Illustration by Chuck Shacochis
Rain or shine, every Saturday morning, if I am in Baltimore, I swing by the 32nd Street Farmers Market, a habit of city life for me since I moved to Baltimore 32 years ago. Thousands of people whom I sort of know in that strange two degrees of separation that exists on the north side of the city share this ritual with me. I like ritual. And I love the farmers market.
I have been there more than I have been to church or the dentist or had my hair cut or voted. Needing something has nothing to do with why I go. (No one needs a $9 heirloom tomato.) In truth, feeding one’s family out of the farmers market would be an impossible, astronomically expensive proposition resulting in a very odd diet.
My rounds at the market always involve a complete sweep of the vendors before I start buying anything. I have a ratty canvas L.L. Bean bag that is more than 30 years old and for a long time I drove a Volvo! I realize what this makes me look like, but I promise I do not wear socks and sandals.
I might pick up a jar of honey. A glistening head of hydroponic Boston lettuce. A bale of basil. Flowers in season. You can buy enough cut flowers for a spectacular arrangement for $20. A pound of the incomparable Zeke’s Coffee. (Royal Blue, if you must know.) Fruit when it is in season. I go for the gossip, too.
I love the faces of the people who work at the farmers market, the faces of people who work the land, like the guy who looks like a Civil War re-enactor. A Confederate! A bear of a man. He has a low growl but when I once told him that a melon he had sold me the previous Saturday was tasteless he gently proffered a fresh melon free and an apology. That little gesture secured my business forever and ever.
I grew up in Maine, so farmers are not extraterrestrials to me. They are neither exotic nor precious. They do not need a hug. Actually, they are a little cranky and a little crazy. And they like to complain. There is too much rain. Or not enough. Insects. The price of gasoline. Whatever. They are right, too.
Some of the vendors are decidedly taciturn. This is a job. A hard job. Long days. Little time off. And when the hummus eaters and hung-over hipsters wander by for a Zeke’s at 10 o’clock on their way to Pete’s Grille with their pale waif girlfriends, keep in mind that the people working here may have risen at 3 a.m. on the Eastern Shore or southern Pennsylvania to haul themselves and the fruits of their labors to Charm City.
Early to rise. That’s the key to the farmers market. Things get picked over fast— especially if the weather is good. When sour cherries (for baking) are in season in the late spring, the few available will be gone by 7 a.m. (and I bought them!).
People talk a good line about diversity hereabouts. But you rarely see a scene as eclectic as the farmers market in Waverly (or its Sunday cousin downtown under the JFX). It brightens even my cold eye. In a city with a black majority, the farmers market is a rare place where you see a lively mix of people of all backgrounds and hues that you won’t see at Eddie’s or Graul’s.
I am unlikely to eat anything other than a croissant at that hour— and certainly not Pad Thai or jerked chicken or portobello mushrooms— but I am glad that someone is stirring the morning air with those smells. Hummus is available, too. But I would eat Little Friskies before I ate hummus. Its appeal escapes me, reminding of baby food. My home is a hummus-free zone.
But the farmers market even accommodates my eccentricities.
I like the people who sell handmade soap, the old lady peddling sheet cake with frosting the color of Pepto-Bismol, the guy who sells pickles and vendors of so-called ethnic foods.
Farmers markets are great forums (forums in a near-ancient sense) for advocates, political candidates, flesh pressers, pamphleteers, pitchmen, prophets, even pickpockets (the market has plainclothes cops on duty).
And there are don’t-quit-your-day-job folk musicians, three song bluesmen, beekeepers, Baha’is— even on rare occasion mimes (the hummus of performance)— and the wide-eyed. Socks and sandals. The locavores and the just loco. Persons who listen to “A Prairie Home Companion.” Persons who have been on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Hot yoga freaks. Wearers of Nepalese tribesmen’s clothing. Or huaraches. Those who think globally but act locally. Or split wood, not atoms. And those who would free Tibet. It cheers me to see them. Kumbaya, my friends.
There is even the last Socialist standing, the lonely guy who sells (maybe he just gives it away?) some sort of workers-of-the-world-unite newspaper. I have never seen anyone buy one, but I would be heartbroken if he were not there peddling his wares. Socialism has pretty much joined the Hula-Hoop in the attic of history, despite the ravings of the Republican Party.
But all is not lost. The farmers market even has a guy selling Hula-Hoops. He’s there most weeks, too. It’s only natural.