The Fashion District Is A Lawless Place, Or: That Time Someone Tried To Sell Me A Hand Grenade In Paraguay
If you’re not familiar, there’s a section of downtown Los Angeles called The Fashion District, which is the fashion capital of the west coast and home to not only designers and custom fabricators, but hundreds of raw fabric stores whose thousands of colorful spools spill out onto the sidewalk as the purveyors do their damndest to convince you to come inside and take stock of their specialties.
From burlap to rich silks, from cheap vinyl to pristine high end leather, linen, wool, or cotton in any color, weave, or pattern you can imagine - if the material can be imagined, it can be bought in LA’s Fashion District. It’s amazing to see.
It also is a lawless place, where the normal rules of society don’t apply, nothing makes sense, and reminds me very much of the time I got off a bus in Paraguay and very nearly accidentally bought a live hand grenade.
Okay, that’s a connection that deserves clarification, I suppose. So let’s jump into our Barrett Time Machine and go back over two decades, to when I was a teenager who’d been shipped off to Argentina for an exchange program.
I was sixteen when I stepped onto a plane, marking the final step that fully committed me to taking a year off of high school to live in a foreign country in the other hemispherical America (the South one.) I’d be going alone, without my family, and when I landed I’d be seven thousand miles away from anyone I knew. I’d barely heard of Argentina before I said yes to this, and given the whirlwind-esque timeline with which things happened to solidify this experience, I didn’t do a ton of research before I handed my ticket to the flight attendant and stepped on board.
What Spanish I knew was the Mexican dialect, which bears only a passing similarity to the Castellano spoken in Argentina in much the same way that Shakespearean English relates to modern English. But stepping off the plane, and into the arms of a giant man who kissed my face (twice - a custom that I would soon learn is both common and universal) I had the sudden feeling that I had perhaps overstepped my confidence and well-exceeded my comfort zone.
As an American - a Californian no less - I was a novelty to everyone in this small town about an hour outside of Buenos Aires. Most people spoke English with some amount of fluency, but aside from the moments they decided to address me directly, I often spent most of the day catching only a word here or there. So I also often found myself being invited to things where I had only a hint of context as to what was going to happen once I got there. At first I fought to try and understand, but at some point I decided it was simply easier to agree to whatever they were asking and figure it out later.
This is how I found myself on a farm for three days with 50 other people, a bathtub of beer, and nothing to eat aside from a whole cow and some sausages. It’s also how I found myself attending the World Cup qualifiers with the wives of the South African soccer team; how I found myself going to a dive bar in Brazil to drunkenly push a Rolling Stones cover band off stage and take over as lead singer (this wasn’t the intent of the trip, but it was the highlight); and how I found myself stealing (well, I didn’t steal it…but I helped) an industrial dump truck, picking up some strangers to stick in the back, “procuring” a twenty foot Argentine flag, and loudly singing the local soccer team’s fight song as we drove the industrial dump truck through the winding streets of Mercedes and to a(nother) bar.
It was my year of saying yes and my year of living dangerously, all in one barely bilingual package, and it was glorious (even with the not-at-all-joking possibility that I’m actually legally banned from returning to the country of Brazil after revenge-stealing everything in a hotel room that wasn’t nailed to the floor and being escorted to the border by the police - but that’s another story.)
In the ten months I was there, I traveled to eight countries, learned more than I could ever convey about the breadth of the human condition, grew immensely, began to understand the absolute scale of my personal privilege, and came back very, very changed. Travel does that to you. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this growth came the way all growth did: via making and learning from mistakes.
Which is how I found myself on a bus in Paraguay.
If you’re not familiar, there’s a part of South America called the Triple Frontier, where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina come together. It’s interesting, but more importantly it’s very close to the largest waterfall system in the world: Iguazu Falls.
Iguazu is almost indescribably massive, with as much water as Niagara falls, falling from twice the height and over nearly two miles of width. It’s awe-inspiring, and seems almost almost impossible when you’re standing right there. But here’s the kicker: sometimes, when the rain is right, and the sediment is stirred up, the whole thing turns bright lava red.
It is, honestly, fucking metal as shit.
Anyway, on our way to see Iguazu run red (<Castellano>“Sure, why not.”</Castellano>) a bunch of us from the exchange program also found ourselves visiting the Triple Frontier, which is not nearly as interesting, but did add a checkmark to our to-done list. But that disappointment of “Well, we spent ten hours getting here to lay on all three countries at once for thirty seconds…now what?” lead us to make another impromptu decision: since we’re already here, we should check out more of Paraguay.
Here’s what’s worth knowing about Paraguay for the purposes of this story: the crime rate is high and you can buy literally anything fairly easily. Yes, there’s more to the country, but those are the important bullet points for now.
Enter: a bus stop at a gas station, and 30 minutes to wander the local markets. Now, I’m an upper middle class white dude - I love wandering local markets. It’s literally in my DNA. So when given the chance, I’ll wander. And this was a wondrous wandering indeed.
