Photo by Jack GouldYou know, if there's one place I feel at home, it's clicking my heels down the hallowed halls of South Coast Plaza (SCP), plastic dangling from my eager and extremely well-formed fingers. It was for just that reason that I trilled my merry way there the day after Thanksgiving to shop, as the clever bumper stickers direct us to do (when they're not demanding that we spend our children's inheritance), till I dropped.

I had expected mayhem! and madness! But though I was one of an estimated 67.6 million shoppers braving the malls that Friday, there was nothing particularly biblical about the size of the crowd at SCP; there weren't even any lines for which I could pop off a reference to mid-'80s Soviet bread lines, which is probably a good thing as it's become a clich.

So I was shopping, except I wasn't really because I have more than 50 people to shop for this year, and there ain't no way y'all are getting presents from South Coast Plaza. Sheeit. I was really more just kind of roaming.

I roamed through Oilily, with its $148 velour shirts for toddlers, $112 faux-fur jackets that looked like icky stewed rat (for toddlers) and $44 socks (but the long, fancy kind—also for toddlers). I roamed through the Thomas Kinkade Gallery, where a cardboard cutout of the Master of Light sports a Tom Selleck/Freddie Mercury mustache. I roamed through Brookstone, where I toyed with a massager that was so powerful it made me dizzy. But does anyone really need an automatic pasta fork? I roamed past some guys from OCN doing a remote feed. I roamed past the Freedom Shrine, off in a corner, with chicken-scratch versions of the Constitution and stuff. I saw lots and lots and lots of couples, the guys waiting around as morosely as boyfriends in a beer commercial while their chicks tried on clothes. In fact, the only lines I saw all day were for dressing rooms. Doesn't anyone buy Christmas presents for other people anymore? So I got in line and bought myself a really pretty amber/bronze velour tube top from The Limited because it came with a free gold belt.

Little did I know! It turns out the Limited's factories are in the U.S. territory of Taipan, where women are brought (with promises of a good life “in America”) as indentured servants. They are kept locked in dorms, for which they're charged most of their pay, after their 12- to 14-hour workdays, seven days a week.

But Taipan is practically a weekend in Carmel compared to Disney's sweatshops in Haiti and Nike's gulags throughout the world. Swoosh!

Charlie Kernaghan, a Brooklyn-sounding tuff who directs the National Labor Committee, has been studying sweatshops around the world. In an hourlong address at the University of Washington, he detailed the frightful misery of the young, young women (usually single mothers) who man the plants. But it's not just the beatings and the firings and the guards carrying sawed-off shotguns. It's the economy, stupid. For a $19.99 102 Dalmatians shirt, Disney pays its overseas workers a total of 6 cents, or three-tenths of 1 percent of the retail price. But that's Haiti. It's not Seattle or Costa Mesa. Maybe six cents is a reasonable amount of money there! Well, no. After working seven days solid, 12 to 14 hours a day, women are taking home about a third of what it costs to live. They live in hovels, and they feed their children coffee because they can't afford milk. Disney paid its CEO $177 million last year. Of course, to be fair, that's including benefits. Liz Claiborne? The total labor on a $198 jacket is 74 cents. I stopped into the Liz Claiborne store in South Coast Plaza to see what a $198 jacket looked like. It looked like a whole lot of ugly, and I don't mean moral or spiritual ugliness. I mean just ugly. And I'm an art critic, which means I know about these things, except when I don't.

Nike, of course, is still the leader in sweatshop tactics, despite their vaunted Nike Code. When Kernaghan and his students interviewed women about the Nike Code, they laughed and said, yes, there was a code. The code was that they had to wash their hands when they came to work and weren't allowed to wear makeup, lest it sweat onto the material. Nike pays its workers 23 cents per hour. Nike's owner is worth $5.8 billion.

I stopped into a lot of places with clothes imported from Italy. My esteemed colleague Jim Washburn believes we're becoming the new century's Italians: we'll be poor, but we'll eat and dress well. I can live with that. So far as I know, no one in Italy is locked into their workplace while guards stab them with their own cutting scissors. The Dolce & Gabbana store was staffed with bleached blondes in cowboy hats and cool black guys with blue beards and hair who just about fell over themselves being friendly. With its dark lighting and pumping techno, the shop—without whom the world's DJs would be cold and naked—should charge a cover. The $630 raincoats? “You don't have to be rich to shop here,” Les the Salesmantold me. “You just have to want it bad enough.” I popped into Prada, with its pleasant green walls, where I contemplated a $700 cashmere cardigan that looked just like any cardigan you can pick up at a thrift shop. How's anyone supposed to recognize its worth? I stopped at Dior, where I pondered $3,200 dresses that at least looked expensive, with ruffles and fringes and gewgaws in the green that's no longer chartreuse—it's “margarita.” I bet I would look good in a $3,200 dress, but taking off my boots and pants to try it on seemed like an awful lot of work.

My three hours in the mall flew by like seven. Bone-weary—or was I just deathly bored?—I stopped in The Clubhouse for a nice chicken piccata. There, I chatted with the cute bartender, who pointed out a $200-per-shot cognac. “Why don't they just give that money to charity?” he asked, properly appalled. Because it isn't the American Way.

Co**********@ho*****.com. For information on sweatshop abuses by yer favorite companies, call the National Labor Committee at (212) 242-3002.

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