Ruminations of a former mallrat
I ease into a terrible parking spot near the back of the lot. It’s the best I can do.
Parking at the Four Seasons Mall, at any mall, is rarely a pleasurable experience. And given that it’s the day before Thanksgiving, the soft opening for the annual holiday spending spree, I’m glad I can get within eyeshot of Dillard’s.
And I’m glad to be here. At the risk of losing a few cool points, I will say that I love the mall. Especially during high buying season.
It’s easy to talk smack about the mall: how malls killed downtown America; how they’re an effect of white flight to the suburbs; how they highlight our worst traits like greed, desire, conformity and vapidity; how they helped launch the career of Debbie Gibson.
I like the mall anyway. Always have.
You should understand that I grew up on Long Island in the ’80s. Talk about mall culture ‘— that was where it all started. In a way it was just as profound an experience as being in San Francisco during the Summer of Love or Seattle when grunge festered and grew, only not quite so much.
I grew up within walking distance of the Roosevelt Field mall, which when it was built was the biggest in the entire world. It was, however, built in 1956 and by the time I was a teenager it was starting to look kind of lame next to the new ones that were cropping up around the country. They refurbished the whole thing some time during the ’90s, but by then I was long gone and I still remember Roosevelt Field as the squat, one-story figure eight it was when I wandered its byways, worked in some of its stores and snuck cigarettes down in the truck tunnels.
The Four Seasons here today is much bigger, much brighter than the mall of my youth. And on this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the quiet before the storm, the lanes teem with spenders both inexperienced (only chumps buy stuff two days before the big sales) and savvy (experienced shoppers scout out the goods beforehand so they can cut down browsing time on sale day).
Santa’s here already, surrounded by fluffed white cotton and robot children carolers in a contrived Santaland on the first floor. Across from his Christmas throne, a machine behind a desk spits out digital photos one after another. The first photo costs about 14 bucks ‘— a package called ‘The Dasher.’ The Rudolph, for 45 dollars, consists of 20 pictures and the image on disk. Some of the mothers group all their children on Santa’s lap at once to save money.
There are kids in the toy store with notepads making detailed wish lists for Christmas Day and in the Gap there is an unspoken aura of anxiety as the sweaters are folded to look like Chiclets in a stack.
My sisters worked at the Gap in Roosevelt Field. I was more of a food and beverage guy. I took my first real job as a stockboy for the mall’s three snack huts when I was in tenth grade, hauling soft pretzels and frozen hot dogs and cans of red onion stew and drink cups and huge ‘— I mean huge ‘— buckets of mustard up from the stockrooms in the truck tunnels to the three locations on the mall floor. My partner was a kid named Fred, the first real dirtbag I ever met, with hair the color of dirty pumpkin pie and hacked into a woolly mullet. We used shopping carts to haul the stuff and brought them up on the escalator, walking the buggies on backwards and tipping them onto their rear wheels for the ride up. The first time I tried this, incidentally, I dropped the cart near the top of the escalator and it tumbled down into a couple of ladies. Thankfully the hot dog buns cushioned the impact. Fred thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
They don’t have snack huts at the malls anymore. The province has been absorbed by the food court megalith. That’s where I head after I spend a full 15 minutes in the massage chair by the entrance to the fancy gadget store, an item for which I eventually decline purchase. And so what of it?
Seasonal kiosks have taken over the spaces at the perimeters of the food court and I negotiate through cubicles bearing a wide variety of schmaltz ‘— calendars, picture frames, candles and the like ‘— that picks off the low-hanging fruit of holiday consumer dollars.
The Sbarro pizza joint has more employees than customers and three of the guys behind the counter jump on my order. My slice tastes exactly the same as the ones I used to get at the Roosevelt Field Sbarro: undercooked, heavy and kind of gross. Sbarro existed at the Field before the food court came in and within ten years they had driven the old mall pizza place, Pizza Supreme, to a spot in a strip mall across Stewart Avenue where, I believe, you can still get those rectangular slices, each with a centered dollop of mozzarella.
The video arcade at the corner of the food court is as empty and desolate as a state fair on a rainy day. In the days of Q-Bert and Elevator Action, the video arcade at the mall was a hub. Now it’s a relic. All the modern vidiots are at the video game store across the way, spending all their quarters at once instead of dropping them one at a time.
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