In 1978 my mother unceremoniously threw away my “The Six Million Dollar Man” Parker Brothers board game. This bitter memory comes to me at 4:30am Halloween morning as I stand in the brisk dark of Wolff’s Flea Market. It is the last day of the season, and there on a table before me lies a well-used “The Six Million Dollar Man” Parker Brothers board game. I ask myself, “Should I buy it?” As I can think of no good excuse for doing so beyond antagonizing my now deceased mother, I walk away. Although the “it” will vary, I will go on to ask myself, “Should I buy it?” approximately a thousand more times before I’ve even had breakfast.
For here upon the asphalt plain of the Allstate Arena parking lot, nourished by the milky rays of a sharp-edged, crescent moon, blooms a frenzy of grass-rooted entrepreneurialism. So that I might bear witness to this remarkable flowering of all things saleable, I woke up at 3:20 in the morning and tagged along to Rosemont with a friend who regularly makes the trip. Even at this unholy hour vendors are selling, and tables and canopies sprout by the minute. Getting the jump on late-rising dilettantes, early buyers search out the records, comics, jewelry, toys, pop-culture trinkets and granny kitsch that will make their flight from warm beds and bodies worthwhile. Armed with flashlights and singularity of purpose, they move in ever-widening circles, undistracted by merchandise that falls outside their desire. The most ubiquitous activity is the setting up of wares. Some merchants do so with meticulous care, neatly arranging items on their tables in categorical harmony. Others dump piles of assorted, incongruent items on the ground. There are regular merchants for whom flea-market commerce is a vocation, and others, hardly merchants at all, who pay the forty-five-dollar fee and aspire to monetize the labor they put into cleaning out their attics, basements or garages. DVDs plague the market like, well, fleas.
As this people’s market comes to life around me, I am reminded of the grand bazaars I experienced in Marrakesh, Niamey and Istanbul. Like the trading caravans of old, vehicles—mostly vans, trucks, SUVs and U-Hauls—loaded with exotic goods (well, maybe not so exotic) are arriving from the four corners of the world. Well, maybe not the world, but no matter. Here is almost everything you could want, and even more of everything you don’t want. Supply chain issues? Here there is an abundance of supply, and chains too if that’s what you’re looking for. With not much effort you can sate any need you might have for lawn care, self-care, car care, house care, childcare, pet care, foot care, spiritual care, memory care, leisure care… I don’t see much for erogenous care, unless you have a fetish for baby doll heads, action figures, candy, life vests, shoes, Campbell’s soup, taxidermy, trumpets, toilet paper, stuffed animals, watches, Hot Wheels, doorknobs, tires, belt buckles, women’s clothing, men’s clothing, and a billion (give or take) other items one could conceivably develop a fetish for. My friend tells me the Wolff brothers, who can be seen roaming the market, disallow porn and gross obscenities. Not that I’m looking, but I do see some old Playboys discreetly for sale, and near the Port-a-Potties someone is selling Trump merchandise. I don’t see any weapons, although I do overhear a man pointing out to a merchant that the lone bullet she is selling is a live round.
And did I mention tools? Great god in heaven, I see more tools than in the known universe. New tools, old tools, clean tools, dirty tools, broken tools and less-broken tools. And tool belts. All this sticky residue of building and fixing smells ever so faintly of death. No matter how hard we strive to distract ourselves by tinkering around the house, our bodies inevitably pass to dust as our tools inevitably pass to bargain-hunters. From now on, Home Depot can go to hell. And Costco, Best Buy, Target and Walgreens, too, for that matter. This whole scene is a fat, dirty-fingernailed middle finger shoved into the smug face of corporate commerce. Membership required? What a joke. I’m a member of this riot of consumerism by virtue of my humanity. But this doesn’t mean people are giving their shit away. Make no mistake, flea markets are free markets only in the sense that got off Milton Friedman.
Daylight changes everything. As the sun rises, the mystery falls. Now the scene looks like a shabby yard sale. The aisles fill with shoppers who, unlike the early morning hawks, flit from table-to-table without a plan, stopping to inspect items they won’t consume. It is time to go. In case you are wondering, I bought two tubes of toothpaste, five paintbrushes, and a wooden mannequin hand, a purchase I will have to defend when I get home. For my friend, it has been a good morning. He comes away with plenty of what he was after. “Satisfied the hunter-gather impulse,” he says, and soon after that he quotes the great Cosmo Kramer: “Retail is for suckers.”
Wolff’s Flea Market opens for the season May 1 at Allstate Arena.