“How to Bitch Slap a Raider Hater” reads the back of the limping man’s shirt. A group of men saunter in front of me, eating sunflower seeds while plastic bags filled with assorted items swing in their hands. I’m walking to the Sunday Flea Market at Ventura College. Crossing the lot filled with trucks and vans, I smell the familiar aromas of cinnamon-sweet churros, spices and meat on the griddle.
Rounding the corner of the WAM building, the patchwork of pop-up canopies and streams of people flowing up and down the market’s rows comes into view. I walk under Eucalyptus trees with long sweeping branches and pass families leaving , their bags full of fruit, various beans, chiles and used power tools. The air is brisk, fresh and after our first substantial rain in months, deep breaths are pleasurable and soothing.
Growing up in San Pedro near the Los Angeles Harbor, my brother Paul and I were schooled in the ways of swap meets and flea markets by our landlord John Ivance. He lived in a bachelor pad propped up on stilts behind the house my family rented from him. He had an unhealthy obsession with tools and HI-FI equipment. We would pile into his old grey International Scout, with it’s rough seat covers and oily stink and tour the Golden West, Cypress and Harbor swap meets. John picked through piles of grimy, rusty tools and electronics laid out on tarps, while Paul and I rummaged for G.I. Joes and toy guns. Our days of scavenging usually ended with lunch at the King’s Table Buffet inside the Del Amo Mall.
We moved away when I was ten and our treasure hunting days came to an abrupt end.
Recently, Paul and I were chatting about John’s old International Scout “Yeah. Wish I really would have bought it for $500.00. John always said he would sell it to me.” he said plaintively.
As I enter the market, Mexican music thumps and people sit on long tables eating tacos and plates of beans and rice. A produce stand displays unshelled peanuts, green mangoes and Pitayas. I weave down the aisles through couples, families and running children with bags of chicharones slung over their shoulders. Old trucks and vans with doors swung open, sit behind presentations of leather boots, tools and t-shirts on the ground. I curse myself for leaving my wallet at home as I pass yet another churro chomper, indulging in the Mexican cinnamon and sugar dusted confection.
Turning up the next row, I notice wooden framed pictures lying on colorful, striped Mexican blankets. Black and white photos of Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and who I presume are Golden-Age Mexican movie stars. In between the monochrome photos are color paintings of a muscular Aztec warrior holding the limp body of a beautiful woman.
“Thirteen dollars!” comes from over my shoulder as a small woman in huge oval sunglasses moves in.
“These are nice. “ I say to the smiling lady who looks to be in her late sixties. Her hair is dyed the color of copper and her olive complexioned face glows in the sharp winter sunshine.
“Yes. These are heroes of Mexico….originals.” She beams with a heavy accent.
“Yeah, I’ve seen some of these before. Pancho Villa…Zapata…Are you from Mexico too? ” I ask, noticing something unfamiliar in her accent.
“Oh yes. “I’m here for ten years.”
“Soy de Irlanda,” I say to her in Spanish.
“Ohhhh. Yes!” She says in English nodding her head. “I have a friend from Holanda. I spend a lot of time with her son. He speaks eh… three languages. Dutch, English and eh Spanish. Children these days are very, very smart.”
“Much easier for kids to learn languages.” I chime in
“You see these, Pancho Villa, Zapata…..revolutionaries. And…Maria Felix, movie stars from Mexico, original divas. And these” she says pointing to the Aztec Warrior. “These are the leyenda of the volcans. Popolcatepetl and Iztaccíhuat. The volcans were in love… it was like eh ….Romeo and Juliet. And this one is Cuauhtemoc. You know Hernan Cortes?”
“ Yes, the Spanish explorer,” I reply.
“Yes, He tried to find gold,” She says rubbing her fingers and thumb together.”From Cuauhtemoc.”
“But he didn’t say. He didn’t betray his people.”
“Anita! Ven aqui!” A woman’s voice calls from the adjacent stall. And just like that she was gone.
I walk away from her stand slightly dejected our chat was cut short and I’m reminded of John by this charming, affable little woman. He would’ve loved scavenging through this market. I look up as I cut the next corner, and there it is: A glinting metal box with a bright rainbow umbrella.
“Dammit!” I mutter through clenched teeth. “Why didn’t you bring your wallet?”
The long, freshly fried churros lay on a metal rack, sugar sparkling in the sun, waiting for some lucky soul…..other than myself.