Saturday, May 15, 2010

On Enewetak (from The Distributive Passions)

[This immediately follows the section I posted May 2. It originally appeared on the defunct Distributive Passions blog. Bradford Peck was the author of The World A Department Store, and prime mover, along with the Vroomans, in the cooperative movement in New England. Much of this has already taken another shape in the rewriting, but I was reminded of this version by Charles Johnson's comments on the different ways of envisioning markets. The contrasting visions have certainly been around for a long time...]

The Canteen

It’s more like a swap meet than a food stand or restaurant, with a menu of rough categories of foodstuffs so obviously arbitrary in its pricing and arrangement that the complex negotiations actually required to get a meal come as no surprise at all. The larder is remarkably extensive and diverse, and the haggling all good-natured. I end up with a large fish steak–some local species, and delicious–a bottle of French mineral water, and, largely because it’s there, a can of Moxie. I try to pay in dollars, and can see immediately that this is too conventional. There’s an amusing back and forth, at the end of which I’ve parted with a pair of Kaweah 2-hour time tokens and an ancient, dog-eared Kim Stanley Robinson novel. My young guide from earlier gets a look at the New Earth Mutuals folded up in my clip, before I tuck them away. I have a sense that novelty may be as good as security here, when it comes to currency (but also maybe other things), and I figure I might as well hold something in reserve.

The hipper travel guides suggest that commerce in the islands is largely a ritual activity, less an opportunity for profit than a chance for the distributive passions to have their play. Sitting by the golden ocean, with the sea-breezes blowing “too much life” in my face and through my hair, with the dark waters of the test craters simmering at the edge of sight, it certainly seems like something more than just the usual game is afoot. But I can’t yet go further into it, disentangle profit and passion so that I can really find my feet here.

The Mainer

“Christian Vrooman, Maine. How do you do? Out here for the ‘Galactic?”

“Em. Gabe Solly. New Earth Institute. Oregon. . .Territory.”

Broadsided. Handshook before I know it. I take another sip of Moxie, and try to take him in. His tropical suit is either brand new or a phenomenally well-kept relic. The cut is distinctly 19th century, but it would be, even if it was fresh off the racks of an Association store. Bradford Peck may be long dead, but the look still lives on, at least in Maine. A Vrooman. That means pioneer stock, most likely. That doesn’t necessarily mean “true believer” (as I know so well), but. . .

I can tell he’s sizing me up, that he knows enough to know what the Solly name means in my neck of the woods. I can tell I don’t quite measure up to the legend. Note to self: cultivate a more extreme dishevelment, stare off into space when possible. Rant more. Mere scruffiness is insufficient for the sons of the prophets. The heritage demands display. Further note to self: forget it, kid. The Man From 1890 has you beat, out of the gate.

“A Babelite. . .”

I hardly let him get the word out.

“An Eclectic. . .” Which isn’t really true, but it might buy me some space. “Or Seeker, take your pick. Nice to meet you. Which is almost true, and anyway it’s a small island. Might as well make nice for now.

“So, Vrooman. . .”

“A minor branch.”

He seems disappointed, and maybe he is. It’s damned hard to imagine Mainers being dissappointed with themselves. Hmm. Beneath the quaint, but, honestly, beautifully cut suit is just what you would expect: a vision of health, a young man of obvious intelligence. A perfect specimen of the Down East Master Race. “Another Maine Miracle,” as the slogan goes.

I nod, trying to convey something friendly and noncommittal.

“Yeah. My hopper had a problem. Engine. Got a layover day while it’s fixed. Work to do anyway, you know. Getting ready.”


Damn. He’s not sure. I guess Mainers are just born ready, and, anyway, they don’t cram for presentations. I look around and wonder how all of this translates for him. How does it compare to his Department Store World? Do the Mainers dance to the tune of the distributive passions too, however sedately?

“‘The World a Swap Meet’?”

“Why. . . Yes!”

He half shouts it. (Bully, old boy!) But he’s smiling. And looking at me curiously.

“That helps, actually. I fear I was missing the model here.”

He’s got a bottle of Poland Spring Water, and he’s fidgeting a bit with it. And that helps me a bit. That, and the fact that dinner seems to be ready. I can see the crew gearing up. All of a sudden I really want to see Christian Vrooman tackle island fare and island commerce. Then the call comes, and the negotiations start, and the dance takes up both. Shark and shellfish. Goat steak and stir-fried veggies. The relative merits of the cast-off coins in the bottom of my satchel. I make what I think is a killing, turning experienced heads with a five-spot of closely-held Aurora Mutual, and, flush with victory, buy myself a bottle of the wondrous with a handful of mixed change. Too little, or too much? There’s no telling, really. But I sense that, for a moment or two, I have entered the dance of this place. And that goes straight to my head, like the shot you second-guess on the way down, before the feast (which is epic) and before the golden water. I half-stagger down to the thin beach to devour my haul. Too much life, I think, but why shouldn’t there be?

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