A few girlfriends and I chartered a bus to New York City for Christmas shopping. We went down to Canal Street to look for cheap knockoff handbags. The little shops were tight, with their no-name merchandise spilling onto the sidewalks shared by street vendors. "You like this? We have more. Come in." At first, it was overwhelming.Crossing the first block, men and women walked up really close and would say, "Coach? Louis? Burberry?" We avoided eye contact and kept walking. But after about four blocks my friend Laverne said to one girl, "Do you have any Burberry?" The girl\u2014maybe 17\u2014looked each of us in the eye and said, "Yes, come with me." Then she turned and bolted down the street.We followed in a line, speed-walking to keep up. We looked like the seven dwarfs running late. She'd look back at us every 20 feet. Three blocks. We turned a corner. Another block and a half. Our leader nervously scoped the area as she led us down a small walkway to a door with a keypad. She punched in a code and we followed her inside.There was an unattended deli case filled with snacks at the beginning of a long hallway. Halfway down, a guy was reading the newspaper. Doors on each side of the hall advertised tea, pharmacies and massages. At the far end was a black iron gate, which was covered with a metal mesh so that you couldn't even put a finger through it. The dead bolt was on the outside. The girl opened the gate, pointed and said, "Go down the stairs." She shut the gate and dead-bolted us in.I totally panicked. But we kept going. Everyone nervously looked at each other, but no one spoke.At the bottom of the stairs was an empty, cavernous room, all cement and bright from industrial fluorescent lights. A door opened at the far end and a hand stuck out and waved us over. All we could see through the door was a thick curtain. Laverne went first. Then me. We peeked behind the curtain and, Voil\u00e0!Purses. Hundreds of them hanging from floor to ceiling. Burberry. Coach. Kate Spade. Gucci. Louis Vuitton. And matching wallets too. I think they were the real thing.The door locked behind us. The room was stuffy and smelled of leather. The hand that waved us in belonged to a boymaybe 15who didn't say anything unless we held up a bag and asked, "How much?"We shopped for 20 minutes. I got a Kate Spade bag for $30 and a Gucci, for my niece, for $20. Susie bought a really cute Burberry for $40. The other Susie bought a $20 wallet, a Louis I think. Jackie bought a Coach bag for $40. After we paid, the boy put our bags into black plastic bags and tied them off at the top. Laverne, who started all this, didn't get anything.Until later. After lunch, with some wine, we had more adventures. But I remember the pangs of guilt I felt coming out of that first basement. I was convinced the cops would be on the other side of the black iron gate, waiting to take our goodies away. Instead, the girl opened the gate and we escaped into the bright, brisk winter day, free. And I remembered one of my first encounters on Canal Street earlier that morning. A woman looked me in the eye and pointed at my arm."Be careful with your purse," she said. "Hold it in tight."