Sunday, December 23, 2001

Everyone complains about crowds and the fight to stay sane during that frenzy of last-minute Christmas shopping. I am the complete opposite. I love the crowds. To enjoy them fully, I delay my shopping until the final week before Christmas (if possible, the final weekend or even Christmas Eve). The mixture of desperation, toy store havoc and frayed nerves allows me to recede completely and wander around as if I'm filming the event instead of participating. Sure, some stuffed animals get trampled in the process, but the holiday crush are some of the few hours when I really feel the excitement and anticipation of the holiday as if I was a little kid again.

For extra thrills this weekend, I headed out to Flea World, one of Florida's largest flea markets. This place is more than big - it's row upon row upon row upon row of crap. A city of crap, complete with street maps and addresses. On entering, I saw a booth with nothing but sharp blades - knives, swords, axes, pikes, broadswords, everything. With all that's going on in the world, I had no clue there would be an extensive market for six-foot pikes. Within a half hour, I found another five booths in the flea market selling the exact same mix of sharpened weaponry. That's how big Flea World is - it has the room and foot traffic for a half-dozen dealers of swords and pikes.

The customers at Flea World wear black shirts proclaiming Hell Yes! Number 3 Will be Remembered Forever! Smoking is not only allowed, it appears to be encouraged. A full set of teeth on any one person is a rarity. The place was packed to the rafters, stacked full of junk and I loved it all. It was a hotbed of capitalism, with recent immigrants manning booths full of wooden carvings, belts, black light disco balls and 27 kinds of Jerky. I am constantly amazed at the courage of people willing to move to this country. I bought two belts from a Chinese woman who could barely say more than Good quality and Two for ten dollar. Could we ever go to China, set up a booth in a market and make a living selling leather belts to the locals in a language we don't speak? I doubt it. But these people do, probably so their kids can grow up in a country where the big problem is the service fees charged on Britney Spears tickets, not civil war.

One little booth at the front of Flea World was marked by a large Confederate flag across which were printed the words Heritage, Not Hate. The rest of the booth was stocked with similar stuff -- Confederate flags, bumper stickers, coolie cups and more, each making a claim that the flag was about heritage, states' rights or remembering #3, not about blacks, slavery or refusing to admit the Civil War was lost. The booth was manned by a middle-aged couple who looked like they needed sleep. The woman was wrapping a remote controlled race car for a gift. They were alone, except for the occasional walkby who stopped at the booth's edge, read the various flags and moved on.

Considering the many t-shirt shops printing These Colors Don't Run and other patriotic slogans, the Confederate Flag shop was hardly the sole political voice in the place. Still, it felt weird and stranded. While I support their right to speak, I also felt oddly satisfied knowing that every time they opened shop, they were surrounded by a veritable United Nations of merchants who had more important things on their minds than issues of a war which ended 137 years ago. That reality said more about the situation than any protest could.

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