Thursday was market in England, an event in which concrete wastelands and empty fields were magically transformed into an aggressively bustling outdoor mall with hundreds of vendors peddling an unthematic combination of cheap plastic, cheap artwork, shiny metals, cheap electronics and, otherwise, authentically ethnic wares.
There were also the butchers who fell within the food vending category, walking around in their blood-soaked aprons, arranging fish frozen in various states of agony, chickens, pheasants and rabbits strung up by the feet in neat little rows by order of size, the sickeningly sweet smell of game and blood I then associated with Sunday dinner.
There were also the fast food vendors who mostly sold food much of which I never developed a taste during the four years I lived in the Commonwealth. I enjoyed the fish & chips generously sprinked with salt and sopped with vinegar and wrapped in yesterday's news. I also enjoyed the batter-fried rock (eel). I was too queasy to enjoy the blood pudding, and I was a baby when it came to unsugared custard which crowned many an English pudding.
Tarik was a giant Arab with each fist the size of my head. He accosted me at the Carterton market in 1985. He was peddling batteries, thousands of them. I had never seen so many batteries at one time in my life, so I stopped. I had been walking up and down the makeshift aisles with five or so British pounds in my pocket, looking for something gaudy to buy.
We American kids, living in foreign countries, did not always follow military protocol when asked by strangers to reveal our national identity. We thought that identifying ourselves as American was a sure sign of immunity: you would be given attention, you could get free food, you were a credible source of all things American whether or not you knew anything about it.
People who once gave you blank stars of indifference would all of a sudden perk up with curiousity when they found out you were American. Better yet, tell them what state you were from, and they were all the more curious. My state, Florida, made people sick with jealousy, I suppose, because they envisioned sprawling beaches of white sand and sexy people throwing back their heads in laughter with nary a care in the world like they do in American commercials, dramatically downing Cokes in their short-shorts and scant bikinis.
"Yes, sir. I'm American."
Tarik looked me up and down. Like a mean girl.
It was a statement and an accusation. I had the uncanny ability to do 50 push-ups by age 13. I was doing about 150 or so each day to bulk up my scarecrow frame which did nothing but make be a wiry scarecrow. I eagerly told him about my exercise routine, how I did curls for my biceps, lifts for my forearms, sit-ups for my abs. He seemed captivated by my enthusiasm for a moment.
I didn't notice that a boy entered our circle until Tarik interrupted me to introduce him. The boy, an Arab, too, looked me up and down, but in admiration.
"Cor! 'Owd you get those veins on your arms, mate?"
He was fascinated with my scant build. I relaunched into my exercise regimen.
"Oy don't 'ave weights." He cut me off.
"That's fine. I don't either. I use a gym bag full of large rocks that I found in my yard." I encouraged him.
"Wha' about batteries?" He asked hopefully.
I was doubtful about the batteries, but Tarik insisted that I demonstrate what a "curl" was. He ordered another Arab to get a shopping bag full of A-batteries. He handed me the bag and I demonstrated the bicep curl. The boy tried it. I pitied him as his boney arm pumped up and down.
He was unhealthily thin, but, being optimistic, I corrected his curl and told him he should use more batteries if the resistance wasn't enough. I told him that he would look like me in three weeks or so if he kept it up. He enthusiastically thanked me. Tarik, puffing at a cigarette, had slipped into a contemplative but rude stare.
" 'Ow old are you?" He demanded.
"Thirteen." I said.
"You know 'ow old 'e is?" He jabbed his fat finger at the boy. "Fif'een! And look at 'im! 'Es skinny! Look at you! You healthy! It's all your American food!"
At that point I should have realized the conversation was over, at least from my side. I was not sure how we got from a life-changing workout routine to an indictment about my very skinny body type versus the boy's very-very skinny body type. I tried to babble my way through a list of foods I ate, making sure that it was full of non-American foods like beans and rice (which it was because my parents often went grocery shopping at the English supermarkets).
Oh, but he wasn't through. He went on: American THIS and Ronald Reagan THAT. It dawned on me that I was about to get the political dress-down the American military had so thoroughly schooled us to avoid. I discreetly extricated myself, moving down the aisle until I could no longer hear Tarik's angry castigation.