Markets in Paraguay are similar to what you’d think: lots of shacks next to each other, each vendor barely connected in theme or items for sale. Fruit and cheap luggage haphazardly share space next to pirated VHS tapes (this was the mid nineties), knockoff Nikes, and watches. And I’m sure if my Spanish had been better, drugs, guns, kidneys, and the like were all on the menu as well. But at the time, I wasn’t drawn to any of the local food or imported firearms - I was drawn towards a large display of Zippo lighters.
I had a thing for Zippos as a teenager. I wouldn’t say I collected them, but I had a half dozen or so, and still have a few today. There’s something appealing about the brutal functionality of a design that achieves perfection for it’s intended purpose. And given that I’d picked up casual social smoking (as did 97% of the Argentine population at the time) having a lighter on hand was always a good way to meet people and say yes to interesting and dangerous new things.
This Zippo display was impressive - hundreds of options, including a specific one that I’d been looking for. Fake or real didn’t matter, it was five pesos, so I handed the man a bill, and then proceeded to unexpectedly haggle for my change.
See, I had given this nice man a twenty peso bill - which, those of you who are better at math, will recognize is much more than five. But it was what I had. And having taken the Zippo into my possession, I was now expecting the remainder of twenty minus five (i.e. fifteen) pesos to be handed over to me. But this man was realizing that he’d just been given a fair amount of money, and was reluctant to return it - deciding that he was going to try and get me to buy fifteen pesos worth of stuff instead.
So he began showing me all sorts of items in his shack, none of which I wanted more than the fifteen pesos I was probably going to spend on beer later. But remember: my Spanish is shitty. So while I really wanted to say “give me my fucking money,” I could really only communicate “no” - which was received as “not that, but give it another shot buddy, and let’s see if we can’t work something out.”
Minutes go by as he shows me more and more of his trinkets and baubles, and I snap “no!” In increasingly frustrated tones. That is until…
So you know that looks that says “You want the good shit? Well here’s the good shit sonny boy.” I’d really only seen it in westerns and when my dad broke out the wine he kept on the bottom of the cabinet for when company came over. But I knew that look - it said “this is something special that not everyone gets to see.”
This man gave me that look. And then he reverently brought out a box from underneath the table. It was a black box, about a foot by eighteen inches, and with a knowing nod and a small flourish, he spun it around towards me, and proceeded to open the lid very, very slowly.
What I saw inside was a dozen green apples. No, wait. Those aren’t apples. Those are hand grenades. The man just showed me his box of hand grenades. The man is now offering me a hand grenade. For fifteen bucks. Why would I want a hand grenade? I wonder if I can even keep it. I certainly can’t take it back on the plane - I’m pretty sure there are laws about that. But maybe I could keep it here. I wouldn’t use it, or play with it or anything. I bet it’s not even real. But maybe it is. It feels real. Maybe I should keep it. I bet fifteen bucks is a pretty good price on a hand grenade. And how many people do I know who have a hand grenade, huh? Like, almost none.
This is how bad decisions happen, people: take someone who’s spent nearly a year saying yes to anything, and offer them a hand grenade as change.
Luckily, my internal debate was interrupted by two bursts from the bus horn - the signal that we were about to leave again. Reluctantly, I shook my head, and simply placed my hand out in front of me, palm up. The man angrily slapped two fives into my hand. I didn’t move, and looked him in the eye - both of us knowing he owed me another fiver. He stared back. I glared in response. He crossed his arms. The horn blew again. Slowly, I stuck the change in my pocket, maintaining eye contact the entire time; giving up on correct change for one (still cheap) Zippo lighter and zero hand grenades in order to make my bus and not be stuck in Paraguay. You win this one, Zippo lighter and hand grenade salesman.
Later, as we left the waterfalls, that damn lighter gave me a chemical burn from inside my pocket. Something about the red soil or the water interacted badly with the lighter fluid, and left a massive red streak on my right thigh. Burned like hell for three days, and left a bright streak that lasted a week.
I don’t smoke anymore, but I still have that lighter - I mean, how could I ever give it up? It’s obviously my favorite one.
So why on earth does downtown LA remind of this story. What aspect of The Fabric District in one of the bourgiest and most expensive cities in the world reminds me of roadside stalls in a third world country?
It’s hard to pinpoint. Maybe there are ineffable aspects of crowded marketplaces that strike similar. Maybe it’s the expectation of perpetual bargaining. Maybe it’s the back alley black market deals that have been a hallmark of the Fashion District for decades. Maybe it’s the stores and stalls spilling outwards onto the street as if bursting. Maybe it’s the fact that people just sort of wander through the street without regard to cross traffic or signals. Maybe it’s the store that sells videos but also shoes and “used” watches and maybe handbags too. Maybe it’s the highest quality in the world side-by-side with the highest quality knockoffs in the world, both equally belonging in time and space. Maybe it’s the men standing outside of their shop, waxing poetically about how theirs - and theirs alone - is the finest shop in all the land.
I don’t know, to be honest. But as I sat there in the late-August Los Angeles heat, drinking a horchata from the hardest working sidewalk vendor in Los Angeles (and her eight year old son), listening to a man with an eye patch tell me that today and today only, and just for me and me alone, he’d knock 30% off of anything in his store - I flashed back to standing by the roadside in Paraguay, holding a hand grenade, thinking “Yeah, this seems like a good deal.”