#927: Maria of the Swap

May 14th, 2018

She’s setting up for the morning, spreading cowboy hats around the shop, dusting off the ones wrapped in plastic, slowly inspecting each and slowly placing the finest on a stick to slowly lift them up to the display hooks ringing the top of her cage.

“Cage” is a better word than “shop,” it occurs to me as I watch her from the “Snak-O-Rama” food court section of the swap. “Maria’s Western Wear” has been burnished into a wooden sign also burned with a hat and spurred boots, but the avenue her store is on is an aisle in the indoor section of Back of the Yards’ Swap-O-Rama. Her rented cage section is one among dozens, scores, multiples of rented floor space, divvied however the tenant sees fit.

Some, like the woman lifting cowboy hats on a stick I’ll later see her use as a cane, opt for mesh cages to lock safely away at night. Some have set up ersatz buildings, with fake doors to protect the mock barbershop they set up in the flea market.

Others still have counters to sell home electronics, Mexican comic books, spices or bootleg toy ninjas that, while green and scaly, are absolutely in a very legal way not ninja turtles. All things are here in the swap, from car parts to the breakfast sandwich I scarfed from Snak-O-Rama as Maria lifted hats.

She was meticulous with the hats, boots, belts, shirts with those metal tips on the collar — everything needed to dress cowboy in the city.

She wasn’t cowboy. She wore short, short hair with a Navy and white horizontal striped shirt. A sweet old grandma, I could see her smiling and dispensing hot chocolate, not riding with the vaquero.

“¬°Hola Marie! ¬°Buenos dias!” a portly, bearded man who had previously been arranging business deals from a snack shop booth calls to her as he and his new associate walk by.

Her smile dazzles. When she was placing hats in the cage that calls her Maria, Marie didn’t smile. She just frowned in concentration on her tasks, eying each hat and belt buckle for the most subatomic of dust motes.

I watched her for a while as I finished my sandwich. I watched her like I watched the portly, bearded man cut deals from a Snak-O-Rama booth. I watched her like I watched the heavyset smiling teen with a hairnet over hair dyed blood red blare rap rock as she served Jarritos and Gatorade, like I would later watch the old woman in the Incan hat sell perennial bulbs, seedlings, saddles and stuffed alligators from a horse trailer in the parking lot.

The shops and cages were coming alive on a Saturday morning in April, shaking off their slumber and stretching like tired dogs readying for the day.

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