The bottles were unmarked, which was strange. They sat on
a card table at one corner of the New Haven Green. Some cost
two dollars, some five, and others ten, and all were full of
liquids of varying color. The table was cluttered, gray, and
worn. Surrounding it were people, bus stops, traffic, and noise.
I gawked at the scene, dumbfounded in the middle of the city.
The vendor at the table noticed me, sensed my puzzlement as I
stood there. Like a good salesman, he approached, all energy.
He called himself Stephen. He was jazz cool, almost mellow, with
a smoky radiance and dread-locked hair. He grinned his introduction,
and asked me if I had any questions. I had one: "What are
Stephen told me that his bottles were full of "domestic
oil," trying to rouse my patriotic spirit. My heart saluted,
but my gaze froze stoic. I didn’t want him to smell my weakness-I
buy American. He spoke of the tradition surrounding oil, of its
age: "Oil is as old as man." He paused for effect,
then went on: "Naw, it’s even older. Oil is as old as the
dinosaurs." His statement was bold, but I wasn’t impressed.
I soon would be, though. Stephen was just getting warmed up.
His sales pitch was forceful, a winged barrage of fact and apparent
fiction. By the end of it, I would be exhausted. He began with
a geography lesson, explaining that "most oil comes from
Europe-countries like France, Africa and Saudi Arabia."
He followed with a passionate one-liner: "My products are
from right here." He had suppliers in New York who got him
the "stuff" he needed to make his oils. This frightened
me. I really didn’t want to douse my naked body in anything from
the big city. So I asked a simple question: "What’s in your
He told me that his oils come from both plants and animals. When
I pressed him to clarify, he obliged: "See, some of my oils
come from rotting wood extracts. Some come from animals like
. . . like . . . whales." When he finished he frowned and
reluctantly corrected himself: "Well, not whales. Their
oil is used for burning. I guess I can’t really think of any
animals I use."
I tried to ease his obvious discomfort with another question:
"How do you get your oils?" I knew that Stephen had
"suppliers" in the city, but then again so do hospitals
and addicts. I wanted more information. But Stephen had clearly
pegged me as a dangerous outsider. He responded cryptically:
"My suppliers usually just ups the stuff to me." Silence
Our conversation resumed after an uncomfortable minute of quiet.
It was time to do business, and Stephen was ready for battle.
I began by asking him what his most popular oil was. He hurled
a quick response, no hesitation: "My best scent ever was
‘Back That Ass Up’-you know, like that popular song. Yeah, that
one sold like hotcakes."
With this remark Stephen launched into a rapid-fire explanation
of his marketing strategy. His insides were exposed for the first
time. "I don’t have a logo or anything. But what I do is
mix the oils and then give them unique names." He stopped
abruptly. My jaw dropped open. What was this? He had spoken freely
and obviously thought he had gone too far. I was too curious;
I was the competition, a potential oil kingpin who would seize
the market with all my Iowa cunning. We had been making progress,
and now it had all just fallen apart. It was my cue to leave.
I tried to seem indifferent as I departed, allowing just a hint
of interest to taint my goodbye. I waved and walked. Stephen
just stood there.
I wasn’t going to go back, but I had to. Stephen and I were connected.
We were star-crossed lovers without the love, man and merchant.
I missed him; he missed me. I was torn. I returned to the street
corner three days later, clutching a fistful of dollar bills.
Stephen was waiting. I wasted no time: "I want some oil.
Something raw, something classy." He sized me up as if to
decide what oil would best complement my Iowa scent. He declared
that I needed something "earthy" and handed me several
bottles, among them a container of "Amber" and a vial
of "Big Pappa." I chose "Ferdous." Stephen
told me that the word meant "highest heaven" or "paradise"
in Arabic. It smelled like fruit and after-shave; its potential
We made the exchange, money for oil, and I walked away, hopeful.
In my hand I clutched paradise in a vial. The buy was a religious
experience. Stephen was a little richer and I reeked of potential-odorous,
filmy potential that sloshed in a two-dollar bottle.