Flea marketing with my dad

dad in hat

He invariably called on Friday night. “Lona! Are we going to the flea market tomorrow?” he’d ask. “Sure!” I’d say, whether I really wanted to or not.

As long as it wasn’t raining on Saturday morning I’d get up around six, hit the shower, and then drive 40 minutes to my parents’ house. My father would be waiting at their breakfast table with his mug of Constant Comment tea and a banana. This was just a morning snack. Real breakfast would come later.

Cold weather was no excuse to skip the flea market. The Golden Nugget was (and still is) open year round. In the winter Dad would pull on his gigantic size-14 boots, a thick sheepskin jacket, matching sheepskin mittens, and one of his fur trapper hats with ear flaps. He also had a stocking hat made from hand spun and knitted dog hair (don’t ask!), but it rarely got into the hat rotation. In the summer he’d wear his army hat or a cowboy hat. Always a hat!

On rare occasions in the summer I’d convince Dad to let me put the top down on my Saab convertible, but he didn’t like the wind. He was perpetually cold from the blood thinner he took for his heart. He wore wool pants and heavy sweaters all the time.

Back before Ebay existed, parking at the Golden Nugget could be a problem. The flea market was crammed with vendors in multiple rows over a couple acres. You never knew what you’d find. Adrenalin kicked in as we approached the lot. The treasure hunt was on!

Dad knew all his favorite dealers on a first name basis so getting through the entire market took some doing. Tony did clean outs and drove a grungy white box truck filled with an ever changing assortment of antiques that hadn’t been out of attics for decades. He stopped being quite so friendly after he discovered he’d sold Dad a rare fountain pen for only ten bucks. It took a couple years for his grudge to die down.

Ken had tables spread with boxes of keys, doorknobs, chandelier crystals, and all sorts of other hardware and findings. There was a Button Lady who eventually retired to Florida with her millions of carded buttons, and a swarthy woman who looked like a gypsy. She mostly sold costume jewelry. Les had table after table filled with jewelry ranging from plastic to platinum. Dad spent at least five or ten minutes talking to each of them, never getting in a hurry to move on to see what the next dealer had in stock. He had congestive heart failure and needed to stop and rest constantly.

Sometimes I’d get impatient and walk ahead. I wanted vintage linens. One memorable, long-gone dealer shopped at estate sales and would dump mountains of fabric out on thirty feet of tables. The best pieces went fast even though you had to dig and dig to find them. Everything was ridiculously cheap. Over the years I accumulated hundreds of tablecloths, dishtowels that had never been used, colorful crocheted doilies, and more.

Dad also had select categories of things he looked for: penknives, lamps, just about anything orange or turquoise, American Indian objects and metal things that could be turned into lamp bases. His Holy Grail object of deepest desire was the rarest of the rare–a mandarin yellow Parker Duofold fountain pen. He never found one. Only a handful were ever made. We used to joke about finding one for a dollar, more than halfway wishing our joke would come true. Most weeks he’d only turn up a few cheapie pens that needed drastic repairs. And then we’d head to the snack bar for breakfast.

We didn’t have to order. The lady behind the counter knew we wanted two egg sandwiches with cheese and two Styrofoam cups of tea. We’d sit in one of the orange plastic booths away from the door. In the winter I’d try to pick a table with a heater vent underneath. Dad would pull the fountain pens out of his pockets and start to talk. Mostly I’d just listen. He’d check out the nibs, then progress to his plans for repairs. He used his gone-cold tea to test whether the pens would hold ink, drawing careful, repetitive circles on napkins. His sandwich would get cold, too, while he’d mull over some philosophical question that was on his mind. He had so many questions about so many things. I didn’t have answers, but he didn’t want them, anyway. It was all about the thrill of the chase, the contentment of company, and some new little project to keep his hands and mind busy.

I can’t remember the last time we went together. His heart got so weak he couldn’t walk more than a few steps without having to sit down. The cold was too cold, the heat was too hot. And one week he didn’t call on Friday night. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t realize the day that was our last time. It would have been unbearably sad. But today I am so thankful for all my memories of slow walking, long listening and countless cups of tea gone cold.

3 Comments on “Flea marketing with my dad”

  1. Daniel James Shigo says:

    Beautifully written post! I love the photo too. It captures a lot of things.

  2. Thanks! It’s one of my favorite photos of him.

  3. Janet Liples says:

    Enjoyed the article about you and your dad.