Tales From the Flea Market



140 west 26th St, NY 10001

Neighborhood: Chelsea

I’ve been out of work for a month. My life is my own. No longer must I force myself through the routine of setting my alarm, waking up, dragging my tired body out of bed, taking a too-short shower, brewing coffee, forgetting to drink half of it, deciding what to wear, taking the subway, taking the elevator, saying “Hi, how you doing?” to the receptionist, and on and on and on. I’m free.

The major downside, clearly, is that life is not free. And now that I’m spending far more time in my very small Manhattan apartment, something has to be done with the space. So with the hope of sprucing it up at bargain prices, I headed over to the Twenty-sixth Street Flea Market with my friends Carl and Noleen. We spent the better part of a weekend traipsing around the market, investigating all the nooks and crannies and characters the place had to offer. As we did this, it struck me that everything there had two values. The first was for the function; the second was for the story.

The Bench from the South

The guy tells us, “I got this bench down south, at an estate sale. It’s a great piece, all handmade. Some guy down there made it for his kids to play checkers on.”

“How much?”

“Forty-five, was what my daughter was asking.”

The bench is a piece of crap. Old, dirty boards that don’t fit together properly and a checkerboard painted roughly on the seat. An ingenious idea, but my dad would probably wring my neck for even looking at it. Naturally, I see some subtle, hidden beauty in it. I’d eyed it for two days straight, envisioning two little kids on the Louisiana bayou, playing game after game of checkers on this little bench their dad had made for them. Carl’s astute bargaining prowess gets them down to $35, and I agree to buy it.

“So where’d you say this thing comes from?” I say, handing over my money.

“Pennsylvania,” he says. “I got it from a house in Pennsylvania.”

When we get to the lobby of my building, Noleen and I run into the super. He looks at us, at the bench, and back at us. “I hope you didn’t pay for that,” he says, and walks away.

The Very, Very, Very Old Trunk

The man selling this trunk doesn’t seem too familiar with the notion of what a flea market is all about. I’ve asked him several times to cut a deal, but he refuses to budge one cent.

“Where do you think we are, Bloomingdale’s?” Carl says.

“Any idea how old this piece is?” I ask, looking for some a sign that we’re not completely being taken for a ride.

“Oh, it’s very, very, very, very old. Least a hundred years old.”

“No shit?”

“Oh, yes, a hundred years, give or take. It really is very, very old,” he says.

“Where did you get it?” I ask.

“Oh, I got it at a very, very old house sale from a very, very old man.”

The Green Shelves

It’s early evening, and we’re on the way home. The market has shut down. Carl, Noleen and I pass some large bulky green shelves on the sidewalk. I examine them more closely and decide to try and get them home. As we contemplate how to move them, a yellow truck pulls up and an elderly man leans out the driver’s side window.

“I’m Ralph,” he says, “and those shelves belong to Carlos. I shoulda put them in the building but I forgot.”

I ask the eternal question: “How much?”

“You’d have to come back tomorrow and talk to Carlos.”

“Well, how much do you think Carlos would charge?”

“Oh, I dunno,” he says. “This is a three-piece set. There’s a guy who lives in Florida who offered $700 for all three pieces. He just needs to figure out a way to get it all down to there, ‘cause the other two pieces are 8 feet tall.”

The next day, we find Carlos and ask about the shelves.

“Hang on a second,” he says. “I have to ask Ralph.”

It turns out Ralph and/or Carlos want $150. I like these shelves, but this is way too much. They’re a funny green, the paint’s peeling off, and they’re filthy. One side looks as if it were ripped off a freeway sign, the doors don’t open, and even if they did, and the shelf inside has fallen down.

Carlos tells us he’s decided to keep the other two pieces and strip them himself for his shop. So much for the guy down in Florida. Later, I go back and ask Carlos if he’ll do $75. To my surprise, he says yes.

“Those things are becoming the what do you call it?” he says. “The bane of my existence.”

Then something strange happens. It hits me that because the shelves are now so cheap, and because their owner is no longer even trying to fabricate a story around them, I no longer care if I have them.

The Free Chair

A guy with a British accent says it’s been going for $95 all day, but he’ll give it to me for $75. The chair is smallish, with these great carved wooden feet and loud blue and yellow upholstery. God only knows what kind of vermin live in its disintegrating cushion. Still, it’s not the kind of thing I can make a decision on immediately. So I talk it out with the British guy, and he’s very understanding. He offers to hold it for me until tomorrow.

“Go home,” he says, “and see if the piece is right for your place.”

Everything here sounds sound much better when it’s called a “piece.”

That evening I phone my mom to get her opinion. She immediately gets the idea and encourages me to go for it, going so far as to say the chair sounds “Provencale.” After roughly a six-pack each, Carl, Noleen and I decide it would be the perfect addition to my home.

Next day, we go back to find the guy with the British accent. He’s there, but the chair is not. This only makes me want it more. I approach the guy and he looks at me for a moment, feigning a lack of recognition.

“Ah, I just sold it!” he says at last. “I forgot I was holding it for you. Really. Just sold it now. Ask this woman over here. These people bought another chair, saw this one, really wanted it, and I completely forgot about you.”

I say nothing and continue staring.

“Look,” he says. “I’ll get you another chair just like it. And I’ll give it to you no charge. Jesus, I keep doing this. I did the same thing to another woman, sold what I was holding for her, and now she keeps getting free stuff from me.”

The Checkers

Carl and Noleen suggest that the aforementioned bench, the one from “down south,” would be infinitely more interesting if we got some checkers to put on it. To my surprise, it only takes about a minute to find someone selling checkers. He’s got a box filled with checker pieces, about two-hundred of them, all different sizes and thicknesses and colors.

“How much for a set of checkers?” I ask.

“Let’s see. A dollar each, and you’d need twenty-four. So that’s twenty-four bucks.”

“Jesus, that’s a lot for a set of checkers,” Carl says.

“Okay, twenty,” he says, and turns away from us.

Carl continues. “Are you kidding me? Twenty dollars for a set of checkers?”

“Listen, these are the last ones left. I used to have, like, eighty-thousand of these things.”

“That’s all right,” I tell Carl. “I’ll probably find them cheaper at Bloomingdale’s anyway.”

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