CIRCLING THE WHITE TENTS, their flaps still tied shut, I peer around the corners looking for the vendors. It’s almost ten, and the sun’s already evaporated the morning coolness of my bike ride down to Queens Quay West. The astroturf is springy beneath my thin shoes. The speedboats bob in the marina. I hear the streetcar rumble past on the aging rails. For a minute, I stand still and look out over the water toward the Island, where a white sail here and there glides effortlessly across the harbour. But I’m not sailing this morning, and in a few hours the market will be teeming with children and tourists — there’s lots to do before then.
Toting my clipboard and bag of pan-ties, balancing my coffee, I lift the edge of the large world cafe tent and crawl inside. It smells of cooking oil and sesame. Piled behind each food booth are huge pots and pans, scrubbed clean, boxes of plantains and tomatoes, and folded aprons. The long grills have a primitive, unpretending look. When they’re hooked to tanks of propane and piled high with chicken pieces that have marinated all night in secret family recipes, I’m reminded of the directness of the act of cooking and satiating hunger- heat, grilled meat, paper plates piled high.
I note a dripping faucet, a table skirt that’s come loose, a greasy sneezeguard. A few sparrows bob in, arcing under the strings of twinkly lights. All around me is the evidence of last night’s late rush, tired staff hurrying to get their counters wiped down so they can snatch a few hours of thin, breakable sleep. A can of coke, half finished, rests behind the till. I hear voices outside the tent, and the ropes start to come undone. It’s the operations staff, come to do their morning clean-up. They speak in mostly spanish, and smile and joke around when they see me inside. “Did you sleep here?”
My radio’s still quiet. I walk out and see Eva and Julios, who sell wind-chimes, a Chinese couple who are always on time and who are always laughing, a Sikh vendor who everyone calls Uncle and who has three booths of shawls, belly dancing skirts and woven handbags. I ask how last night’s business was, spend a few minutes chatting with each of them. From all corners of Toronto, they’ve driven in from Markham and North York, Mississauga and Scarborough through the early weekend streets. After living in the city for two years, it’s only now, with this summer job, that I feel like I have gotten to one of Toronto’s hearts. Everyone asks me how I like working here, they know their other vendor neighbors can be irate and demanding, impatient when they need an extra table in their already crowded booth, difficult when it’s raining and miserable out, sleep-deprived and irrationally attached to their stall locations. But I know I’m doing ok when the corn vendors pass me a cup of their famous soup on a wet Sunday afternoon and wave my coins and protests away.
I help some of the jewelry vendors- Dolma, Emanuella, Jian – move their tables out of the now unlocked tents that the operations staff, Vincent and Adrian are tying back. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Omar leading in the cars of the world cafe vendors, and the Grounds crew, Doug, Ryan and Tom, striding across the site in dark blue shirts. I start to hear the event production coordinators on my radio channel – Nicole, Ruple, Karisma, Adam, Scott, filling the air with their requests for 20’s and timetables. All the names that took me weeks to learn. I wonder at what point I will start to forget them. On which fall day as I am biking to class will the last face fade from my mind, even as I try to grasp onto it, and the echo of the applause on the sun-lit harbour.