Monday, March 21, 2011


This blog centers on two New York horse racing tracks, Aqueduct in Ozone Park, Queens and Roosevelt in Long Island's Nassau County. Oddly, despite the race track settings, this column does not concern itself with the traditional sense.NICKNAMED THE BIG A, AQUEDUCT IS A FLAT, THOROUGHBRED HORSE RACING VENUE THAT OPENED IN 1894. NOW, IT'S CLOSE TO BEING SHUT-DOWN AND CONVERTED INTO A RACINO. I HAVE NEVER SET FOOT INSIDE BUT I HAVE SPENT AN ETERNITY IN ITS PARKING LOT.

In the 1970's, way before personal computers and EBAY, flea marketing was at the height of its popularity. Aqueduct and Roosevelt Raceway used their huge parking lots to house these grand bazaars, making them leaders in New York's flea market industry. While attending Brooklyn College, I became friends with MBF, who on Sundays, sold ferns at Aqueduct.

In college, I lived at home and worked just hard enough to avoid sponging off my folks. But MBF was a go-getter who was already engaged. To entertain his girl in the manner in which she was accustomed, while also building a nest-egg, he worked two other jobs; nights at a tuxedo rental store and regularly for his dad.

On several occasions, I hung out for a few hours and had plenty of laughs at MBF's flea market booth. Then to rationalize being there so often, it seemed natural for me to become a seller too. I found someone in Canarsie who consigned digital watches. I made nearly no money but at least I had no overhead because MBF let me squeeze into a corner of his spot, gratis.

Digital watches were hot items but mine were chintzy, (my big ticket item retailed for only eleven bucks). Plus, all my merchandise featured blank, black faces. To activate the simplest thing like the time, you needed to be a contortionist or ask for help, to push all three buttons at once. These babies were ridiculously inferior because direct sunlight made them go haywire. There was no greater buzz-killer on a bright morning than being on the verge of closing a sale and the watch reading; forty-eight o'clock!

In the spring of 1975, MBF offered to take me into his "fern world" as a partner. That was the week before Aqueduct's flea market management team announced a three-dollar space rental increase. The woman across from us peddled hand-made centerpieces and other crafts. When she was handed the rent increase notice, she became irate. She blabbed her dissatisfaction to the other neighbors and then bombarded us. When she calmed down she said, "We've been getting stepped on for a long time. So at six o'clock tonight, there's going to be a secret meeting at Ryan's Bar on Rockaway Boulevard. We're going to organize a vendor association. Those money grubbers want to slash our throats. Now they want three dollars more, then five next month and ten more next year. We're at their mercy...what's next our blood, our first born..."

MBF interrupted, "The flier said this is the first increase in four years." She said, "Who's side are you on?" When he didn't speak she added. "There's gonna be a major rebellion. You better pick who's side your on, pronto. 'Cause, we'd rather tear this whole f***ing place down than give into extortion." I said, "Lady, it's only three..." "Kid, what are you crazy? Have you no principles? You're screwing around here just trying to pick up a little mad money...for us adults, this is our bread and butter. Hell, if we destroy this place and wind-up with nothing---even if we go to jail! It'll be worth it to see the muckity mucks get theirs." She raged away and greeted the next vendor by ranting, "Aqueduct flea marketers of the world unite!" We followed her progress and had a good laugh at her expense as most of the other vendors shooed her away.

The next day, I returned all the watches. Then to adjust to the rent increase, MBF and I decided to diversify. We added a wider range of house plants as well as women's tops and sweaters. Primarily we "shopped" on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at clothes factories and wholesalers. Together we had a blast running all over New York City as if we were wealthy businessmen. Within a short time, we thumbed our entrepreneurial noses at that Karl Marx-like centerpiece lady and proved the joy of capitalism by spiking our average profit to over $70.00 a week...each.


