Tales from the Stolen-Clothing Underground

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I started getting into meche because I was broke. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that miserable broke where I was hungry every day. It was more like that special New York kind of broke, where I would have been fine anywhere else, but here I was faced with lots of little humiliations. Like having a cell phone so old and busted my text messages came out as Spanish ee cummings poems, spattered with unnecessary spaces and random punctuation.  Or having to get my hair cut on $10 day at the local Dominican spot, where they always left one side longer than the other. And, once in a while, when my daughter’s father was late with the child support, I had to pull together coins from all my pockets to buy her two tacos, with nothing left for me. Those were the really bad days, but most of the time we were okay.

Anyway, amid this somewhat dismal financial picture, my best friend, let’s call him Joaquín, saw I was struggling despite all my hard work and took pity on me.  Early last summer, he started showing up at my house with $250 jeans for $40. I didn’t even know what these brands were, but I could see the Bloomingdales price tags dangling off the sides, so I knew they weren’t bootleg. Over the next few months, my friend brought me 9west shoes, Victoria’s Secret bras, a Laundry jacket.

It was mostly stuff that wasn’t my style, but it was so cheap, how could I say no? Sometimes he gave it to me straight up gratis, and the other times it was never more than 30 percent of the real price.  He had started hooking me up with fayuca. Meche. Como sea que lo llamas, it’s the same shit: stolen clothes, courtesy of Colombians in Queens.

And I started getting addicted. My life might have been all puffy eyes and tired feet, but I could still look pretty fly, if a little tacky, with Joaquín’s stuff.  I liked looking at the row of shoes he brought me, more than I could wear in two weeks.  I would think about my mom’s being a kid and not having any shoes, not even for church or school.

With meches, for once, I had something better than all the spoiled Scarsdale chicks who could afford those clothes full price. They might have been able to get pinche glycolic acid peels while I was stuck looking my real age, but at least I could rock the same jeans as they could, and for practically no money, just because I was down with the Colombian secret. It was like in college when I would speak Spanish to the snack bar workers, and, with a wink, they would hand me a free soda. I finally had an advantage over the rich kids, and I liked that feeling.

Whether it’s for this reason or simple greed, some girls I know are so hooked on meche that they call Joaquín practically every day. “¿Que tienes?” they’ll ask him. The answer might be $200 Seven jeans for $75, or a $350 bcbg dress for $100. (He charges them more than me, but it’s still a bargain to beat all sample sales.). On any day, he’s sure to have a pile of Abercrombie and Fitch camisas marked down by half.

For some reason, the mecheros seem to have more Abercrombie stuff than the mero Abercrombie stores themselves. Joaquín claims there is some clamor among the gente del barrio for this brand, spurred by the Mexican comedian Adal Ramones’s afan for Abercrombie. It might also be that the stores’ security is really crappy, thus allowing a glut of A&F clothes to swamp the meche market.  Either way, the result is that half of Queens is rocking these clothes, and the profits aren’t going to that corporate bastion of subliminal homoerotica.  They’re going straight into the pockets of my pana Joaquín and then trickling back to the guy who brought him the clothes and to the girl who racked them in the first place. This is a homegrown business which, believe it or not, supports whole extended families. Many whole extended families. Here and in other countries.

For customers who prefer a wider selection than one guy can carry to your home, there are always the mechero apartment stores. Instead of calling your personal clothes dealer, you walk up to a little house in Corona at an address down so many turns you forget where you are before you even get there. The aluminum siding is cracking. Outside, fat little kids run around on the sidewalk. Next door is an apartment with seemingly 80 guys living together in three rooms.

You ring the door and say, “Soy amiga de Sandra” or Claudia or whomever. You just need a name to get in the door.  Inside, up or down some stairs, is a room packed with racks of clothes from Old Navy to Coach and everything in between. Usually everything is half  or one-third off, but the prices can vary wildly. Some places the clothes are so tacky you wonder why someone bothered to steal them. Other places almost everything is top flight.

If you can’t find your size, don’t sweat it, because most chain stores take returns with no receipts. So you can spend $50 on ugly, size 2 Club Monaco shirts, go trade them in at their real store on the Upper West Side, and return home with $100 or more of new stuff in your size. But you have to know the right people at the right times, because these “stores” sometimes move. (If you’ve ever seen a bunch of clothes racks in an apartment window while you were riding an elevated train, well, now you know what those were.)
Joaquín told me he has even seen regular stores at street level where all the mercancía is stolen goods.

Everyone has his or her market niche and tricks. One lady removes the labels and sews in her own. Some mecheros send their goods to Mexico or the D.R., where the clothes pass through so many middlemen they end up selling for full price. Some mecheros sell exclusively to the Greeks in Astoria. Others take luxury stuff to judías on the Upper East Side.

