Every Saturday and Sunday before dawn, white, red, and gray vans slouch into a parking lot off E. T. Grasso Boulevard. Cars skimming past can catch a glimpse of various opening ceremonies: the outstretching of tents, the flexing of table legs, the anxious reshuffling of jackets and rugs and nail polish bottles. From seven in the morning to four in the afternoon, vendors try to charm both serious shoppers and curious browsers at New Haven’s Boulevard Flea Market.
Ready to spend a relaxing Saturday browsing the booths, I jump out of my cab and float around the gate. The regular sellers, those closest to the entrance, stand with puckered grins, their fists jammed in flannels. They lay weekly claim over this coveted territory, and their status gives them the audacity to sell improbably seductive things, from spray-painted ukuleles to sequined fedoras. I count the booths on tiptoe until the crowd elbows me to the left fringe of the lot.
My strategy in navigating the market is to leave each stand after three seconds. Anything more cues a kind of crude, scripted courtship: the vendor hunkers forward casually; I jerk my chin in apology and duck back into the traffic of shoppers. I pass pile after pile of studded belts and Dora the Explorer underwear, but when I catch the gleam of jewelry, I veer hard.
My inspection of ceramic necklaces ends prematurely when I realize that the vendor’s been trailing me hopefully from behind the table, waxing the pendants with skittish thumbs. I smile awkwardly, trying to put her at ease, when another customer arrives, drawing slow, meaningful sips from his Starbucks between interrogations. “Is this sterling silver?” Flustered nod. “You sure?” He nets a chain with two fingers, brandishes a silver-webbed peace sign inches from her face. “You sure?!”
I back off, past the smoking incense bundles and the plump white basketball shoes. Past a tableful of pixel-bleary Reggaeton CDs. Past a rack of plum-colored geode hemispheres, those classics among novelty items. Past a woman lecturing a perplexed boot vendor about the range of colors between light brown and tan. At a tentless clearing, I listen to vendors swapping across the aisles summaries of their lives, sales, favorite television episodes, until my knee grinds into something: a cardboard box, one of dozens set on the rocks in a sprawling grid.
There’s something flamboyantly attractive about the Grandma’s-attic-like layout of this little field of treasures. To the left lie pudgy extension cords, “Skerpie” permanent markers, embroidered toilet seats, Snuggies for Dogs; to the right, Spongebob thermoses and Pokémon cards. An ogler of Batman figurines rejoices: “Mommy! I could afford anything here!” The steepest price I can see is $7, leveled by a well-deserving box of red lacquered Buddha statues.
Next door, a vendor greets me in rapid Chinese. I recognize “Miss” and “look” from my intro class and, in a sort of studious ecstasy, batter him with prepackaged phrases: Do you give bargains?, What time is it?, Are you hungry?, and, ultimately, the graceful concession to the limits of my proficiency: Sorry, I must go now.
At my final stop, I spy a cream-colored knit cap, the kind-of-doofy type with braids lolling off the sides, and, at once, I understand that it will be mine — the only question, now, is how much I’ll pay for it. I guide the fabric over my ponytail and crack a joke about my big head; the vendor hears “the hat’s too big” and launches an earnest defense of his product. I decide not to correct him, instead setting down the cap and pawing through a pile of different designs. Finally I retrieve the first one and gaze at it punishingly, muttering something about one-size-should-fit-all before asking the vendor how much. He eyes me hopefully, fanning three fingers. Frowning, I ask, “How do you feel about two?” He peeks at his wife; they nod vigorously.
After the purchase, we can both exhale. We’ve performed all the strutting steps in an elaborate game, and now we can shake hands, bid each other a great day and great business.
In the afterglow of my bargaining success, I head to the gate and peer over my shoulder at a market that still seems endless. I don’t mind — maybe after next Saturday, it’ll start looking smaller.