EXIT THE N TRAIN at Canal Street and you have the option of ascending to the sidewalk in a very slow glass-walled elevator that takes you to a glass-walled box, an excellent metaphor for what you’re about to become: a fish in a fishbowl.
At least that’s what happens to me. I never feel quite so large and slow-moving and touristy as when I hit the nerve center of Manhattan’s Chinatown. But I was a man with a mission. Well: a couple of missions, one of them lunch, which you can economically obtain when you poke carefully around the side streets.
But I also wanted a watch. I headed east on Canal. Between Baxter and Mulberry Streets is where the streetside shopping potential peaks. Beside you is a row of storefronts promising jewelry, perfume, watches, souvenirs. At your elbow pass a succession of people murmuring, “Handbags. Watches.” Near the curb are carts and table displays. On a pleasant day, the block can be packed with people, most of them tourists like me.
“Handbags, watches,” says the old woman I’m passing. Next is a woman muttering, “Jewelry.” She spots my wife, who walks alongside me, and raises her sleeve to reveal a glittering forearm wrapped with bracelets and necklaces. “Jewelry?” We brush on by. I need to get my nerve up for this.
Some sources believe that the watch industry loses a billion dollars in sales to counterfeiters, although people like me, who’ll never be able to pony up for a Rolex, shouldn’t be counted among them. Switzerland never stood to make a dime off me in the first place.
When it comes to Rolex knockoffs, there are fakes, it seems, and there are fakes. A rarefied realm exists in which the duplicate is crafted so well that an experienced hand is needed to determine a potential rip-off. But I can’t imagine that anyone looking to acquire such a watch on Canal Street reasons it to be anything but phony. And cheap.
“Handbags. Watches,” said a woman as I approached. “Watches?” I said. The atmosphere was suddenly galvanized. I almost could smell the ozone. “What kind you want?”
“He show you.” She indicated someone I couldn’t discern in the crowd. She also produced a sheet of laminated paper, saying, “Here. You choose.”
The much-fingered page could have been torn from a Tourneau catalogue, although its low-resolution nature was revealed when I squinted at it for more detail. Knowing nothing of what Rolex actually makes, I was down to selecting by style. It only had to please me for what I expected to be the few weeks of its life; I have no friends who would be impressed by a costly timepiece.
Misgivings set in even as I pointed to a traditional-looking silver model. A young man materialized at my side, nodding enthusiastically. “Seventy-five dollars!” he said hoarsely.
Seventy-five bucks? I’d rather spend it on dinner. And who needs a watch these days? Peek at your cell phone and you know the time, and from the number of passersby with their heads cell-phone buried, I’m amazed anyone wears a watch these days.
“Seventy dollars,” the young man said. I remembered reading somewhere that the transaction would be finalized in a back room somewhere, where the sales pressure would be all the stronger. I didn’t want this thing any more. I wanted lunch. I wanted to get out of here.
“Thanks,” I said. “Never mind.” And I walked away.
“No, no!” he cried. “What do you want to pay? What do you want to pay?” My party also included my daughter and a schoolfriend of hers, and I tried to keep on eye on everyone as we dodged tourists during our brisk retreat. The young man kept pace with me, throwing out numbers. “Sixty-five! Fifty-five! What do you want to pay?”
We recrossed Baxter and I stopped to catch my breath. “Forty!” He stood beside me, grinning. I had to laugh. “Thank you,” I said again. “No.” Even as a part of my brain reasoned that I probably could get him down to thirty-five or less. No! Too tempting to let the thrill of the haggle obscure the needlessness of the purchase.
After lunch, I bought a hilariously inept Patek Philippe for fifteen bucks.