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A Mother’s Day Penny-Market Buffet

Alameda Post - Happy Mother's Day

Here in the state of mind known as Geezerville, time is simply a concept. As such, traveling 50 years back to the magically serendipitous Mother’s Day of 1973 took no time at all.

Alameda Post - a 1965 Dodge VanThat Sunday began like most others of the year, at 7:30 a.m. with me sitting next to my mentor, Dave Lynch, in his gray 1965 Dodge van, headed to the Island Auto Movie and the weekend swap meet, locally known as the Alameda Penny-Market. (The Island Auto Movie was later supplanted by housing in the area bordered by Constitution Way, Marina Village Parkway, Atlantic Avenue, and Bartlett Drive.)

When we got to Sherman Street and Buena Vista Avenue, we found the intersection blocked by a long, slow-moving Alameda Belt Line freight train. Dave was upset because he was missing his highly lucrative early-bird scrounging opportunity. He frequently scored some unbelievable deals, like a non-functioning Sansui 500A stereo receiver for $5—which he repaired and quickly sold for $170.

Alameda Post - old black and white photos of the entrance to "Island Auto Movie." Another sign says "Admisison $1.25 per person"

Dave cursed and fidgeted as the train crawled along. He grabbed the pocket of his white short-sleeved shirt and cursed even louder when he found his pack of Winston cigarettes empty.

“Gawdammit, I’m having a nicotine fit!” he yelled. He started digging into the full ashtray for butts. I noticed a half-inch butt on the floor, picked it up, and handed it to him. He stuck the filthy thing in his mouth, fumbled with a book of matches, and lit it. After a cloud of noxious smoke billowed from his nose, he muttered, “Sorry. This is such a nasty habit.”

Alameda Post - a black and white photo of a train that says Alameda Belt Line

“No sh*t!” I responded with disgust. The train finally pulled away, and we proceeded down the very narrow Sherman Street (now Atlantic Avenue) to the Penny Market entrance. It looked like a scene from “Grapes Of Wrath,” with a line of clunky old trucks filled with people and stuff, waiting to get in.

Alameda Post - a stall at a flea market. Tables covered in dishes and trinkets are lined up in front of a blue vanBecause we were regular vendors, we entered via a special access, bypassing the enormous line of first-timers. Dave drove to space L-29, parked the van, grabbed his purloined Safeway shopping cart out of the back, and rolled off to enjoy the pleasures of the drive-in’s snack bar and cigarette vending machine. He would return hours later with a Winston dangling from his lips and a cart laden with top-notch, repairable audio equipment.

I set up our display of two six-foot folding tables laden with rebuilt, high-quality stereo equipment and bordered with stacks of our own “D. Lynch” speaker systems. An early bird that I recognized from the week before was watching me set up in the warm May sun. The minute I placed a magnificent Heathkit AR-I500 stereo receiver on the table, he rapidly swooped in, waving a wad of cash.

“Thank God, you’ve still got it!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “I got up at 5 a.m. and rode the 51 bus in from Berkeley, because I had to borrow the $150 to buy it!”

Alameda Post - an old Heathkit AR 1500 radioI congratulated him, took the cash, handed him the receiver, and wrote up a receipt for an as-is sale. Before he left, he tried an old horse-traders trick.

“Say, dude, is there any way you could throw in a pair of speakers for $100 more?”

“Nope,” I snapped. “I just raised the price of the speakers to $300 a pair.”

“But last week they were $150 a pair!” he angrily bellowed.

“OK, I’ll give you a pair for $150,” I responded.

He glared at me, muttered, “You a**hole,” and stormed off.

The two neighboring stall’s vendors, Haywire Fred—Dave coined the name “Haywire” because every TV Fred sold came back the following Sunday with an irate customer wanting their money back—and Big Daddy Sam enjoyed the exchange and applauded.

On that serendipitous Mother’s Day Sunday, however, the fates aligned to guarantee that I got the special dishes needed for my mom’s Mother’s Day buffet, which would include the snack bar’s delicious “Pizza Pups” and “Chili Fritos.”

Alameda Post - a plate of cabbage rollsAlthough Haywire Fred sold toasters and televisions, and Big Daddy Sam sold auto stereos, each had very profitable clandestine lunchtime food sales, with Haywire selling his wife’s incomparable cabbage rolls and Big Daddy Sam offering his huge, homemade Mississippi-style pork tamales. Dave and I were regular customers, but frequently forgot to order before the delicacies were sold out. On that serendipitous Mother’s Day Sunday, however, the fates aligned to guarantee that I got the special dishes needed for my mom’s Mother’s Day buffet, which would include the snack bar’s delicious “Pizza Pups” and “Chili Fritos.”

