Dead Hummingbirds And Rare Cheese: 5 Weird Black Markets
Nothing is impossible to get, not if you have enough money and loose ethical standards. There are black markets for just about anything: human body parts, dangerous cheeses, banned Barbie prototypes, you name it. The truly crazy thing? We only made up one of those examples. And it's not the one you think.
There Was A Huge Demand For Human Fat
Nowadays we do all we can to get rid of fat, but used to be there was a time when people would be clamoring to take it from you. Leading physicians thought that human fat could be used for everything from cleaning wounds to arthritis relief, and they were willing to go to great and incredibly disgusting lengths to acquire it.
Since it was rather difficult to get a consenting adult to agreeably part with their surplus adipose tissue (mostly because they were unlikely to survive the process of extraction), fat was harvested from executed criminals, dead soldiers on battlefields, and whoever else could be surreptitiously violated with a siphoning hose. Apparently you could make a fairly decent living at it, as "poor sinner's fat" was a premium product, and acquiring it required a person of especially rare ... talents. An executioner, for example, could pad his monthly stipend handsomely by delivering seeping packages of man-lard to the local practitioners.
But that wasn't even the grossest niche of the underground body parts market. That honor is reserved for the ones that involved cannibalism. Whether it was powdered skulls mixed with chocolate or the ingestion of the blood and bones of the recently and not-so-recently deceased, it truly was a fantastic time to be a grave robber with an entrepreneurial streak.
The Modern-Day Trade In Dead Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds are so cute, hovering about on their little fairy wings, endlessly eating sugar but never getting fat. Maybe that's why some people want to kill them and turn them into trinkets. The practice first came to the attention of federal agents around 2008, when they found a package en route from Mexico filled with dozens of dead hummingbirds. That would be troubling even if it weren't super illegal.
Hummingbirds are protected by all kinds of laws; even possessing a dead one is a crime. So why risk the wrath of the law for some dead birds? The same reason for most human behavior: boning. They're an increasingly popular ingredient in DIY "love charms," as taught by YouTube witches, which are both apparently things now.
One Texas man selling dead birds got four years' probation and $5,000 in fines. A North Carolina woman was busted for selling perfume infused with dead hummingbirds. These are all very recent busts, which means there are UPS offices all over the country at this very moment that are full of dead birds, though that's probably not the grossest thing they've seen.
Because if there's one thing that lines up the suitors, it's the lingering smell of bird corpse.
The Black Market For Marathon Bibs
Sometimes, for reasons probably involving Narcotics Anonymous and an epiphany or two, marathon runners will qualify for a race but drop out ahead of time. Until recently, there was a black market set up on Craigslist to connect these dropouts to hopeful slackers. In 2015, Boston Marathon bibs -- you know, those little flappies with the numbers on them that distinguish the official runners from some guy who got trapped in the stampede on his way back from the deli -- were selling for up to $500, with one buyer offering as much as $5,000 for a charity bib. Those ones must taste better.
It might seem like a victimless crime, but it can cause a chain reaction of huge problems. For instance, if the runner has a medical emergency, the details are linked to the original registrant. After a black market runner was injured at the Pittsburgh Marathon one year, officials contacted their listed next of kin, panicking some poor person whose loved one was in fact perfectly fine. It even hindered the search when Gianclaudio P. Marengo went missing after the New York Marathon. They didn't even start until two days later, as he wasn't registered to the event. Plus he's a marathon runner, so you can't even say "Split up, he can't have gotten far," which is easily the best part of any manhunt.
Spain's Illegal Artisan Cheese Market
Francisco Franco was dictator of Spain for a large chunk of the 20th century, and like any good fascist, he had some terrible ideas on how a country should operate. He was obsessed with economic self-sufficiency, and wanted Spain to produce everything it needed internally. For some reason, this required every Spanish dairy farm to make at least 10,000 liters of milk per day or cede their business to larger companies. As a result, artisanal cheese makers could no longer legally make their wares. But the Spanish weren't about to just not eat cheese. Is that even technically living?
Artisans found a clever way to get around the law by exploiting a little-known legal loophole: lying. Brazenly so. Small-time farmers had to swear to agricultural officials that all the milk they produced was being used only by their own households, which in some cases would have meant that they personally drank 500 liters every day. An agricultural minister in the 1980s called it an "open secret" that about 30% of Spanish milk was produced by black market farmers, and they only barely tried to hide it.
The region of Galicia, for instance, held a weekly open-air black cheese market that opened at 5 a.m. and promptly closed at 7 a.m., when the inspectors came on shift. Think of it like Hamsterdam from The Wire, but with cheese instead of heroin. Probably a less threatening version of Omar Little too.
Cuba's "Speakeasy" Arcades
It's been said that a trip to Cuba is like a trip to the past, with its vintage architecture, classic cars, and secret arcades. See, gaming technology has been trickling in since the 1970s, when the likes of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were first deemed undesirable. But professional travelers, like airline pilots and ambassadors, would smuggle in consoles for their kids, and traditional black markets did their own importing as well. But with the prices they charged, these were way too expensive for most Cubans.
Since neither the government nor professional criminals were effectively bringing video games to the masses, the masses took the reins. The few people who owned consoles started renting them out to their friends. Urban speakeasy arcades exploded in popularity in the 1990s, hidden in rec rooms and basements you had to negotiate your way into, like wholesome drug dens. It was often cheap -- the equivalent of $0.50 an hour -- which gave teenagers a cheap place to hang out off of the streets. In spite of crackdowns as late as 2013, Cuba's black market arcades are still making laser noises from the shadows. Can a black market be ... adorable?
E. Reid Ross has a book called BIZARRE WORLD that's on store shelves as we speak. Or you could just order it now from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and leave a scathing/glowing review. Matthew Z. Wood is the author of Comic Book Collections and Programming: A Practical Guide for Librarians, co-creator of the webcomics Chocolypse Now! And The Dada Detective, and comic reviewer for No Flying, No Tights. Jack R. Loun's got a lame little writing blog that he's been working on HERE if you want to check it out for some reason.
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