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A Foray into the Fray

She was my last purchase of the day, though to say I bought her makes the whole thing sound tawdry and cheap. But this was a cash transaction. Money changed hands. She was mine for the average price of a movie ticket.

Sirena isn't one-of-a-kind and she isn't old. But something about her says I call her Sirena, Goddess of the Sea.

Few who know my tastes would have pegged the wrought-iron, pinup-posed mermaid as something I would seek out, and really, I didn’t—she found me. The last of her kind, she sat forlornly on one table among many, many tables in a line of hundreds at what is the state’s biggest flea market, Canton’s 160-year-old First Monday Trade Days.

The sun was sinking on the first Saturday in November—the day, I later discovered, that is traditionally the busiest day of the busiest weekend at Canton all year. In addition to my four best friends from high school and me, an estimated 100,000 eagle-eyed, sausage-on-a-stick-eating, cart-pushing, scooter-maneuvering, SUV-driving bargain-hunters (women outnumbered men two to one, by my estimation) stalked the stalls from sunup Thursday morning through sundown Sunday night. (Note: First Monday actually takes place Thursday through Sunday before the first Monday of every month.) Some meandered, browsing for nothing in particular but open to whatever might catch the eye. Others shopped like women possessed, seeking out the perfect Christmas geegaws or marigold-hued Fiestaware pitchers, or antique tiger-oak piecrust tables for their foyers. Some were dressed to the nines, coiffed and manicured and lipsticked; others wore big T-shirts and roomy denim and no makeup, hair pulled back in ponytails and feet clad in clunky sneakers built for speed and comfort.

This was my first foray into the Canton fray since ’99, but as a kid, I used to go every month. Of course, back then it wasn’t much like it is today, with its crowds and carnival feel. What I remember from the ’70s and early ’80s is a whole lotta junk—great junk, one-of-a-kind junk, for sure, but none of the slick cleanness that is present today. Late in the day, I do find my old stomping grounds, the rows of more humble, old-school vendors whose wares range from the truly collectible to disposable whimsies, but their segment of Canton is now dwarfed by huge tin buildings and higher-end occupants offering miracle weight-loss teas and fancy cookware and gourmet preserves.
While I’m not a fan of the traffic, both human and vehicle, I don’t mind what counts as progress. I know that while I love pawing through boxes of old iron kitchen tools in hopes of finding a treasure, plenty of others seek kitschy signs for their patios and don’t care if they’re mass-produced. There truly is something for everyone.

Which brings us back to Sirena.

She isn’t one-of-a-kind, and she isn’t old—two traits that set her apart from the rest of my haul and my usual preferences. But something about her
says “Canton” to me, so as the shadows lengthen and our day ends, I hand over my 10 bucks and take her home.

Though I think she is intended to reside outdoors, maybe on a birdbath or patio, Sirena instead now surveys my living room from a perch atop my fireplace mantle. Hollow and about a foot tall, she has been fake-aged a greenish-blue to look like tarnished copper. Her fishtail is solid and sharp enough at its edge to cut your head open, but Sirena is not as fierce as she looks. I found this out the hard way, when she was dropped on the concrete and split into seven or eight pieces.
Though at that time she had only been with me for a few days, she had already grown on me, so I glued her back together rather than toss her in the trash bin. I like to think that her minor dings and missing right arm, as well as the holes where pieces could not be reattached, only give her charm and a sense of mystery.

Besides, Sirena and my other purchases of the trip—an 1880s walnut wall mirror, Mid-Century Modern side table, antique mailbox, and serving bowl—will have to hold me for a while. For me, the splendor of Canton is like wasabi, or maybe comedian Robin Williams—a little bit goes a long way. So, while it won’t be another 14 years before I go back, I don’t have it in me to make the monthly pilgrimage that some folks relish. Let the diehards fight the crowds as they labor under the belief that a treasure hunter is only as good as her last find.

Sirena and I know better.

From the March 2014 issue.

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