sycamore trees shading this side of the not-busy street. It’s
about nine-thirty and the sky is clear, full sun reflecting off the
windows of the buildings that frame this street like a crown. Just
forty-five minutes south of Portland, Salem is hurrying to catch
up to its hipper, far larger “Rose City,” with its bumper stickers
pleading to “keep Portland weird.” But Salem, the “Cherry
City,” has its own bumper stickers: Make Salem awesome.
The people who live here know that Salem has been too-long
maligned as a city with only problems.
We grab our shopping bags and wallets, mine stuffed with a
fistful of dollar bills I stole from my egg-money jar that morning,
and head down the sidewalk. Inside the market—I say “inside”
because each of the bright white 10 x 10 tents clearly demarcate
an exterior and an interior, and somehow make the space inside
feel a little magical, like you’ve been transported somewhere
special—I am overwhelmed. My eyes are diverted to the huge
bouquets of electric-colored flowers soaking their stems in five-gallon buckets. I’m drawn to a lovely arrangement of yellow,
green and white but I decide I should wait until the shopping is
mostly done—I don’t want to lug an armful of flowers around
with me for the next hour or so. My friend warns me, though, and
says if I see something I like I should go ahead and get it. She’s
been disappointed before, coming back too late. I acknowledge
her warning but keep my wallet in the bag even so.
I don’t know why I’m so pleased by the fervor of this market.
No one is doing anything more than anyone would do in a
farmer’s market on a gorgeous Saturday morning. Children
are dancing along to the blues band playing against the furthest
north-end wall of tents. Some vendors are sitting quietly, gazing
out at the passers-by, waiting for someone to become interested
in their variety of tomato or bacon or tarte tatin. And the dogs—
so many dogs of all kinds and temperament are here. There’s
even a cat on a leash—wearing a jean jacket. No fewer than four
groups of musicians are raising money for school band trips. I
snap pictures of arrangements of vegetables and make mental
notes on which hand-written signs I like the most, and who
color-coordinated the royal purple eggplants with chartreuse
tomatillos the best.
And yet it’s all so surprising. I am genuinely in awe of this
gathering of people in this downtown space of a city known—to
me, at least—for its homeless, for its lack of cultural activities,
for its general less-ness in comparison to Portland. And I make
a mental note to try to visit more often. To seek out these places,
these people, now that I know they’re here. After two hours—
I’m sure that I’ve seen each booth twice, I’ve eaten no fewer
than three pastries, and my bag is sagging with fresh maitake
and shiitake mushrooms, tiny Padrón peppers, and tomatoes,
and my arms are properly laden with white and green blooms—
we head for the exit. More people are headed in, though, and we
all smile as we pass each other, as though we share a secret.