On a brisk Friday morning in November, Karl Dickie Jr. is singing out a chorus of European brand names. “Louis, Gucci, Hermès, Céline…. Get ’em before the po-lice get ’em!” Nearby traffic cops ignore him, but a curly-haired woman turns and giggles. Women love this, Dickie says: “You’ve gotta fuck their minds.”
Dickie, forty, of Brooklyn, used to be a pimp, he says, but now he sells handbags on Canal Street in Manhattan. Lithe and compact, he walks with a swagger, sweatpants rolled up on one leg. Dickie takes a lighter out of his pocket. A leather piece will singe; a plastic one will catch — an old-school test for counterfeits, as if there’s any question what you will find here. (A real Chanel bag costs over $2,000. Canal Street versions are under $100.) “Everybody knows they’re fake!” Dickie says. But he’s got a neat trick to suck in the mooks who don’t: He runs the blue flame along his hand. It doesn’t burn.
The giggling woman’s friends pull her away, so Dickie takes a walk, passing human billboards for gold buyers and Bangladeshi men hawking Eau de Giorgio from closet storefronts. Out here, he says, it’s like a movie every day. Selling bags isn’t a regular job. “It’s about survival — pimp or be pimped. I’m not scrubbing your toilet. I’m in control of my own destiny.”
Canal Street is myth as much as place. As a teenager, the rapper A$AP Rocky — famous for rhyming “Balenciaga” with “Dolce & Gabbana” — shopped for gold chains at discount jewelers here. Meanwhile, every day on Canal’s sidewalks, men selling counterfeit Balenciaga dream of hustling their way out. Dickie wants to become a full-time artist. He wants to move to a sustainable farm in Pennsylvania and raise pigs.
“Do you know how much a piglet goes for? Waaay better money than bags.”
The Original Entrepreneurs
Canal Street became a destination for counterfeits in the 1980s. First came Rolexes, then Swiss Army knives, and finally, around 2000, bags, remembers Ching Yeh Chen, president of Pearl River Mart, the iconic Chinatown emporium that occupied a two-story location on Canal and Broadway from 1986 to 2003.
The Bloomberg administration brought with it a crackdown on Canal Street counterfeits. In 2008, police raided 32 stores, confiscating over $1 million worth of ersatz Coach bags, Oakley sunglasses, and Rolex watches. That year, 967 people were arrested for trademark counterfeiting in the 1st and 5th precincts, which surround the street, according to New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. Since then business has declined — in 2015, only 257 people were arrested for trademark counterfeiting in those precincts — although vendors say that’s not because of a crackdown so much as decreased demand.
“People are buying fakes on the internet,” Kalidou, a vendor from the Central African Republic, told me, in French. “Anyone who’s here now is late.” Fewer shoppers means less business to go around. Kalidou, who is undocumented, shows up when the laundromat where he works under the table doesn’t give him enough hours, which is often. He’d rather be trying to make a sale than sitting at home without the prospect of earning anything, he says.
Counterfeit bags are often smuggled into the United States via container ships, where they’re declared on manifests as innocuous items, like coat hangers or picture frames. In a 2012 case, nine members of a smuggling ring in New York City were found to be buying authentic merchandise from stores and then shipping those “samples” to manufacturers in China. A few months later, imitation UGG boots, Coach bags, and North Face jackets would arrive in Newark. The ring imported better than $300 million worth of counterfeit goods this way between late 2009 and early 2012. With the profits, smugglers bought themselves real luxuries, like a $61,000 Mercedes and a $27,000 diamond ring, according to court documents.
Shop With a Cop
Canal Street’s vendors call making a sale “breaking the ice.”
Sandra — mid-forties, white Reeboks, Brooklyn accent, pouf of black hair — is the perfect pick. “I have over thirty bags,” she purrs, walking up to a group of vendors speaking Wolof and French gathered outside the Duane Reade on Broadway between Canal and Lispenard. Sandra declines to give her last name for this story: None of her friends know her bags are fakes, she says.
Sandra holds up a photo on her phone: a patent-leather quilted Chanel. The vendors crowd around it, comparing it to the images of bags on the laminated pieces of paper they carry. These papers — sold for $6 around the corner at a photo lab, if you know to ask — are Canal Street’s menus: A shopper points to a bag she wants to see, then a vendor (or two) rushes off to find it, seeking out still other vendors who spend the day guarding merchandise in parked cars or in suitcases and trash bags on side streets. The assembly line helps everyone avoid arrest.
Sandra’s Chanel bag isn’t on anyone’s paper, but within seconds one of the men runs off to look for it anyway, ducking around the corner to the row of suitcases on Lispenard Street. The others urge Sandra to wait in her car. The police could come at any moment.
In fact, one is already here — they just don’t know it. While he waits, Sandra’s husband, an off-duty officer from South Brooklyn, shares a haggling routine with me through the window of his shiny black truck. “Here’s whatcha do: You tell ’em to give you a price, and then you tin ’em!” Demonstrating, he flashes a gleaming badge. “Then the price drops from, like, $100 down to $50.”
In the end, no tinning is necessary: Sandra negotiates a patent-leather Louis Vuitton bag down from $130 to $70 (the Chanel was nowhere to be found). She’s already planning a return trip with friends. “You gotta come here on the weekends,” she says. “The rich come out, the poor, everybody comes out. And they just…. Attack. These. Guys.”
