New York City
Fear and greed are two of the most basic of human instincts. All markets operate on the dynamic between these two primal urges…whether they’re trading futures on an electronic exchange, or selling wares on the side streets of lower Manhattan.
One of our excursions this week took us into Chinatown on Manhattan’s lower east side. Just getting there was an adventure, and a real culture-shock from New York City’s nearby Financial District. There were several challenges, among them negotiating the Metro Subway system with closed stations. Another challenge was dealing with language barriers, although I suspect some of the people we dealt with utilized selective comprehension of some of the things we asked.
In a classic scene right out of the Prohibition-era, we entered a shop on Canal Street, and when we asked whether there were specific items we sought, we were told “my brudda’s store” had what we were seeking. This initiated a clandestine trip around the corner, down a side street, and into a shabby inner-sanctum, complete with lookouts on Nextel two-way phones, a series of locked doors and a flight of stairs below street-level.
This was no speak-easy, but a stealth shop stocked with knock offs of famous name brand items of questionable quality and free market prices. The room was barely the size of a moderate bedroom closet, and close-quarters for the shop keeper and three patrons.
The bargaining commenced when the door was latched behind us, sealing us into this subterranean bazaar driven by greed on both sides of the exchange (“I sell to you for more than you think you want to pay” vs “I buy from you for less than you want to take”) and not a little fear.
If NYPD officers were to discover the location of this shop, where only cash was accepted, and no receipts given, it would be out of business within the hour.
We had passed a few tables of merchandise on Canal Street that attracted our interest, but were told the proprietor had been taken way by NYPD officers earlier for selling items he ought not. So our visit to into the Twilight Zone of Chinatown’s black market provided more of a cheap thrill to out-of-towners than it produced any commerce of consequence.
I really freaked out the shop keeper when I gently asked his name. Just a Texan in New York, trying to be neighborly. He wasn’t telling, and became quite furtive in his behavior at that point. We were whisked up the narrow flight of stairs, and watched as he slid open the bolt in the door, and peeked out onto the sidewalk in both directions before fully opening the door to allow us to leave. He suddenly developed English-amnesia and became incapable of understanding anything I said at that point.
We thanked him for his time as he melted into the crowd, but not before he and his “sister-in-law” became engaged in a staccato discussion (in their language) about what could only have been her indiscretion in sending us to his “store.”
Fear and greed are powerful components in many transactions…but so is the ability to discern value. The only thing gained in this encounter was a little grist for this blog and two surreptitious images from a tiny camera in my pocket.
At the end of the day, value beat greed, and fear melted the moment in the quest for a bargain and the promise of a sale. At the end of the day, cash was king, and we retained title to the throne.
Such is life in the marketplace, whether at Broad and Wall, or Canal and Lispenard Streets.