Friday, September 25, 2009

Mall Stalkers

A confluence of circumstances has driven me recently to visit several local shopping malls. By malls, I mean real malls--the indoor kind, not strip malls or anything that requires driving from store to store or walking outdoors at any time other than from car to mall door and back (and, sometimes, even that path is mostly covered).

We're talking about the Fast Times at Ridgemont High-style mall, the kind that Jake and Elwood go careening through in The Blues Brothers. Like many teens of the '80s and early '90s, I was a bit of a mall rat in my youth. (Shockingly, small-town North Texas and the far-flung suburbs south of Dallas aren't flush with entertainment opportunities for teens--or, at least, they weren't in my high school days.)

I'm young enough to have (always unsuccessfully) scouted out-of-town chicks and strutted in my Midlothian High School Panther Regiment (that's what we called the band) jacket at brightly lit, wide-aisled, food-court-festooned shopping explosions very much like the ones we still have today.

I'm also old enough, though, to remember Mall 1.0, the dark, narrow-pathed, sometimes creepy indoor shopping center that had a large cafeteria instead of a food court and planters full of dying or fake flowers in the aisles instead of kiosks. We'll get back to the kiosks in a minute...they're kind of the point of this whole diatribe.

Surprisingly (ahem), I'm quite nostalgic about the late-'70s mall experience. I liked the brown parquet floors, the gray- or red-brick interior walls, the Orange Julius that actually took the space of a whole store, Wyatt's Cafeteria (in the old Red Bird Mall in South Dallas, anyway) and its fried fish fillet and strawberry shortcake...and the dark, foreboding, back-alley-style aisles that led to some lonely Bag 'n Baggage or T-Shirts Unlimited at the end of a string of spooky, un-rented, cavernous retail spaces. (Hey, we are going back to the malaise era here, after all.)

The mall used to be relaxing, with almost a sedative quality. Muzak softly played the hits of the era--pretty much throughout the mall--without bothering with words or proper instrumentation. The anchor department stores--the old Sanger-Harris was a personal favorite--offered relative luxury and resplendent merchandising that held them in stark contrast in comparison to the mostly tacky clothing shops and trinket troves of the aisle stores.

The old Westcliff Mall in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff maintained its dingy '70s feel well into the '80s. In it was a ladies' fashion store called Margot's La Mode that carried clothes that were regularly so unappealing that the shop eventually earned the nickname "Margot's Commode."

The malls of my childhood weren't entertainment complexes with bright lights, polished floors, trendy music and constant stimulation. They were shopping centers, and they served the purpose of letting people buy clothes, home furnishings, electronics and maybe a refrigerator or lawn mower at Sears, and then dine on cafeteria fare before driving home in enormous vehicles sans the use of seat belts.

Needless to say, I hate the modern mall and avoid it most of the time. But I've been in a slew of them this week doing the kind of shopping that really does require a mall visit--more on that in another post. The modern mall is sensory overload for me--my muscles actually contract when I hear loud, trendy music pouring out of the overbearing Abercrombie & Fitch or smell pizza and and the acrid sarcasm of youth in the food court. (I will say, however, that mall Japanese food--pretty much anyplace I've ever had it--is a guaranteed first-rate meal. I would seriously choose mall Japanese food over some of the most expensive dinners I've consumed over the years.)

And then there are the blasted kiosks. (Really, that's why we're here, if you've made it this far.) Where did these things come from? When did they start growing like kudzu (look it up) in malls, with surly teens hocking cell-phone covers, panoramic photos of Gillette Stadium and all manner of jewelry and bizarre little toys?

And when--really, I want to know--did it become OK for said surly and-or vapid teens to stalk and attack innocent mall customers? Walking through a mall in 2009 is like running a gauntlet. At every turn, somebody's in my face, asking me to try a product or talk about a service or do something I otherwise did not come to the mall to do and have no desire to do, either. There are used-car salesmen in checkered sport coats and knit slacks who are more polite and less annoying than these mall sharks. There are telemarketers who have more grace and poise.

No, I don't want to switch my cell-phone provider. Actually, I'm not interested in signing up for DirecTV. Gee, thanks, but I think I can do without a poorly crafted piece of costume jewelry or a new facial moisturizer. Seriously, I'm just trying to get from Sears to the Japanese place in the food court--could I please do that in peace? It's bad enough that I'm being subjected to the blinding, deafening mall experience of the 2000s. I don't need to be harassed all the way down the aisle.

Of course, I'm always polite to the folks who work in kiosks--after all, they probably want to be there even less than I do. But whoever came up with the idea to stick these horrible things right in the flow of traffic and then instruct their overseers to hound people should have to spend the rest of his or her life constantly dodging kiosk people wherever he or she goes.

OK, sure, this was a bit of an old-man rant. But I don't care. I feel old in the mall. (I am old in the mall.) I want my mall back. I want dingy corridors and dark aisles and limited food options (except for the Japanese food) and Muzak and Sanger-Harris and unattractive decor and a sense of quiet--yes, even dull--shopping sanity. When I lived in France, there was a mall out west of Versailles (I really want to say that the name of the town it was in was Plaisir--or "pleasure") that had not changed since about 1981, as far as I could tell. It was magnificent--gray, dark, a little dodgy and thoroughly enjoyable. And there were no kiosks and no kiosk people.

Alas, back in the US of A, the mall of yore is gone. But, fortunately, I don't have much of a reason to visit the mall of today. Online shopping and the strip mall--which I don't mind at all, given the distinct lack of kiosks--have delivered me from having to live the modern indoor shopping nightmare. And if I really miss the "classic" mall of my youth, there's always Fast Times on DVD. So, maybe modern life isn't so bad after all. How's that for a happy ending?


  1. Perhaps we should bid on one of those condos in the Natick Collection. Then you could get to see those kiosk sellers all the time. Doesn't it remind you a little of a bazaar in France? And think of the access to the Japanese food...

  2. Maybe the kiosk sellers could squat in the empty condos. There's plenty of space.

    I wouldn't mind being close to the Japanese food, though.