Issue No. 12, Escape - A Thief's Best Friend is His Tote Bag
The Farmer’s Market reaches its peak time at ten o’clock – for me. The best goods are dwindling but the crowd is rising, and the buzz around their heads is thick enough to disappear beneath. It’s not exactly a Middle Eastern bazaar—there are no newsprinted fish flying overhead, no shouts from rotund fruit men to escaping boys with bulging coat pockets—but these farmers have a pomp all their own. They sit back in their homemade chairs, hands in their homemade pockets, stroking their homemade moral superiority, without even considering the amoral superiority beneath them. They are no match for me.
I walked the entire length of the market before I began, weaving down the aisles from the front of the tent to the back. I made sure the vendors were where they were the week before. I checked up on their inventory, noted the items furthest from reach, the big, the small, the wrapped, the unwrapped, and came to rest at meat. The meat tables occupy the end of the line for most shoppers. Men who think that blood will trim the femininity off their aprons stand arms crossed and snug behind coolers of plastic-wrapped flesh. The coolers present a challenge unlike that of a stray head of broccoli, but it’s better to get the hardest part over with first.
A mustached man still nursing the toothpick from a sample of cheese approached the butcher. His wife was held up somewhere, probably baskets, and he was determined to get the most out of his morning. “Do you know I’ve always wondered,” said the man, “at what age a veal is no longer a veal.”
The butcher cocked his head. “A veal?”
“You know, is the year a calf’s a cow the year a veal’s not a veal? Or is a calf never a veal until it’s dead? Or does it matter? Ha! A veal’s a veal’s a meal!”
While the butcher busied himself with his affronted stare, I swept four links of his best blood sausage into my empty tote bag and walked away.
My bag says “PBS” on its side. I stole it during a fundraiser. There are many just like it all across the market, though the sausages inside them are probably wrapped in receipts. It’s important to blend in. You blend in so you can blend out. I wear cargo shorts and a beige rain hat. I wear an over-large t-shirt because I am very small.
People dress their Saturday worst for the Market. Their least-favorite shoes wade in the mud between stalls. Any other day and they’d be whining, but today they gladly stride, sucking in the mess of global thoughts and local acts, even taking their dogs along with them to churn and contribute to the slush. I pet one.
There were a few leaves of chard left on the center vegetable table and the crowd politely danced around them, waiting to strike while pretending they were interested in kale. The vendor was chewing a honeycomb lent from the seller behind him. He moved slowly with his chores, opening rolls of pennies in his battered tin cash box, licking his finger to open a paper bag; all giving the impression he was a humble man who enjoyed life’s sweet simplicities, that we were guests on his front porch. But after he got his finger into the bag, he would smile and flick it downward so fast the air popped in like a gunshot, waking everyone up from their courtesy and moving them closer to the chard.
I buzzed in and out of the circle, trying to find the best position, stretching my hand out over the leaves only when the vendor smacked a bag open. With each smack I got a little closer, the crowd got a little more confused, and on a smack so hard it blew the bottom of the bag out, I touched the chard.
The cry from the middle of the tent was loud and drawn-out, the anger in it mounting syllable by syllable. Just as everyone turned to see who had screamed, I wrapped my hand around the chard like it was a Golden Ticket and went giggling, really giggling, out of the circle.
I looked for my benefactor but saw that only Jesus had arrived, that is, the homeless man who calls himself “Jesus.” It was a bit late for him, and he looked more frazzled than usual. He cut right into the middle of the market and paced barefoot up and down the aisles. His typical blue bathrobe was dragging in the mud. His Speedo was lost in the hair of his thighs and stomach. The beard, as one would suspect, was grown to effect––less so the fingernails.
I am always happy to see him. As someone who is paid very little attention at the Farmer’s Market, and always hopes to be paid a little less, it helped that Jesus was around. I would have tried to be crucified next to the real one too.
“Out! Out! Money changers!” It plainly came from Jesus. Usually, his mumbles were low and undirected. This was strangely coherent.
A few disapproving glances were sent in his direction. He was finally making a commotion too loud not to glance at. Was this a performance piece? the shoppers were sure to think. Do farmers perform “pieces”? Was this a shouting schizophrenic they had heard on the street before? If so, which one?
“My house shall be called a house of prayer and you scum are making this a robber’s den!”
Jesus took his raving down the aisle, so that’s where I took my tote. I stayed behind and three shoppers to his right. Appropriately enough, a pair of Philistines was selling hummus at his next stop. Jesus dragged the tip of his finger through their sample cup, as if he were writing in the sand, and smeared a line of the Roasted Red Pepper over his mustache. Jesus was an intimidating figure even without the menacing gestures: six foot something with a football player’s build. Understandably, perhaps expecting a slingshot to come out of his bathrobe, the Palestinians pulled back in fear, and just enough for them not to notice my collection of their pastries.
Beside them, the community’s favorite married couple was operating a children’s puppet stand. Their show concerned climate change, I think. There was a sun and an ailing dragon. Jesus was transfixed. Landing on the lap of a less-than-transfixed girl in the front row, he kept his eyes on the bare wrists below the sock puppets.
Before long, it was apparent Jesus’ attention was out of disgust, not admiration. “Where is your farm?” he said to the wrists. “What land do you till?”
The puppet couple was unused to audience participation. The show went on until the screams of children brought their heads above the curtain.
Jesus had taken his swimsuit off. He pulled the dragon sock from the husband’s hand and slid it over the offending organ. “What seeds do you plant?” he shouted at the puppeteers. “What fruit do you pluck?”
