(Final version of a dumb essay I wrote for my Creative Non-Fiction class last fall, and never posted because I forgot.)
You might not know it, but North Versailles, a town once thriving during the height of the steel mill boom, is the home of a veritable Valhalla for thrifters, crafters, and peddlers. Residing in the old Loews Theater — forced into bankruptcy in June of 2001 by an over-zealous eruption in the multi-plex industry — Rossi’s Pop-Up Market Place is a glorified flea market for the twenty-first century. It’s a place where one could find an entire table lined with quilted purses, looking foreign outside of the Bingo hall; no less than two tables selling staplers amidst collectible spoons and cookbooks; cardboard boxes brimming with broken toys and stuffed animals; and racks of black-and-gold feathered boas. Situated on thirteen acres of paved land, vendors come from all over to set up booths and tables inside the vacated theater and all along the once-desolate back parking lot.
The weather was dreary on the day I visited, with showers bullying the outside vendors in sporadic episodes. Even with only a third of the back lot being utilized and the omnipresent threat of rain, the hardcore flea marketers were not deterred, as evidenced by the number of times my boyfriend was forced to circle the main lot in search of an empty parking space.
It was still relatively early on a Sunday morning, yet the parking lot was already a-bustle with shoppers darting in and out of traffic on their way back to their vehicles, arms pregnant with loot. I was at once awash in a sea of fanny-packs and spandex-sausaged torsos, Steelers jerseys and trucker caps, high-waisted seersucker trousers and Hawaiian-printed shirts; they scurried in erratic patterns like locusts during a Biblical plague. Two of the locusts — a visored elderly couple, one of whom toted an old lamp in grotesque shades of the Seventies — crossed in front of a line of moving vehicles, with little regard. If this is any indication of the pedestrian carelessness in flea market land worldwide, I’m not surprised that a young boy was killed in the nineties when a truck backed into him when this market used to be located down the street at the now-demolished Eastland Mall. In its previous carnation, the flea market was called the Superflea and with the local mall now in ruins, the people of North Versailles basically had only Wal-Mart to rely on for their Olympic-shopping needs. But in 2005, the denizens of the defunct Superflea were invited to utilize the empty space of the Loews Theater by the building’s owner, Jim Aiello. What did the Superflea vendors do during the interim of Eastland’s demolition and Aiello’s metaphorical handing over of the golden key? Thank God for eBay, I guess.
The inside of the converted theater harbors the booths and tables for the more high-brow set: Racks of clothing that haven’t been worn before, handmade crafts, baked goods — generally nothing that has been previously worn or used. I decided to tackle the back grounds first, so we quickly bypassed the frustrating stop-and-go traffic flow of bargain hunters determined to scrutinize every last piece of price-tagged merchandise.
Posted to the back door was a typed and laminated sign that insisted “No heelies to be worn inside or outside.” My boyfriend obsessed over the meaning of “heelies” for most of our visit (wheeled shoes, you dumb ass), but I had more important issues vexing my mind: I needed to know who Rossi was.
Upon exiting the back doors, I was immediately barraged by a goulash of dueling aromas: teriyaki chicken and soul food duked it out to my right, while the best of Poland’s delicacies sparred to my left with the hot sausage sandwich heavy weight over at Mike’s Neighborhood Grill (also notable for his award-winning Philly cheese steak). Two food trailers competed with the controversial spelling of kielbasa. (Or is it kolbassa?) At nine o’clock in the morning, haluski and fried chicken were not the most nasally pleasing scents. If it was afternoon, and, you know – I ate meat, I’d have been in my glory. Interspersed between so many savory selections were trailers shilling funnel cake, and the Slushie King was doling out sno-cones to children who displayed such a caricature of excitement that I wondered if they had never delighted in frozen sweets before. It was like Rossi’s very own carnival midway.
In spite of this festival of food, the rest of the parking lot gave off the vibe of a ghost town. If tumbleweed had blown past my ankles, it would have been suiting. There were tables lined up, but the hearts of the people manning them just weren’t in it. No one yelled things like, “Two dollars! Two for three!” or “Are you looking at that weed whacker?! It works! It really works! You can see for yourself, FOR TEN DOLLARS!” Walking past a table stacked with old issues of Woman’s World and a paltry selection of VHS dramas (Steel Magnolias was a steal of a deal for a buck), two middle-aged women sat slouched over in lawn chairs. Staring straight ahead with glazed-over eyes, the one whose mouth had yet to become mummified by boredom’s glue mumbled, “I can’t believe we have two more hours of this shit.” It never occurred to me before that these people are taking chances when they rent out lots. If the weather, so notoriously unpredictable, is sketchy that day, the vendors could potentially lose out on a lot of money, breaking even if they’re lucky.
