This kid I knew, Iggy, told me about a flea market where his father had a stand on weekends. Just past Donut Villa and the split in the road where Vernor forks to the left and Dix to the right, there is what looks like a shipping container graveyard or farm (depending on your sense of optimism) with a continually shifting mountain range of orange, red and yellow metal containers and, behind that, a crisscross of train lines, rutted roads and service drives.
It didn’t look like a market or much of anything—a chain link fence held tight with a bicycle chain and padlock, and inside, a small assortment of provisional structures fashioned out of blue plastic tarps, electrical conduit squatting here and there. You have to return on the weekend, when it is a little warmer Iggy said. His dad is called Nacho, short for something else, and works one of the Taco trucks along Springwells.
One weekend early May it is warmer. There, at the same lot that was once padlocked, the chain link fence gates are open and the stalls with the blue tarps are there, along with tables and tables under easy up tents. Rows running perpendicular to the street make a sort of winding zipper of people checking out the offerings.
The empty lot with the container farm is packed with people walking, chatting, smoking, haggling in front of or behind tables with piles of cell phone chargers, large rugs with images of tigers, Jesus or Ganesh, shrink wrapped stuffed animals, big lots! (that’s what the sign reads) tube socks.
Also: Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (cover only; Czech release).
A good looking leather jacket, but when held up, it is more scrap than leather.
A number of curious tools caked with dirt and rust to the point where their function is dubious and they read more as enigmatic sculptural objects—some if you squint look like clods of dirt themselves. There are lots of auto industry residuals—seats from a Dodge Charger, hubcaps, radiator grilles, door hinges. A big guy from near Bad Axe on the thumb of Michigan that sticks out into Lake Huron has cages filled with rabbits and a sign that reads, “KNIVES $10. COMES WITH FREE RABBIT.”
At some tables, there are, amidst the heaps, careful displays of a single focus: a box of unopened Pez dispensers, several glass fronted jeweler’s displays of pocket knives arranged largest to smallest, watches (first largest to smallest and then by color) amidst the car parts.
Intermittently, I spy something older, something that breaks the Made in China plastic patina or the left out in the winter in Detroit accretion. Here was a small animal dressed in tattered overalls listing to one side, cymbals in his hands. Might be a bear, might be a lion, in any instance, he is standing up on two feet like a person, which is how he is dressed. When you wind the key at his side, his body shakes a bit and the cymbals rustle a bit. I am drawn to this creature-- old-fashioned, broken, somewhat useless harder to place in function among the spark plugs and batteries, but found nowhere else here. His vendor wants 25 dollars. I think I am being sized up and start to walk away. The vendor does not call out, does not offer a lower price. (I thought about this animal, and went back the next week, when it was warmer, but also more crowded with people and vendors, and although I thought I knew where I had seen the table with this animal, I could not find it.)
There were several worn suitcases filled with clippings—newspaper articles, press photos, a long lost archive no one has been looking for. Recycled in the context of the flea market, these objects-the refuse of history-are disposed in a sort of unorganized, unconscious collage, a mixture of epochs, places and styles where centuries collide and exotic cultures infiltrate our own.
Nacho’s table is in a back corner, next to a stall that is a tidy heap of clothes—athletic sweatshirts, Bimbo sponsored jerseys from third division Mexican soccer squads. The selection of cheap tools—the red, plastic handled brushes with the black bristles that come out immediately upon contact, dollar store items, bungee cords. Nacho and Iggy Rodrigues—those are funny names, I say. Iggy, he explains, short for Ignacio, and it is from the mother’s side, they are Basque, came to the U.S. a few generations ago and settled in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Almost forgot how to speak Spanish, came to Detroit. The potatoes in the tacos at his truck are part of the Basque influence.
Here, at the intersection just past the Vernor Highway / Dix Avenue split, the stands variously teem, depending on the season, two to three days a week, where Spanish and Arabic are heard more frequently than English. I want to buy something from Iggy’s father. I just don't want any cheap paint brushes or power strips.
That’s when I see the cigar box. It’s a nice one, really, rounded corners, real wood, real hinges rather than a paper hinge holding the lid. Cuesta del Rey inlaid on the front, a corner detail with intricate arabesques, and a faded customs seal from way back. Inside, the box is filled with spark plugs, burnt-out fuses, matchbooks, small coins, a safety pin with safety pins pinned to it. I ask how much for the box. It’s the stuff inside—I use the box for that. I can tell Nacho does not really want to sell the box. Like the man with the bear, the box is special. He tells me it is very old, and antique even, he has had it for a long time.
After an awkward exchange, where I look around for another item or, at least, a similar sized box, Nacho says ok. Ok, you can have it, but you have to buy all the stuff inside, too. Five dollars.
Taking the box home and sifting through it, there is more of the same sort of detritus that was visible at first. A useful drill bit, a Detroit Tigers pencil, and a printed note at the very bottom:
It is our daily job to divide large stamp heritages and dealer stocks.
At the end of a day we sweep together all the remains and fill up wild flea market and adventure boxes.
What luck for the next reseller and enthusiastic collector to have their fun and make their profit.
In these boxes we throw everything, so we wish good luck, much fun and big profit!
Be sure, we want you to come back and become a permanent customer.
