From The Saturday Age, Spectrum, Saturday 4 November 2017. By Cameron Anson.
Each time a car yard closes a tower of apartments rises on its grave. Thus long-legged skyscrapers walk from the city toward South Melbourne. Their shadows are on the bay already. They have more financial muscle than any other land use now and will stomp whatever’s in their way.
I have special powers of pessimism that let me see sleek developers salivating in silver Mercedes surrounding the South Melbourne Market. They sit watching the empty air above the place, seeing there a future phallus of 500 flats. Ours is a world where dollars prevail over aubergines.
There is something optimistic, even festive, about stall owners setting up for the day at a market. Like carnies tightening screws and slathering grease on The Matterhorn before the ride begins. People hustling to get their stalls laden with produce; laying out tuna with torsos as thick as Maoris, potatoes as purple as plums, cheeses milked from pampered herds, and pastries that look like they might take wing. The morning air is segregated into atmospheres offish, then bread, coffee, pork, citnis, borek, paella, spices… You walk the aisles with your chemoreceptors strobing banquets in your head.
There is the amiable Chinese guy with his oriental oils and pastes. The Polish ladies, unloading wedding sausage and grandmother ham. The cheery South African who, sitting there, resembles Doc Pomus. He runs a stall selling everything from sardines to licorice. The defining characteristic of his goods is their cheapness. Like God, he sits outside time in a place where best-before dates are meaningless. The potato lady with her array oftubers^her Otway reds and her Kestrels, is so friendly, so eager to tell you of her daughter’s first communion, that her potatoes are like holy water, each is sanctified by the blessing of her good nature, and you smile, days later, while eating them.
But the soap lady is sullen this morning. It’s Wednesday, so she has Mondayitis. The market being closed on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday is its Monday. She doesn’t approve of me buying soap before they have rung the bell to open the market. Not on Wednesday morning.
Implicit in shopping here is a protest against the agri-industrial complex that feeds the supermarkets that feed nearly all of us. A yearning to be close to the dirt in which greenery grows, and hear the narratives of food’s rough origins. A longing to look a greengrocer in the eye and be lifted by knowing his heart and generations of family knowledge have gone into the spinach whose supernatural powers he is singing as he waggles it at you. Shopping here is a decision to feel well about the world.
Of course, this isn’t investigative journalism. Behind the scenes here who knows? It might be a con, a charade. These people might be sourcing their produce from the same places as The Big Two for all I know. The salutary vibe I get shopping at the South Melbourne Market might be purely placebic. Nevertheless, I do get that vibe.
Because it’s not just produce. It’s community. A raft of past floating on haggle and banter. Something of the Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Turkish village about it as it ratchets up for business. Some pleasant peasantry here you can’t get in the supers while shunting a trolley.
Despite the chic eateries elbowing their way in, the South Melbourne Market hasn’t gentrifled or sanitised yet. Greetings are shouted, coffee is hustled to fishmongers, small women shell peas, stocky men heft melons, a pig’s head on a gurney buffets its way through a throng of Chinese tourists excitedly sucking oysters from their shells. It’s fraternal, sororal, stallholders with fates entwined, knowing customers well enough to ask about their kids and to mention their growing girth with a laugh. A thousand exoticisms braided and bedded down into the neighbourhood.
How familial is this place? When I shaved my beard off recently no one at home noticed. Next morning I was buying a chicken from my chicken dude at the market, a rough-hewn poultryman who looks like a medieval ostler. As he leant across the counter with my chook he said, “You look better without that beard. Much younger.” Suddenly realising I was clean-shaven Sarah slumped and said, with a mix of disgust and regret, “Oh, shit”.
It’s a comfort knowing no matter how far she lets me slip the chicken dude has his eye on me. You don’t get love like that at Coles.