The weather hadn’t managed to put a damper on everyone’s day, though. I walked past one woman, fresh from purchasing a VHS chockfull of show tunes. As she trotted back to her group of fellow flea marketers, I heard her squeal, “And it has ‘Luck Be a Lady’ on it too so we can all sing together tonight in the living room after dinner!” A small part of me hoped she was being facetious, but mostly I derived a perverse pleasure in imagining that some families do functional things like after dinner sing-alongs, maybe while wearing bonnets, and then I imagine myself watching from behind a bush, laughing and taking video to post on You Tube.
I was making my way down the third aisle of tables and still hadn’t found a single item that was worth parting ways with the crumpled dollar bill stuffed into the pocket of my jeans. In the past, a lone dollar bill had gained me a nudie mug, a chipped metal bangle bracelet that leaves a bruised band around my wrist, and a 1940’s 8×10 school portrait of one of the table vendors. That was my favorite flea market find, I think. I made up an elaborate back story about how he was my vampiric Uncle Otis who was haunted by chimeras of his ex-lover; I couldn’t imagine why my friends didn’t believe me.
Oh, I had seen such sights on this day though, like an entire table piled with hats of all styles and varying degrees of camouflage. Some of the hats went a step beyond and boasted embroidered John Deere patches and one had a real knee-slapper of a slogan draped across it: “Remington: Size Matters!” Had I been there alone, I’d have gladly set up camp and waited all day just on the off-chance that I’d get to spy the lucky person to score that gem.
Other tables are decorated with children’s books that look suspiciously five-fingered from the library, like “Why Am I Going to the Hospital?”, and yellow-paged mystery novels by Dean Koontz and Nora Roberts and I know without getting too close that they come complete with the musty stench of a grandmother’s basement. Laid out on ratty and frayed bath towels are a downtrodden array of rusted shovels, hoes, hedge clippers and spades — a serial killer’s wet dream. Or a gardening fetisher’s. An entire table was devoted to glassware that must have looked really good when it was used on the set of “Mama’s Family.”
A woman hawked jewelry draped along the hood of her maroon Alero while next door, a burly man sporting a sleeveless American Legend shirt and a rustic beard stood cross-armed over his collection of tools and Harley Davidson bric-a-brac. I definitely wasn’t interested in any biker memorabilia.
Every few minutes, the oldies tunes – the elevator music of flea markets — blasting from outdoor speakers would cut out and a booming voice bubbling over with a showman’s enthusiasm would remind us shoppers to stop by Teresa’s Treasures, formerly known as Frick and Frack, for some fresh baked goods; or he would promote the aforementioned Mike’s Neighborhood Grill, who must have slipped the MC a Hamilton because there was a real urgency to his voice every time he would tap on the mic and remind us that hey, Mike’s still over there in the red and white trailer frying up some of that award-winning grub of his. OK, we get it: Mike rules.
Intrigued by this bodiless voice, I abandoned the garage sale fare of the outdoors for the more glamorous vendibles inside. Also, that’s where the bathroom was.
The main difference I observed inside was that each table has its own niche. Unlike the tables in the parking lot, the merchandise here was new and laid out in a neat and eye-catching array with glitter-painted signs that yelled, “Hey look Real Stillers shirts here! Tags still on!” and “Ninetento [sic] tapes $5-$8!” Above the storefronts of the indoor vendors hang wooden signs with their store’s name burned into it. Coincidentally, the maker of those very signs had his own booth set up, with a TV – squatting in the midst of charred wood signs — airing a running loop of his workshop. I paused to watch it, but became bored after three seconds. I’m sad to see that Eileen’s Crafts & Whatever: Home of the Special Angels is closed, because maybe I might have wanted to buy a special angel, or a ‘whatever.’
Later that day, after lamenting the fact that I couldn’t even find one single coral necklace or macramé pot holder amongst the knoll of orphaned junk to bring home, I dwelled once again on Rossi. At this point, I didn’t even care about meeting him. A tiny blurb on a website would have sufficed. Or perhaps a MySpace profile.
Google searches for Rossi’s identity only bring up individual websites of several of the vendors, such as Deanna’s Mountain T-Shirts. She is very excited to announce via her webpage that you can find her brand-new Betty Boop and race car shirts at Rossi’s every Saturday and Sunday! When she’s not slinging those and her new and gently worn jewelry, she designs websites. I hope they’re as visually pleasing as her website, with all of its seizure-inducing emoticons and gifs. I mean, if I’m paying for a professional website, I better get a blinding background and lots of waving American flags, and maybe a cheery midi file droning on as the page loads.
