I tend to avoid looking vendors in the eye. Afraid they will expect me to buy something, I often walk quickly past their stalls, glancing only at their goods. But this morning as I walked down University Place toward NYU and passed rows and rows of vendors setting up their booths, preparing for the day to begin, I witnessed something I’d never seen before.
At first I was fascinated by the preparations themselves. The way each vendor took time and care, fastening down tent flaps and arranging clothes, jewelry, food items, sunglasses—whatever he or she was selling. They arranged and rearranged, positioning their wares exactly. The precision and care was lovely.
As I walked, my gaze transferred to the vendors themselves, and I was amazed at what I saw. A husband, wife and son worked together in one booth, while many booths seemed to be run by pairs of brothers, or grown children with their parents. As I passed them by, looking closely, many of them raised their eyes to mine, and I smiled back. Some said, “Good morning,” and I returned the greeting with no fear. The fact that they did not have their wares arranged meant there was no expectation, and I felt comfortable and friendly.
Later, I wondered what it would be like to work as a vendor and have people avoid your glance. It would be hard. Not only in a business sense, because after all, their livelihoods depend on making sales, but also in a human sense. Their profession is so naked—they have created these goods with their hands, and have put them on display, along with themselves. I am so used to having the distance a store provides that it makes me uncomfortable to be presented not just with the goods, but with the manufacturer herself. It feels as if by refusing her goods, I am making a judgment on her person.
In some sense, I suppose I am, and many of the vendors would probably be okay with that. They have poured themselves into their goods (at least in this particular street market), and they stand or fall with the quality of their work. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized just how much courage it must take to lay their handiwork before the world—and how much beauty can be found in the people behind the counters.
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