A Morning Spent in Commerce at Street Level
- by Tarek al-Baz, writing for The Southwatch Register
“Can you spare a little?” asks of me the man with a noticeably irregular gait and shoulders made lumpen by the self-made crutch beneath one arm, the other hand (twisted, a knot of fingers about the cup of a palm) outstretched in hope of a coin; yet who, it must also be noted, appears well able to negotiate his way through the tightly-packed throng at this intersection of Brick- and Bakerstown.
I shoo him away, and he tugs at a slovenly cap in apologetic deference as I pass—but the coin purse on my belt is faintly tugged. Anticipating just such a move, I see that once malformed hand slip with clever dexterity into the pucker of stringed leather, strong fingers spreading it open and darting in, leaving it just ever so lighter as the beggar hobbles on, back turned, seeking a more kindly donor. One might hardly have noticed.
“Hoy!” I call, and magically his crutch lifts, shoulders straighten, and on fleet steps he vanishes into the crowd like a fish slipping between reeds.
A quick check of my purse reveals it three and one half shillings down. I could have baited the hook with pebbles, of course, but I considered myself to be making a purchase: of experience. I did not begrudge him his prize, it was a lesson bought cheap; and, as the cunning “beggar” ably demonstrated via his escape, Competent Negotiation is an essential when one sets foot within the Arastro street market.
In any case, the terms of my agreement with The Register dictated eight competent men in plain dress be within sight of my person at all times. One of them would be sure to collar the thief, and hand him off to an officer of the law to settle his account.
It is a difficult thing to trade with a man whose face you cannot see. Difficult to trade fairly, that is, not always your fellow man’s goal. At street level, where the poorer side of Bakerstown’s commercial district fades into some of the less insalubrious twists of the Bricktown slums—and, of course, beneath the smother of the Dark Cloud—bare-faced trustworthiness would seem unlikely in the extreme. However, one would be surprised.
These clogged and over-shadowed arteries at the foot of towering giants are, for half a day, sheltered. Not just stalls are set up: first, strong cables are drawn tight through the air down the length of each street; then, each enterprising rival collaborates with his peers as long tarpaulins of tarred and treated canvas are flung across the line. Secured against the walls to either side, a peaked roof is formed like the long tents of a military field barracks, defence against any residues descending from the city’s sole blight.
Lamps and braziers are hung from the cables to light the gloom; stalls are at last erected, laden down with goods of many a kind and many a quality; thus, protected just enough from the open air, open trade takes place. Hawkers and hucksters and browsers and bargainers put aside their ever-present masks and meet eye to eye, and the man on the street is free to evaluate the worth of not just the produce, but its producer.
And what producers, what produce! Every brand of person in the world line the routes, their calls a chaos of accents and entreaties, their dress a riot of distracting, enticing colours—and Southwatch’s native under-classes are present too, as mundane to the eye as are their wares. At first glance, it seems anything is there to be had, though with no rhyme or reason in the moment.
Along Fourth Baron’s Way, I pass: self-made clothiers, offering every material and aping every style; a chrome ornamentor, making obviously discarded goods shiny and “new”; a used-book seller (I pause here a good ten minutes, jostled and cursed by the crawling crowds, and depart with one of my own early pseudonymous works: the dangerous Philip Amberville, Barren of Southwatch, tatty but rare, mine for pennies); and more.
Paste jewellers, whose “rare trinkets” are replaced from beneath their stalls by identically imperfect siblings as fast as they can be sold; a metalmonger—twin of the ornamentor, but touting more honestly second-hand pots and kettles; crystal charmers, selling good health in a glittering stone, or protectives against everything from the likes of my thieving beggar to the fallout from the Dark Cloud itself (though no doubt far less effective than the sheets strung overhead); and more.
And more; and more.
I am far from the finest-dressed Sunsider here, chancing his luck shoulder-to-shoulder with more common citizenry (perhaps because I am wiser). I see others descended from Society, drifting like swans amidst fowl, preening at the attention they receive from all sides—little thinking of themselves as targets at a shoot, rich meat for the taking. Yet there is more to the Arastro than trivial things for tourists and those who would prey on them.
Ordinary people buy and sell ordinary things, livelihoods are made, and the pressing needs of small but modest lives are satisfied. Some lament that precious value be recycled this way, instead of added to the limitless coffers of factorymen or lining the pockets of more respectable shopkeeps. It “diminishes industry” they say (I have heard them say it).
I disagree. I say the Arastro is more the pulse of healthy commerce, evidence that the heart still beats, the beast still lives. The difference is only in who rides the beast, and whom is ridden down by it.
A footnote: on my departure, I was impressed to learn that the cunning thief eluded all eight of my hired watchmen. Two were led on quite a merry chase and returned from it battered and bruised, having been set upon by my teacher’s allies around the corner of an alley. See the Arastro: barter, deal, risk making a loss; but should you enter into the negotiation of backstreets, always do so knowing what price you are willing to pay.