When you look into the mall, the mall looks back

by Chris Lowrance

Where you eat is just as important as what you eat. This essential culinary truth is as old as the fires we cook on. It’s why we enjoy a cookout with family under a blue sky, or a candlelight dinner for two. It’s why expensive restaurants spend tens of thousands on dcor. It’s why mall food courts are ill-advised. But sometimes you’re just there. Maybe your blood sugar plummeted in the middle of an all-day shopping binge. Maybe you’re 17 and still think the mall is cool. Maybe you’re just an unabashed people-watcher. The Four Seasons food court is good for the latter, especially in the middle of July when all the kids are out of school and have nothing better to do. Greensboro’s mall is, in fact, a mecca for teens from the surrounding rural counties. Most aren’t here to buy anything; they don’t have any money. Who the hell knows how they afforded the gas to get here, but Four Seasons has yet to install the pimple-highlighting fluorescents and other measures designed to drive the hormonal loiterers off, so loiter they will. Sit in the food court long enough and you’re guaranteed to witness a first kiss, a loud break-up or an angry confrontation happening side-by-side. One can see both the seed and the rot, set within the hyper-time of youth. And, hey, they’ve got a Sbarro. Of course, you need to eat something, or mall security will stop flirting with the patrons long enough to give you the eye. Your choices are pretty good, actually, ranging from the standard fare of Arby’s and Chick-fil-A (never open on Sundays, because God forbids it) to Chinese, Japanese, Cajun and what appears to be a forthcoming Caribbean place. Back to people-watching: A young woman languidly shoves a stroller between tables, her ball-capped and T-shirted husband close in tow. Just six years ago, she was thin and modestly popular, the kind of high school girl unpopular guys crush on, the kind they imagine having a chance with. They didn’t, but she was never rude about it; actually she was remarkably kind. One pregnancy, shotgun wedding and abandoned college degree later, she’s a poster child for her generation, a boilerplate for femininity in the rural South. Maybe she’s happy, maybe not. Hey, where’s Frank & Stein? Frank & Stein Dogs and Drafts used to be a highlight of the food court and was the only place to get your drink on. The hotdogs weren’t bad, either. Now a big white wall stands in its place. Ask around and everyone will say its been gone for about six months, at least. You’ll have to head downstairs to Dunderbak’s for a beer. The food court is actually one of the most diverse places to eat in town. There are the barely born and the nearly dead, the gothed-up and the thugged-out, ladies’ men and family men, soccer moms and So-Cal girls. There’s a girl in a Nine Inch Nails hoodie in the middle of a church youth group. A cultural anthropologist could write her thesis here. Mmm, there’s a Dairy Queen slash Orange Julius. Pay enough attention and you’ll notice a few people looking back. Maybe they’re leaning over to whisper to someone, who glances over too. And it occurs to you that, just as you think you’re reading them like a book, smirking in judgmental pride, they’re doing the same back. And honestly, what do they see? That’s the problem with people-watching – people watch back. Oh, there’s a Cinnabon downstairs.

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