Swap Meet: Another Smith Place Story (Part 4—The Conclusion)
In the following months, Roy’s attitude toward me changed. I don’t know if Roberta spoke to him or whether he had guilt pangs at having taken advantage of a kid who loaded and unloaded a truck load of newspapers and walked away with only a few bucks. Roy let me ride in the cab of the truck again, but he could only take me talking for a few seconds. I grunted; said yes and no as necessary and essentially tagged along to Roy and Three’s chore runs for the fun.
One day Roy and Three were talking excitedly about the reopening of the Swap Meet. They were planning on selling the trinkets, tools, and junk that they’d been storing all winter in Roy’s garage waiting for opening day. Roy had gathered old tools and washed or scraped away all the rust and made them look, if not new, at least usable to someone who could only afford swap meet used tools.
Three had gone house-to-house and asked if the neighbors had anything they would give him to sell at the swap meet. He got old dishes, pots and pans, old clothes, shoes, basically anything you could find at the thrift store. Three took this stuff and worked to make it saleable. His mother washed all the clothes; he shined all the old shoes; he polished the dishes; and he was ready to sell at the swap meet.
I did not have anything to sell. Still, I just begged to go along. Roy relented and demanded I stay out of the way except for loading and unloading the items on and off the truck, something he knew I knew how to do.
Opening day was on a Saturday morning and Roy said he wanted to be first in line when the swap meet opened and that meant we were leaving at six in the morning that day. We loaded the truck the day before and Roy made us take four-hour shifts to watch the truck so no one stole items off the truck before we left. I had the midnight-to-four shift, and I met Three on my porch as he handed me the flashlight to take over as he left to sleep.
Three told me no one came around while he watched so he thought I would not see anyone either. I wish I had been so lucky. For two hours nothing happened, but then as the heart of twilight further darkened the moonless sky, I heard a noise near the truck. I ran from my porch to the area I heard the noise come from. I shined the flashlight all around the truck and did not see anyone, but I thought I heard enough to wake Roy and let him know.
I knocked on the door and I heard Roberta and Roy scrambling to turn on lights and come to the front porch. Roy came out, not looking happy, wearing his loose red cotton robe and I could see he just had on a tee shirt and boxer shorts. Roy was not a handsome man and he looked uglier wearing only underpants. I told Roy what I heard, and he told me he better find something, or I would pay for waking him and Roberta so early in the morning.
I had kept the flashlight on the truck the whole time because the less I had to look at Roy the better. He came down from the porch and followed me as I led him with the flashlight beam to the truck. Being right sometimes is a greater feeling than just being right when something does not matter. As we rounded the truck’s perimeter, we heard someone moving and Roy moved faster than I’d ever seen him move to cut off whoever it was at the back end of the truck.
I raced to catch-up to Roy and got there as he grabbed two of the neighborhood kids that had taken stuff from the truck. He made them pick up the stuff they taken off the truck and loaded back to where they stole it from. Roy then walked them, with me at his side, to their homes and woke their parents and showed them what the kids had done. It was bad enough that the kids caused their parents this embarrassment but to have the news delivered by the scantily-robed-underpants-wearing Roy was adding insult to injury and would mean, I was sure, a greater punishment for the lads.
Roy then went back to his house where Roberta was waiting for him with the front porch light on, rushing him inside because the longer he stayed out the more he would never live his appearance down if any neighbors saw him. Roy did not thank me. I did not expect it either. I felt good at having done my job, especially that Roy had to see and know that I could meet the challenge of my charge.
I almost did not wake up in time and barely made onto the truck as Roy was pulling out of the driveway. Roy made no mention of what happened earlier that morning to Three and I just stayed quiet so I would not get kicked out of the truck. When we got to the swap meet, Roy’s belief that we would be first in line was destroyed by the twenty-or-more folks that had lined up even earlier. This meant that the best-selling spots near the concession stand where people would hang out would be taken and we would be relegated to the edges near the screen where some folks never even walked.
When we got in and headed to the best spot at the center of the big drive-in movie screen, I felt small, real small. As you go closer to the big screen, about twenty-five feet from the screen, you felt like what it must feel like as you land on the moon.