Late one Sunday after I packed up, the fellow from the adjacent booth, (Mr. Soxx), took me aside. He warned me about the dark side of flea marketing. He said selling at Aqueduct (an outdoor flea market) was a gamble. He said, "You never want to risk your livelihood on the uncertainty of the weather." I still had all my money tied up in our little venture and this guy was scaring the crap out of me. I wanted to give up immediately but later MBF assured me that Mr. Soxx was a jerk, who, "for the good of everyone," wanted to horn in on half our territory for free or take over our spot if we quit. MBF added, "Don't listen to him. He'll pee on your foot and tell you it's raining. If he senses weakness, he'll keep badgering you with bullshit. I think his favorite slogan is; a lie told often enough becomes the truth."


Mr. Soxx's most salient point was that when Christmastime comes, the weather can save a bad year or ruin a great one. That's when he put the bug in my ear to try the flea market at Roosevelt Raceway. Mr. Soxx emphasized that Roosevelt's flea market was both indoor and outdoor. And the only way to qualify for a cushy indoor booth was to go on a waiting list of outdoor vendors.

One night in October, I got a call from MBF. He told me to borrow my dad's Volare station wagon and meet him at his tuxedo job. When I got there, he and the owner led me upstairs. For as far as the eye could see there were racks of plastic covered tuxedo jackets. In the furthest corner, next to the emergency exit was a claustrophobic, 4x8 walk-in closet. In it, shirt boxes were piled on shelves to the ceiling...with tons more littering the floor. My partner said, "My boss wants to free-up this space and get rid of these out-of-style tuxedo shirts." The boss interjected, "These are the top-of-line. Look at the designer names, Givenchy, Lion of Troy, After Six, Johnny Carson, Pierre Cardon..."

I opened a random box with a $22.99 price tag. The shirt was a frilly, fluorescent lime green. "Whoa," I said, "I need friggin' sunglasses! This is the ugliest thing I ever saw." I was thinking; I can see why nobody ever bought this shit, but said, "Who'd want it?" The boss got defensive, "Hey that's a Lion of Troy. Yeah it's kinda loud but they aren't all like that." He started opening other boxes and said, "See, most of them completely conservative." I said, "Okay, out of much?" The boss said, "Three bills takes them all." I said, "Three hundred?" MBF snapped, "There's four-hundred forty-four of them. I did the math, they'll be less than seventy cents each." I didn't see the upside and repeated, "Who's gonna buy even one?" There was no answer until the boss said, "Musicians. I bet you get four or five dollars a pop." I said, "At five each, we wouldn't see a dime until we sold sixty..."MBF said, "Mr. Belding, how about giving us a break?" The owner said, "Two-fifty." I said, "We'd be crazy to pay one-fifty!" The boss said, "Then don't buy 'em. I got a Chinese guy in Dyker Heights willing to pay two and quarter." MBF said, "Wow, two and cue." I said, "I don't know." The three of us were locked in a temporary stalemate until the boss spat, "Don't be petty. I'm tryin' to help you and this is a fantastic opportunity. But I'll tell you what. Pay two and quarter cash, take them right now and I'll sweeten the pot and throw in fifty bow-ties."

A few days later at Aqueduct, we put the shirts out for five dollars. I was pleasantly surprised that they created such a buzz. In addition to selling twenty of them, a couple of people asked for our phone number. We were so fired up that the following week, we raised the price to seven and the frenzy continued.

We still hadn't sold a single bow-tie. Even at fifty-cents, they were hideous. Most were maroon, crushed velvet and the rest were black with a putrid floral pattern. That's when we got the idea to sell the shirts for nine and throw in a free bow-tie if someone bought more than one.

Christmas was a month away and in an effort to maximize profits, we split up. MBF stayed at Aqueduct and I took an outdoor spot at Roosevelt, (I found out that there was a three-year wait for an indoor spot, thanks for your candor Mr. Soxx). The work was a lot less fun alone but our two-headed monster idea worked like a charm. By mid-December, we had less than a hundred tuxedo shirts. We were only left with the worst dregs and quadruple-X sizes. Still, at a slower pace, mostly musicians kept buying them up.

My alarm went off at 6:15AM, on the Sunday before Christmas. I could hear the wind howling and to my chagrin, when I peeked under my window shade, a steady hale was pelting the street. Reluctantly, I met the most important day of the business year head on. On my way to Long Island, I hoped the weather would break but it was more miserable out there.

