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In addition, the secondhand clothing industry from Goodwill on down has been tarnished by claims that the big rag recyclers ship excess inventory to Third World merchants, undercutting the sub-Saharan textile-manufacturing industry.
"It's killed textile manufacturing in Africa, which is how a lot of Third World countries jump start their economies," Wheelock acknowledges.
Shantha Bloemen, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Africa, produced T-Shirt Travels for PBS's "Independent Lens" series. While Bloemen finds the overabundance of recycled American clothing to be generally detrimental to Third World economies, she's at a bit of a loss as to how to rectify the problem.
"There is no doubt that people in the Third World now depend on secondhand clothes, not just because they are the most readily available but because they are often better quality than what can be produced locally," Bloemen comments via e-mail. "The traders are dependent upon it, so you could not just ban it. But there need to be some protections and ways for African-based industry to develop that is not simply for import but for local consumption.
"I do believe we should think a little bit more honestly about our notions of charity," the filmmaker continues. "Often we are so ready to pat ourselves on the back for being generous, without really asking some more deeply rooted questions. The act of giving should be selfless, but often in the competitive world of giving, it becomes about making the giver feel good, while not looking at the long-term impact on the intended beneficiary (i.e., the Sudanese kid who ends up with the used Philadelphia 76ers T-shirt on his back). It is part of trying to be a little bit more honest about our motives, and indeed about its impact."
Of course, as Johnson points out, trade is free and recycling is far from illegal.
"It's free enterprise," Johnson says, noting that Rock Star does not deal regularly with Third World clients. "Third World nations were wanting Western clothing, so why not sell them the stuff we're throwing away or donating?"
On a Thursday afternoon at Parodi's, a workaday corner bar off North Broadway at Ninth and Tyler, Martinez is joined at a window table by Johnson, Young, two massive plates of chicken wings and several icy cold pitchers of Busch. So they've knocked off at two in the afternoon. So fucking what?
"There's no way we could go to another job and not get fired the first day," Young observes.
Business is on the upswing at Rock Star, but nowhere near the salad days of the '90s. For almost that entire decade, Rock Star Rags employed up to three dozen people at a time. Then the bottom of the Japanese stock market fell out, and the layoffs came en masse.
"We've been 'closing' since '98," jokes Martinez.
Back then the warehouse's kaleidoscope roster of sorters and seamstresses featured stoner rock kids working side by side with devout African-American women of advanced age.
"There was never a dull moment," Young recollects. "You had kids, old black church ladies. The church ladies would smell the kids smoking pot."
Drugs are hardly considered a taboo topic around Rock Star. In fact, Johnson recalls a bizarre client meeting she attended in the company of owner Mark Goldenhersh, on a rare visit to check up on his minions: "We're at the [Schlafly] Tap Room. In the middle of lunch, Mark starts talking about driving around the Sahara goofed up on acid. [The clients] were totally eating it up. He's like a big, eccentric kid. That's one of the reasons why we don't hate him. He's funny. He's an old hippie."
Still, adds Johnson, old hippies aren't necessarily cut out for astute bookkeeping, as she is in the midst of dealing with the aftermath of an undisclosed cash-flow crisis wrought by Goldenhersh's laissez-faire management style.
"Mark runs this business like a bookie," she confides. "We have our surprises."
The final survivor of the stock-crash layoffs is a hound-eyed black fellow named Marlon Brandon, who strolls into Parodi's sporting a blue Food For Less polo shirt from a supermarket shift just concluded. Brandon lives in north city and is Rock Star's part-time baler. Upon his arrival, Martinez bounds to his feet and escorts Brandon to the bar, where he is furnished with a fresh frozen beer mug and a sidecar of Hennessy.
"Those two were split at birth," Johnson quips.
Johnson's stepbrother, Scott Hermes, plays drums for the Phonocaptors, which compels her to tell Brandon about her brother's upcoming show at the Hi-Pointe. Mildly interested, Brandon says he'll think about it, laughing in the next breath about the last time he was at the Hi-Pointe: It was a staff party. Everyone got hammered. Ah, memories -- or the lack thereof.
The Rock Stars' musical tastes are all over the map. Brandon likes old R&B and soul and prefers to tune the stereo to Magic 104.9 while he bales bundles. Young likes country and classic arena rock, with Van Halen and Bob Seger among her favorites. Martinez is fond of salsa, hip-hop and straight-ahead rock. Johnson digs the Rolling Stones, the Who, KISS and Queens of the Stone Age, but her true heroes are the local yokels. As tenured a live-music devotee as exists in this town, she counts LoFreq, Shame Club, the Spiders, Whoppers Taste Good and Ring, Cicada among her favorite Arch-area acts and dutifully attends three or four local shows a week.