The cab driver looked puzzled as he dropped me off on North Street, which runs the periphery of Haymarket Square. At 5:20 am, it was still dark, but the bustle on Haymarket's Blackstone Street had begun about two hours earlier. Bleary-eyed vendors lugged pump jacks stacked with pallets of tomatoes, carrots, radishes, and bananas, just unloaded off trucks from Chelsea's New England Produce Center and Everett's Boston Market Terminal. It would be another hour before the first customers trickled in. It would be many more hours before the vendors began hollering appeals to the crowds: "C'mon, everybody! Strawberries here! Buckabox! Three for $2!"
Open Fridays and Saturdays, Haymarket is one of the oldest open-air markets in the country. It was informally established in the mid-1880s, though it wasn't until 1978 that the Blackstone Street horseshoe was officially sanctioned as the market's space. Permits from the city became a requirement, as did annual fees for assigned plots. Before that, vendors rented space by the day, and some old-timers recall the 1960s, when everyone lined up with their pushcarts in the morning and rushed to stake out a parcel.
But lately, the future of the market has been in question. The city's Department of Transportation is currently considering four proposals for development on Parcel 9, the plot of land between Blackstone Street and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Proposals range from rental housing to a hotel to a museum of Boston history. The Haymarket Pushcart Association has publicly stated that they would work with developers to ensure a smooth transition and neighborhood civility, but they worry about having many neighbors, as the case would be with the larger apartment proposal, which includes 119 units, not least because of the increased number of cars it would bring. And some worry about competition from the proposed Boston Public Market, a year-round, indoor, daily farmers' market that is slated to open in a 30,000-square-foot space at 136 Blackstone Street in June 2014.
A May opinion piece in the Boston Globe read: "The pushcart vendors understand that new competition and new construction threaten the way Haymarket has operated for a generation. Their efforts to forestall change have been counterproductive and wrongheaded. The future of the pushcart market depends not on the outside protection the vendors have sought, but on their willingness to embrace change that's rushing toward them, whether they like it or not."
But consider this: Haymarket vendors provide a public service by selling ripe (and occasionally overripe) produce for a fraction of grocery-store prices. (The supply comes from the same source used by supermarket brokers.) And the market offers one of the city's best melting-pot experiences: in a typical procession of patrons, you can spot skullcaps and ski caps, berets, burkas, and fedoras.
These vendors are a vanishing kind, vestiges of old-school commerce rooted in the codes of customer loyalty, family-run operations, taxing hours, and an understanding that communality trumps competition. Here are a few vendors who make up that community.THE FAMILY MAN
Hector (he wouldn't give us his last name) moved to the US from Honduras when he was 22. His mother and sister are still there. Nine months ago the 40-year-old visited his mother, who's sick, and was struck — yet again — by the contrast between the lifestyle in her city and his in Boston.
"I don't believe how people live over there. Life's too much hard over there. Big difference. Most people come here because they need money, they need work. There's nothing to do there. My family is poor over there," he says, matter-of-factly. "One dollar is 19 pesos over there, so you make $4 a day for eight or ten hours."
As soon as he arrived, nearly two decades ago, he got a job at a produce market in Chelsea, which led to the job at a Haymarket stand. He works both jobs today. From the get-go, he's sent money home to his family. He has an 11-year-old son here, and Sundays, Hector's day off, are spent yielding to his son's demands. ("He tells me: gotta go here, gotta go there. He likes to go watch movies. Always says, 'Buy me this.' ")
Each weekend, Hector, who has the build of a linebacker, patrols his stand, lumbering side to side behind the table of fruit, reaching for Golden Delicious apples (seven for $2), green seedless grapes ($2/pound), red seedless ($2/pound), and the rest as customers command. He pauses to tally the total price; transactions are quick and efficient.
Working at the stand not only provided intense English immersion lessons; it also gives him an understanding of how countless others from many countries come to the US. The two days he spends here each week have instilled a strong empathy for — and, it seems, interest in — fellow immigrants.
"I can't say nothing in English when I came. Little by little I learned. Others do speak Spanish, but you learn a little bit of different languages. Sometimes Chinese, Russian, Italian. There's a lotta people — a lotta old guys like to come to me. I help them and make funny. They tell people they're my customer."
He starts work at 2 am. "It's not easy. Your body tells you," he says. "There's no break — no time to relax or eat. You can't sit down. Let me tell you — not make a lot, but we need it, that extra check." He adds, matter-of-factly, "Wintertime not easy there. Sometimes there's a lot of snow on the stands — have to clean all that. With your hands frozen, I tell you. Sometimes you almost cry. What are you gonna do? You gotta do it. That's part of life."