Canton. May, 2005.
The art of conversation has become a casualty of the road. Mary and I are running out of things to say to one another. Conversations with customers seldom last longer than thirty seconds. Most nights we’re too exhausted to hang out with other vendors. Ninety percent of my spoken words can be narrowed down to a friendly hello and a kindly thank you. After a while those words begin to ring hollow in the ears. They are not words but automatic responses. Somewhere down the road I have morphed into a machine.
Only in Canton and Warrenton does true conversation exist. In these places we live inside the show, as do many vendors. It’s a reunion of sorts, since we’ve taken a different path than our friends who still prefer the flea market circuit. There’s time to get to know people all over again, time to indulge in conversation once more. None of our friends enjoy making conversation more than Clyde.
On a stormy night we gather around a dining table constructed of old fence planks from a farm in northeastern Nebraska. Overhead lights are turned off. A bank of softly lit lamps rises up from a display behind us. Art deco globes and antique chandeliers dangle from the rafters, providing more illumination. Mass produced home décor and furniture blends easily with interesting artifacts left over from antiquity. A mix of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters whispers in the background. The Ambiance is intoxicating. This is Rachelle and Mary’s building. They are the architects. Rachelle sleeps on an inflatable mattress in the far corner. Mary slumbers on the top floor. This beautiful image will be etched into my mind forever. So will Clyde’s words.
“Democracy is pure,” he says. “It’s capitalism that’s the problem.”
I can’t remember how we came to this topic of conversation. How we got here isn’t important. Sooner or later, with Clyde, the conversation always turns into a political or philosophical rant. The man has a lot of opinions, opinions that require a lot of expressing.
“Capitalism is an impure additive, like mixing water with gasoline. Water corrupts the mix.”
The technical side of my persona rises to the surface. “That’s not a good analogy. Water and gasoline are not pure substances. Both are derived from something else. Try using hydrogen and oxygen. If you mix hydrogen with oxygen you will get a highly volatile mixture.”
“But you have to throw in a match to get a reaction. Remember the Hindenburg?
“Who, besides you, gets that?” Clyde growls. “Point is, capitalism has ruined democracy. If you believe in a heaven and a hell, in gods and devils, then democracy is a godly invention and capitalism is a convention of war used by the other side to destroy the works of God. That’s all I’m trying to say. Capitalism divides the masses and strips us of our freedoms.”
“Wow, Clyde. That’s pretty heavy, even for you.”
“It’s been on my mind a lot lately.”
From a half empty bottle of bourbon he fills a shot glass. “Been thinking about you,” he says, and downs the shot.
Clyde starts to pour another drink, points the bottle in my direction instead. “’Cause you’re lost, man. I’ve been watching you. I’ve been watching you work, watching you chase the almighty dollar all across America and back. You and Mary are out of control.”
“We’re not out of control. We’re doing what it takes to build a business. You can’t fault us for that. You can’t fault us for busting our asses everyday trying to build something on our own. We’re free, liberated human beings just like you said we should be.”
“You’re full of shit,” he says, pointing the bottle at me again. “You’ve lost sight of everything that’s important in life, lost sight of what matters just so you can put another dollar in your bank account. You’re a slave to the machine, just like you’ve always been.”
“I don’t have a choice,” I counter, voice rising. “We owe a lot of people a lot of money. Mary and I have to work this hard so everyone else gets paid. What would you have us do? Walk away from it all?”
“Have you tried that?”
“Tried what? Tried walking away from our debt, from our responsibilities?You’re out of your mind.”
“Am I? How do you know if you don’t try?” He slams down another shot of whiskey, chases it with beer, then says, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought . . .”
Clyde’s quoting someone but I can’t figure it out. Can’t figure out what the words mean. A gypsy’s eyes twinkle because he knows he’s confounded me.
“Buddha, Jason. I’m quoting Buddha.”
“He’s saying we are unhappy because we think we are unhappy. We suffer because we think we suffer. When we’re happy it’s because we think we are happy. In your case it means that you work hard because you think you have to work hard. You chase the dollar because you think you have to chase the dollar. You’re thoughts have trapped you inside your own little hell, brother. You think you’re building a business. I’m telling you that you’re digging your own grave.”
Frowning, I can only admit the truth, to myself. I don’t admit anything to Clyde, can’t allow him the satisfaction of knowing he’s baffled my mind. Truth is, this concept is way over my head. I don’t get it. “That’s deep, Clyde,” is all I say.
