The opening lines of Petula Clark’s Downtown go thus:
When you're alone and life is making you lonely / You can always go / Downtown / When you've got worries all the noise and the hurry / Seems to help I know
I have had my phases of life making me lonely, or worries weighing me down. And each time, I have found the perfect place to go is not necessarily downtown, it’s the market.
No seriously, I have used this hack since I was about 11 years old. It was one of those days when some existential question had got stuck in my pre-pubescent head and I was feeling utterly miserable despite the fact that I had had a rather decent day at school and was surrounded by people who loved me and people who I loved. I remember not being able to explain what was going through my mind, until I was sent to the market down the road on an errand - to get some veggies. When you are 11 that in itself might sound like an adventure, but what was astonishing was how my mood transformed when I went to the market. My previous visits had been with my dad and were strictly supervised, but this time I could look around and absorb the buzz. Suddenly just seeing people go about their lives all concentrated at one place made me feel lighter and feel alive; the question that was weighing me down long reduced to a fluff of a thought cloud, drifting away in the face of the heady winds of having glimpsed life itself.
The market is a mythical place in economics - a place, physical or abstract, where buyers and sellers meet. Where the primal forces - supply and demand - collide in their raw, unfiltered form, and from the chaos of transactions and bargains emerges the signal that is Price telling us what’s scarce and what’s abundant. Its physical form is incredibly life affirming, whether you go visit a flower market early in the morning, or see a video of an old Timey stock market where brokers are screaming offers at each other. They remain places of interest - who hasn’t gone to Istanbul and not been mesmerised by the allure of the grand bazaar? They have been the conduit through which everything from ideas, to genes, to diseases, to ideology have spread - whether it’s ancient Mesopotamia or modern Manhattan.
After all, as sociologist Georg Simmel had written in 1900 -
“Exchange is one of the purest and most primitive forms of human socialization,” it creates “a society, in place of a mere collection of individuals.”
And where else do we find exchange at a fundamental level than at the market.
During my days as a grad student in Philadelphia, I would often be exhausted by the weekend and slip into a sense of ennui so peculiar among PhD students (hey, what can I say, a doctorate is a super lonely affair) by noon on Sunday - regretting the week gone past, and dreading the one arriving in half a day. And every single time, to restore my sanity, there would be only one solution. I would walk down to the Reading Terminal market in downtown Philly. Not to buy anything in particular, although it offered a rich variety of things - from meat to mead, from groceries to gadgets. I would go to just watch people interact in a market, to take in that unmistakable buzz of life itself that characterises the joie de vivre of the bazaar. And one stroll around the market aisles later, I would be rejuvenated, ready to take the world on again, my worries and my bothers left far behind.
What I picked up as an 11-year-old has remained with me. As an econ student it resonates even more with me now, that the market is some kind of magic, a magic that makes your worldly botherations go POOF!
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