Junior used to enjoy the flea market. But he's eight now, and if I request his presence he sticks his hand out and demands $20. Usually I just let him sleep in. Not because his price is too steep—what's 20 bucks for a day of surly, pre-teen silence punctuated by beginner's sarcasm and out-of-the-blue references to Sponge Bob Square Pants—but monitoring a small child amongst an unpredictable rabble is distracting. Flea market people are mostly a joy to be around but they can occasionally bite, and I realized with 10 percent of my brain focused on junior, I was missing things.
Our presence then on the bridge to Alameda Point at 5:30 a.m. recently was due solely to his mother's insistence that he buy his own Christmas presents and the knowledge that he could acquire a box of vintage tree ornaments for a buck a piece and assign one to each of his doting grandparents as though it were this year's branded corporate gift.
The poor lad had no idea what he was getting in to. Since his last trip to the flea market I'd been on a scoring spree. Success had begotten a new "commitment to thoroughness." For Junior, this meant the old "three hour tour" would become a six hour death march of circuitous meandering, recurrent mumbling, strange darting hand gestures and countless pleas to an iphone for some light to be shed on the factual, aesthetic and economic black hole that is the flea market.
For our troubles this day we scored the aforementioned box of ornaments, quickly lost it, angrily bought a second box of ornaments for twice the price, recovered the first one in a booth where we had obsessively tried on vintage women's sunglasses, engaged in a long socratic discourse on the near total absence of legos at the flea market and bought an old fashioned plastic model kit for a 1950s muscle car. I, the collector, however, remained empty-handed.
Against a sunny afternoon backdrop of youthful shoppers in flip flops and tee shirts we had begun to look like street people with our heavy morning clothes and depleted demeanor. When my son announced in a mutinous tone that he was rerouting the ship of fools toward the exit I outwardly surrendered. But inside I kept alive a lottery ticket fantasy of finding something, anything really with my final few seconds. My desperate plea was miraculously answered in the form of a small fetishy bronze relief mounted on wood that looked to be from the '60s or early '70s. A pudgy "W" plumped out of a bronze sheet, it had two U-shaped nails hammered over each low point where the lines changes direction. At first I could make as little sense of it as you probably can from my description. The black patina and oblique reference to the body suggested something like Melvin Edwards meets Bruce Naumann. Then I began to discern the lower half of a human body as seen from the rear, with the looping nails like some kind of sex harness. A Tom of Finland repousee. It went over junior's head but he could sense the thing's weirdness and it's unlikely career as a financial investment and asked with more than his usual lack of curiosity why I wanted to buy it.
"For the mystery," I answered. And to stop the hunger, I thought.