Friday, December 25, 2009

At the drive-in

The flea market at the drive-in in North Fort Myers is and isn't like a lot of Third World open-air markets I visited in Latin America. It is a lot like them in the random assortment of merchandise on offer, the crowds, the hustling and bustling. There's differences, too: you won't find vendors casually offering handguns and assault rifles in Guadalajara, La Paz or Valparaíso.
Strolling around, looking to meet with a citrus grower I want to do business with, I noticed another difference with the markets I remember from my youth. It's kind of hard to explain, but I saw a lot of tough faces and hard stares there. Market days in Latin America are joyous events, and I don't mean to say that everybody is laughing all the time, but the atmosphere is usually relaxed and laid back. Vendors hawk their wares with musical, outlandish, funny-as-hell claims and rhymes, 'if you like the good stuff come see here, if you don't, don't', 'hurry up and get yours before my wife kills me for selling so cheap', 'ladies, these pumps will make your ass look like Shakira's!'... you get the picture. If you understand the language, you have to smile as you walk by, booth keepers smile right back at you, and when you're interested, you ask, 'how much?' and start haggling right away. You never pay the asked for price, that's rule number one, and you bargain with a smile, trying to outwit the vendor, which is never an easy thing to do.
Anyway, the point is, that is not the vibe I got from this particular market, on the contrary, I saw a lot of anger there. As in, 'why am I reduced to being here trying to sell my collection of NASCAR model cars and the jet-ski I got when I refinanced?'.
In my experience, the markets where poor people congregate are always the best, the most lively and interesting. The poor in Latin America have been poor all their lives, dating back generations. They have learned to make do and get by with very little, and a lot of times they are no less happy about their lot in life than better off people. One of the happiest persons I've ever seen was a toothless old Indian woman in a market in Oaxaca that I bought a bag of roasted, salted chapulines (grasshoppers) from, years ago. I ended up sitting with her all morning, being introduced to all the other vendors, sharing my snack with them and being offered endless cervezas by people many degrees poorer than I was.
In contrast, a lot of the poor at the drive-in fleamarket have only recently become so. A few years ago, work clearing land for new developments or hanging sheet rock was plentiful and well-paid, the value of houses kept creeping up month after month, and opportunities for refinancing one's mortgage and take some cash for new toys were everywhere. A lot of those toys are on sale now, at places like the drive-in, craigslist and e-bay.
This is all very commonplace, and has been said a million times by much better writers and observers of reality. I guess my unique approach to the subject lies in noticing the lack of joie de vivre I saw at this market, compared to the rancheras and jokes and smiles in markets where even poorer people congregate. I guess it will take some time for us here in the U.S. to re-adjust our expectations, realize a lot of our wealth wasn't real but imagined, and discover that you can still live a happy life with a lot less material posessions.
Here's what worries me: I look right, there's a bunch of people with long faces, stressed out about unpaid bills, jobs lost and mounting debt; look left, there's the fellow selling shotguns and pistols. Enough said, right? And I'm a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, don't take me wrong. But isn't it time someone took a break from receiving peace prizes and playing golf with bankers, and went on national TV to explain that the good times are not coming back, that a new New Deal is in the works to put people back to work building rail lines and solar panels, and that we should tighten our belts and act like adults about it? Instead of propping up the Wall St. greed machine and priming it for the next bubble of imaginary wealth?
I'll just leave here with a very striking image that I think describes the drive-in flea market perfectly, one little vignette that speaks louder than the fruit and gun and golf ball vendors, or the faux cowboy wearing big sideburns and crooning Johnny Cash songs to a karaoke machine, or the preacher hoping to bring some souls to salvation next to a table laden with rusty tools and odd bits and ends for sale: there's this fellow, right. And he's a big fellow, 300+ lbs at least, big frame, long blonde hair and beard, probably in his mid-40's. And he's brought something to market, and is sitting right next to his truck. His truck is a Dodge Ram 3500. 6.7 L Turbo Diesel engine, with a payload of over 5,000 lbs (about 2 and a half tons), and a towing capacity of about 17,000 lbs; let's not even go into the fuel economy of this monster, it's too depressing. But what is this guy selling from the back of his mighty truck? Chinese-made toy cars. He has a few boxes of Chinese battery powered little cars. And he's mad he's not selling any. They go for $4 each, or 3 for $10. He has a few on display on a folding table, and my kid approaches to check them out. 'Don't touch anything, kid', he says, and shoots me an evil look. I grab my kid and give the guy the evil eye, too, before walking away. I don't buy Chinese junk, anyway, on principle. Least of all, from overweight clowns hoping to be yet another middleman profiting from slave labor and lax environmental regulations a world away. You want to bring something to market? Go make something yourself, grow some tomatoes, bozo.

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