In the Mall, I Was . . . in the Mall

As a halfway educated man, I wonder why I like hanging out in shopping malls. There’s an understood mandate among we liberal arts types to despise such centers of consumerism, with their calculated storefront designs and cleverly displayed merchandise; and the hardly hidden motive for profit, which is one small, capitalist step away from greedy excess. In other words, the mall is a two-storied, soulless gallery of deception. Yet this store across from me right now, called Altar’d State, looks inviting, even though I think it’s geared toward women. The letters in the name are clean and modern, and they’re evenly centered above the entrance, on a slanted, wooden awning that runs nearly the width of the store. The tall windows are arched and contain rectangular bits of stained glass, all in various shades of brown, beige, tan, and off-white (I imagine that at some point, someone used words like “khaki” and “cream”). The facade reminds me a little bit of Macaroni Grill, which has even further pleasant associations. Anyway, staring at Altar’d State, it strikes me that mall storefronts are a little like television shows: just as TV gives us artificial slices of life on one convenient screen, the mall gives us artificial slices of architecture in one convenient location. Neither is what you would call real life or fine architecture, but they both seem to be enough. They both seem to satisfy some vagrant need for spectacle.

Maybe its the cleanliness and brightness that I love at the mall, and the good smells, and the splashes of color in the makeup department at Belk. The fact that the mall is climate-controlled is a definite plus, and opportunities for people-watching abound (even though most of the adults seem to be nursing a low-grade misery). Also, there’s something to be said about the pairing of familiar stores, like Dillard’s, with stores I’ve never heard of, like Native and Nomad. It’s as if the mall is saying, “I know who I am, yet I also like trying new things.” Humans like that kind of spirit.

Inevitably, I begin to wonder what this desire to be in the mall says about me. Am I drawn by the scent of retail? By its implied promise that happiness can be bought? Yet I almost never buy anything. (But I could. But I don’t. It goes back and forth.) To embrace the idea that buying brings happiness is, of course, shallow. So if I do get some kind of thrill from close proximity to retail, I hope that it is only a vicarious one. Perhaps the fascination is an expression of social class: an overlap of the working-class obsession over brand names with the middle-class obsession over buying power. This doesn’t feel quite accurate either, though. I shook brand-name obsession decades ago (I like to think), and as I’ve already said, I almost never buy anything. Or maybe, like most Americans, discussions of social class put me on edge, so I’ll drop that. Anyway, I think I’m gonna just drop this whole thing. I’m beginning to feel shallow.

Part 3: Shopping

The wind blew constantly last winter, enough to distinguish that winter from others.  It was colder, too.  I felt it every time the double-doors slid apart.  The foyer did little to contain it.  If it wasn’t the double-doors separating then it was the low opening where they push in the shopping carts from outside.  Either way, the cold always got in.  And I’m expected to wear this red, short-sleeve polo!  I didn’t think my fingers and nose would ever warm up!

 

Shopping brings out the diva in people.  It lurks there behind their genial facades, waiting for you to overcharge them (as if the system allows this) or forget to scan a card or coupon or something.  I’ve learned to identify that defensive impulse.  People come to the store ready to pounce, as if this conveyor belt is the dividing line between the classes, like it’s their right to be so demanding.  I’m trying to finish school.  I bet half of these fools never even went, at least beyond what was required.  And they’re gonna look at me like I’m inferior?

 

I’d better compose myself.  Anyway, last winter.  So I’m standing there, doing my thing.  Moderate busyness.  I ring up a lady with a toddler–cute, kept smiling at me all shy-like and saying over and over, “Bye, bye.”  They’re in here a lot.  Kids are often the highlight of the day, as long as they’re not screaming.  So they finish up and move along.  Then comes a girl in her late teens, a bit younger than me but with clear entitlement issues.  She didn’t even look up from her phone except to question whether I’d gotten her soda.  “Did you get this?” she said in some kind of nasal, affected twang–a hybrid of Nashville and Malibu–probably lifted from some stupid reality show.  It’s a curse that I get to remember her, but she probably forgot me as soon as she turned her head.  You can feel the condescension from customers like this, even when they’re polite.  We all can.

 

But then the guy who came after!  Fidgety and wild-eyed like a wanted man.  The things people buy are usually a blur, but his I remember:  protein bars and antifreeze.  Harmless enough, I guess.  But he acted so strange!  He acted like the shoplifters that they watch with the cameras, all shifty and conniving, except he didn’t seem to be stealing anything.  He didn’t say anything, either.  Just handed me a debit card and then took it back afterward with his receipt.  Grabbing his bag with calloused fingers (I remember a wedding ring), he was gone, vanishing into the bright cold with little more than a gust to mark his passage.  I see my share of weirdos, but this one stuck with me for some reason.  It’s like those dreams you remember that seem important but you’re not sure why.

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