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Interpreting Bric-a-Brac
Richard Claypool

Imagine an Arabian bazaar peopled with extras from a John Waters film, but better. It’s the New Eastland Super Flea, where the vendors display their wares in makeshift spaces and an abundance of bric-a-brac fills the pegboards, display cases, shelves, and tables. Kachina salt and pepper shakers, plastic Statues of Liberty, novelty golf balls, velvet paintings, and McDonald’s Happy Meal toys mingle in a peaceful manner their makers would be wise to emulate. I wander through this visually overwhelming playground of Americana, losing myself like a tourist immersed in an alien culture.

Such chaotic marketplaces are the kinds of places where much of the world’s business takes place. While most Americans have grown accustomed to marching through rows upon rows of sterile aisles, citizens from Pakistan to Peru do their business in open-air markets. In the modern American store, the arrangements are orderly, neutral, and homogenous. Product placement is important insofar as things that appeal to children must be stocked at their eye level. Personality is sacrificed for convenience. Symbolically interesting things only happen when products are misplaced.

For instance, imagine finding a jar of pickled pigs’ feet accidentally placed in the cereal isle of a grocery store, next to the Lucky Charms. The consumer’s mind wanders for a moment, wondering what makes rabbits’ feet lucky and pigs’ feet yummy. The pigs’ feet don’t look yummy at all. They look like crudely preserved organs. Do the pigs’ feet belong with the rabbits’ feet? Where do the rabbits’ feet belong? Somewhere near the rack of “Weekly World News” magazines, where we learn of Bat Boy’s latest madcap antics and misadventures? Would he eat pigs’ feet?

And so on.

Stop. Take a look around. Everything has meaning. The tranquility of an argyle sock dangling from a lampshade. The symmetry of the paint chip you peel from the railing. The angle of the rabbit ears on your TV. It’s all waiting to be interpreted even if it’s not on a pedestal in a museum.

The Super Flea: 800 East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard, North Versailles is a lot like a museum. Provocative juxtapositions, like the placement of the pigs’ feet with the Lucky Charms, are commonplace. For instance, take this arrangement of Betsy Ross, bowling pin, and horse. Certainly there is some intention, some artistic sense at work. Surely there is significance in the bowling pin, a thing whose nature is to fall, stands, as the horse, a thing whose nature is to stand and gallop, falls. And what sort of role does Betsy Ross play in this scheme as she doggedly persists with her needle and thread, perpetually constructing the symbol of America, the permanence of her chore emphasized by the permanence of the plastic of which she—and the bowling pin and the horse—is made. I seriously doubt the vendor was thinking anything like this when she her merchandise, but the ideas are right there for anyone see.

In fact, most vendors have a hard time expressing the appeal of their merchandise and why they arrange things the way they do. The woman selling the above items simply said that she always sells unique things. Another said that he prefers old oddball things, and he arranges them according to shape and color, trying to make his arrangement look inviting. Artistic intuition, then, seems to direct these arrangements. But much, much more than that can be said of creations this rich with meaning.

Another example: angry-looking idols surround a sadly congested tissue box cover and a musical glass swan. I am moved. The swan reminds me of a delicate little girl, a six-year old ballerina. She comes downstairs and interrupts her father and his friends who are getting a little too loud during a heated discussion of fantasy football.

“Daddy, could you keep it down? I have school tomorrow.”

“All right, honey.”

The rugged relics try to behave themselves in the swan’s presence. They know better. Deep down, there’s something dainty about them.

One vendor puts a lot of thought into his arrangements. He tries to achieve symmetry and balance, and he claims whether or not you want to look at the merchandise, you will. Just look at this row of distinguished knick-knacks, the solemn head of Krishna bracketed by comparably tiny dead presidents. Perhaps one is reminded of the importance of religion, the world of the sublime and spiritual, in comparison to the world of material wealth. The eggs suggest suspense and potential for something new—for instance, the continued coexistence of such symbolic juxtapositions that, in the words of this vendor, “capture the imagination”.

Of course, analyzing every little thing one encounters can get tedious. But it’s good to meditate on the subtle apparently insignificant, yet often beautiful details of life, then stand back. It’s good to look at product placement, derelict figurines, broken baubles, and see art. The world suddenly seems like a far less hostile place to live; it might even be fun. In any case, it’s worth a shot.

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