Friday, July 07, 2006

The Shopper’s Guide to Love

Yes, I’ve “treaded the boards” as they say. Love a bit of thespianism, Me! It’s all about bringing a completely fictitious scenario to life in front of a cynical audience, and making them believe that what they’re seeing is true; that it could and does really happen.

And so it was in my high-school rendition of My Fair Lady, which incidentally is pretty gutsy stuff for a high-football-profile, all-boy Catholic school – but don’t be alarmed, we didn’t go completely Shakespeare, the Fair Lady and a number of other roles were played by some students from the high-netball-profile, all-girl Catholic school down the road!. So anyway, back to the stage-art. You know that scene from MFL in which Eliza Doolittle, distraught from the misery of a life of abject poverty, minces around Covent Garden, singing like a nightingale about her desperate need for a hot meal; saccharine dripping from her beaming smile as she laments the absence of a roof over her head? Well, as if this beauty’s complaining about her lot wasn’t hard enough to believe, we actors were also supposed to convince an audience of high school teenagers that people who work on market stalls are all happy-go-lucky characters who present each other with flowers, whistle while they sweep the muck off the street, slap each others backs in hearty mirth at some uproariously funny practical joke involving a puppy concealed in a laundry basket and ruffle the dirty hair of a street urchin caught picking a baker’s pocket!

Paaa-lease! It was easier making everyone think that cutthroat pirates like nothing better than to whack-on a pair of tights and dance around a whole family of virtuous maidens without even a sneer or a grope – but let’s not get into the Gilbert and Sullivan tonight! No way is anyone gonna buy that ‘salt of the earth’ marketeers love nothing better than a chuckle, a smile and an old-fashioned knees-up after a twelve hour shift in the middle of a London winter. I wasn’t buyin’ it, the rest of the cast wasn’t buyin’ it, and consequently our performance didn’t convince anyone.

Fourteen years down the track, however, sees me wandering through a busy market in the early morning. I’m desperately trying to avoid eye contact with anybody for fear of being talked into buying a leather belt or a new shopping basket (I have to walk through the market everyday, so consequently every room in our house has three shopping baskets and my poor mother thinks Mrs Donkey and I are into the kinky stuff after opening the cupboard in the spare room when last she came to stay to find three hundred leather belts of varying assortment!).

So, I’m avoiding making eye contact with the belt guys. I’m avoiding making eye contact with the washing basket guys. I’m avoiding making eye contact with the wooden flute guy … with the shoelace lady … the henna boys, the buzzing toy man, the shoe shine boys … and even so, despite my extreme concentration and rather aggressive body language, that Mandrake still manages to get his crappy calculators in front of my nose before I can get out of the way! I push him aside, and as I set myself to press on, a young woman falls into step in front of me and remains about two steps ahead of me as I make my way through the throng.

I watch this featureless object in her once-bright saree, now faded with the muck of the street she keeps clean and threadbare from the harsh pounding of the Indian laundry technique. Despite her obvious poverty, I notice a subtle jauntiness in the way her heels lift off the ground when she walks, and this gets more discernable as she approaches a skeletal young man squatting in the dirt behind the plate of second-rate berries (which is all he can afford to sell for a living).

As she passes, she bends down, grabs one of the bruised morsels, pops it in her mouth and keeps on going without so much as breaking her stride. Aroused from his misery, the young man leaps to his feet and gives a shout of protest, to which the young lady turns to face her accuser (and therefore me, also). She answers him with the cheekiest of smiles, and the wide, glinting eyes that speak the universal language of young people initiating their first round of flirting.

Our spindly friend spots it too, and he ceases his moan in mid protest, replacing his scowl with an answering grin and an equally teasing glint which promises this temptress that their little liaison has yet to be played out in full.

Perhaps this former chorus-liner from My Fair Lady may have been a bit rash in his assumptions about market folk. But who could blame me? I’m a child of the 70s. My father was a pioneer in the Australian supermarket business, during that period which saw the concept come to dominate the consumer habits of every suburban family. I’d not set foot in a market until I was 19 years old. Since then, and never more so than today, I have come to realise that just as the chickens, bread, tea and frozen vegetables of the supermarket lack the freshness and vibrancy of market produce, so too the lives and passions of the people that work in or visit them.

Photo: Haggy

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