While parents and children were covering their eyes, I took the tote of an outraged mother and pushed it into my own.
I was thrilled. My tote was fuller than it had been in weeks. Jesus and I were truly working as a team. I’m at the mercy of the nearest diversion in my job, and with Jesus, there could not have been a greater mercy. I wanted to pull his sleeve along with me so we could skip together to the next farmer. But I couldn’t risk anyone thinking this marvelous accident was somehow planned. I ran to baskets and only prayed he ran along with me.
The baskets were typically impossible to fit into my tote, but with Jesus still screaming, I felt the impossible was ready to be tried. I looked for the small ones, the widely woven ones that could be easily collapsed. The seller, a shy tee-totaller with a beer belly, was watching all the commotion at the puppet stand, and when I saw her eyes widen and her lips separate, I knew backup was on the way.
“Silly ass!” Jesus shouted at the basket weaver. “Liar! Hypocrite! Money changer! From what tree did you pick these twigs? Are you a farmer or a demon in a silly ass’s clothing?”
He took her credit card slider, pressed it against her head—“Out demon! Leave this ass behind!”—and ran the slide over her white curls. “Out!”
He was angrier than I thought. I was concerned, but had no time to ask the woman if she was all right. My tote was heavy and begging for more. I stopped searching for the easiest basket, just grabbed the nearest handful of reeds.
More and more people from the corners of the market were coming inwards to spectate. Looks of concern dotted the crowd. As everyone had left their cell phone at home to more fully experience the authenticity of the market, no one could call the police. The bored son of a butter churner, his Tonkas having run the gamut of possibility, came back in from his trucks and wriggled his way to the front. His face was glowing. He was entertained. Saturday had finally lived up to its name.
Ducking under arms and purchases, I found the soy table next door and, just as I wished, Jesus found it too. He picked the teenager who was manning the table up by the collar and shook him furiously. I hid behind a barrel of soybeans.
“Do you know who I am?” Jesus spat in his face. “Do you know who I am?”
“Who are you?” said the teenager.
I was reaching my hand up into the barrel when Jesus suddenly pulled it away from me. He raised it over the teenager’s head, beans pouring over their shoulders, and let it drop. The barrel had a false bottom two inches down. The poor boy’s head cracked straight through and he teetered around, seeing stars where there were supposed to be soybeans.
This must have been some kind of last straw. A group of thirty-something male musicians, all shaggy beards and plaid shirts, closed in on Jesus with chivalrous frowns. Some tackled his legs, others his arms, flying up in squid-like fury.
“Sell everything you own!” Jesus shrieked, the musicians having forgetten to cover his mouth. Perhaps it was his awful smell, but once they had throttled his chest, they backed off a little and Jesus wriggled free.
“Sell everything you own, not everything you make!” He toppled the next five stands, pulling out tablecloths like a bad magician and flipping over tables. I had to run ahead of him so he wouldn’t wreck the items I had my eyes on (I once had to take a head of lettuce from the ground and was very disappointed). I ran backwards, holding my tote out under the tables as Jesus filled them up.
Unfortunately the plaids conquered their senses and mustered the strength to bring the schizo down. I could do nothing to help him, just stepped back and watched. It was a horrible sight, like the tent of a three-ring circus falling in on an elephant. They dragged him back to meat, his ankles bobbing through the mud, his beard stuffed into his mouth.
“—everything you own” was the last I heard him say, and I was almost certain the first word was “steal.”
The vendors quickly relit their pipes and blew the sweet smoke over the crowd, anxious to get their audience back. They opened a few more jars of dijon or chutney or dijon-chutney, the tops shooting like champagne corks into the silence.
My shoulder was aching from the weight of the tote, and I thought, sans companion, maybe I should just go home. My spoils were plenty. My shoulder needed icing. However, the pretzel sticks left out for the taking sent a strong reminder of the task at hand. Duty first, I breathed deep, pulled my hat back over my eyes, and wrapped my arms around the pyramid of mustard jars. With or without the perfect diversion, I had to finish what was already the best day at the Farmer’s Market I ever had.
I wondered, scooping roasted walnuts from their buckets, whether Jesus ever noticed my darting around beneath him and if he realized how much he was helping. I would have loved to thank him. Alas, we could have never met, since I can never be noticed.
“Hello there,” said the florist. “You’re carrying quite the load.”
Flowers were my last stop, the farthest point possible from meat. The florist set up her stand outside the tent, where there was grass instead of mud, and where she could greet the families walking in. They were all carrying heavy loads, so I ignored the florist and kept on for her daffodils.
“Did you see Jane Eyre last night?” she said. “Excuse me, Jane Eyre?”
The petals in the front were a little peaked, so I rifled through to the back. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Was it all you hoped it would be?”
“What?” This may have been my first spoken word at the Farmer’s Market. It hurt my throat.
“Jane Eyre. Masterpiece Theatre.” She pointed to my tote.
“Yes, PBS, it’s—”
“All you really need, isn’t it?”
So she wouldn’t be able to inspect anything past its insignia, I shifted the tote around to my back.
“Do you have something specific in mind?”
“Yes, a flower. I have a flower in mind.”
“Is it for someone special?”
“I think this one sets your hair off nicely.”
I reached into my back pocket, again a first, and pulled out the change I had taken from the Leave A Penny, Take A Penny.
“Please, please, it’s on the house,” she said.
Obviously, she wasn’t like my other Farmer’s Market companion. But although she smiled and Jesus frowned, both expressions carried vast generosity. I nearly melted under hers.
I took the flower. “For me?”
“Put it in your tote, Tote-man.”
I put it in my hair.