Among the Bagmen

Navigating 28th Street's Black Market

It's Saturday afternoon and I'm standing on the crowded corner of 28th and Broadway, waiting for a guy called "Dirt." When he shows up, he announces: "I'm all ready—I brought a bag and everything". Then he takes off his North Face coat, shoves it into a garbage bag, and hands it to my friend, who gives him $120.

The area immediately surrounding the 28th Street R/W station is its own bizarre outdoor shopping mall, largely made up of wholesale stores. If you want, you can buy a hundred pairs of socks with cats on them (some watching TV, some wearing hats) for $30. The block west of my coat transaction is the main stretch of the plant district, where everyone from savvy housewives to top restaurateurs get their trees and flowers. But outside, another market is firmly established in the neighborhood—with no storefronts or business cards, just blue and black garbage bags dragging along Broadway and east on 27th and 28th Streets, towards Fifth Avenue. It's hard to tell, at a glance, who's buying and who's selling.

The merchandise available is always changing, but some mainstays are Timberland boots, Nike Air Force Ones (basketball sneakers), and North Face jackets. There are also tacky leather and fur jackets and handbags by streetwear designers like Rocawear. Sometimes, especially on the weekends leading up to Christmas, these corners are so crowded that one can hardly get through. And more than once I have witnessed brawls erupt among competing entrepreneurs, many of whom speak French or Arabic and come from Northern Africa.

The reason we had to wait for the coat off of Dirt's back may be part of a strategy that keeps these vendors from getting into major trouble with the police: they have just one or two items on them at a time. The two men we approached initially had let us peak inside a bag at the same coat, but in a size 4XL. When my friend asked if they had anything smaller, there was a brief debate. "Call Dirt. He has a large on him," one said to the other. "Don't call Money, call Dirt!" His friend was reluctant at first, protesting "But then how are we gonna split this shit?" As with any thriving enterprise, the relationships among merchants are complex, with collaborations and rivalries galore.

The coat is brand new, though with the faint smell of menthol cigarettes on the right cuff, and seems to be real. Another friend reminds me that they make incredible counterfeits these days, but I was convinced by the eagerness with which one of the young men showed me a city skyline hologram in the lining—not because I am familiar with this as a sign of authenticity, but because he seemed to have expected me to know about it.

The sale of the coat, normally priced around $300, would have been extremely obvious to anyone watching, though it was swift. Many merchants are less bold. It is a regular, though always peculiar sight to see a family of excited Midwestern tourists emerge from inside a building with several bulging trash bags. One man, who was selling a women's North Face, led us a few blocks away, into a parking lot, explaining "There's a lot of cops around." In a corner where he could see if anyone was approaching, he pulled the coat out. We passed, and he began lowering the price, from $90 to $75, and then $70.

Another guy, who was standing on the curb, mumbled "Air Forces, Air Forces" when we made eye contact with him. Of course, he only had one pair on him, so we followed him several blocks to a parked van with tinted windows to get the proper size. He rooted around inside to produce sneakers, in their orange Nike shoeboxes, while we waited on the sidewalk. They were only $45, but my friend, who fancies himself a sneaker expert, was sure they were fake. "Sloppy stitching," he said.

 
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