Sunday, May 24, 2009

Color My World

I made two brilliant purchases, for a collective $3, at the Alemany Flea Market today. The flea market shares the site of the Farmers' Market, which operates on Saturdays and was established as a wartime measure to allow farmers to unload their surplus crops in town. Previously at Market and Duboce, it has been at its Alemany location since 1947. I just love that link to the past.

I adore this flea market because it's the great equalizer. The parking lot is filled with everything from Mercedes to Priuses (Prii?) to banged up vans and vintage vehicles. You'll find every language you can think of spoken, every color of skin, every age, every style. Sometimes there's the old lady who plays the saw and simultaneously makes a wooden cat puppet dance using a foot pedal.

Many of the vendors recognize me now, as I've been haunting the place for years, ever since my good friend Elliot would take me there using a circuitous route to mix me up so that for the longest time, I didn't know how to get there myself; it was just this magical destination at the end of a magic ride.

It's probably a safe bet that about 30 percent of my clothes, jewelry, books, furniture and artwork have been purchased from this flea market.

Wandering among the stalls is like a spiritual experience for me. There are constant reminders of my childhood in the toys, of my parents in the 50s cookware and of our communal history in the war memorabilia and photographs.

It is bittersweet. I like to hold an object in my hand and imagine its former owner. What kind of life did he lead? Are these from his estate? Were there no children to inherit them, or did they not care for these personal items, these photo albums and collections of owls and swans and matchbooks?

When I first moved to San Francisco, with my then-fiance, we sought out garage and estate sales to outfit our small apartment. At one home in Ingleside, a woman with no children had died, leaving everything from her slippers to a fully equipped barber shop in the basement that she had left as-is was when her husband died.

One of the loneliest things I have ever seen was my own mother's slippers after she died, toes tucked under her bed. Clothes are one thing, but there's something heart-rending about a pair of well worn shoes having been set aside carefully, sitting there awaiting their owner's return, when she never will.

I still have a round mirror from that barber shop that we purchased for $30. I also sneaked away a note that I found in the woman's kitchen cupboard, a hand-written recipe for bran muffins, "Very Good!"

On the way home, I said to Mark that I thought the estate sale was sad. No, he said, those items are getting a second life.

And that is how I've come to think of it: A continuation of life.

In any case, there I was today, on a blustery overcast afternoon, perusing the tables, when I was lured by a collection of old Ellery Queen paperbacks. I find old books delicious, especially ones that still contain un-P.C. references. It's like being on an anthropological dig.

I could not resist the siren call of Ellery Queen's Siamese Twin Mystery, penned in 1933, though it appears my $2 version was printed in 1942. There are so many juicy tidbits to this volume, starting with the declaration that, "In order to cooperate with the government's war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB regulations restricting the use of certain materials. For victory, buy United States war bonds and stamps," and moving on to such engaging chapter titles as, "The 'Thing,' " "The Queer People" and "Cheater Cheated."

Enough said. (I'll let you know how it ends; it will be my reading when I venture to Shaken Mama's abode tomorrow, to spend a few days with her family while she gives birth to her third daughter in a scheduled C-section Tuesday morning. I have been tasked with notifying the stationer of the details and yet-to-be-revealed name of the girl we know so far only as "Leaf," and announcing her entrance into the world on Shaken Mama's blog. As S.M. and I have a long-standing mutual threat of embarrassing each other in the obituary of whoever dies first, giving me access to her blog is quite a leap of faith on her part.)

Have you read this far? Oh, goodie! Now I can tell you of my second thrilling purchase.

A $1 box of 24 Crayola crayons.

Now, hold on! Yes, it was worth it: They are older than I am. How do I know?

First, let me give you a window into my daily morning meeting at the newspaper with the Web producer (Swedish), the deputy section editor (Chinese, 6th-generation San Franciscan), photo editor (Chinese), page designer (black) and wire editor (Filipino). Then there's me, second-generation Polish-American. I believe we are the most diverse group at the paper. And the absurdity of the "flesh" colored Crayola crayon has come up in conversation.

And so there I was today, at the flea market, when my eyes lit upon an old-looking 24-crayon box. I opened it up, found the peachiest color and pulled it out. "Flesh," it read. Which, by Crayola's reckoning, was changed to "peach" in 1962.

Other colors you won't find these days: rose-pink, dark green, middle blue green, gold ochre and prussian blue, which was changed to midnight blue in 1958 -- well before I was born.

And not a one is broken.

Monday, May 04, 2009

'Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets'

I have surprisingly few regrets in my life.

I was thinking about the course of people's lives on yesterday's occasion of what would have been my father's 86th birthday. He's been gone now four years; my mom for 19. For a long time, I have felt different from people who still have their parents.

Today, I realized that regardless of when mom and dad died, by now it's likely that I would have lost them anyway. Dad would be 86, Mom turning 85 in November.

And it made me think: I'm not such an oddball anymore (at least where this issue is concerned). Life is pretty normal.

And I got to thinking about the course of my own life, and what I would have done differently. And I know I'm going to sound like a boring Pollyanna, but the truth is, not much -- even regarding the decisions that wound up taking me unexpected places, like getting married.

How annoying is that?

Of course, there are some things I would have done differently, knowing what I know now.

1) I would have been nicer, all around. Those who know me now would probably comment about how "nice" I am. It was learned. And I still can be pretty selfish.

2) I would have attended more classes in college. I skipped so many that I still have nightmares about it.

3) I would have considered going out of state for college. I had the scholarships, but it never dawned on me this was possible.

4) I would have gotten involved in sports at a young age. They're so important for girls -- they teach discipline, self-esteem and how to lose with grace.

5) I would have learned how to play the guitar earlier.

6) I wouldn't have gotten a credit card when I was in college.

7) I would have been more discriminating with men.

8) I might have had a child.

This list, however, paled in comparison to what I am thankful I did do; for example:

1) Lived outside of Delaware, in N.C., Boston and S.F.

2) Got married, even though it didn't last.

3) Got divorced!

4) Bought a convertible.

5) Maintained several life-long friendships.

6) Went to London on a blind date.

7) Went to graduate school and earned an MFA in creative writing.

8) Went far enough in the application process to know I could have entered the SFPD academy.

9) Bought a house.

10) Adopted three cats and a dog.

11) Didn't do drugs.

12) Witnessed the birth of my best friend's first child.

13) Went home to stay with Dad indefinitely when he was diagnosed with cancer.

14) Told both my mom and my dad how much I loved them before they died.

15) Drove cross-country by myself.

16) Laughed. A lot.

So, Arthur Miller, I think I can say, I have the right regrets.