The section of the Roosevelt parking lot where the outdoor flea market was supposed to be...was an empty, slushy, white glaze, reminiscent of mother Russia's frozen tundra. I had no choice so I placed my faith in divine intervention. I waited an hour in my car for the storm to clear but it didn't. The only activity I saw was tons of empty handed people going inside and tons coming out with their hands full of purchases. I decided to go in.

Inside it was comfortable, dry and crowded. Christmas music was pumped in and the bustling buyers were all smiles or looked as if they were on a positive mission. I kept scouting and found out that every booth was occupied. One vendor at the far wall expanded his booth along the blank space that led outside to the seller's parking area. When I retraced my steps, I discovered on the opposite end, an older woman selling leather goods didn't make use of the similar extra space along her wall. That's when I got my epiphany...after all, at the point of desperation, it took more courage to retreat into nothingness than step forward and give success a try.

I offered the handbag queen ten dollars to borrow her parking pass that would allow me to bring my car right outside the door. She was suspicious and wanted to know why. I said, "So I can set up my stuff along the wall and salvage Christmas." She said, "Make it twenty-five and you got a deal. But if there's a problem, I don't know you." I said, "Okay." She said, "Where's my twenty-five."

This would become one of the highlights of my entire life! Immediately, I was going great guns. Last minute holiday shoppers are the best...they buy ANYTHING! In less than two hours, I sold nearly all my houseplants and had double my usual all-day sales. But everything came to a screeching halt when I got approached by a security guard. He said, "You can't block the exit, it's a fire hazard." I said, "Okay." I ignored him and kept selling. Twenty minutes later he came back and told me to squeeze back into my legal booth. That's when the handbag lady told him, "He ain't with me. He tried to keep me quiet with a ten dollar bribe but I said no. He weaseled his way in anyway. I told him three times he can't stay there but he wouldn't listen. You should lock him up."

The guard said, "Buddy, you gotta go." I said, "It's Christmas. C'mon, give me another half hour." He said, "I'm gonna do my rounds one more time. When I come back, I'm bringing my supervisor. If you don't want trouble, don't be here." I wanted to spit on the handbag lady when the old crone called out, "If you're gonna hang him, I'll sell you the belt."


That night I called MBF. He told me that because of the weather, he slept in. He was flabbergasted when I told him what I accomplished. He said I should keep ALL the profit. I said no. We started arguing and our partnership came to an abrupt halt. I guess you can say; sometimes the good we do...doesn't do us any good.

I was an usher at his wedding that June. Once he was married, it seemed natural for us to drift apart. Six months later I moved to Las Vegas. Today, thirty-two years later only through the cyberspace miracle of personal computers and Facebook has our long-distance friendship been re-ignited.


Sol said...

Reminds me of the time when I worked part time as a men's clothing salesman at the Berlin Farmers Market back in the late '60's. Vendors were also both within and ouside the building. Many stories abounded of competetors having slashed each others tires, car seats and canvas tops. Animal or human excrement used as projectiles always added to the competetive edge. One thing for sure, though, you could always get a good deal at the Berlin Farmers Market!

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Down through the years you have told me a million stories but this must have slipped through the cracks.

Cool double meaning to the title and the country witticism at the end was equally glib and profound.

I can see how this extremely low-level "victimless crime" was a great moment in your life. Hopefully now, your column will help others appreciate it too. --- FARNSWORTH

Anonymous said...

WOW! How much fun to re-live the flea market years through your words. I so enjoyed this. Many guys bought the shirts for the DISCO scene as well as the occasional formal affair. I recall us buying the shirts for a dollar each. Flea marketing certainly was good extra $$$ --- MBF

Anonymous said...

As you know, tonight was my last day at work.

Thanks for all the good times we shared over the last 23 years. It was a special time.

You are a most talented writer. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading your MORE GLIB ThAN PROFOUND blog on a weekly basis.

I hope you achieve everything that will make you happy.

Perhaps our paths will meet again.

Best of luck to you and your family. --- M of M&T

Anonymous said...

Your stories always seem to awaken some memory of my past. Got a kick out of the little old lady giving you up. Keep up the good work! MofM&T