Jun 262008

 (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.

                       It’s free!

                      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.


Jan 082008

Usually, when scouting the field for some good subjects, I employ the ‘shoot & run’ tactic, an effective choice if you don’t mind angry cries and blurred images.

But today, when I was skulking around Brookline in the spring-like weather, taking my new Diana+ camera out for a test drive, I saw a photographic opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up; to walk away would have plagued me with nightmares of regret. A man was leaning against the brick wall of Kribel’s Bakery, smoking a cigarette. He looked middle age with sandy hair — styled loosely in a rockabilly coif — and tattoos and he sported tube socks that would have made Christina swoon; he looked like he was trying to grasp on to the last few strands of punk mentality that life had alotted him, like maybe he had gotten married and his wife was trying to force him to "grow up" but they compromised on a few accessories.  

As I approached, I recognized him as the baker from Kribel’s; I had seen him just a few weeks ago when I stopped in to buy a cake for Kim’s birthday and I remember promptly calling Henry to inform him of my new crush. I knew I needed his picture. But I didn’t hide behind a car or garbage can. I didn’t act like I was trying to "fix" something on the camera as I strolled past, looking skyward and murmuring "Tweedle dee dee." I didn’t pretend like I was taking a picture of the awesome brick wall next to him. I didn’t distract him by baring my breasts.

No, I walked up to him, caught his eye, and asked, "Do you mind if I take a picture of you?" I wanted a real photo of him; not streaks of his blue shirt, or the ground, or the sky, as I tried unsuccesfully to be covert.

His hand froze, cigarette midway to his mouth, and he repeated my request. "Can you take MY picture?" He looked around to see if anyone had heard. I didn’t make up a story about being a photography student. I didn’t pretend to be a tourist. I told the truth.

"I just got this toy camera, and I would really like to take your picture." OK, maybe I slipped in something about a fake portfolio. And that I wanted to fill it with faces of Brookline, a community that’s so dear to my heart. But for the most part, there was no nose-growing. He said yes, and two old men sitting nearby on a bench scurried away into a store, probably afraid they were next on my hit list.

Jesus Christ: enjoying Pixar movies, mending charred bridges, and now asking for permission to photograph someone in lieu of flat out stalking? What’s next — helping old bitches across the street? Don’t worry — I was terrorizing unsuspecting pedestrians with my Holga in another part of Pittsburgh earlier today, so it’s balanced.

Jan 032008

“Henry?! Hi. I was just calling to tell you that Christina and I might be about to get our asses kicked.” 

“Yeah? I’m not coming to get you.”

It all seemed so harmless when the notion came to me on Sunday evening.

“Best idea ever: let’s walk down Brookline Boulevard with my Holga and take pictures of the assholes who live in my town.

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Henry did not agree that this was the best idea ever, but Christina, always afraid of defying me, went along with it. I grabbed the camera and my cell phone and we embarked into the wild frontier of Brookline.

Walking down the main drag, we came across few pedestrians. Apparently, one of those Steelers games was on, so most of the population had taken refuge inside their homes or local bars, eyes glued to TV screens. I secretly felt proud knowing that I left a house where The Game had not taken over the  television.

An older man slowly passed by, one hand clamped firmly upon  his young daughter’s arm, keeping her upright while she clomped along on roller skates. He tossed us a furtive, sidelong glance and picked up his pace, dragging her along. I suspect he perceived us as being suspicious, just because we were giggling nervously and I was trying unsuccessfully to camouflage my large chunky plastic camera behind my back.

Really Awesome Idea Part 2: “Ooh, let’s go into the bars on this street and take pictures of unsuspecting drunks.”

I could tell that Christina was fighting hard to ward off the angel on her shoulder and after a few moments of consideration, she gave me a feeble and unconvincing answer of, “OK yeah, that sounds like….great….fun.”

The first bar I decided to crash was the Lockerroom, which could very well be an example of Brookline’s seedy underbelly, where an opulence of cocaine and menthol cigarettes can be found amongst gun-toting wife beaters (the men, not the shirts, although they’re probably wearing the shirts). The door to the bar is found at the bottom of dimly lit cement steps, the door itself unmarked and dark metal, giving the impression that what you might find on the other side could quite possibly be the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs.

HPIM0193I cracked the door enough to glimpse a sliver of the darkened bar, inhaled some of the stale air (possibly tinged with meth fumes), and promptly bolted back up the steps.

We continued to skulk down the sidewalk, looking like we were ready to hold up a mini mart, I’m sure, when we happened upon Gordon’s Lounge.

“Oh, this is it. This is the bar we have to go into,” I said lustily, imagining the awesome photo I could steal of the run down patrons. I lingered before the door, flip-flopping. “Here, you do it,” I commanded as I thrust the Holga into Christina’s chest. She later confessed that entering the bar under the pretense of undercover paparazzi was not on her Good Time Sunday Night agenda, but she did it anyway. Because that’s what friends are for — serving Erin unconditionally.

