Last Saturday my fourteen-year-old nephew visited and, after a home-cooked breakfast, he, myself, Brian, and Perkins headed for the Berkeley Flea Market at the Ashby metro station four blocks away from our house. The flea market is one of my favorite things about living in this neighborhood. When we first moved here, I checked the Berkeley police reports on the web to see how this neighborhood compared to our previous one near the university. Though there are bars in many windows, chain link fences, tough-looking kids in low pants who mumble and ride small bicycles, thumping Cadillacs with long fins tearing down the street at 2am, though there's all of this, the crime rate here is no higher than in the neighborhood with 2 million dollar homes.
At the Malcolm X Elementary School, where we go to vote, the kids planted a garden with Alice Waters and the school itself, built in the 1920's, looks quite handsome with its renovations and new coat of paint for which a sign over the baseball field thanks Berkeley voters (who always vote for anything education-related---it's nice living in a liberal bubble if you're a kid from a poor neighborhood).
Two streets up Ashby from the school is the Ashby 'Bay Area Rapid Transit' station, or 'BART' for short. On weekends when the rain spares us, an array of vendors set up shop in the parking lot. There are many immigrants from Africa who come, selling wares and participating in the drum circle. If the wind is right, I can hear the drums on Sunday mornings when I work in my garden. A few Sundays ago I walked over and sat on the sidewalk watching the drummers. There were a good twenty of them---some beginners, looking to their neighbors for techniques, others confident rhythm-masters tapping with abandon. That was the day I met the sweet potato pie vendor. He was walking through the crowd with a basket over one arm. He caught my eye and I smiled and asked, "Is that sweet potato pie?" and he said, "How do you know about sweet potato pie?" I wish I could have answered him, "I'm from Alabama. My mama makes the best sweet potato pie you've ever tasted." Instead I had to admit to having learned about them from books---no family memories, no legitimate claim to a southern tradition. I went home and made tea and ate my sweet potato and peach pie. Unlike other sweet potato pies I've tasted, this one wasn't at all starchy---it combined two distinct sweet flavors: the chewy sweetness of sweet potato, and the juicy sweetness of peach.
I was hoping we'd run into him and that I could introduce fourteen-year-old Malcolm to the magic of a sweet potato and peach pie when we ambled over last Saturday. We didn't find him, but the drum circle was there, and the lady selling Afghan rugs was there, and so was the African woman who wore tall, colorful turbans, and sold musky-smelling sugar scrubs. Brian looked for a jig-saw, Malcolm looked at the CDs, Perkins sniffed around and patiently let small children pet him. Then I came across a vendor who had old things.
I've grown up surrounded by old things, my mother being an antiques dealer. From an early age she instilled in me a sense that objects carried their history with them. How many faces had looked in this mirror? How many happy faces? Sad ones? What had they hoped for? Where are they buried now? Everything we had was at least a hundred years old. My mother prefers rustic French antiques from the 19th century. Armoires, vaiselliers, buffets---words none of my school chums knew---were everyday words in our house. "Set the table. Use the napkins in the vaiselliers."
My mother spent years weaving chair seats with cane and rush for extra money. Our bathtub was always annoyingly filled with soaking pieces of rush making the rush flexible enough to weave with. My mother taught me old weaving skills that an elderly peasant in the French Bordeaux region had taught her. We would sit together watching television and caning chairs.
On weekends and holidays, I would often get stuck for endless hours in an antique store as my mother poked around, negotiated mercilessly with the seller, chatted with the sales ladies. If we were walking up a street and I saw an antique store ahead, I would try to distract my mother into looking the other way. It never worked. She could smell antiques a mile away.
And now, I love old things, too. Our house is a mix of Ikea, street finds, objects from various travels, and things my mother has given us. But when I saw that vendor last weekend, I felt this ridiculous excitement as to what I might find. Here's what was uncovered:
* a handpainted china teacup from England * a set of turn-of-the-century stereoscope cards of Japan. One shows Tokyo as it was then---low lying, traditional houses with old tile roofs. Another card shows the harvesting of silk worms. * a stack of postcards from the New York Zoological Garden---its name was changed in the 1940's to the Bronx Zoo. I worked at the Bronx Zoo while I was at graduate school * an old needle case tied with red ribbon. I loved the fabric lining the interior. * a wonderful old book full of engravings titled, "Great Men and Famous Women." It includes brief biographies of such figures as Joan of Arc, Leif Erikson, and Caesar.
I took my treasures home and they joined my collection of old things, adding to the soup of old spirits attached to these objects, populating our little cottage with history.