Every Saturday, I take a long drive—a drive that is supposed to end at the largest farmer’s market in the area—but which first takes me through all the areas where there lie, like mermaids in the ocean blue, my one true weakness: garage sales. I pretend that I’m not really looking for them. I am really after something else.
At the farmer’s market, there are pasture raised chicken eggs in blues and oranges and browns. There are psychedelic cauliflowers like coloring book fractals, done up in prismacolor. There are miles of ruby strawberries, nestled in their plastic baskets. And a fresh seafood truck that sells real smoked King Salmon by the pound, among a riot of mussels and clams—the fillets of halibut and snapper—resting on the shimmer and drip of melting ice.
As soon as I write this blog, I’m out the door. “We need more eggs,” my wife will yell after me. Those eggs are famous. People come for miles around just to get those eggs.
But my drive is really for the garage sales—those red hot messes that spread out like beached seaweed on the lawns, those regurgitations of the Jonah’s whale that is capitalism. You see, I’m a fundamentally nosy person and I like to peak into the lives of strangers who are now exposing a bit of their deepest darkest desires—their regrettable consumerism—to anybody with a dollar.
At one sale in South Pasadena, I came across some hippie artists. They were middle aged with crow’s feet and the freckled leather skin of women who are not afraid of the sun. They dressed like extras in a stage production of Huckleberry Finn, with overalls. And they lived in one of those run down stucco rentals. It smelled of incense. All about their lawn was strewn the gatherings of their spiritual journey—books on Zen poetry and vintage tchochkes that must have been rescued at some point from a Goodwill.
It was a two-woman sale—one Asian, one white—and they had that mystical way of talking that only dyed-in-the cloth hippies have: words like manifesting tippling off their tongues like smooth stones scudding across the glass surface of mighty rivers . When I arrived, they were both discussing the prevalence of the third gender throughout all cultures–a sign that bisexuality was the natural order of things. “There is the berdache,” said the Asian woman who wore an intricately woven straw hat on her head.
“That’s the crossdressing shamans, right? They dressed like women and did women’s work and were honored for their status between worlds. I think they were psychic.”
“Right, it was the arrival of Western culture that taught Native Americans to hate being gay.”
“I think it’s Indian. I think they prefer Indians.”
“I can’t get away with that,” said the white woman.
The Asian woman changed the subject. I could tell she knew this to be true. And she wanted to make her friend feel better “Then, you know, isn’t there the third gender—you ran across them during your travels in India?”
The woman perked up. “Yes, they’re recognized by the Indian government now. They’ve got representation in Congress or Parliament or whatever you call it.”
The Asian artist woman had just finished laying a bunch of gourds out front. They were Chinese gourds, dried, yellow and painted. The brushwork was masterful with images of beautiful women in traditional robes who were no doubt demi-gods. I picked one up.
“Those are my teacher’s work,” she said. “She’s a white woman but in 1975, she was invited to go to China to reintroduce this ancient tradition. The cultural revolution got rid of a lot of old traditions and people were eager to know.”
She went on to explain: All across Asia after the era of gunboat diplomacy and puppet-statesmanship, the practice of cultural cleansings came into prominence—cleansings that weree about returning to a native past, a native purity, a native identity uncorrupted by outside influences. Still, a lot got lost. Christianity is obviously foreign but, then again, so is Buddhism. You can see the slippery slope that happens when bureaucrats engage in social engineering. At some point, glasses are suspect and all the intellectuals are wiped out and all the knowledge that they represent is lost in the blood of a Killing Field.
“Yeah, I had a teacher in grad school who did the same thing. He went to China and brought back the I Ching and reintroduced to the locals a tradition that they had only heard of but were never allowed to practice.”
That teacher was a white man who was a specialist in Native American literature—a man who was credited with inventing the discipline. He was a real muckety-muck, who flew in once a week from Santa Fe to teach his seminar. And I remember hearing him read this excerpt of his encounter with fishermen on one of those mighty Chinese rivers and watching the men play the I Ching, which he had pulled from his pocket, well into the evening as the sun set.
There was something so off-putting about that professor’s story. But he was really proud of it. He was preparing it into a book—part academic, part memoir—about his travels to China. There was a power trip underneath it all. In this act of giving and sharing, there was a power trip. Even if it whatever he did did some good, there was always that power trip.
Of course, this phenomenon of people of color finding themselves—the bits of their identity—boomeranged back to them through a white person is nothing new. It is a common experience. It is perhaps defining. White people have written the books on the mythology that people of color read to understand the indigenous tradition that they have sought to reclaim. And that visit to the anthropological museum…its white walls, festooned with the regalia of the exotic, are curated by the invisible hand of others—those not yourself, those not your people, those not your ancestors—who return to you a bit of yourself glistening like a coin tossed into the air.
“Do you want it?” said the Japanese woman. “We’re clearing out the studio. I can give you a good deal.” But I knew I did not want those gourds. They were not my style. I already had too many things in my house. And the price she called was too high. I wondered about the money that would be left in my pocket to purchase those pasture raised eggs, which were supposed to be my goal, after all, in the first place.