In her own words:

i went into the bar, (which by the way was no bigger than most people’s living rooms), acting as if i were looking for someone. this made me look like a complete moron since the bar was so small to begin with, and my over-emphasized room scanning was unnecessary. i made a big display of my disappointment in not finding whoever i was “looking for” and headed for the door.  as i opened the door, i gave one last look and placed the holga up by my shoulder… aimed it at all the bar patrons and snapped a quick photo. using my high school basketball skills, i turned 180 degrees and ran as fast as my fat ass would allow. 

While Christina did her thang, I ran away and ducked into an alcove next to a bank, a spout of mad giggles threatening to launch from my mouth, not to mention the urine that was surging through my bladder. I was employing controlled breathing tactics to steady squash my impending wet pantied-laughing fit when Christina burst through the doors of Gordon’s and came barrelling toward me, just as the father and his wheeled daughter passed us by again.

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I was so humored by their need to skirt away from us (to the point of nearly walking off the curb) that I was inspired to snap a picture of their retreating bodies. The daughter noticed the flash and quickly spun around to look at us. The father sped up his pace and the two of them disappeared into the shadows of the next block. When I told him about it the next day, my work frienemy Collin said the man probably feared his daughter would be sucked into our lesbian cult, and I wanted to be offended by that but I laughed anyway.

I had grown tired of taking pictures, so I pulled the plug on the shoot and we turned to retreat.

“Wait — we have to walk past Gordon’s? You didn’t tell me that!” Christina looked slightly panicked, so I pacified her by suggesting we cross over to the other side of the street.

As we began our trek home, I peeked across the street and noticed that two people had emerged from Gordon’s. They stood on the sidewalk, looking left and right. I averted my eyes, wary of being spotted, but curiosity got the best of me and and I rubbernecked once more.

Now there was a throng of four patrons. One of them, a tall and bald man, spotted us.

“Hey!” he yelled.

He’s probably not directing that at us, I tried to assure myself. He’s maybe calling a taxi.

“HEY!” he shouted louder this time, causing a shiver to melt down my spine. The throng began moving, mirroring our steps from the other side of the street.

“Oh my god, he’s going to fucking murder us!” I tersely whispered to Christina. The man was still shouting at us. I looked around innocently, hoping that my body language conveyed that I wondered to whom he was shouting, because it certainly couldn’t be at the two sweet, demure women who were merely taking a nice evening stroll. Except that my harried motions all but screamed, “It was us! Over here! We’re the two you want!”

“What the fuck were they doing when you took that picture?” I cried, thinking that we know had photographic evidence of a bar-top virginal sacrifice.

“I don’t know, they were just watching the football game!” That explains it. Christina had a mask of fear on her face. “The worst part is that I look like a boy from across the street. What if they get as far as jumping me before realizing that hey, I have tits!?”

I stole another quick glance at the angry mob, cherishing the parked cars along the street that doubled as shields, and noticed that one of the women had pulled a cell phone from her purse and was dialing.

Holy shit, what if they’re calling the cops?, my inner voice added an extra punch pf paranoia. Or worse — what if they’re calling more drunk Steelers fans?!

“If they catch us, we’ll just deny it,” I blathered, attempting to shove the Holga down the front of my coat. I didn’t look obvious. Not at all. “Or…we can just fall back on the excuse I always use in  times like this: we’re playing a photo scavenger hunt.”

The throng of pissed off photographic subjects gave up after a block and a half, probably not wanting to miss any heart-stopping plays during the game, so we slowed down our pace and tried to relearn how to breathe.

A block later, a skeletal woman with dark eyes and a husky voice stepped out from a stoop and said, “I’m sorry, can I have a light?” As Christina reached in her pocket for her lighter, the woman found her own and excused our services.

“Decoy!” I hissed at Christina, who instinctively spun around to see if we were being followed. Henry refused to come pick us up, and the rest of the walk home was nerve-rattling. Every time a car drove past, I considered diving into a bush.

That picture better be fucking awesome.

Later that night, we drove around, me in the passenger seat with the pig mask stuffed over my head. Now that was a Really GOOD Idea. At every red light, I’d stare into the car next to us. It’s funny how determined people are to not look twice. I scared one guy into turning left, I swear to god.The best was when I had Christina pull into the Denny’s parking lot. She idled next to a window, and I was going to get out, but just staring at the diners from the car ended up being effective enough. One man sat, burger halted in front of his gaping mouth, and stared at me in disbelief.We went to Wal-Mart and terrorized the shoppers in the parking lot for awhile, but it started snowing really hard. “Nothing’s better than bacon in a blizzard,” Christina ruminated, sending me into a five minute crack-up. (At that point, it didn’t take much.)

On the way home, flashing lights loomed ahead of us. “Motherfuck, it’s a roadblock!” I screamed in despair. “They’re on to us!” It ended up just being three cop cars with someone pulled over.

We ended the night without getting beat up or arrested, but we had fun trying.