If you sit at the counter inside pretending to read the paper's printable news long enough, and if you're furtive enough in your wanderings through the market's empty spaces, you get a juicier angle on the neighborhood. You overhear moms gossiping about their own floundering bedroom lives; you discover which family could use a good dentist when a boy too young to read returns three times -- first for ice cream, then for chocolate and finally for a "green" sno-ball; you find out that the fistful of roses on the counter came from a neighbor's wake; and eventually you learn what the schoolboys outside have been waiting for: a big kid on a dirt bike who cracks the afternoon ennui with a purchase from Marco Polo's cigarette machine.
Neighborly intrigue aside, the best reason for entering the windowless, air-conditioned hall is the waffle bar -- two words that seldom appear in the same sentence. The quirky setup involves a diner-style counter, a red-lettered "Waffle Bar" sign and two wide-jawed waffle irons parked like gators primed for nutria. Order one and the market's only worker revs up an iron and then retreats to the kitchen for so long that it's safe to say the batter is made to order. She emerges with one waffle's worth, mists the iron with non-stick spray, spoons on the batter and presses down on the iron with the diligence required when branding a steer. Excess batter dribbles over the side, cooking up a pancakey smoke that smells like Sunday morning and stays in your hair for hours.
The menu lists eight waffle variations -- from chocolate to oat bran, from pecan to ice cream -- but, like a kid handed his first can of Play-Doh, you're encouraged to use your imagination. They're just smaller than a Frisbee and register in density between the heavy, cake-like waffles of Belgium and the light, airy kind Americans call Belgian waffles. One afternoon the counter worker convinced me to try Mrs. Butterworth on my cheddar cheese waffle (actually a buttermilk waffle smothered in cheese); I defected to the catsup and hot sauce end of the bar after one bite. This is uncharted territory, to be sure. Swiveling on old-time diner stools, squirting catsup onto waffles and sipping syrupy cherry-Coke from a funnel-topped sno-ball is like reliving childhood, although I'm not sure whose. Order chocolate waffles with a dollop of whipped cream, pecan waffles with bananas and chocolate chips on everything. Only make sure that no plate enters the microwave, a machine that encourages toppings to melt at the expense of rubbery waffles.
Whether out of uncertainty or disinterest, most of the market's customers choose the above-average sandwiches over the waffles. And few stay long enough to eat, presumably because the wait tends to rival Marco Polo's excursion across the Gobi desert. Pastrami po-boys dressed with Creole mustard are standard issue, while slightly warmed muffalettas of ham, salami, mortadella and Provolone on official muffaletta bread are easily some of the best found Uptown. Vegetarians will be happy about Garden Burgers dressed like po-boys on crusty rolls, and well-done meatballs shot through with garlic and herbs are painted with a young, tangy tomato sauce.
The century-old market itself comes off as strangely unambitious and every bit as eccentric as the waffle bar. It's the kind of place where you'll find plenty to buy but nothing on your shopping list. There's one bag of frozen vegetables to every shelf of folk-art curios. Gallons of bleach are displayed alongside cases of Dr. Pepper. A center unit of shelves and bins holds as many boxes of instant potatoes as cans of walnut oil. A beautiful, wooden produce stand is utterly bare aside from a roll of plastic bags, and chances are good that the one pack of minty Trident gum left is stale and the 7:30 p.m. closing time seems to mean anytime after lunch.
All the same, a rack of free "recycled" magazines serves as a sort of neighborhood library, and bright murals and framed Jazz Fest posters demonstrate a thriving community spirit. After a few hours waiting, waffling and eavesdropping at any neighborhood corner store, you begin to make sense of the adventurer Marco Polo's famous epitaph, which is printed on Marco Polo the market's menu: "I did not tell half of what I saw." -->