Every year, over 40 million tourists flock to New York City. If you are one of these tourists, it's inevitable that at some point a shady street vendor will try to sell you some shit. Maybe it will be something innocent, like a hand-drawn picture of Gary Coleman or a custom-made caricature of your daughter with inappropriately large breasts. But more often than not, they'll try to sell you a shady counterfeit version of some high-priced name-brand product. And when it comes to cheaply made knockoffs, nothing commands quite as much respect as the fabled $10 Rolex.
I've always been curious about exactly what a $10 version of a $10,000 item would actually look like. So, during a recent trip to New York City, I decided to seek out a fake Rolex of my own. Armed with nothing more than $70 and a lifelong dream of fooling people into thinking I'm rich by way of wearing pretend luxury items, I made my way down to Canal Street, the beating heart of the sketchy NYC street vendor universe. For added adventure, I threw on my very best "What do you mean I look like an undercover cop?" ensemble.
Sorry for the blurry image. You try taking a solid picture on a moving train.
Of course, there was no way in hell that I planned on blowing my entire budget on just one item, no matter how much of a bargain it pretended to be. So I figured I'd explore some of the other famously bootlegged items that the streets of NYC have to offer. Here's what I came back with ...
#4. Pirated Copies of The Grey and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on DVD
Retail Value: Not yet available
Asking Price: $5 each
Negotiated Purchase Price: 2 for $5
Upon exiting the subway and stepping out onto Canal Street, I was immediately approached by a dude who wanted to sell me a designer handbag. I brushed off the implied insult in his offer without exploring it further and asked if he could point me to some bootleg DVDs instead. Without a second of hesitation, he turned to the right and yelled out "DVD lady!" in the general direction of an assembled group of women. And just like that, I was face to face with the DVD lady.
The Sales Pitch
Correction: I was apparently face to face with the woman who could take me to the DVD lady. That's her in the above picture. I'm sorry her face is somewhat obscured; blame it on my desire to not be targeted for death by whatever seedy international crime syndicate controls the bootleg DVD trade.
Anyway, I was told to follow her for what ended up being about three blocks. Eventually, I was instructed to stand by a van that can only be described as pedophilesque and wait. Nothing unsettling about that! I spent the downtime negotiating with an associate of the DVD lady for knockoff Hermes bracelets, mostly so I'd have a hostage to grab in the what seemed to be very likely event that the van doors flew open and someone snatched me up in hopes of selling me off to a human trafficking ring.
Pictured: Jewelry that will probably give you lead poisoning.
Finally, the DVD lady arrived with a stack of Hollywood hits in tow. And when I say "Hollywood hits," I don't mean films that you should legitimately be able to purchase on DVD right now. No, I mean current Hollywood hits, like shit that just hit theaters a few days ago. She was asking $5 each. I managed to haggle her down to two for $5. Savings!
"Sweet! Do you sell Blu-rays, too?"
After making her shuffle through the stack of films at least five times, I settled on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Grey. I chose The Grey based solely on that scene in the trailer where Liam Neeson and crew are being stared down by a pack of hungry wolves and, when asked what they should do, Neeson replies, "Stare back at them." Vintage Neeson badassery right there. Sign me up.
Look, nobody buys a DVD on the street expecting to come away with a retail-quality viewing experience. I'm not dumb. I was anticipating, at best, something resembling the Zapruder film in terms of quality. Or, at worst, just a couple of blank discs. Surprisingly, though, things weren't nearly as horrible as I expected. Of course, the presentation left something to be desired. Just printed sheets of paper that vaguely resemble DVD covers with completely generic DVD-Rs inside.
Princo Budget: The DVD-R of choice for discerning movie pirates.
But that's where the similarities between the two discs end. On one end of the spectrum, we have The Grey. As presented on this disc, the film literally starts with Liam Neeson in mid-sentence, walking toward a bar. Is that how the movie actually starts? No credits or anything, just a drop-in on Neeson while he's in the middle of completing a thought that the audience never gets to hear the beginning of?
Probably not. But hey, you get what you pay for, and in this case, what I paid for is the result of someone smuggling a piece of shit video camera into a movie and filming the action on the screen without the benefit of an external microphone. The audio sounds like it's being processed through a Progresso soup can tied to a length of twine, and the video is exactly what I imagine the early stages of glaucoma must be like.
Even at $2.50, it's a shitty deal. But things take a turn for the better with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Much to my surprise, in terms of both audio and video quality, this shit is THE GOODS!
For a DVD purchased from the underbelly of the overseas black market, you seriously could not ask for more. For all intents and purposes, this is pretty much what you would get if you bought the DVD at a retail establishment. If I had to guess, I'd say you could chalk this up to the fact that this DVD has a release date that is literally just a few weeks away. That means, somewhere, a legit copy of it has already been pressed. And through the magic of crime, some enterprising pirate got their hands on one of those copies, burned several thousand more copies and then sold one of those copies to me for $2.50 on Canal Street. Score!
Don't take this to mean that I'm recommending you buy all of your DVDs from random street solicitors, though. I'm just saying you should time it properly to get the most bang for your buck.
#3. Extasia by New Brand Cologne
Retail Value: Approximately $10
Asking Price: $45
Negotiated Purchase Price: $10
After the exercise in potential mugging victimry that was buying black market DVDs, I set my sights on another widely counterfeited product. This time around, I was in search of cologne. While I did walk away with a purchase that seemed like a steal at the time, what I really got was an important lesson in the dangers of negotiating for something you have absolutely no knowledge of.
The Sales Pitch
You'll note that there are no covert images of the street vendor I dealt with during this transaction. I apologize for that, but there's a simple explanation. To put it bluntly, this guy was fucking terrifying. My first mistake was making eye contact with this maniac. The moment that happened, he grabbed my wrist and sprayed some sort of fragrance in my palm and then yelled "Thees sells for 90 dollar but I give to you for 45!" Except imagine that sentence as just one long, aggressive, grammatically flawed word. I had little interest in buying the gasoline-scented concoction that now covered my palm (non-jerkoff hand, thankfully), but couldn't help but be a little bit charmed by the Justin Bieber cologne he had displayed.
Who among us wouldn't be?
I declined the cologne man's advances and counteroffered a crisp $10 bill in exchange for the opportunity to smell like a counterfeit version of a teen pop sensation. Unfortunately, my offer was met with nothing but pure, unadulterated rage. I might as well have been asking if he could sell me a cartoon drawing of ... never mind. I'm just saying, in some cultures, Justin Bieber cologne is not a commodity that's treated lightly. But somewhere in the tirade I heard "You take what I spray on you 10 dollar!" Fair enough, Salesman of the Year, bag it up and get me the fuck out of here before the bomb vest goes off.
I felt lucky to escape with not only my life but also a bottle of (either stolen or counterfeit) cologne that people with money to burn apparently pay just shy of $100 for. That is, until I got home and Googled exactly what I had purchased. Yes, the "retail" price is sometimes listed as being in the $75 to $90 range, but the most expensive purchase price I found on the Internet was $24.90, and that was at a site called UpscaleMenswear.com. Only assholes who actively try to impress people by spending more money than they need to would shop at a site with a name like that. As for regular people, you can buy this stink in a bottle on Amazon for less than 10 bucks.
You win this time, Canal Street.