In the place where I live, there’s a diverse economy revolving around carts. These carts are generally not of the horse-drawn variety, though there is one citrus salesman who makes use of an anorexic equine to lug his lemons and oranges from one street corner to another every few hours, the interim being spent munching grass and/or fruit and waiting for the scurvy-afflicted to materialize. I admit to never having purchased a lemon from him and have, in fact, walked past him on the way to the market in order to buy lemons. Of this I am not proud, per se, but I’m also not exactly overcome with guilt about it, either.
But most of these carts, which may in precise engineering terms be described as exaggerated wheelbarrows, are guided about by men who look far older than my father but are, in reality, or at least in my assumed reality, a decade or so younger than he is. My father looks good, but not radically good for his age; these men do not. The niches these carters occupy are many: there are the people who collect old, unused items from the housewives who have stopped using them; there are people who are far more selective, collecting only metal items, or only electronics; there are people who have given up on the generosity of outstretched hands and thus opt to bypass the middleman and go straight to what those hands have already thrown in the trash (these people also tend to specialize, taking from people’s stoops or neighborhood trash bins exclusively paper products, or exclusively water bottles, for instance); there are those who reserve their carts for hauling things you want hauled, porters who tend to hang around second-hand furniture shops; and there are those who mysteriously claim to collect not old things but new things (though I have a hunch these are the same people on more optimistic days).
The room in which I sit and write and eat and do just about all of my daily activities aside from showering and sleeping is, much to the presumed chagrin of my parents if they were to ever find out (hi, Dad! (no worries, Mom doesn’t have internet access)), half-underground. Below ground level, let’s say. Recessed; that’s the word a realtor would use. The street stands at about head-level of an average-sized human being, somethig I cannot claim to be, and thus it is a good many inches above my own skull. This setup makes for a variety of aural experiences that I imagine I will always associate with this period in my life; putting the absurdly loud sexual proclivities of my upstairs neighbor aside, as that could happen anywhere and everywhere but still really isn’t pleasant even if you’re really a pro-sex person and not an eighty-year-old victorian curmudgeon (which I’m really not), putting those noises aside, I’m serenaded by a soundtrack of eight-year-old accordion players who stand outside the cafes that line the other side of the street; the anticlimactic stand-in for an ice cream truck, advertising via unforgettable jingle not delicious treats but gas canisters (admittedly potentially used in the production of delicious treats); hawkers of lottery tickets, who remind me seemingly every afternoon that this evening is the evening, and that I would be remiss not to make a purchase; the call to prayer, which generally serves to remind me not that I should be more devoted to my god, but rather that the hours are ticking by and I’ve yet to stop browsing the “news” and gotten to “work” (help, my life has become a series of irony quotes); sock salesmen; the steroidal-bee buzz of mini motorcycles delivering sustenance to the hungry; and, yes, the calls of the carters, who alert the homebound that they’ve arrived to take their old things/new things/metal things/electronic things off their hands.
Oh! And I forgot. A good many of them sell simit. Which, without waxing obnoxious about the delights of foreign delicacies, I’ll just say I like. Because I do. They, however, are kind of in a different economic echelon, as they procure their wares from a bakery and sell them on the street.
The carts and the carters are also the causes of numerous traffic jams and unpleasant altercations, which are common enough without the interference of these workers or idiots like me who revert to New York protocol when hit (okay, brushed, but we’re talking about actual contact) by a taxi coming out of a side street and who then gesture in the universal language of fuck you, provoking what we might deem a ruckus. I am not someone to look up to.
I’m able to imagine that the difficulties of these jobs that I’m unable to imagine are more numerous than the ones I can observe. The latter category includes things like awful weather, hard physical labor (on a good day), empty carts (on a bad day, which observation dictates is most days), frustration and weariness, traffic, and on and on.
Another item on my list of personal attributes I’m not proud of but exist is my unbearable curiosity about the subjective mysteries I encounter. As I walk down the street on the way to wherever it is I’m going, I’m unable to stop myself from wondering, in this case, how one ends up doing this type of work. Is it when all other options fail to pan out? Is it when leaving the house and walking around for a few hours and maybe making a little cash seems like a preferable alternative to staying home? Is this a full-time job, or might you just do it when times are particularly bad/the weather is particularly good? Where do the carts come from? How, given the state of the objects I typically see in these carts, is this in any way profitable? How is it profitable enough to justify the caloric expenditure of walking around pulling a cart all day? What is done with the collected items, particularly the ones that aren’t, say, easily reparable radios? From what sorts of life circumstances does the type of stamina and hardheadedness and indefatigability that this job surely necessitates emerge?
I feel the need to clarify that my curiosity has little to do with the fact that I’m in a country that I was not born in. I’ve had innumerable paroxysms of must know now throughout the continental United States, and they would surely occur in Alaska and Hawaii, too, if I were to venture there. In fact, such spasms of wonder are arguably what drive me to write, to create a world I can believe in, that I might solve my own mysteries. It’s the same drive that had me once wanting to be a journalist, and still wanting it at times, though the amorality of it ultimately ate me up and made me turn away a bit. (Yes, to the beacons of morality that are fiction and free verse, of course. Because rationality only gets us so far.) When I wonder, when I observe, it is a sense of neither romance nor pity that I have; it is the realization that behind each minute data point in my experience of the world lies a cascade of stories that have made it possible, palpable, necessary. If I’m left to collect or hawk anything, I can only hope it’s them.