The crowd was let into the swap meet and started milling around the good spots, but few came to the table we had set up. Those that did come up just stood staring at the big screen like you would a ripening pimple on a teenager’s growing face. As much as you want to look away you can’t divert your gaze because you have a sense that the pimple will soon pop, or the screen will tip over on you any minute. And who wants to miss that!
I soon realized why I was brought along. Both Roy and Three wanted to leave the table in my care so they could graze the bargains to be found, finds they would later sell to those in the neighborhood for a higher price. Three was learning how to make money; that’s for sure. Roy had been at this wholesale/retail play for years. I was bored by this hustle, but I enjoyed the time at the swap meet for other reasons.
I started having fun manning the table. I decided to become a carnival barker and trying to attract folks to the table. Me to the crowd: Come find stuff you can’t find anywhere else. Great deals here. I’ll tell you story about everything on the table. You got to hear what I have to say.
I did attract a crowd. One older gentleman took me up on my storytelling offer and said that I had to persuade him with a story to buy an item. He said he would pick the item and it was my job to sell him with a story. As others heard the old man challenge me, they gathered around. How often do you a get a story from a pint-sized kid in front of giant movie screen?
The gentleman, dressed in a light multi-striped long sleeve shirt, wearing a Panama hat with an exotic flowering bird feather, with a nice belt, and sporting trousers with draped pleating that hung exactly right on his long frame, took his time finding the item from which a story would emerge.
He hummed a song, one that would remain in my memory until as an adult I heard it again sung by Tony Bennett. As he looked at the items, he gave an Ah, Ha! He reached over to a plain, slightly burnished green, outdoor water faucet spigot. Roy had priced the spigot at twenty-five cents. I knew if I sold it, I would need to get at least that much, or I’d be walking home from the swap meet.
The crowd started laughing, wondering how a kid could make a story out of water spigot.
I took the spigot in hand and held it in the air. I even turned around and faced the big screen and held it up against the huge white of the screen. The crowd that had gathered, now about ten people, laughed even harder as I did this, but I was just figuring out what I was going to say.
Then it came to me. And everyone could see the look in my eyes that something was happening in my young brain. I looked excited like I’d seen the beginning, middle and end of a story I’d never before thought of or knew existed.
Me to the man: Sir, you picked a special item. As you can see, the greenish mold around this spigot shows it is old. Water drips from special water caused this green. This is not green from Long Beach water. No, sir. Look closely, you can see how the green is greener at the center and then gets to a fuzzy white as it reaches the edge. Long Beach water does not do that. This is Mississippi water that done this. Smell it, sir. Yes, smell it. Does that smell like Long Beach water to you? Go home today and smell Long Beach water and it won’t smell like that.
Me to the man continued: Mississippi water smells different. You ever read Tom Sawyer and heard how Huck and Tom would get into the water and splash around? Our class in school just finished reading Tom Sawyer and I knew when I first picked up this spigot it had been splashed with the water they (Tom and Huck) splashed in. Oh, this is a special spigot and if you take it home you can always think of Tom and Huck and won’t that be special! You will be here in Long Beach and on the Mississippi River at the same time. Not many things can promise you that!
The crowd started clapping; the man laughed hard; he bent over, slapping his knees, and laughed right into the ground. He then took out a dollar and gave it to me for the purchase of the spigot. I looked at the dollar and realized that Roy did not leave me any money to make change. I told the man I did not have change and didn’t he have just twenty-five cents. The man then told me to keep the change, because the story and my telling of it was worth the seventy-five cents.
The man walked away tossing the spigot in the air and the people slapped him on his back like he had just gotten the best deal on earth. Several others asked for stories. I made up three stories on the spot and got fifty cents from one person. The other two thought their stories were only worth a quarter and I thought they were right, because sometimes you can tell a good story and sometimes it is not so good.
When Roy and Three came back they saw I sold four items and they were surprised. I had enough change from the last three people to give Roy and Three what they had wanted for the items. And I still had a dollar and fifty cents as part of my storytelling deals.
I did not tell Roy about the money I made, because I knew that Roy would probably charge me for the use of the table and the ride to the swap meet and I’d probably wind up with a quarter if I was lucky. No, I was not going to tell Roy information that he could use against me. Another lesson I learned from Roy that he probably would never know he had taught me.