The artists and vendors who ply their wares in Union Square by definition are a bit strange.
Strange to roll carts filled with broken tables and bungee cords holding down dirty boxes full of books or paintings or t-shirts or origami ear rings circa 5 o’clock in the morning. All to secure a space in the hopes that seven hours later some passers-by might be interested in their stuff. Some vendors just sell ripped off tchotchkes and others sell real art.
Me? As you know, I don’t sell anything when I am out there.
The vendors are all characters in their own right. Some are gentle souls, some are just crazy, others are just hard-working immigrants. We may not all be best friends but we are all friendly. During the day you can count on your neighbors to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom. Artists handle sales for others. But the hour between 5am and 6am is when the competition for spots starts up. Voices are lightly raised in the cool air as mild disputes crop up around who got where first. The dappled rising sunlight is never disturbed by this.
On this particular morning I arrived at a near empty Union Square at the stroke of 5. I set up my one chair and sat and read for 90 minutes or so chatting with the steady stream of vendors setting up until the building on Union Square East where I store my table and other chair opened. When I returned at 7 am I found that my chair was missing and another vendor had left a partly opened table in its space. I set my table and one chair up in the same spot where my chair was while I looked for the missing chair.
In more years of sitting out there nobody had ever touched my stuff if I had ever left it for any amount of time. Nobody seemed to know anything about it and after about 20 minutes I found it hidden the bushes and re-set up my table in the original spot. At around 8am the mystery started to become clearer.
Bill is a t-shirt vendor and when he showed up and started to set up where the folded table was – his issue became clear.
You can’t be there. This is my space. This isn’t going to work with you here. You are going to have to move because this isn’t going to work because I need space on the side.
He wasn’t kind or pleading. Just irritated and forceful. I told him that I knew the rules as well as he did and that I had arrived at 5 and nobody was in the spot where I was. I asked him if he had moved my chair and he angrily replied
Are you accusing me of something, motherfucker?
I said that I wasn’t but was just asking and further said it wasn’t a problem to move over a foot or two. I moved. He saw me move. Normally by 8:30 I would have strolled through the farmer’s market to get breakfast but it was clear that I was going to have to sit here until this resolved. I was feeling both stubborn and righteous spurred by his prickly antagonisms. Bill continued to grouse while other artists mildly told Bill to calm down and assured him that I was there at 5 and there now and not to cause trouble. Bill said that “This is going to be resolved for good when I get back from breakfast.” Other artists came by and said “Just move, Bill can be so crazy.” But I felt compelled to stay out a sense that it was too early to know what was going to happen. It felt too soon to simply acquiesce.
I had about 20 minutes of peace and in that time Shenee Howard visited me. As we were chatting, and she can attest, Bill wouldn’t shut up about how “this wasn’t going to work.” It was pretty uncomfortable. I moved again a bit – I had a limit to a) being bullied and b) to where I could legally be without getting a ticket. It wasn’t pleasant and my time with Shenee was shorter and less amazing than it might have been due to Bill and the scene he was making.
Five minutes after she left Bill got in my face with that faux “I’m trying to be polite but barely containing my rage” voice.
I don’t know how many times I have asked you nicely to just move. And you didn’t. Not once. You took my motherfucking spot. You don’t have any respect. This shit has gone on long enough and is going to resolved, right about now.
And he grabbed my table and threw it while screaming and then in the same movement pulled back and threw a punch at my face. I dodged the punch easily and I felt the supreme urge to fight back.
I saw how to hit him and in that moment I saw how my joints would have interlocked with his to take him down to the ground and defend myself and beat him up with a calm fury to counteract his insane one.
But I didn’t. I restrained that vision from playing out.
Two other artists jumped on Bill to hold him while another helped to pick up my table and papers. My patience and stubbornness with Bill had showed him to everyone as being totally irrational and artists came up to me all day congratulating me on standing up to him and not rolling over to him. Another artist quickly made space for me on his other side. I was now placed one spot away from Bill but now on his other side with one vendor between us.
I don’t know if you have ever been in a fight, or a scrap, or a tussle or a brief altercation but my experience is that it gets your blood pumping. The moment is played out on a mental loop with alternate endings and moments frozen like three-dimensional photographs. And through out the day I could feel Bill’s eyes on me. I could feel the unspoken tension between us. I knew he wasn’t going to jump me, but I wished he would so we could use our fists to resolve the tension better than our mouths could.
It felt like heat.
It felt like pressure.
It felt like hunger.
I caught him looking at me piercingly when I thought I had forgotten all about it and then the charge would be lit in me all over again. I offered creative approaches during the day but still felt hounded by this desire to fight Bill and this desire to resolve the tension somehow. Apologizing seemed too conciliatory. I couldn’t just say “Oh, it’s okay. Water under the bridge.” I wanted a creative approach but I wanted to also not excuse his actions.
Thankfully a creative approach came in the form of the story charmer herself- Pema Teeter. Pema is a good friend who was in town and her job is to charm stories like snakes out of people. She had visited me in the morning and I had told her that someone had thrown a punch at me but didn’t say more. Near the end of the day Pema came by to close up shop and said that she was going to buy a t-shirt for her boyfriend and now husband Floyd.
She went to Bill’s table to look at his gorgeous shirts. It was clear that she was going to buy one by the way she was talking to him. And suddenly I knew what to say to Bill…
Bill, you should take care of my good friend Pema and give her discount.
Bill looked almost relieved that I had said something.
You a friend of his?
He said as thumbed in my direction. Pema confirmed and Bill said that he would take care of her and indeed he gave her a discount on the shirt she bought moments later.
And just like that it was all gone. The tension, the pressure, the awkwardness, the hunger to fight, to roll over.
It had been charmed away in the most creative of ways by Pema without her even knowing she was doing it.
How have your conflicts been mysteriously resolved? Who or what have been your story charmers?