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Present tense


What it feels like to entertain the market

The speakers make a slight crackle and a woman's voice says, "Attention shoppers, attention shoppers."

It's a distinct voice, a little raspy, a bit nasal --- and the announcement that follows is usually delivered with a liberal dose of dry humor.

Whether she's warning that someone is about to get their car towed for parking in a no parking zone or telling the woman with the biggest purse she's ever seen that it's been found, Joan Hildebrand knows how to work a crowd.

Hildebrand is an event coordinator for the Rochester Public Market. Though she works in the market office and is usually busy behind the scenes, it's her voice and droll comments that have made her recognizable to market goers.

"Sammy, your wife is here, and she says you're lost," she said one recent Saturday morning. When a half-hour had passed, she said, "I don't know where you are or what you're doing, Sammy, but your wife is still here, and she's not happy. You might be in the dog house."

When a Good Samaritan turned in a wallet, Hildebrand didn't miss the opportunity to sort through the credit cards and give the owner 10 minutes to stop her from going on a shopping spree.

Hildebrand's talent is no accident. Her first career was in broadcasting, on several local radio stations as well as at WHEC television.

"I'm very comfortable with the microphone," she says. "We're friends."

With nearly 300 vendors displaying everything from melons to Irish cheddar, the Rochester Public Market is a feast for the senses, especially this time of year. And Hildebrand says it's her job to help the farmers do as much business as possible, because for many the season is short.

"If they don't make it now, they might not make it at all," she says. "And we need these folks. They make an important contribution to this community. So my goal is to keep things humming along."

The market is one of the area's longest running venues. It began in 1827 on Main Street just west of the river, where it became known as the place for buying and selling livestock.

It has been in its present location at 180 North Union Street since 1905, and operates year round with a mix of indoor and outdoor vendors.

At the market's offices inside a brick building that was once the caretaker's home, Hildebrand talked about her job for the last two years, and her role as the joking announcer.

I'm just a pushy girl from New Jersey. I think that's probably the best explanation for my approach. So now I get to play a role pushing Rochester's best attraction. And I really think it is the best. Do you know there are 22 different languages spoken here? There's no other place in this area that is so consistently culturally diverse. This is the one place where everyone comes together under one roof.

I really think it is commerce in its purest form. It's an old, respectable tradition. You have the growers and the customers. There aren't a bunch of middle men. And we're supporting local farmers, which I look at as noble work.

This whole [announcer] thing really started with the parking. A lot centers on it, because it can easily turn into a negative. Look, we don't want to see people ticketed, but there are safety concerns. So I started making the announcements, and at first I did it toned down and normal. But normal is boring. And I began to think, how can I put a smile on people's faces, especially when they're a little anxious after looking for a space? I tell them, if you don't want to look for a space then you have to get here around 4 a.m., because that's when they [the farmers] start unloading. And it's a lot of heavy stuff, so they use a lot of the closest parking.

Or when they say: I finally got a parking space up close to the vendors, I tell them, you know what? Today is your lucky day. You better go buy a lottery ticket. It is a little bit of luck. But c'mon, it's not like living in New York City. The exercise is good for you.

I have the most fun just joking with people about the little stuff. It's the kind of crazy stuff we all get a kick out of, and it's a form of interaction with strangers.

My favorite is when a husband loses his wife. Wives love to shop, and a lot of husbands would rather be somewhere else.

Or if we have the keys to some nice new car, I'll tell them I am going to take it out for a spin.

Or if it's a cell phone, I'll say give me a few minutes before you come and get it because I have some relatives in Italy I want to call.

And yeah, men do respond differently than women. Let me tell you, if they're things that belong to a man, he'll come running for them so fast. He'll be out of breath by the time he comes in that [office] door.

The women, well, they might be talking with a friend. They might not even hear me.

The hardest part is resolving conflicts, so that everyone walks away with a win-win situation. That's not easy. Sometimes it gets testy. People are on a schedule. They feel rushed for time. But whenever you have buyers and sellers, there's going to be some conflict. It happens. It's rare, but it happens.

The other thing I really love about this job that I wasn't expecting is how it changed my eating habits. Fresh vegetables? Arugula? I had never heard of it. You're talking to Twinkie girl here; that was my diet. But I have learned so much from the vendors. There are so many new things coming in all the time, and I love that. Every season has something new and delicious. I know it sounds silly, but I feel healthier. Now I want to know where my fresh greens come from.

And with a microphone in my hand again, it's like I've come full circle. It's good work. Just shows: you never know where you're going to end up.