Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On the Untold Beauty of the Mall

I love shopping malls.

Mine is a completely irrational passion, born of a childhood spent wandering the lone corridor of the Nittany Mall, in search of Orange Julii* and Gap jeans and Chess King sweaters and some material method of chasing away small-town tedium. That love of malls carried me through a dull post-college internship in Los Angeles (varied locations), and through five years in Akron, Ohio, (Summit Mall), and offset a year of supposed "serious study" in Boston (Prudential Center). There's something about a mall that crystallizes the ordinariness of modern American life: The free samples of bourbon chicken, the hirsute kiosk clerks hawking overpriced cell-phone plans with the passion of mob enforcers, the sports memorabilia mart with its overpriced jerseys and framed Willie Stargell pennants, the burbling of a half-dead fountain laden with corroded pennies, the scent of corn dogs and Sears outerwear--a mall is a uniform American experience, a confluence of the hideous (American Girl) and the breathtaking (Victoria's Secret, for the pubescent teenage male), of the decadent (Auntie Anne's Pretzel Bites) and weird (Spencer Gifts), of all the excess of our crumbling empire, of our endless yearning for that which we do not need.

And so I spent this weekend in Minneapolis, at the wedding of one of my closest friends, and I couldn't not visit to the Mall of America, the uber-mall, a mall so great that it actually became the central metaphor in one of the greatest pieces of sports journalism any human (in this case, Steve Rushin) has ever composed. I went to Mall of America expecting to be overwhelmed by the sights and scents of our national pastime. And in a way, I was not disappointed. I saw a teenaged mother screaming at the father of her child from outside the mens room as he attempted a diaper change with a high degree of difficulty; I passed at least six sports memorabilia stores, each of which had displayed dozens of iterations of Brett Favre gear; I ate lunch at a restaurant whose founders voluntary chose the vaguely sexual, mildly offensive name Tucci Bennuch (second choice: Fuhgeddaboudit), and I watched the roller coaster at the center of the mall rattle and roll and discharge the sorts of yellowish adults who would choose to ride a roller coaster at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon; I had, laid out before me, every chain store that has ever existed, row after row of American Apparels and Gaps and Banana Republics and Macy's and Frederick's of Hollywood (apparently, Wonder Woman outfits are the rage among trashy housewives this autumn), and somehow, despite all of this, I still felt inexplicably empty inside. It just didn't seem like enough.

But then, this is exactly what I anticipated feeling. And I suppose this is the reason why I love to visit the mall, and it is the reason why I am most happy when I leave without buying anything at all. Because if even the largest, most-hyped, most patriotic shopping structure in the world cannot satisfy me, perhaps it is a sign I don't really need much of anything at all.

*Is this the actual plural of "Julius"? Unknown. Perhaps, as with moose, the plural of "Julius" is "Julius," but I prefer to think of a "Julius" as synonymous with "Sarcophagus." Particularly the Pina Colada flavor.

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