Like watching something die

by Brian Clarey

The dude sitting behind the gold-chain kiosk holds his chin in his hands and shuts his eyes — just for a second, a minute tops.

Soon his head is weaving slightly, like a charmed snake, as the gentle muzak flows. When his chin drops out of his palm his body gives a spastic jerk; his eyes flip open and dart around. Seeing nothing new, his head eases back into repose.

There is nothing going on at High Point’s Oak Hollow Mall — nothing going on but the rent, even this afternoon, during the waning days of the spring Furniture Market, with the parking shuttle making hourly runs to the showrooms downtown, a fabulous parking space can be had for the asking and, at the cash registers, serious spenders get moved to the front of the line.

Not that too many high rollers cruise the promenade this afternoon, just days after the property listed for sale at $15 million, roughly one-third of the asking price just two years ago.

No, it’s mostly old people shuffling past the empty storefronts this afternoon, though school let out more than an hour ago, with a few members of the stroller brigade mixed in. Fewer than five people who look to be in their twenties loiter at the tables in the food court — half of which has gone dark, just like the rest of the retail space in this 1.2 million squarefoot dinosaur. What’s left are a few mallrat staples: Victoria’s Secret, the card store, homogenized accessory boutiques, shoe stores shoe stores shoe stores and a few hair salons that house much of the commerce going on this afternoon. Even the Dillard’s has gone ghetto, closing the upper floor and relegating the downstairs to a clearance center.

But there are a few in here like me, I can tell by their faces and the clothes they wear and the practiced way they click through the hangers on the bargain racks. There are a few here who remember the way it was.

Oak Hollow Mall came to be in 1995 which, even if you figure that the Triad is generally five years behind the rest of the nation, is pretty late in the game for a shopping mall.

I would put the cultural apogee of the shopping mall at 1986. I know, because I was there.

Back in the 1980s, the shopping mall was heralded as the new church of American commerce, aided by marketing campaigns so ubiquitous as to be almost imperceptible: movies, popular music, television shows and fashion all explored the wonders that could be contained in these monstrous bazaars.

“Valley Girl” the song, and Valley Girl the movie. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Tiffany’s Shopping Mall Tour.

The Golden Age was abetted by the rise of the suburbs, as families began to move away from large cities, and the high times of the decade, when disposable income reached new levels under President Reagan and conspicuous consumption was seen almost as a virtue.

Malls were where teenagers hung out and spent their babysitting money at record stores, T-shirt shops, video arcades and food courts — all of which have been rendered obsolete in the digital age. Wal-Mart and Target played their role by making value and convenience commonplace. And then the pendulum began to swing the other way as people started wanting to go back downtown to shop.

But back in the day, the mall was where it all happened: commerce, entertainment, romance, competition. It was where we learned the virtue of gainful employment and the vice of covetousness. And back then it was easy to believe it would always be thus.

Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island was my playground in the ’80s, my territory, my kitchen. I worked at least three jobs there, and then I spent it there on comic books, cassette tapes, T-shirts, movie tickets, sporting goods, posters and the occasional high-end item that would take weeks of saving. It was where I learned to play Centipede for like 20 minutes on one quarter, where my older sister learned to fold sweaters to look like Chiclets and where my younger sister learned to shoplift. We went there on weekends and after school — sometimes we would ditch school just so we could hang out at the mall, smoking Parliaments on the wooden benches and sneaking down to the truck tunnels beneath for the more illicit stuff.

Good times, I assure you. A walk through the Oak Hollow Mall in 2010 feels less like a nostalgic trip down the memory hole and more like watching a sick animal finally rear up and die.

But old habits are hard to break. Down in the Dillard’s basement I find a sleek wool-cashmere blend Murano jacket priced down from $400 to $120. It looks smashing, and I am considering the purchase when I see the big red sign on the bargain rack: “All sales final.”

I make my way through the empty parking lot without the jacket.

My how things have changed.