Swap meet

 Bartering 02

Today’s the day that all us cats
Must surely do our bit
We all must do our share
So Uncle Sam can hit
Save up all your pots and pans
Save up every little thing you can
Don’t give it away
Get some cash for your trash

—Fats Waller, “Cash for Your Trash” (1941)

I’ve never liked flea markets. That’s not unusual in and of itself, except that I like shopping for used things in lots of other contexts. Last month, I spent two hours—on two separate trips—and $90 rummaging through Powells Books in Portland. (Fourteen books for less than $100 ain’t bad, but having to check an extra bag—to fit the books—for the flight back home is.) I’ve whittled many happy hours away amidst dust and damp odor twirling in the back corners of used-CD shops. While I’ve never been a regular at the Salvation Army store, I’ve found some nifty clothes there from time to time. Garage sales are fun for me.

Large-scale flea markets, though, don’t excite me. I’m not a good haggler, don’t like it, and like it even less with people I don’t know. Unlike a used bookstore, there’s no return policy for flea bargains. Markets are crowded and noisy. There is at once too much to consider (piles upon piles, rows upon rows, of stuff) and too little (if you bring a list of wanted items, it’s a guarantee that they won’t have it). It’s too disorganized and unspecialized, and I get tired of it quickly.

The online equivalents rattle me. I have an eBay account but I’m mostly a seller, not a buyer. Even though La Bella found a lovely queen-size mattress on Craigslist, the whole concept exhausts me. I always think of myself as an analog soul in a digital world, but flea markets prove that I’m full of shit.

One good thing about working in a small office is the potential for a bartering system. Trading services and products with people I know is more tenable for me. I feel more connected to the workings of the underground economy this way; I feel more in control. The last seven days of my life are slightly untypical but give a sense of why the job is sometimes so cool.

My former boss still sometimes gets manuscript submissions from locals—it’s the perils of being a book editor, even a retired one. Last Tuesday, a casual acquaintance foisted a 144-page “fictional memoir” on her. Well, she didn’t want to read it but called me up to see if I would be willing to review it independently for the writer. I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to do freelance reviewing for a year, and suddenly “Yet Another Immigrant’s Memoir of Coming to America” lands in my hands, simply because I’m connected to an Indian American by work. Yes, the manuscript is no good, but $100 is $100.

That same day, Sylvia did me a nice favor. Sylvia lives on a farm out in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a full hour from work here in Jackson. She maintains what must be a splendid vegetable garden, as she periodically brings in fresh tomatoes, squash, rosemary, and basil. Her teenage daughter owns and raises chickens there. Sylvia put up a sign in the copy room: “Eggs 15¢ each/ A dozen for $1.50.” Whenever I plan on baking something, I give Sylvia a day’s notice and the next day I’ve got eggs. Elise (the daughter) has Asperger Syndrome but loves me. She draws comics—crudely drawn, but with good comic timing and funny wordplay—and shares them with me when she comes to visit her mom. I comment and give encouragement. As thanks, Sylvia gave me fresh zucchini, squash, and butternut squash from her garden on Thursday.

A day after receiving “Yet Another Immigrant…,” I drove Neely home. I do this a lot. Her husband is a divinity student, so his hours are nutty, and the couple’s car is unreliable. She’s in her third trimester of her first pregnancy and doesn’t like driving much these days. She’s close to my home. Two weeks ago, I drove her home every single day, which irritated me for no good reason; Neely’s nice enough and is genuinely grateful. I felt like even more of a shitheel when, upon dropping her off last Friday, she told to wait before driving off. She popped into her house and came out with a stainless-steel crock pot, brand new, still in the box. “We got one at my baby shower, but we already had one. So, here you go, if you want it.” I thanked her profusely and drove home, tapping the box and thinking guilty thoughts.

On Thursday, the job’s underground economy made a small dream come true. One of our book designers mentioned to me that he has upgraded his stereo system. “It’s got a turntable attached,” he said, “so I don’t need mine anymore. I know you said once that you were looking for one and—” He didn’t get to finish the sentence: “How much?” I said. “Is $25 fair? I’ll throw in a converter box.” I nodded and nodded, grinning like a fool. I told you: I’m no haggler.

Armed with my first turntable ever, I now have an excuse to raid both my dad and my stepdad’s large vinyl collections. I also can now playing the copy of the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out that I bought three years ago in Seattle, as well as the copy of Religious Recordings from Black New Orleans, 1924-1931 (yeah, I don’t know why I own it, either) that leans against my bookshelf. I’ve got a small stack of 45s somewhere that I need to find, too.

First, though, I’ll do a good turn of my own to someone else. So here’s a shout-out. An Austin friend dashed off an email informing me of a new EP on her boyfriend’s indie hip-hop label. Now, I’ve written about Beats Broke before, and had this to say:

Beats Broke focuses on rap from the Netherlands, especially Utrecht. I wouldn’t have thought Utrecht would be a site of beats-bonanza, but groups like Illicit and Pax & Pry, and producers Inf and Arts the Beatdoctor prove me wrong. Yes, white folks dominate the label and set the terms—the lone American rapper there is named after the quintessential Wes Anderson character, which pretty much defines arch-whiteness. (But he’s good, like an even-more-adenoidal, and less grating, Eminem.) The label’s music tends toward live instrumentation, particularly keyboard washes and good guitar, and the short-and-sweet aesthetic of Stones Throw. (Not many songs cross the four-minute mark.)

I stand by this assessment. The new selection is Progressions by Arts the Beatdoctor. It’s available digitally ($4.99) and on wax ($9.99). Wait—is that vinyl I see? Yessir—in a limited edition of 500 copies. I knew what would be the platter to inaugurate my turntable.

It showed up in the mailbox today, #65 of 500 copies—two shiny black 7-inch discs encased in a brown wraparound sleeve with black and metallic ink. It’s a beautiful package. The same goes for the music. Progressions includes Arts’s atmospheric beats, which includes lots of echo effects, subtly layered keyboards, and jazzy instrumentation that’s warm enough to sound as if it was recorded live. Two songs—“Be Alright” and Arts’s remix of Pax & Pry’s “Sleep”—feature lyricists who are laconic and honey-drenched tonally. “Progressions” and “Meditate” are instrumental, allowing Arts free reign to indulge in digressive drumwork, the odd guitar lick that fades into and out of the musical frame, and generally expand his palette. It’s beats-driven and based in electronics, so it’s definitely hip-hop. But it’s downtempo enough to soothe rather than agitate. “Meditate” and “Sleep” are two song titles that could stand for the effect of Progressions as a whole. It’s engrossing music.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Swap meet

  1. Beats Broke says:

    Thank you for the kind words!

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