Clyde shrugs. “It’s not that deep. It’s right there on the surface for everyone to see. The problem is that you haven’t opened your eyes to see. Your attention has been diverted—diverted by your worship of capitalistic ideas.”
“I don’t worship Capitalism, I just play the game by the rules that someone else contrived long before I came along.”
“You perpetuate the madness,” he grunts harshly. Then he quotes Blake. “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s system.”
“What are you, Clyde—some sort of gypsy missionary bent on converting me to the other side?”
Calmly, he smiles. “I’m only trying to help. I sense that you want to be helped.”
I’m feeling very defensive. “Who are you to preach to me?”
“I’m just a friend who cares. And I’m not preaching. I’m telling you how it is.”
There is little denying that a certain degree of social anarchism runs through the ranks of the flea market circuit. Some of those out here, living out of cars and trailers full time, moving from show to show every week with no place to call home, have become far more disconnected from mainstream society than I. They see society as a powerful storm that they would prefer to avoid. Clyde is one of those people.
Disconnected, standing on the outside looking in, he has dissected the world around him using the tools crafted from the perception of his own belief system. He sees the inner mechanisms differently than most others. Clyde has created his own system and is not a slave to any other human being’s belief system. Ignorant of such things, I can’t say if Clyde is right or wrong. I don’t know. All I know with any certainty is that I don’t like it when he focuses his attention on me.
“We are all just fish in one big pond,” he says, continuing with the sermon. “99% of us live in the pond. The other one percent sit on the banks with their fishing poles trolling for suckers like you. They know how to bait you and they know what lures you can’t resist. You will bite and you will be hooked because you are blind to their methods. They will reel you in, carve you up, fry you on the grill, and serve your carcass for dinner. Then they’ll cast your remains back into the pond where you came from. That’s what happened to you at Intercon, Jason. Don’t let it happen again.”
“Listen, Clyde,” I begin slowly, after much deliberation. “We can’t all be freedom loving gypsies like your self. If we were all gypsies then the world would never progress. I don’t doubt that the things you say are true, that some people manipulate the world for their own personal gain, but dropping out of society and running away isn’t the answer.”
“I haven’t run away.” Clyde leans back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest. Now he’s on the defensive. “And why do we need progress? Wouldn’t it be better if we all just learned how to get along?”
“That’s not the world that we were given. Life is like a game—a game filled with challenges—and the only way we can win the game is if we defeat those challenges. Like you said before, this is how a soul is created.”
A puzzled expression creeps across Clyde’s hardened face. I’ve thrown his own logic back at him and he’s not quite certain what he should do with it. For a long, awkward moment he just sits there, silently contemplating my words. Suddenly a smile creaks across his face.
“You have learned well, brother. But you provide no answers.” His body language softens as he reverts back to the teacher mind set. “Are you going to allow the one per centers to reign over you? They make decisions that affect your everyday life, adversely affect your life I might add. Are you willing to sit idly by and allow that to happen?”
“I fight the battles that I can win . . .”
“And surrender to the ones that you think you can’t win?”
“I do all that I can do . . .”
“That’s not enough.”
This is annoying. “What should I do, Clyde? How would you have me live my life? Tell me what to do.”
“Spread the awareness,” is his only solution. “And never allow yourself to become a slave to another man’s system.”
Those words weigh heavy on the mind. In a day the show in Canton will be over and we will be back on the road, off to some place new, turning over and over again inside my head the conversations with Clyde, attempting to make some sense of it all.
Clyde gives me a lot to think about while we are on the road. There are a lot of miles, time, and wide open spaces between Atlanta and Phoenix, Kansas City and San Antonio. That leaves a lot of empty time for thinking. Clyde is responsible for many of the abstract thoughts floating around inside my brain. From Clyde’s words abstract thoughts form, interacting with abstract thoughts that already exist, creating an abstract belief system that may or may not apply to the world around me. I don’t know.
Mentally, it’s all a crapshoot.
Fortunately I always have Mary by my side to keep my mind focused on the business. Unlike abstract thoughts, the business is very real and concrete and requires a lot of attention to detail. The business is all consuming. It’s only when we are out on the road, hundreds of miles between one show and the next, when we have run out of things to say, that abstract thoughts bubble to the surface of the conscious mind.
Like seeds, they try to take root.
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