Young Urban Professionals
On a busy Saturday before Christmas, a vendor might make $400. On a decent day, he’ll make $100. On the worst days, a cop will spot him and he’ll end up with a fine — $250 if he’s charged with unlicensed general vending, a violation, or up to $1,000 if he’s charged with trademark counterfeiting in the third degree, a misdemeanor. Canal Street’s vendors are the public faces of counterfeiting, as well as the industry’s poorest members. For many of them, the middle class is as distant as real Céline is for their clients.
One vendor, Lucky, is homeless, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He wears Ray-Ban aviators and a Polo shirt. Outside of a banh mi restaurant on Lafayette Street, he argues with a friend over the latter’s comparatively shabby garments. “Go to McDonald’s, man! Change your clothes,” Lucky advises, stuffing a clean pair of jeans into his hand.
A few days later, at Popeyes, Lucky and another seller discuss Louis Vuitton.
“It’s not that Louis Vuitton is special,” says Lex, the other man. “It’s easier to duplicate. Because their style is simple. Other brands, you can tell all the junk is fake. Louis Vuitton is clean.”
“I’m not going to get my girl a Céline or Hermès bag,” says Lucky. “You can’t just pop up with a Hermès bag that costs $10,000.”
“And all your friends know you work at Popeyes.”
“Like no. Like no. A Louis Vuitton bag is more — ”
” — Realistic.”
Sample Your Own Stash
On weekdays, as lunch crowds scurry back to offices and eighteen-wheelers clatter toward the Holland Tunnel, vendors find ways to occupy their time.
West of Broadway, on Lispenard, Diakaria, a vendor from Senegal in a crisp oxford shirt, rolls out a rug amid the suitcases that flank the south wall of a Duane Reade. His rug is pointed east, toward the bubble tea cafés and fish markets and, 6,403 miles farther off, Mecca. The father of five kneels, pressing his head to the ground, and prays.
East of Broadway, by the entrance to the 6 train, three young women slurp tiny octopi out of steaming noodle soups. They’re wearing what they sell — Louis Vuitton scarves, Coach rain boots, Michael Kors wallets peeking out of Chanel purses. Their chorus of “Handbags? Watches? Purses?” is, for a moment, quiet.
On the south side of Canal, Amadou rolls a joint. Tall and friendly, with a chip-toothed smile and a fedora, the twentysomething from Senegal has been on Canal Street for just ten days. Handbags weren’t selling, so he tried dime bags. “I’m a gangsta,” Amadou says, trying on the word. He laughs. “I’m not a gangsta. I just sell weed.”
Anywhere but Here
Canal Street at night is like any other street. Store grates are closed, sidewalks are empty. Lights are off, except for the 24-hour McDonald’s. Vendors go home or find homes for the night.
Tony, 44, of Brooklyn, nestles into a chair at the Freedom Zone Internet Café on Eldridge Street. He spent the day on Canal, as he’s done for almost 25 years. A bearded man in a round red puffer coat, Tony started out as a lookout for the cardjacks who used to fleece tourists in games of three-card monte. After Giuliani stamped out that particular hustle in the 1990s, Tony began selling knockoff watches and bags. For the past four years, after a falling-out with his family, he’s been homeless. When bags don’t sell, he begs outside of McDonald’s.
Tony’s dreams are simple: “I want a job. Can you help me, do you know anyone who can give me a job?”
At Freedom Zone, where $10 grants you overnight use of a computer, a desk, and a chair, Tony finds a moment of calm. He watches a Mariah Carey video on YouTube, closing his long-lashed eyes and moving his hands in waves when she hits a high note. He lights a cigarette under the table and brings it to his lips for a drag.
“There’s no smoking inside,” interrupts a young man with sharp cheekbones. The man was smoking a cigarette himself just moments ago. “What makes you better than me?” Tony asks.
The bony man’s friend, a pudgy twentysomething who had been playing a massively multiplayer online game, smacks Tony across the face with a closed fist. Four or five other gamers scramble over to join in. They jump Tony for about ten seconds, punching his forehead and ears and pushing him to the ground. A girl sitting at another computer intervenes. The attendant does nothing.
Tony manages to slip into the bathroom. When he slips out a few minutes later, the gamers are still shouting — at Tony, at each other, at the girl — but they let him make his way to the front desk unscathed. Tony asks the attendant for a refund. He’s refused. As he walks down the narrow flight of stairs toward Eldridge Street, the gamers scream at him to come back and fight. Eventually, their voices fade. Tony walks for a few blocks and ends up back on Canal. He doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
On the stoop of a Chinese pharmacy, Tony cries, first out of shock, then anger. He had never met his attackers before that night. Their violence was provoked by the most insignificant of objects: a cigarette. He asks me not to tell his friends on Canal Street what happened.
H, as in ‘Hustler’
Another evening, around dinnertime, after the tourists have left, a Malian man who goes by the name of Snoop hangs out with some friends by the entrance to a massage parlor. Snoop wears a belt and hat with matching “H” insignias. “For hustler!” he says, incredulously, when asked what the letter stands for. Mike Will Made It’s “Buy the World” plays from someone’s phone: Tell me, what you think we hustle for? I just wanna buy the world. Do the impossible…
Snoop doesn’t exactly agree with the message. He sells watches on Canal Street to make money, but he doesn’t want to get rich like the people who can afford real Rolexes. “More money makes you a slave,” he declares. “The real Snoop, I’m more free than him.”