fastest, and first when it comes to producing economic wealth. 

And a gaudy array it is.  Here is a partial listing: Howdy Doody rag dolls, tools (from exotic staple-pullers for fence posts to rust-pitted dredged-up-from-the-basement chisels), paperback books with the covers surgically removed, Michael Jackson pins, chains, gloves, and even a plaster bust.  Dolls (babies, Barbies, frogs), muskets, lamps out of bottles and chains and plaster Virgin Marys, knives (pen, Bowie, hunting, butcher's), old Playboys looking virginal, R2D2 piggy bank, string sculptures of ships, salt & pepper shakers of a thousand complexions, a checkerboard hassock, cherubim bird baths, pictures of Jesus among the lambs, flowerpot spinning wheels, plastic placemats with covered bridges, old glasses with no one's prescription, enough knick-knackery to be used for fill (Granite State ashtrays, Pekingese statuettes, an ashtray with a dog pissing on a hydrant, Liberty Bell saucers, swan-necked gravy boats), stickers (Love Is..., unicorns, pigs, hearts, rainbows, zodiac signs), National Geographics, ancient appliances with zebra-striped electrical cords, beer signs, platitude plaques (Today is the first day...), figures carved from coal, elongated poodles containing liquor.

Und so weiter, as the Germans would say.

I know people who would get angry at this, seeing in it a sign of corporate frivolousness and the endemic bad taste of the American people: "Children are going hungry and the corporations are producing...."  They have a point.  One could wish that corporations would act with more social conscience and not produce such a tremendous sludge of useless articles.  One could wish that people would "know better" and practice a little Yankee restraint and common sense.

But the risk, of course, in wishing for these things is that in one's effort to be moral and upright, one may end up simply being snobbishly undemocratic.  For if a flea market is anything, it's a sign that American democracy still exists. First, these people, from different sections of the city, freely assemble on a Sunday to sell their goods (and bads).  True, they must pay $6 to the owner of the parking lot for the right to have a space, but if they were to have it in their backyards, they would've had to pay $4 to the city for a permit anyways.  There is no restraint on what they can sell (as long as it's not outright salacious, I suppose), and they can display it in any manner they choose.

Second, these people aren't out to make a profit, they're out to make a few bucks.  They aren't entrepreneurs, they're ordinary people scraping together a little extra money for a meal out here and there.  Some of them engage in it more deliberately, buying up old stuff, fixing it up, and selling it again at a small profit, but even this shows an enterprising spirit that is missing from many of the stuffy bugbears of our American corpora­tions.  These are people who, for the most part, live along the margins.  A small financial disaster, an illness, a car that needs fixing can often mean a severe strain.  A few extra dollars rattling around in the pockets, while it doesn't provide that little boost up into security, makes life just that much easier.

And probably one of the most remarkable things is the easy camaraderie that exists between these people.  Tocqueville mentioned this, and it still holds true. To be sure, the friendliness is easily won.  These are people who do not spend their lives together, do not owe one another anything, who really are just glancing bits of light in one another's lives. 

Yet it is a fact that after eight hours of standing next to someone else, one talks of this and that, and while the exchange is never deathless and the person is pretty easily forgotten once everything is packed up, there is a congre­gational ease that comes about because there are no class bar­riers here, no sludge of caste that clogs the arteries of conversation. 

And there is even something more here, something ultimately precious to democracy, which makes democracy, American-style, what it is.  As you walk around the tables, if you're open to the experience, you'll go through several phases of thought.  The first one might be that dislike I mentioned above of the industrial excess, especially in light of what needs to be done to make life better in this country. 

Yet, if you can put that to one side, you can also marvel at the extreme, nay, chaotic, inventiveness of capitalist industry: thousands of people and millions of dollars out there somewhere engaged in producing ice cubes with naked ladies in them and coffee mugs shaped like pregnant mothers.  The marvel you may feel is not approval; it's merely a pairing with that earlier distaste you have, saving your indignation from becoming snobbish self-righteousness.

The next level is seeing, really seeing, the ordinariness of these people, and this is what is most precious.  As I walked around, looking, chatting, taking notes, I began to get a queer sensation of intimacy that went beyond simply exchanging a few halloos with people, discussing the weather, remarking on the sparseness of the crowd.  Excepting the people there who I would call merchants, everyone, to some degree, had their lives spread out on their tables.  True, a distorted picture, much as one might get looking through a keyhole or catching a glimpse through a window. 

Yet, if you look closely enough, you begin to make up stories, make connections between that fleur-de-lis trivet and the picture of the bleeding-heart Jesus that probably hung in the kitchen.  Or the straw hat nailed by a plastic strawberry and the stiff-woven reed basket that might have accompanied a young woman on a walk through a field.  Lives lived through whatever conjunctions of pain and pleasure get carelessly strewn under a hot afternoon sun, sold off for a few cents.  Yet to eyes that are looking just right, the lives come back and offer an unutterably precious gift of insight, of being able to go beyond the plainly visible, the parsimony of time and place.

At bottom, this love of fictive experiences is the heart of democracy.  "The love of the common people" can take on many meanings, and be liable to many distortions, but in the end it has to be some Whitmanian desire to know the very vibrancy that runs through peoples' lives, to incarnate into oneself all the ties that bind, all the broken and unbroken circles; in short, almost a cannibalistic desire to ingest all experience life has to offer in order to better participate in that life, (if we mean by "life" living done along the margins, without much cushion, open equally to both destruction and happiness, yet not bereft of hope or humor). 

And life runs most clearly, if most painfully, through the common people.  They produce the wealth in the factories, yet have to sell off bits and parts of their lives to enjoy that wealth.  They spend the money that keeps the economy going, yet they are at the mercy of the whims of bankers and bureaucrats.  They are the ballast that keeps the country stable (and provide the reason for keeping the country going at all), yet they are boiled down to such non-entities through polls, public opinion surveys, and advertising.  To know them, then, is to know a good chunk about the life of the nation, and, more importantly, it saves them from an undeserved and dangerous reduction to pawns and masses.

Any hope for democracy's success, that is, any hope that the people who produce the wealth, spend it, and make the society stable will have a strong and loud voice in the running of the country, begins with flea markets and a sensitive listening to what they are saying about the qualities these people bring to our common life.  A "love of the common people" should not be a deification. All their common sense is balanced, and sometimes overrun by venal behavior, bigotry, and plain stupidity.  And their common sense is sometimes indistinguishable from pure stub­bornness. 

Yet if they are abandoned, then democracy is abandoned.  Only insofar as their lives are bettered by the political policies of this country, and only insofar as they have a strong direct voice in the making of those policies, will this country have a democracy worth the name.  If democracy comes to reside in the corporate boardrooms and legislative halls, then it is no longer a democracy, or it is at least a democracy that no self-respecting person would want.

Such are the lessons of flea markets.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |




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