So much has already been paved over of the dishevelled loveliness of Smithfield, and Church Street, and Mary’s Lane, those parts of Dublin’s inner city which still come alive every morning with fruit sellers and flower traders, and which ring every first Sunday to the sounds of the horse fair; I wish that they would go away, and find somewhere else to clean up and make over into a dull modern uniformity. I wish, especially, that they would leave my favourite little laneway alone, May Lane, which looks just an unremarkable stretch of roadway between the old distillery and the busy traffic of Church Street, but which is so funny and particular for me, with its mix of rushing barristers and traipsing tourists, and with its rickety scaffolding and the elderly black man who sits all day in the little covered walkway between the convenience store and the law library, and who smiles and nods at passers-by, and who saluted me once for buying a banana instead of a chocolate bar for a snack on my way home, and warned me against eating bread, because it would make me grow fat. I don’t know what his name is, or how he came to be there. I think, for some reason, that he is not African but American, and there are times, as he sits there in his coat and his cap, when he looks as if he might have been accidentally left behind after a film shoot. As if somewhere, some casting director is looking for the guy who played the hobo. As if someone else is spending his cheque. But of course, this is not true. He has been left behind, yes; but nothing more.
I wish that the developers would leave May Lane behind, and think it unworthy of their steel beams and pools of cement, but I know that they won’t, because it is close to the new tram lines, and threads a path between the shops and restaurants around the distillery and the old fruit and vegetable building with its long, low façade of faded red brick and its mouldings of leeks and cabbages over each door. Soon now, it will no longer be a real fruit and vegetable market, shabby and noisy with beams of sunlight piercing through its high, dusty windows to cross over stacked-up tomatoes and oranges and nectarines, but something bijou and artificial; faux-traditional stalls in orderly lines, marketing ordinary produce as extraordinary, as organic, simply by virtue of its having originated on a farm. A farmers’ market, it will be called, for all the people who come to buy the new apartments around here, who come on the Luas to buy their carrots and their lettuce fashionably encrusted in mud and clay; no matter that it is already a farmers’ market, just without the perfume of exclusivity and the high prices to keep it that way. And the men and their sons, because they are mostly men, who trade here will be pushed on elsewhere by a simple trick; increase the rent tenfold, or a hundredfold, and off they will go to retire, or to trade in a barren warehouse somewhere out of sight, somewhere that does not yet have the audacity to be prime property caught up in a less-than-prime occupation.
I had always meant to get up not long after going to bed, and walk around that market, though I did not do so until lately, one morning in June, when I went there with a friend who is a poet. I think he was looking for a poem. Did he find it there, among the forklift trucks and the sacks of potatoes, among the endless cardboard boxes, the calendars and magazine pictures pinned up behind ramshackle tables and tills? I wandered ahead of him, and ran my hand along the thin cartons of cut flowers, thinking it odd to see them contained in this way; long-stemmed lilies boxed in like walking sticks, roses like riding boots. And the wreaths. The wreaths for losses yet to be suffered. Mornings yet to be woken to. I walked on.
‘He’s thrown you out?’ A trader, leaning on his shelves, greeted me with a smile. It was six in the morning, I was wandering aimlessly; a fair question, I suppose. But he gave his own answer, with a wider grin still.
‘Ah, no. It’s not possible.’ It was, I thought; it’s always possible. This man had apples, and peaches and bananas. He had plums, the proper plump sort, and bunches of grapes bulging in their plastic; everything had the sheen of scrupulous cleanness. He was proud, this man, he was proud of his stock. But he was packing it in, he told me, and he wasn’t sorry. He could hardly wait until they closed this place up, and he no longer had to stand here from dawn until evening, and could spend his days on his farm in Meath. He liked the fancy apartments due to go up around the market, the idea even of apartments going up over the market itself. By this time, my poet friend had joined me. He was wincing so much at these descriptions, this lavish praise of everything we both considered ugly and unfortunate, that the whole thing began to feel comical; his wincing, my watching, the fruit and vegetable man on just another morning at the market, talking to two gawpers who’d be in their beds at this time the next day, and the next, and the next. We left for a strong mug of coffee in the café across the road, a working man’s place, and when we’d had two mugs apiece the smell of cooking food became too much and we both had fried breakfasts, sitting at a narrow counter along the wall, while outside it slowly began to look like the time of day we think of as morning.