Mall Right, Now!
Several years ago, young and alone and living in a basement apartment in Seattle, I found myself homesick. Even though I was in the Northwest, which topographically could not be more different than my hometown, it was easy to find a soothing place to remind me of home. I just got into my car, drove across the 520 bridge and pulled into the acres of parking adjacent to Bellevue Square, the biggest mall in the Seattle metro area.
I've often told people that as an Orange County kid, I didn't grow up with the same kind of backdrop as normal kids. Where they had actual animals, deer and the like, we had people dressed up as Bambi. We had Disneyland instead of reality, beaches instead of cornfields. And instead of city streets, we had malls.
For awhile, probably right around the time I was living in Seattle and making up for having spent college as if it were a four-year extension of high school, I made it my business to belittle malls, to lament the "mallification of America," being very careful to point out that my generation did not invent malls, we just were left to live in them, to make do with the hand we were dealt.
I was lying, though. I never hated malls. How could I? I'm from Orange County? My dad even had a camera store in the Orange Mall for awhile, which meant that not only did the mall have to stand in for a town, it also was the place I went to see my dad at work.
I held several mall-related jobs in late adolescence: Hollywood Sports Plaza, where we stood around and tried to catch the eyes of the girls who worked at the Wet Seal across the way, my dad's store, even Sears one summer, in the shoe department, thanks to my dad's connections in the mall.
The mall was the first place we could go on our own, chaperone-less, at the precocious age of 11. Dave K. and I would grab our skateboards and terrorize the little old ladies shopping at the City, an open-air mall that would later, after several failed remodel attempts, be reborn as "The Block," a "Shoppertainment" center including movie theaters and a Vans skatepark.
No, you will no longer find me taking the easy road, trashing the malls as synthetic substitutes for "real life," because like it or not, there's plenty of real life taking place in each and every mall. If you look closely, you'll find that malls have, without any planning, begun to mimic city life. There are good malls and bad malls, high-end malls and ghetto malls. Even within each mall itself you will find high-rent and low-rent.
You'll find everything except housing, which used to be a fantasy of mine, during the period of my late 20s when I'd recovered from the tired old trick of mall-bashing and begun to look at malls for what they were: a legitimate interpretation of the urban model. Once I realized that malls were invented to ape a city street, minus the hassles of cars, weather and crime, I started to imagine a mall with a layer of housing above the stores. You could buy a mall condo with a balcony, then sit there and watch the "city scape." At night, the stores would close and you could then stare out at a quiet, peaceful city street, minus the cars and the weather.
Naturally, given its own space, the city-mall would develop as a city would. Think of it as the missing step between SimCity and real city. There would be dangerous parts of the mall, snooty parts of the mall. There would be restaurants and bars, mini-parks (with skylights, naturally), places for teenage couples to have ridiculously dramatic arguments over not showing up after football practice the way you'd promised.
All in a mall.
Today I got home from the gym at a bad time. Street cleaning prevented me from parking, so I just kept going, and eventually ended up at a mall. I wanted to buy basketball shoes, but just as all good San Franciscans know without proof that President George W. Bush eats babies, I need no proof to know that Sandra Bullock somehow got Copeland's Sports to shut their doors and vacate the premises in the time it took me to get to the mall after calling her and telling her I was thinking of getting some new shoes.
With that option gone, I went into the mall and wandered around, just like I used to do on those homesick days in rainy Seattle, circa 1988. In Macy's, I wondered if somewhere there was a place that churned out light jazz loops, slightly sophisticated yet still innocuous, to play in Macy's mens' stores across the country.
In the past, usually while holding down some kind of hateful job that required real clothing, I would drift through the mens' store slowly, looking seriously at clothes, then rubbing my fingers on the fabric as if I was testing to see if it was up to snuff. "What is this? Cotton? What weight? Where did it come from?" In this manner I supposed the store clerks would be forced to treat me with respect, a fashionista who knew his stuff.
I love the way Macy's smells, the way perfume, lotions, new clothing and linens mingle in the air. There are no windows, so there's nowhere for the smell to go. It just hangs around.
I'm not going to change my stance on malls. I know a woman who brags that she never goes to malls. If she needs anything, she goes downtown. Good for her, I guess, but I'm way too old to stake my self-esteem on where I shop. It's not as if downtown is full of one-off mom-and-pop stores. I like the city, too, otherwise I wouldn't put up with the endless hassles of living here.
But sometimes there's nothing that feels exactly like a mall. Nothing that feels as safe as a mall. It's a gigantic cocoon with clothes and DVDs and slices of pizza and packs of teenagers shuffling around, stalking each other. And it never rains. As failed 1950s Shangri-la experiments go, it's held up pretty well.
There were no basketball shoes in the Stonestown Mall today, not for me. Footlocker, which used to actually carry athletic shoes but now just carries oversized versions of the lame sports shoes I wore to my Bar Mitzvah in 1978, is worthless. No one has any cheap sunglasses. I was feeling the loss of Copeland's very deeply, and eventually ran out of time so, large pretzel in hand, I walked out to the parking lot, and drove home.