I am walking down Santee Alley between 11th and Olympic in the Garment District when a dude with a rack of sports jackets says, “Hey, Shorty.”
While I am not accustomed to being called Shorty, I have been called a lot worse and it doesn’t offend me. I stop and point to my chest as if to say “Moi?” and he says, “Yeah, you.”
He is among dozens of sidewalk clothing merchants along the Alley, many of whom are shouting their wares in a multiplicity of languages, but he is the only one who has addressed me personally.
“I got just the thing for you,” he says, picking a glenn plaid jacket off the rack and holding it up. “Forty-two short, $30.”
It’s not bad-looking and the price is right, so I try it on. It fits. That is almost providential. Hardly anything ever fits me. I am what my mother used to call an awkward size.
I say to him, “You take a check?” I have only $9 in cash and that is for alley dogs, which are foot-longs heaped with fried onions and hot peppers.
“Hey, man,” he says, as if I am making a joke. “No checks.”
I say, “How about credit cards?”
He says, “Do I look like Abercrombie & Fitch?”
He has maybe only 12 jackets on the single rack. “No,” I say, “I guess you don’t look like Abercrombie & Fitch. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Yeah,” he says, “you do that.” As I walk away I hear him call to another man, “Hey, Fats!”
This is Santee Alley. A friend describes it as a Mexican flea market in Rome. On weekends, the place is jammed and the noise level is roughly that of a 747 taking off in a storm.
I have never been hustled so loudly in so many languages before. They summon you to buy in English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic, depending on what seems to be one’s ethnic persuasion.
In one situation, two merchants standing side by side were vying for customers by shouting their prices in Spanish and Chinese in ever-diminishing amounts and ever-rising voices. All I could understand was the price, which fell as I listened from about $17 to $14.99 per something.
The battle got so intense that one of them finally yelled in English, “Anything here, three for $25!” It was the ultimate weapon. The other guy quit shouting.
You can buy almost anything in the Alley but a de la Renta original and a watercress salad. Purses, jeans, jewelry, shoes, toys, radios, bras, T-shirts, mangoes--you name it.
The Alley is not comparable to tonier retail clothing areas, with their designer fashions and Uptown tilt. It has a life, and a wildlife, of its own. Take, for instance, Peso the Cat.
He appeared one day out of nowhere, the way cats do, and settled in a children’s clothing store. He is orange and white with blazing yellow eyes, not unattractive in the cat world.
The owners of the store fed him and named him Peso and he has not been out of the store since. He sits in the doorway and watches people prowl the outdoor stands like so many cats themselves, pawing through piles of merchandise, sniffing for the best bargains.
“He’s got food, water and rats to play with,” his owner says. “What more can a cat want?”
“You should have bargained,” Cinelli says when I tell her about the sports jacket. She is a terrific bargainer and the Alley is a perfect place in which to bargain.
“He wants cash,” I say, “and all I have is $9. He is not likely to come down from $30 to $9.”
“State a price,” she says. “If he says no, walk away. Chances are, he’ll call you back. Pretend you’re a sailor in Hong Kong.”
The old Sailor-in-Hong Kong-Game. He was a friend who claimed Asia had the world’s best-looking prostitutes. While he never personally utilized their services, he was famous for negotiating on behalf of others. They called him Half-Price Harry.
“Pretend you’re Half-Price Harry,” Cinelli says.
“I did see a woman in one white shoe and one black shoe down on Maple,” I say thoughtfully. “She beckoned slightly and . . .”
“I’m talking sports jackets in your case,” Cinelli says, interrupting, “not hookers.”
I am heading back to the guy with the jackets when a man wearing the reverse collar of a minister and carrying a cigar box stops me and says, “How about a dollar for the Lord?”
Quick as a flash, I say, “Fifty cents.”
He says, “Sold.”
I give him half a buck and I am so pleased at my ability to bargain that I skip the jacket and buy an alley dog instead. They are $1.75 each. Firm.