Only a few rules are fast and hard. Everyone who “buys” the clothes from the real stores is Colombian. (According to Joaquín, they get bien ofendidos if you call their job stealing, so he always says, “cuando ellos compran la ropa.”) They like to work in the suburbs or even travel together to other states, where I guess the security guards are sleepier and the stores bigger. A pack of them walks into a store with big paper shopping bags and walks out a few minutes later with huge bundles of clothes, hangers and all. They line the bags with aluminum foil to neutralize the plastic alarms so they won’t go off as they walk out of the store.  They also know how to give a cloth alarm the right little snap to deactivate it. (You know, the little tags that say, “remove before washing or wearing.”) If they need to take their time, they’ll hold up dresses at strategic angles to block the security cameras, as if to get a really good look at the item, while their partners fill their bags. Some “buyers” have contacts at the airports who know how to make a big shipment of clothes fall off the proverbial truck.

As improbable as it may sound, with a lot of finesse, cojones and incredible organization, the Colombians are able to rack mountains of clothes. Every day, probably thousands of pieces come into Queens alone. Additionally, there’s a steady trickle of makeup, iPods, curtains, other little porquería besides clothes.

Once in a while someone gets arrested, but it’s not often enough to put a real dent in the business. According to Joaquín, there are always more “shoppers” in training in Colombia, getting ready to come here and work in the industry. It makes sense, since they can earn $4,000 a week in cash. Plus, it definitely beats being a drug mule.

And, of course, the demand is always huge. I may have been just a casual meche dabbler, but there are tons of mecheholics, buying stuff even daily. They’ll fiend for new clothes almost like it’s a drug. I’ve seen them calling Joaquín over and over until he finally picks up, then begging him to drive a dress over.  I guess it makes sense: We live in a country where we judge each other by how much stuff we have, and even though most of Joaquín’s customers live in crappy, outer-borough walk-ups and two-family homes, they want to keep up with the Joneses — or los Gonzales.

The more obvious the name brand, the more they like it, Joaquín says. They don’t want to go back to their parents’ country rocking Conway. They don’t want to go to a club in cheap jeans. They want everyone to think they can afford Rock and Republic.
I was looking at it more like a punk rock thing. I would think about how these companies are paying our gente $1 an hour to sew these clothes and then selling it back to us at a zillion percent markup. Why shouldn’t we steal them and set up our own cottage industry that reaps 100 percent profit, while draining money from mamaguebos like Abercrombie?

Joaquín used to say he felt really happy to see Mexican teenagers all over Queens wearing Abercrombie shirts and knowing that Abercrombie didn’t earn a dollar from that. It was the ultimate jodete to the company who once put out a shirt reading, “New Mexico, cleaner than regular Mexico.” All you collegiate Latinos can keep your e-mail campaigns against these racist motherfuckers. The best you’ll get is a fake-ass apology. We prefer our revenge raw and dirty, a lo mechero.

Or at least that’s what we used to say as we ate high-class French-Mexican fusion food, splurging with Joaquín’s mechero profits, no longer restricted to shared tacos. Eventually though, that reasoning kind of fell apart for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still like sticking it to Abercrombie. But now it’s more in theory than in practice.

I changed because one day I saw two of Joaquín’s clients come to his house. While I was gluing together an art project, these women were pulling through clothes like everything was covered in heroin. I think they may have actually been on drugs because they were so giddy, so hyped up that it may not have been just materialism gleaming in their beady, little eyes. They pulled on outfit after outfit, not caring that I was sitting right there and didn’t want to see them in their tangas. The more words (advertisements) on the clothes, the better. They were talking about brands like the names on the labels were those of los santos. It was like there was no soul left in their bodies, just greed filling up two hollow shells. When the frenzy had cooled, they left with $2000 worth of stuff, for which they paid $600.

It might be hard to understand, but their vibe was so nasty, that since then I’ve quit meches. I had started to feel that nasty burn of always wanting more, of only feeling good in the street if I was wearing something expensive. Seeing those girls bugging out woke me up and got me on the wagon.

Now mostly I wear wife-beaters (3 for $12), chipi zip up sweatshirts from H&M ($20), and the same Nike dunks all the time ($60). I wear the jeans Joaquín brought me last summer pretty much daily. If I have time, I sew little stuff on plain thermals. I started making my own bags out of canvas. I do laundry often.

Basically, I might look boring, but I feel clean. Stolen stuff is still stuff, and really I think most of us are way too obsessed with stuff. As long as I have food, I don’t need an iPhone. As long as I have art, my daughter, and fútbol in the park, I feel like a person. But I can’t lie:  It’s a daily struggle. I still fiend for the $200 Lucha Libre special edition Dunks, but resisting materialism is possible even here. I actually think it’s one of the most revolutionary things you can do hoy en día.

Still, Joaquín hooked me up with a $30 iPod yesterday, and I didn’t turn it away. We all want to feel special sometimes. And I know he has kids to feed. I can’t knock the hustle.