Attention please: ? = questionable / dubiously / manipulated / faked / for free !!! Where we saw material, which have to be estimated very carefully in our point of view, we marked this stamps with “?” In every case, we offer this material without a statement of genuine and, of course, no guaranty for the complete offer, this would be really not possible in this dimension!
We are a wholesaler and our job is to sell out the huge amounts which came in from many heritages and clear outs as fast as possible!
Turns out, the box and its contents come from a subgenre of the flea market, a digital heterotopia on ebay under the category of Flea Market Lots. Not quite the Basque heirloom I had started to imagine. These objects with their airs of intrigue are manifestations of "objective chance" and correspond to my dreams as a flaneur of discovery, experiencing the city through poetic reverie, the flea market itself a curious collision of objects and their suggestive places.
In reality, the box, like its contents, was scooped up wholesale, sold not by poetics but by volume. The flea market lot, available to the highest bidder, offers the chance to (you, me, the tube sock vendor) a chance patina, a potential treasure, a texture extracted from another time, setting one table apart from another amidst a culture of accumulation. Look through the listings and you can find flea markets that will come to your door in a cardboard shipping box.
Amidst heaps of low-value items, this wooden box filled with detritus takes on tremendous potential. Having accumulated all of its layers of time, for example, like its own small museum or a curious archive box in the collection of a library, time builds up the box, its contents and its associations. Inside that box, is a smaller version of the accumulated space of the flea market, establishing a sort of general archive, all in one place--all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes.
There was a glassine liner at the bottom of the box, after the message from the ebay seller. Within that layer, a small photo, black and white with a deckled edge. An older city, a sizeable, open, cobbled space, some people milling around flanked by gabled buildings. Written on the back of the photo, Belgica.
The place in the photo looks still and quiet, fairly austere, no people. Maybe it is early morning, worlds away from this flea market in this intersection of streets that form a corner of Southwest Detroit. Trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge from Canada into the U.S. via Detroit’s densest Mexican neighborhood bring all of NAFTA together in one honking triangle of diesel fuel and air brakes. Just west of here is a large Yemeni population, Muslims next to the Chaldeans, Christians from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. This flea market, like those Parisians would wander 100 years back, are what Michel Foucault would characterize as a heterotopia--of ideas, places, people. The heterotopia Foucault describes is capable of juxtaposing, in a single real place, several spaces of encounter and/or several sites that are, in themselves, incompatible—like the ethnic collisions, the confluence of international trucking routes and the curious assemblage of items for sale.
The flea market heterotopia brings together a series of objects, voices and preferences that are foreign to one another, the whole assemblage an intricate microcosm of cosmopolitan life. Here one day, gone the next, the contents of the flea market (both goods and actors) are linked by accumulation and dissipation—like shifting museums, repositories of happenstance and time related to the continual transient flow echoed by the passing trucks, the successive waves of immigrants, vendors, customers, who come weekly to this parking lot transformed each week. It’s not unlike a fair that way—I had an experience, I took my chance, I have something in my hand, less in my pocket.
On Monday, this lot will be here, the contents will be gone.
The box sits on my work table. I use it for pens.
Although I have never been here, I have seen this place before. In Bruegel paintings, the Place du jeu de Balle (Vossenplein), and in a small black and white photo I found in a wooden box in Detroit.
In the Marolles neighborhood, every day, this empty square, and an otherwise ordinary surface gets filled daily with:
delftware, postage stamps, trays of eyeglasses, African masks, wooden stools, "TRY GOD" pendants on cards goldtone, and silvertone), goldtone ball rings, white novelty rings, horse head rings, music boxes, paperback books, kilim pillows, FC St. Giles paraphernalia, watches (running, not running, needs new batteries), harmonicas (in boxes), heart key rings (in boxes), pill boxes (in boxes), chocolate pots, yellow Buvez Cacolac mugs, engraable key rings (in plastic), Coca-Cola playing cards, landscape paintings (canvas), portraits (someone else’s ancestors, framed), boxes of demitasse spoons (twelve spoons per box), mini picture frames (single and double styles.) There’s more.
Like the market in Detroit, what first read as heaps of discards variously piled or arranged, coordinated by color or form, are seen all at once. To comprehend the place and all its complexities is a challenge achieved by submitting to a belief in a curious object as a stand-in for the entirety of the market’s potency.
Are each of these objects, like the flea market itself or the box and its contents points of departure, or the ends of the line? Is the flea market a shifting landscape or a fixed position in space and time, bounded by its edges with its contents free to travel the world?
Early arrivals at the market in the Marolles are treated to that empty place in the photograph. As the sun rises, a combination of small pickup trucks, massive hand carts laden with boxes, and rolling garment racks stake out positions, traversing the rectangle of space with rows of tables, blankets, displays and piles. At the end of the day, the process is reversed, the flea market bracketed by the project of organizing a perpetually shifting assemblage of objects over time in an immobile place.
Once the noontime lunch hour passes, end of the day sweeps reveal bargains that twenty minutes prior demanded high prices before the contents are variously boxed up, sold as a lot on eBay or thrown out.
Maybe the musical bear is in there somewhere, or another wooden box filled with surplus, concealing an image of another place waiting to be called in to serve as a portal to somewhere else.