OK, I admit it. I have a monkey on my back.
Or, more accurately, I have a stylish Louis Vuitton bag on my shoulder.
But no Saks Fifth Avenue sells this mocha-colored contraband.
It wasn't supposed to be like this — furtive deals in kitchens, backyard sales conducted with faceless suppliers.
But for a good knockoff Coach or Prada, better women than I have marched down the path to degradation.
"You have a sickness. You need help."
A friend's words rang in my ears as I drove this summer to yet another clandestine gathering on Cleveland's southeast side, to a location I heard about from a friend of a friend of a friend.
"I can stop anytime I want to," I told myself.
Yeah, right. I was jonesing for a new Prada with every ounce of my being. There's no rush like a purse rush (except maybe a shoe rush, but that's another article altogether).
The location of this score was a suburban bilevel in the shadow of a schoolyard, kids riding their bikes up and down the street, neighbors taking their after-dinner strolls in the late summer twilight. I felt as if I were going to a PTA meeting or a political coffee. Only two things set this home apart from all of the others on the block: the swarms of women heading in and out, like a hive of manic bees in search of retail therapy — and the closed doors. Any in-house activity was effectively hidden from public view.
I had no idea whose house it was, though I was greeted cheerfully and encouraged to enjoy myself. The clientele had the telltale track marks up and down both arms — caused by the purses and totebags they carried. The protocol was clearly established: If you put down the merchandise, it was gone — bounty for the next browser.
The interior was hot and smoky, but through the haze I saw hundreds of pieces of "merchandise." My eyes began to blur until all I saw was a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and shapes. Brown Louies. Black Pradas. Red Ferragamos. Striped Kate Spades. Wallets, key chains, hats, scarves they were everywhere on couches, on chairs, on the floors and the tables, spilling out of large plastic garbage bags in a corner.
I bumped into a group of high-school-aged girls as they gathered around a mountain of mini-bags. "Sorry," one mumbled, revealing braces. Her mom, an attractive blonde with a perfect French manicure, looked over to ask, "Do you think your sister would want the black or the white wristlet bag?"
Around the corner, a group of 30-somethings pored over a stack of wallets, key chains and umbrellas on the dining-room table. "Wouldn't this fit perfectly in a briefcase?" one asked. A burly guy in a green sweatsuit — obviously the sales rep, though he easily could've passed as a bouncer — yelled back, "I'm getting briefcases in next week!"
It was a scene that could be duplicated in any mall in any town across America — except, of course, that we weren't in a mall, and the briefcases in question were probably being smuggled into a U.S. port at that very moment.
It was almost impossible to maneuver, so high were the piles and so thick was the crowd. One lone guy stood apart, a pale-pink, striped Kate Spade tote under his arm. "My wife couldn't be here, so she sent me," he explained a tad ruefully.
The shoppers at these things are a mix of career women, young girls, parochial-school teachers and even a few — very few — men. The locations are generally living rooms, basements, patios — in short, a portrait of American suburbia, although I've also seen knockoffs sold on street corners, in stores and, once or twice, in office lobbies. The house parties, however, are the most social. They're a surreal world where friends become family and strangers become friends.
The mood this time was a kind of controlled shopping frenzy. The humidity in the closed house was putrid, but no one left until they had their quota — bought in a cash-only deal from the aforementioned burly guy. He yelled out prices over the tops of the heads of those already lined up and clutching their items with an adrenaline rush that could only be described as the "high from the buy." I paid $20 for a knockoff Vuitton wallet (the real one sells for $420). Burly Guy finalized sales with a swiftness and efficiency I could only hope to find at Dillard's or Nordstrom.
And then, in the distance, the high-pitched squeal of a siren — and the dash to escape began.
That night it was a false alarm, but busts are a real possibility. I once held my own purse party. I made plans to pick up an additional item from I'll call her the "Purse Lady" at an "open house" she was holding at her home a few weeks later. Before I could do so, however, I read about her bust in the newspaper and watched the story develop on the evening news. No more shopping with Purse Lady after that.
And I attended two parties a few years ago at friends' homes with the "Pager Wench" handling transactions. Pager Wench's specialty was Coach bags. I watched Carl Monday chase her down I-90 a few nights later, live at 11 p.m.
I realize I've become part of an international crime phenomenon. In August, Time magazine wrote, "Among the ladies-who-lunch crowd, purse parties, where guests buy inexpensive fakes in private homes while they sip champagne, are the latest trend. With all this fun, cheap merchandise, why buy the real thing?"
Counterfeit shopping has become sport, according to Time, with the chief victims the luxury-goods manufacturers. It's a "global counterfeit-buying spree, which is now seen as an economic and social danger," and, indeed, "part of a broader, organized-crime problem."
The question is why otherwise socially conscious and basically all-around good people like me strive to become a link in this international underground trade?
Well, because it's fun. And when you're sitting on somebody's backyard deck with a glass of Chardonnay in one hand and the cutest little pink Dooney & Bourke heart purse in the other, you don't really consider that you're smack dab in the middle of international intrigue.
After losing several sources to the police and Carl Monday, I wish I could tell you I've learned my lesson. However, I know I can slip up at any time. There are hundreds and thousands like me across our nation and overseas. The underground market continues to grow as long as there are those who are willing to risk it all for the thrill of the buy.
Bad publicity has hardly put a dent in an operation that can be traced to China, Dubai and Europe. I understand that customs officials are working to increase penalties and better coordinate the enforcement agencies. Per that same Time article, Coach, the purveyor of fine leather goods, has seen a 368 percent increase in the number of fake bags seized in the past two years.
I guess the jig will eventually be up for all of us who have bought with little thought of the larger consequences. There is a weird fellowship of buyers and, even as recently as a year or two ago, little sense of retribution. Now, however, it's clear that the stakes are higher and the possibility of getting caught is real.
That last house party I attended was nerve-wracking. I guess I'm more aware these days of the penalty for buying illegal knockoffs, and of the more immediate threat of being trampled to death by overzealous shoppers. I was uneasy that last time, though I think the rest of the group felt nothing more than the excitement that comes from shopping.
I probably will think twice about future purchases locally (since Carl Monday is still a viable obstacle), but hey, if I ever find myself on Canal Street in New York City, all bets are off. Michael Bloomberg has more important issues to deal with than catching me buying a Prada from some guy in a raincoat. At least I hope so.