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An afternoon at the Providence Flea

Providence’s hip outdoor market returns for another season

By Cissy Yu

“Do you know what that is?” A vendor says. He points at the Van Halen record in a ten-year-old’s hand.

“That’s a bootleg,” he tells the kid. And then, a little skeptically, “Do you know what a bootleg is?”

A bootleg, he says, is an illegal record made by plugging recording equipment into the sound board at a live concert. This particular bootleg is rare – that’s a word I keep hearing all morning at the flea market – and the vendor’s hanging onto it, that is, unless anyone’s interested for a price? Later, I hear this said to a college student haggling for a Notorious B.I.G. concert flyer from 1997, the year of his death.

“Rare” might be one apt description (“Unusual,” if you prefer, or “Oddish”) for the stuff at Providence Flea, an outdoor market held on the riverfront every Sunday. Here, hot sauce sits next to designer indoor plants, swimsuits next to dog treats that look like cakes. Toy collectors sell Ouija boards, woodworkers and massage therapists sell their services, authors sell their own books, artists their own glitzy wares. On tables, you find copper earrings as delicate as Japanese cut paper, brand new glass pendants that look like heirlooms, bangles, toe rings and tricky hemp brooches.

I have a hard time buying jewelry. It’s one of those light hobbies I guess I should have picked up from my mother, but didn’t. And now I’m almost grown, still have unpierced ears, and still move awkwardly around in jewelry booths, only thinking of my backpack, swinging back there like a spiny tail about to break something.

Antiques give me a similar fear, though books and records scare me less than glass vials and framed photos of G.I.s. Some of the antiques here remind me of a friend’s saying that “people put irrational value on old things.” A fire alarm box with no alarm in it, a lineup of gas funnels for maybe a Model T, a 1938 Erector Set with some pieces missing – do people buy these curiosities? Maybe they do. I guess I feel happy enough just looking at them for one morning. It’s like visiting a museum, but with all the artifacts in the open air. I may handle them if I wish – please – even own them if I decide to, and these powers I have make the old things seem personal, like gifts from distant relatives I never asked for.

Then I see the yellow box in the next booth. Which I recognize instantly. Those are Chinese Tangram puzzles, the same puzzles my parents used to keep in the house when I was a kid. Weird, that something like that would show up here, although I guess I should have expected it. American toys being so widely produced, it’s no wonder that any adult, browsing any American flea market, will encounter one thing to recognize whether it’s a childhood toy, a carpet, a floral print. “We had that carpet,” you tell your friend, “that exact same carpet!” And how hard it is to say what it makes you remember.

As I stand there, at a table full of ‘70s and ‘80s kids’ toys, not touching anything, a little girl walks up to see the toys. She points at something, a whirligig clock. “That’s cool,”

In distraction, her dad looks over. “Don’t break it.”

Setting up the Providence Flea

The Providence Flea, 342 S Water St., Providence, 401-484-7783,

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