The woman, a 38-year-old D.C. native, is a second-generation consumer of hot goods. As far back as she can remember, stolen merchandise has been a part of her household. "If you have the right connections," she says, "you can buy just about anything you want in this town. Hot goods have been a part of the community since I was a little girl. t
"My parents would buy lots of stolen food -- expensive deli-type lunch meats and pounds of butter, hams, canned meats, fresh eggs, fresh cheese. This man used to come every week and just back his Lincoln up to our backyard and unload. My mother used to buy the stuff wholesale and retail it to friends and neighbors. It's part of our second economy. The first economy is the legitimate workaday world. The second is the street hustling, drug dealing, prostitution and what not. If you take the bottom our of Washington's second economy, then you'll really see some hard times."
A single parent of two teen-agers, the Ivy City-Trinidad resident lives on a $628-a-month federal disability check. She says stolen goods stretch her budget. "Money can only go so far, especially in D.C., you know. The basic necessities are getting harder and harder to get, so I listen closely when somebody tells me they can get me an 18-pound Virginia cured ham and a bunch of canned goods for $20. And I have told a guy that I would buy some other things if he could get them, because there are some things that I just would like to have but can't afford."
The acquiring and selling of hot goods has long been a way of life for thousands of District residents. And, D.C. police say, if the rate of hot goods business transactions coincides with the recent dramatic increases in burglaries, shoplifting and theft, then business must be booming. D.C. is now known to hot goods peddlers as a city that provides a steady market of budget-conscious persons eager to buy merchandise at a price that they could never find in stores -- "the people's price," usually about one-third what stores charge.
"Crime and the ability to pass hot goods along are interconnected," says Lt. Sam Morrison of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Burglary and Pawn Division. The police can't stop it, he says, because as times get harder, the demand, and therefore the supply, increases. "The fence has the ability to buy stolen items from thieves and sell in bulk to legitimate retail establishments," Morrison explains, "but the average citizen on the street is contributing tremendously to the hot goods market."
A customer had just finished talking a salesman in a D.C. furniture store into selling him a $500 brass bed frame for $400, when a second, younger salesman approached him and offered a greater discount. "Look, my man," he began, "I can get you that bed frame for $250 . . . . Come back tomorrow afternoon with cash and it's yours." He directed the customer to drive his car around to the loading dock in the rear of the store and meet the salesman who would give him the bed frame and pocket the cash.
Many hot goods peddlers burglarize homes and warehouses, steal from office buildings and shoplift from stores. According to retail experts, at least half of all store thefts are inside jobs involving company employes. Other thefts are made by experienced "boosters" -- thieves -- lifting items ordered by their "personal clients."
In addition to these clients, theives earn their living by randomly selling hot goods to downtown shoppers, neighborhood residents, friends, relatives, store owners, and anyone else interested in cashing in on a bargain. Operating not only on city streets, but also inside and near government office buildings and bars, and at parties and other social gatherings, the hot goods peddler finds that the entire city is a wide-open market place.
Street hustlers and longtime District residents say the hot goods market puts diamond earrings on thousands of women's earlobes, stacks gifts under Christmas trees, fills homes with fine furniture and other luxuries, feeds and clothes families, and arms people with guns.
Although some street hustlers are hard-core unemployed with drug habits, little education and few skills, others are college students, government employes and workers in the private sector who sell hot goods "on the side" to earn extra spending money. Together, the drug addicts and the moonlighters save their customers money on the one hand while, on the other, they jack up the price of merchandise in retail establishments as the stores increase their prices to cover insurance costs. In 1979, according to the latest figures from the Washington Board of Trade, the reported value of merchandise stolen from retailers in the Washington area rose 6 percent over the 1978 figure to a record $432 million. The cost to private victims cannot be itemized so neatly in monetary terms.