Alameda Post - a small GE 19 TVRight after my annoying customer left, a large, tattooed, swarthy man with a huge natural hairstyle marched up to Haywire Fred’s and slammed a 19-inch General Electric portable TV on the tables.

“This damned thing worked for one day, and now all the pictures are stretched out like a funhouse mirror!” he shouted. “I got this for my kid’s birthday, and now the whole family’s pissed at me. Give me my effing money back.”

Because Haywire Fred faced this problem every week, he had a scripted reply. He calmly stated, “All sales are as-is and final. No refunds.” His brusque, curt reply did not work at all with this guy. The man grabbed Haywire Fred by the neck with his left hand and was balling up his right fist to deliver what might have been a fatal blow.

“Hold on, dude!” I yelled. “He’s 60 years old, you’ll kill him! The man also noticed that huge Big Daddy Sam was on his way over, and rapidly released Haywire Fred.

“I’ll sue your a**!” he screamed. “I’m gonna find the Penny-Market manager and tell him to kick you outta here, you crook, selling people junk.”

The guy had a point, but seeing an opportunity, I spoke up. “Dude, calm down. I’ll fix your TV right now, but Fred has to give me six cabbage rolls.”

Now Haywire Fred was irate. “Six cabbage rolls? That’s $18. You’re the crook!”

I laughed and said, “Five for me and one for the customer that damned near killed you and almost got you kicked out of here. Give the man a cabbage roll while I fix his TV.”

Haywire Fred reluctantly put a cabbage roll and its delicious tomato gravy on a paper plate and handed it to the man with a napkin and a plastic spoon. While the man obviously enjoyed his treat, I popped the back off the TV and replaced the vertical output tube. By the time he was negotiating with Haywire Fred to buy more cabbage rolls, his TV was fixed.

After Haywire Fred sold and wrapped a dozen cabbage rolls and handed them to the man, he picked up his TV and offered me a heartfelt compliment. “Dude, your sh*t is together,” he said.

I quickly had Haywire Fred wrap my five cabbage rolls before he sold out. He handed them to me grudgingly, mumbling, “meddling smart a**.”

Shortly after that strange exchange, Big Daddy Sam got his own angry customer. A young, tall, wiry, crew-cut guy with a short, tan, and cute blonde girl was shouting.

“Three effing stereos you sold me, and none of them effing work! Give me my effing money back before I beat your a**!”

Big Daddy Sam laughed and stood up. At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, the young guy and girl looked at him and gasped. “Let’s go Keith!” the frightened girl said. Big Daddy Sam and the young guy had a belligerent stare-down.

I realized another serendipitous opportunity and asked, “What kind of car is it?”

Alameda Post - a 1969 Dodge Dart“It’s a ’69 Dodge Dart that my dad gave me” the girl said. “Keith put in an alternator and charged the battery, but the radio stopped working, and none of the stereos we bought here will work.”

I had seen that happen before, so I asked, “Are you sure you charged the battery right?”

Keith quit glaring at Big Daddy Sam, chuckled, and replied, “Hell no, dude, me and Sherry here had just smoked a fat one.”

I laughed at his honesty, then asked Big Daddy Sam if Keith could borrow a car battery. Big Daddy Sam, wanting to end the dispute, said OK, and Keith and Sherry left with the battery. About 30 minutes later, they returned, and Keith sheepishly apologized to Big Daddy Sam.

“Sorry, man, I think I charged the other battery backwards,” he said. “Now the stereo works great.”

Big Daddy Sam, in memory of his own mother, kindly let Keith and Sherry keep the replacement battery. They thanked him and happily strolled away.

Alameda Post - a container of tamalesThen, without bargaining, Big Daddy Sam reached into his container and removed four huge, fragrant tamales, their redolence due to his practice of using the pork shoulder’s braising juices to make the masa. As he handed me the porcine delights, Big Daddy Sam teared up, and mumbled, “You make sure you share these with your mama. They’re made from my mama’s recipe, and she loved to share them with me.”

I grasped Big Daddy Sam’s hand in thanks, and said, “They’ll be the hit of her Mother’s Day Penny Market buffet.”

“Only a mother could love a meal like this!”

Alameda Post - a bottle of Dom PerignonLater that night, as my mom, Champagne Rosie, sipped Dom Perignon and dined on chili Fritos, pizza pups, cabbage rolls, and Mississippi tamales, she proclaimed everything delicious, then summed up the experience quite profoundly: “Only a mother could love a meal like this!”

I can still see her sipping, sampling, smiling, and laughing, here in that state of mind called Geezerville.

Gil Michaels likes cabbage rolls and coffee at [email protected]. His writing is collected at

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