Determined to find answers, I revisited Rossi’s a week later. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was September’s signature crisp and clear; in other words, the venders were easily excitable and rearin’ to go.
Admittedly, I wanted to catch a glimpse of this elusive announcer, too. My boyfriend laughed and said, “Um, you walked right past him and his podium last week when you went to the bathroom.” I wasn’t sure if I completely believed my boyfriend that the MC’s voice was not really the product of a tape playing in a loop. I wished for a twist ending where I would tug back a heavy velvet curtain or at the very least a moth-eaten sheet of burlap, to find that Rossi and the announcer were one and the same.
I had to employ the Cardinal rule of flea markets: do not make eye contact with sellers if you’re not trying to waste money. They’re like puppies in a pound – you toss them the tiniest bone of a glance, and you’re taking their shit home with you.
Sometimes this doesn’t work, usually when you end up idling past a seller who is overly-anxious to be rid of his cache. A mustachioed man, noticing my small child in the stroller, spastically lunged into his pile of corroded tapes and waved a Barney video at me. “Barney video, one dollar!” he barked. I smiled and kept walking. I’m sure it was full of titillating moral tales, and my child will obviously grow up into a puppy-kicking plane hijacker without the guidance of a purple dinosaur in his life, but no thanks. He wouldn’t give up. “Barney tape, for free!”
Not one to pass up free swag, my internal dialogue was a’swirl.
But it’s Barney!
But it’s free!
“Oh, thank you, but I don’t have a VCR,” I quickly stuttered, shifting my eyes. He was still blurting out offers when I nervously jogged to another table, far away, that wasn’t shilling free children’s tapes. Why don’t the elderly ladies shilling fantastically kitschy costume jewelry make such offers? Further down, another man looking as though he were visiting from the mountains of Appalachia, caught me pointing to his luxurious collection of dented, rustic oil cans and asking the boyfriend what the hell they were.
“Are you looking at my fan? Two dollars! And it works!” I recoiled slightly at the sight of his mouth rot.
No, I was looking at your shitty rust receptacles, but thanks.
As I was toeing the line between boredom and frustration, unable to give a shit about tattered cook books with coffee rings and cheap sunglasses framed in fluorescent shades, the sky parted, golden rays of second hand angel dust rained upon our heads, and the voice of the announcer reverberated through the lot.
“Wayne and Ellie Jackson, there is a situation at your vehicle that requires immediate attention.”
Wayne and Ellie’s vehicle could have been taken over by pygmies playing horse shoes and on a normal day, I’d have been the first one on the scene to get the 411, but I could not shake my preoccupation with the MCs voice. So instead of rubber-necking out in the lot, I made my way past stacks of ugly abstract art, discount candy, and unripe produce, until I was inside the market place, boyfriend and baby trailing behind. I thought I heard my child whining, but my pace didn’t falter; sorry son, but Mama’s on a mission.
Once inside, it was all a blur. I hurried past the lady manning a table of bread and gloves (although I did slow down a bit to see if the gloves were the kinds with the rubber nubbies on them as I have a slight fetish); I bumped into a man looking at baseball cards and vaguely recall him grunting a reply to my rudeness; I paused briefly to demolish a sample of apricot pastry. Always pause for pastries.
As I rounded a corner, my boyfriend pointed. “There he is right there. MC Rich K.”
Standing behind a podium, all wrapped up in a snug leather jacket, loomed the body behind the voice. I had every intention of talking to him, asking him about this supposed Rossi character, but my voice was caught. I had built him up so much in my head, maybe as much as Rossi by that point, that he had become my own Wizard of Oz, and now he was standing there before me, yelling into his cell phone like some hot shot Wall Street power broker.
“I just gave you an ad! Didn’t you hear it?” he shouted disgustedly.
This was the body of the voice coated with Santa-caliber merriment? If I were a vendor, I’d invest in a bullhorn and do my own publicity before relying on that asshole.
Intimidated, I instead grabbed a brochure from the information kiosk next to MC Rich K, playing it off like that was why I had come barreling toward him, and then I went home. I guess I wasn’t too determined after all.
The brochure ended up being a poorly edited odyssey down comic sans lane, and of course any information regarding the enigmatic Rossi, now fabled in my mind, was furtively omitted. Maybe Rossi isn’t even a person. Maybe Rossi is the dead childhood goldfish of property owner Jim Aiello and it’s a tribute in the same vein of Snickers, the candy bar named after a family horse. Food Network taught me that.
Or maybe I should just take a nap and wake up with a new futile obsession.
Regardless, even though my pressing questions about the flea market’s namesake went unanswered, I’ll be sure to go back the next time I’m in the market for a purse with sequins so big, it could solar power an entire house on its own.