According to D.C. police statistics, an average of 35 burglaries occur each day in the District; each burglary involves approximately 14 items with a total value of about $369. Compared with other parts of the Washington metropolitan area, D.C. has the highest burglary rate, with Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland ranked second and third. And, according to the latest statistics from the Board of Trade, shoplifting is increasing. But not all hot goods sold in the area are stolen here; some are trucked in from other cities.
The peddling of hot goods is one of the hardest crimes to curb, but discouraging the purchase of the goods is harder. As one customer said, "Can the police just go through everybody's home checking for serial numbers on color TV's?" Hot goods are so well-received by a large segment of society that, Lt. Morrision explains, "There are several legitimate vendors who sell watches and other items on the street as if they were street hustlers selling hot goods. It's a con game. People will expect that the value is much more than it is if it was stolen." It is hypocritical, Morrison adds, for people to buy hot goods and then complain about the high rate of crime in D.C., since buying the goods encourages crime.
Selling or buying hot goods can carry a criminal charge of "receiving stolen property," which can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending upon the value of the goods. However, it seems that a broad cross section of District residents are willing to take the risk for paying "the people's price" for a wide variety of merchandise.
I have seen all kinds of people involved in hot goods deals," says a 35-year-old assistant professor at American University. "They don't seem to be concerned with how the goods were gotten or where the goods came from -- only that there is a discount. If they can get a TV for $100 that costs $600 in the store, then that supersedes any social concerns they might have. Though it is said to perpetuate crime, people don't seem to mind buying something it it's a good deal. Those who are concerned with the ethics of buying hot goods usually feel comfortable buying new clothes from a peddler because they know they (the new clothes) probably weren't taken out of somebody's home. Knowing it was taken from a big department store doesn't bother me as much as knowing that someone's home had been broken into.
"The greatest risk involved is letting someone in your house to sell you something. He might look the place over to see what's worth taking. I only buy through a second party. For instance, someone told me she knew somebody selling hot fur coats. I understand the guy worked in a service station and was sort of moonlighting."
She adds, "For some people, if they didn't buy hot goods, they wouldn't have much of anything. So you can see why hot goods are a part of the black experience by necessity. It's part of the old adage -- if you can't make it, take it. But some of the best customers of these people are white people. Peddlers prefer to deal with them, because they won't hassle over price like blacks do. The guys i've talked to have told me this. I've known some college students who made their way through school selling hot goods."
The two teen-age boys -- one toting a used portable color TV set and the other carrying two boxes of brand new silverware with J.C. Penny price tags -- enter a small Southeast thrift store and ask to speak to the owner, a well-to-do small businessman. The owner greets them enthusiastically, talks with them a few minutes and examines the merchandise. He doesn't ask how it was acquired. A short while later, a deal is made, and the peddlers leave the store stuffing money in their pockets while the businessman places the silverware next to other items on a display shelf and takes the TV set to the back of the store.
A man in his late 40s who owns a store in Anacostia says young men and women visit his shop every day selling hot goods. He obliges these people, most of whom live in the area and patronize his store. Much of the area is economically depressed, with a high concentration of hardcore unemployed. He reasons that selling hot goods is the only job available to them, so he "patronizes" many of the peddlers. He has bought several Polaroid and 35-mm cameras, food, stereos, and jewelry. He says he never orders anything, and buys only what they offer him.
He says he buys about five items each week, placing some of the goods on his display shelf and selling them at a 50-percent markup. He supports the peddlers, he says, because he wants them to support his business. "I don't consider myself a part of it (the hot goods market), but I contribute to it simply to alleviate the pressures and anxiety of the community. A guy may come in here in need of a couple of dollars and something he wants to trade in his hand. Or he can come in needing a couple of dollars with a gun in his hand. Clearly, I'd support the trade, rather than the latter.
"Most of them are unemployed, so selling these items is their livelihood," he says, adding that he has seen several of his customers buy merchandise from peddlers right inside his store. "The person who buys a stolen item usually capitalizes, (and) makes a good deal because he can't buy it at the store -- his credit might be bad and he just lacks the money. For the peddler, there's an open market and leeway to bargain a mutually agreed-upon price. What one man won't buy, another will.
