NEW YORK -- The young men were in a jet-black Jeep with mirrored windows and the kind of large tires made for trucks.
They double-parked on Flatbush Avenue and bounded into La Caribe, the nearest clothing store.
"Shearling," Raymond Soldan, 17, barked at the proprietor, Kamal Singh. "You got it?" Singh gave a weary nod and pointed to a wall filled with coats.
In New York City, this has become the year of the fleece-lined shearling jacket. Last year, the triple-stuffed goose-down parka was in vogue. Before that, it was pump sneakers and gold chains. And even earlier, it was bomber jackets and designer sunglasses.
Status-seeking teenagers are nothing new, here or anywhere. They are as American as trading in a car at every possible chance. In some neighborhoods, however, shearling jackets turn heads these days not because they are so fashionable but simply because they have become an advertisement for death.
In the last two months, at least 16 youths have been shot for their shearling coats or for equally popular jackets with a multicolored leather eight ball on the back. Six are dead, and several others have been gravely injured.
"I wouldn't even sell them now," said Howard Smith, who runs a men's store on Flatbush Avenue only a block from Erasmus Hall High School. "You have them in the store, it just means more people are going to come in and rob you. Why make life worse than it is?"
The crimes of New York often shock people in other cities because they seem so random. When a woman with only $1 in her wallet died in an encounter with a purse snatcher in the subway recently, the incident made headlines largely because it seemed as if it could have happened to anyone.
But there has been nothing random about shooting for overcoats. Last week, Quan Horton, 16, of Bushwick wore one to a party. On his way home, according to police, he was challenged for the jacket. When he stood his ground, he was shot.
"These coats are cool," said Johnnie Wardell, 16, a student at Erasmus Hall, wearing his classic three-quarter-length shearling jacket. "It says you got class, and you don't care who knows it."
Talk about letting clothes wear the man.
Prodded by friends to assert their emerging manhood, or eager to cash in on a commodity that can keep an addict in drugs for days, some teenagers will do anything to acquire a shearling -- $450 worth of soft, buttery leather and baby lamb's hair.
Sold at scores of local stores, they are as likely to provoke combat in certain neighborhoods here as is wearing the wrong gang colors in sections of Los Angeles.
One of last week's victims, Jamel Hollis, 16, was shot in the hand in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn after being confronted by about 10 young men. Hollis, no fool, shed his coat the minute he saw the gang and was about to go home when one of them shot him anyway.
"These people have no real sense of community values," said one social studies teacher at Erasmus Hall, who asked that his name not be used. "They see things on television, and they want them. This is a city that swims with merchandise and where possessions are important.
"So if they don't have the money to buy the coats, they steal them. I have kids here who don't want to hang up their overcoats in our closets or lockers because they wouldn't last a day."
Police have a hard time advising people on the coat problem, in part because police have bigger problems every day in every part of the city. Many New Yorkers wear more expensive clothing, and most know that next year it will be another hot item -- a cashmere sweater, a locket or a four-wheel-drive vehicle -- that people will be dying for.
It is perhaps for that reason that the Board of Education has declined to ban shearlings in city high schools, although it has been discussed. Sad as it is to admit, if the city school system banned every piece of merchandise that youngsters could be killed for, many students would have to leave for school naked.
"You trying to figure out why they shooting for the winter coats, man?" asked a man who calls himself "D.J. David" and sells specially mixed tapes of rap and reggae records on the steps of a church on Flatbush Avenue.
"Don't even waste your time," he continued. "They shoot people for anything. If you got nothing and one of these monsters has a gun, then they shoot you for nothing. The coats are nice, man, real nice. But these guys don't even notice."