SMOKE: Flea Market

Originally published: 6 July 2004

I was thinking about flea markets the other day and realised that I'm pretty glad I no longer find myself in situations requiring me to visit them.

My student years found me drawn magnetically towards them, usually dragged there by some female whose tie-dye or Indian print clothing collection was getting a little thin.

I don't know what it is about them, but I reckon it's that I never found anything useful at them.

I am so sick to death of African curios and statuettes and wire cars I'm not sure I can ever see them again without becoming violently ill - to the tourist they're fine, and a nice little slice of Africa, but to the weary local with a regular walk to and from work through St George's Street Mall, they get a bit bloody much after a while.

I've been trying to think of the sorts of things on offer at flea markets and all I can come up with is crap: uncategorised CDs, African curios, handmade jewelery liberally adorned with suns and moons, second hand books with stains on the pages, cheap ladies underwear (please explain how you can possibly purchase underwear off the street - I can't fathom it myself) and stalls and stalls and stalls of faded brass ornaments and little blue bottles.

There'll be a boerewors stand or two thrown in, a group of kids dancing and singing with a hat in front of them, the inevitable marimba band and one guaranteed loon, who will walk around muttering to him/herself, a lonely but aggressive conversation which usually comes with a liberal helping of the word "poes".

I can't find one possible reason why I would ever want to while away my time fingering the same useless and uninspiring products that a thousand filthy fingers before mine have left their skin-grease on, and know that at the end of a hot and tiring two hours I'll have nothing to show for myself other than a violently upset stomach from the half-cooked boerewors roll with red cold bits in the middle.

It's interesting to note that the origin of the term "flea market" is a direct translation of the French term Marche aux Puces, which was the name of a large market in Paris in the 19th century. The name was given to the market because the types of goods it sold attracted all manner of vermin - including fleas.

It's definitely a feeling I get from flea markets - they're never clean. You always have to avoid stepping on large globs of green, TB-infested sputum, which folks have a nasty habit of hawking up and dripping onto the cobblestones which wind their way around the market.

I used to stay in a hovel of a flat in Tamboerskloof in Cape Town - my share of the rental was R250 per month, so suffice it to say the place was not exactly the Ritz.

A colony of bergies lived underneath my window in a narrow alleyway behind the flats, so the ambient odour wasn't particularly pleasant either.

There was one flat beneath me and one above me, and one Saturday morning I was up early for some reason (mind you - I probably hadn't been to bed yet) and I opened my front door, and there on the landing was a pile of about 12 boxes - huge boxes - filled with second hand books.

I'm not one for politely knocking on doors to enquire as to whose boxes they might be - I had all 12 inside my living room within a minute and the door bolted firmly shut.

I sat down and had a beer to consolidate, staring at the vast horde of books which must have numbered nigh on a thousand.

Where to begin?

I'd just started going through the books to see what there was when there was a knock on my door, and not being at the top of my game I opened it to find out who it was. Like it was going to be Father Christmas, or the Tooth Fairy, or perhaps even Ronald Reagan.

He was a monster of a man and he had a very buffed and blonde boyfriend who was flexing his chest through a tight tank top. At seven o'clock in the morning on a Saturday the last thing you need to deal with is a guy who resembles Danny Trejo with a vicious boyfriend who looks like Peter Greene, and the small problem of their missing books.

None of us said a word - words were superfluous. The books were stacked up behind me and I stepped aside to let them in. They removed the boxes without a word, replacing them on the landing, and once the last one was out I closed the door calmly, wandered amiably through to the bathroom, and vomited my stomach inside out.

I'd been fully expecting an assault with a cosh at the very least, but it was a strangely psychedelic experience - all three of us knew precisely what the story was, so it seemed pointless for any of us to go on about it.

No accusation could be denied and thus it was a fruitless exercise to make any. None of us were the worse off for the incident.

A month or so later I was strolling through Greenmarket Square, and I stopped at the second hand books table. You guessed it. Yup.

Our eyes met briefly and I coulda sworn there was a hint of laughter there. But I didn't hang around to find out, and I was feeling a chuckle coming on myself.

It was the last time I ever went to a flea market.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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