My first job, at 14, was at the farmers market, helping family friends with their produce stand. Over the years, while I was still a “helper,” and not yet the owner of my own business, I would peel off and work “regular” jobs, the kind where you sit in a cubicle and a co-worker comes by at lunch and asks if you want anything from Taco Bell. I never fit in at those places. Besides, I don’t like Taco Bell.
So the markets have been my life. Even during those bone-chilling winter days when I wondered if I’d ever get warm again, I still would not trade the work for the warmth and security of the cubicle. Don’t think I haven’t considered a switch — I have, but the swirling snow and menacing clouds outside my office window only enticed me to go outside. And I think about that choice as I serve customers with mittens cut off at the fingers, allowing me just enough time for a transaction before the numbness sets in again.
The market is where I belong; it’s where I fit in.
The mechanics of the markets, the setup and teardown, are something of a well-rehearsed and choreographed ballet. The first trucks rumble into the darkened space between 4:30 and 5 in the morning, well ahead of any customers. Who would want to come shop at that hour anyway? Air brakes pierce the morning stillness with a hiss, then fall silent for the next six hours or so. “Real estate” is at a premium, but everyone has his space. Boundaries are respected; tents and tables mark the layout of each stand. No fights break out, no shouting matches — we all know where we belong.
In these waking moments, I occasionally meet those denizens of the night, the ones who for one reason or another are out on the streets. For some, it is their home. I can’t say I can relate to their level of need; I’ve been fortunate that way, and I recognize this. I have to refuse their requests for money; it’s what I’ve been told. That’s not a way to help, according to the experts. But my truck is full of food, and I offer whatever I can to take away the gnawing hunger. At the same time, I have to make the most of the precious time I have to set up, lest the customers arrive and I’m only partly ready. A bit of food to chase away the hunger of one of these people in need, and I have to get on with the business of setting up. I can’t linger or get into their personal histories — as much as I’d like to.
The city parking lots and other market spaces often are nothing short of funky. There can be trash and liquor bottles from late-night revelers, a pizza box from a corner store. Most of that is picked up and cleared away before the start of the market, but it’s hard to get the space squeaky clean. So we choose to ignore all that, best just not to acknowledge it. It’s a tacit agreement, this meeting of the customers and vendors.
It could be raining or cold or blazingly hot or — in some rare instances — a combination of those things thanks to rapidly changing weather. But there are fresh things to eat, produced by the people who sell them. And the displays are dazzling in their variety and the quality of what is offered. Purple potatoes, white potatoes that look like pearls, greens of all varieties, summer corn and on and on. Yes, occasionally a customer will ask where they can buy cherries in March, or look for plums in the middle of December. A brief lesson on the growing seasons usually suffices in these cases.
The level of activity is often intense; it’s taxing both mentally and physically. Vendors need to keep track of everything: preparing for the market, producing or harvesting what we have to sell, loading the trucks, making sure everything is ready, that there are enough supplies and so on. It’s easy to forget something, but when everything goes as planned, it’s a beautiful thing. Yes, tiring and exhausting, but a wonderful and satisfying effort nonetheless.
Many customers feel a real connection with the market vendors, and we feel the same. I look forward to seeing the same customers every week and introducing new ones to my stand. It’s a gathering place in the community where neighbors can meet up, do some shopping, possibly reconnect with those they haven’t seen for some time. I’ve been a market vendor for so many years, I have watched my customers’ children grow up, get married and come to my stand with their own children. The cycle continues.