Before me are racks of kitsch: surfboard-shaped keychains, rainbow-plush rabbits, T-shirts printed to make it look like wearers are sporting coconut bras. I am surrounded by dizzyingly low-priced tchotchkes for which neither I, nor any of my loved ones, have any use. It’s a hoarder’s heaven, and I am, it turns out, my hoarding mother’s daughter. “We should buy all our gifts here!” I exclaim, eyes aglow with a slight twinge of mania.
My husband surveys the scene warily. “For people we … like?” he ventures, unconvinced, stooping to survey a tiny sculpture of turtles made of shells. It looks exactly like something my grandma would have in a cupboard stuffed with figurines, all arranged on ancient, yellowed doilies, collecting dust in a too-cluttered, too-dark house.
A glimpse into my future? Or my past? Have I been here before?
The answer is yes, because—existential questions about whether I’m doomed to follow the path of my pack-ratting female ancestors aside—we’re at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, that chaotic hodgepodge of a bazaar that’s been selling our mothers odds and ends since 1979. Like any local, suburban kid, I’ve spent many a weekend here braving the blazing sun to trail after my mom past booths of secondhand surfboards pulled from someone’s garage, no doubt, and tables stacked with homemade li hing mui everything, from dried pineapple to watermelon gummy candies. We threaded our way among the war-nostalgia-enthusiast sellers, with their collectible patches and push our way through the fellow aunties keeping a sharp eye out for dirt-cheap fashion finds. There were the carnival-like salesmen, with their booming voices (“Adorable plush bunnies! Refunds if you find a cuter bunny anywhere!”) and stocks of actual merchandise, but then also booths composed of half-assed assemblages of tossed out household goods, someone’s on-the-go yard sale hastily collected the night before. A market fit for a medieval village.
For my mom’s part, she was hunting for that ever-elusive “perfect” deal. As any true bargain-hunter knows in their heart, the perfect deal is fundamentally unfindable. Like so many religious roadmaps to enlightenment, it’s a vehicle, a means to an end, a lifetime commitment to the pursuit itself. There will never be a perfect deal, just as my mother will never stop going to swap meets. So it goes.
Except today. Today, we will find the perfect deal.
The challenge is that today we’re tasked with finding it for under $20. That puts us at a serious disadvantage. It means right off the bat we can’t even consider the $300 authentic porthole or that collection of longboards. It means the $75 globe made of, like, mosaiced marble, is out. (“At least for this challenge,” I point out. “We can still get it for ourselves.” I tell my husband to look for an ATM, to his dismay.)
It also means that my marriage is about to be tested. While my husband won’t stop harping on the benefits of getting a giant S-hook for the closet (could you be more boring, sir?) or a wooden fan for “when you start whining about getting heat stroke in 10 minutes,” I’m hemming and hawing over a hanging blowfish ornament made out of a shell and sporting a tiny straw hat, and a collection of vintage hatpins. (“You don’t own any hats,” protests my husband helplessly. I’m honestly wondering why I brought him at this point.)
Because the thing about the swap meet that pragmatists don’t understand is that it’s not about what we need. Why would I show up to a sweltering desert of a parking lot to hunt through a hodgepodge of tents with a shopping list of household essentials? That’s what Target is for. The swap meet is about possibilities; the possibility of The Perfect Deal, a Rare Gem, a Blast to the Past. Two decades ago, I walked these hallowed concrete aisles eating ice-cold overripe plums, digging through piles of footwear until I found the coolest embroidered clogs in the style du jour of 1997. I scoured these booths for the perfect, doll-sized, red aloha-print shirt for my Ken doll—and found it! I got a custom, airbrushed rainbow T-shirt that I wore into the ground.
The swap meet doesn’t peddle essentials. It peddles the building blocks of stories, collaborative fantasies, the potential in the banal for the extraordinary and fantastical.
“No, Natalie. Those are just playing cards.” ($5)
Are they, husband? Or are these vintage Pan Am and RCA decks reminders of a dreamy ’60s past? Or is it more personal: Are they reminders of a dear friend of mine, now lost, who used to collect vintage joker cards? Perhaps I will see him again one day and give him the jokers from these.
“Those are just some old military markers.” ($10)
Are they? Or are they ominous relics of a narrative of violence? A miniature timeline showing the development of history, how we’ve grown and how we haven’t, what we’ve learned and what we haven’t? Does classic rock, now half a century old, play when I put my ear to them, or am I imagining it?
“Ok, well, that’s just a mountain apple tree.” ($3)
Our future orchard, you mean. Our future fruit-bearing, mountain-apple-giving family member. The tree that will give us shade; the tree that will teach our children about growing food, about the magic of summer fruit season, about the importance of watering your garden.
“Natalie, seriously. That really is just a stupid blowfish ornament.” ($2)
OK, you’re right there. But how can you resist that adorable little straw hat?