"some of the people selling the stuff need money to buy food, clothes, milk for the baby -- that's what they tell me. I can't be positive, but that's what they tell me. When someone comes in here selling something and tells me he owns it, but he's got to sell it to pay the rent, I believe him. . . . He could be a vendor. I don't go around checking invoices and licenses and I don't ask where they got the goods." The most common hot goods item, he adds, is the portable color television set.
Color TVs are status symbols among the disadvantaged, he and other sources say. People want to own one for self-esteem as well as entertainment, they say. Stereo equipment is the second most common item.
Kelsy Jones, a professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia, says the hot goods business has historically been a way of life in most black neighborhoods across the country because it's a way of "getting over" on the system. "Black people place a lot of emphasis on survival, which is mostly interpreted in economic terms. Integrity and self-respect is defined in terms of providing for your needs whatever way you can. Members of the working class never feel guilty for ripping off the managers of the system because their perception is that the managers are ripping them off," he says.
One D.C. native who makes a living stealing and selling merchandise, says, "I take from stores, preferably the large department stores. I don't take from black people because we're all out here struggling. Black people are hurting enough, so I'd rather hurt somebody who can write his losses off on his tax returns at the end of the year.
"I can't get no job," he says, explaining that he means he can't get that $5-to-$10-an-hour job he wants, "So, I do this. Why break your ass for $3.10 when you can go out in the morning and make $100 in an hour?"
The man, who attended UDC for two years, says that two years ago, he held a good job doing construction work, making about $9 an hour. He couldn't hold the job because he often was strung out on heroin. He steals and sells merchandise to maintain his drug habit and standard of living. "I used to be the type who always had a job, and always went to work. When I lost my job, I had to do something to keep my money coming in," he says.
Another thief and hot goods peddler says he dropped out of high school in the 11th grade "to live. I wasn't making no money looking at no damn book," he says. He uses heroin and needs money to support his habit, his two children and common-law wife, so he "hocks" stolen property.
"You got to make a buck somehow," he says, while loitering in a Northeast liquor store. "You tell me what you want, I'll get it."
Another hot goods dealer, one who stays around the 9th and M streets NW area, is a tall, nonchalant man known as "Biggun." He tells a reporter, "You can look at me and tell I'm a street hustler, so I'm going to tell you the real deal. Pilferage is a way of life for many people in this city. It's a part of the American heritage. This country itself is a hot goods item stolen from the Indian.
"A lot of stolen merchandise in D.C. is traded around 9th and U and 7th and T (NW)," he says, "that's where all your fences are. But hot goods can be found everywhere, everywhere. People who once upon a time wouldn't even talk to a guy selling hot goods are buying now. Half of them are scared, but they go on and deal because the cost of living is so high. Quite a few of our (street hustler') customers are middle- and upper-class whites. They come down from Maryland and Virginia just to buy the merchandise." A native of the District, Biggun, 44, says he is a retired truck driver and the father of four.
"The only things that are really moving now," the Shaw resident advises, "are your TV sets, clothes and the high-priced food items -- tuna, coffee (and) meat."
A 27-year-old woman, who recently moved to D.C. from Detroit, where buying hot goods was "as much part of everyday life as eating and sleeping," notes, "I haven't seen as much (hot goods) in D.C. as I'd like to see. It's an alternative to doing completely without what you need and want. I'd definitely prefer to get things cheap than spend a lot of money. It really isn't none of my business where (the peddlers) get the stuff from. If they had something I wanted and if I could afford it, I wouldn't hesitate to buy it."
Outside D.C. Superior Court last summer, a D.C. police officer bought a $350 set of lawn furniture and a 10-speed bicycle from a friend for $125. The friend told the officer the goods were bought at an auction in Manassas, Va. Two months later, the officer was arrested for receiving stolen goods.