The Market

It's the only part of the city that I feel any real affection for, and the affection goes all the way back to the first time I set foot there--can it really be thirty years ago? I guess it will be, come August. Nobody has to give it its formal name; say "the Market", and everyone will know what you're talking about, and just about everybody will smile. It's like that.

Once, long ago, it was a poor tough sort of place, an area of seedy taverns full of the smell of spilled beer, old smoke, and (sometimes) stale urine. It's still haunted by beggers and drunks --rubbies, they're called here. When I worked in the Market years ago, tending the cash at the venerable and aromatic fishmarket, one of the fishmongerly rites of passage was learning how to escort a rubbie gently but decisively out of the store. We had nothing personal against the rubbies, and we always treated them gently. They were, on the whole, more polite and easier to get on with than many of our customers, and we liked them better. But they were visiting our shop in search of free provender, and that meant they had to go. In a fish store, the few things that a person can hoist and eat raw in an alley tend to be pretty expensive.

I remember something else about the Market in those days. Many of the shopowners were East European Jews; some had got to Canada before the war, but others had survived the unimaginable. They were tough and could be abrasive, but they had a warm rough kindness, the kindness of people who have suffered. I clung to that unspoken kindness when I needed it (and I did back then) like a sick baby monkey without anyone's acknowledging what was going on. They mixed comfortably with the tough, cheerful Ontario French who ran the vegetable stalls, bringing in produce from the eastern valley flatlands, and with the newest immigrants, southeast Asians and West Indians and Philippinas who were, back then, starting to give the white-bread city the benefit of colour.

But that was more years ago than I want to think about. For at least the last 20 years, the Market has been trendy, a tourist attraction. It's full of upscale shops now, the heart of the restaurant scene, the place you go for genuine French bread and Belgian _patisserie_ and the best cookware. Right now, I see, they're digging up the old main drag of the place, the one bit left of the old place: instead of a grotty street with narrow crowded sidewalks, the core of the Market is going to have broad walkways, paved in patterned rosy brick, very handsome. And the old sewers and water mains really did need replacing....

Still, change as it may (for worse or for better is a matter of personal opinion) one thing remains true of the Market: it puts you into a particular frame of mind. It's not a place to hurry in. Even the drivers, usually so impatient, give up and admit that the Market is pedestrian turf. Nobody's in a hurry in the Market. If you're into shopping, you can dally over the crafts and the Hungarian sausages and rummage for the freshest eggplant. If you're young, you can revel in the Market's in-yer-face anarchic romanticism--for it is quite a romantic place. If you like architecture, you can go googoo-eyed over the handsome old limestone buildings, the touches of the picturesque. If you're trendy or a gourmand, the place is packed with comestibles.

But if you're like me, wanting only to live in a moment stripped free of past and future, you can drift from shop to shop, with the excuse of a list of things to get, but really bobbing in the moment like a duck in still water. I think this is what the Market's real appeal is, what keeps its sidewalks packed on a bright Saturday afternoon. People aren't really here to shop--that's just the excuse they can make to themselves and their neighbours. They're here because in the Market, it's unusually possible to live purely in the moment, without intention or desire, setting down whatever cross you're bearing: being one small animate bit of Creation looking around at the rest of the joint, at peace.

This (I have found) can be an intentional process, not an accidental glory. There are techniques in contemplation, ways a person can learn, of pushing the past and present to one side, of stilling the mind and emptying the soul, readying the self to receive God. My Market-mood is only a variant on a much older and holier process. I can quiet my soul within me and open myself to the colour of the place, to the small things and trivial events, and find a richness there and a sort of peace. The only difference from contemplation is that I'm trying to be open to the Creator by being open to Creation--honoring God by honoring the world God made and saw as good.

C.S. Lewis got it right: God wants us to live in the present, not the past or the future, because this present moment is as close as we're ever going to get in this life to what Eternity is like. The Market, the geese--the river flooding, two kids intent on their sandbox play, a cat sleeping with her tail over her nose and her paws neatly bundled, two blanketed horses standing side-by-each in a field, an old woman dozing on the bus, two young lovers swinging hands and giggling, a drift of leaves, a tangle of flowering maple: we are given such an endless number of God's creations to take loving notice of; and taking loving notice leaves us with such happiness and peace. What on earth keeps us from spending more time at this business of loving notice, when it costs absolutely nothing and gives us so much?

I came away from the Market with a butter dish, a tea cosy, four real dill pickles, some amazing Hungarian sausage, and a very small dish of excellent chocolate gelato; but that really had nothing to do with why I went there, although I can't buy real dills anywhere else. I also came away after a couple of hours of out-directed contemplation, with the hard, twisted kinks spun out of my soul and my deep tiredness draining away like old brake fluid, and with the hope that perhaps life really won't go on the way it has of late. I came away knowing that whatever happened in the past, whatever befalls in the future, I have this moment, and God is strongly in it: the gold of new honey, the sweetness of fresh water.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 21 Apr 2001
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