Keeping The Affection Alive
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I don't know about you, but until recently, I always loved capitalism: Its joyful games, its do or die gumption, its eagerness to fill every nook and cranny of my life. I embraced capitalism and it embraced me, and for the most part, we had a very positive relationship.
What went wrong? Well, like many affairs, I suppose this one became a bit too complicated, a bit too abstract, and of course, over-leveraged. Whenever that happens, relationship experts say it's crucial to get back to basics: you know, rekindle the fun and the romance.
Which explains why, last Sunday, the Urban Man drove down to Santee Alley in Downtown L.A. Maybe you've been: A riot of shoes and sweatshirts, cheap toys, disposable electronics, and counterfeits of designer handbags. Santee is the very rag and bone shop of capitalism — no escalators, no sales tax, no complex derivatives, and certainly no papers required.
Sure enough, as soon as I park, I find myself bathed in the numberless happy colors of unfettered markets. Sunlight picks out gold bangles and badly-made men's watches. A line of female manikins shows shapely buttocks in pre-washed jeans. Along an awning, frilly little-girl dresses flutter like pastel angels.
Contrary to any recession, the streets are packed: men in over-sized t-shirts; women wearing the same high boots and hoodies sold in the stores, as if trying to blend with the merchandise. Small boys cry "movies, movies, five dollars," as they lay out pirated DVD's of first-run films. I want to take their pictures, but my camera gets suspicious looks. Am I the Urban Man, or am I The Man?
One couple stands locked together, still as a beautiful island in the stream. He wears a t-shirt laden with dark and incomprehensible symbols, hair spiked, an earring in each ear. She wears big sunglasses and a strapless blouse drawn with strings at the bust. …In short, the total Santee Alley look. I try to take their picture, too, but a bouncer from one of the jewelry stores assumes I'm casing his joint, and comes after me so fast that his face occupies the better part of the shot.
As I offer him a laugh, I feel the sweet romance of commerce return, the giddy fun and fast hot game of it.
Still, I haven't actually purchased anything, so at last I slip into a crowded curio shop: a place of carven saints and wooden camels, of Buddhas and bongo drums and brass lamps. I'm the only customer, and the burly proprietor, vaguely Middle Eastern, follows me three feet behind, ready to name a price if I should ask, or break my arm if I should reach out to the merchandise…unexpectedly.
At last, moving slowly, I open a jeweled box which holds a collection of bulky bracelets, and I draw one out, rattling its over-sized beads and coppery coins. I mention that my wife looks good in copper, but he does not smile. He only says: 12 dollars. I look him straight in the eye and offer 10, cash. Done, he says, flexing his pecs, and we share a moment of what? Maybe…commercial satisfaction.
It's as if, in the air between us, a little computer graphic and a bar chart has appeared, showing my wife's happiness, his profit, and a tiny portion of the ten bucks trickling down to South Asia. Simple. Clear. No default credit swaps to get in the way.
And I think: "Now that's capitalism."
At five o'clock, Santee Alley closes in a buoyant mood, its gutters overflowing with empty boxes and discarded cups—the joyous waste of a fecund enterprise, like a bedroom disordered by much affection. The Urban Man cuts back to his car through a side alley, avoiding a little knot of men selling things from their pockets, and says to himself, "Tomorrow, Wall Street may fall, consumer confidence may drop to a 20-year low, but surely, this love will survive."
Copyright (c) 2009 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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