I’ve been trying to figure out a way to express my intense dislike of malls without coming off looking like a huge snob, and I have to admit, I’m having some trouble. I just really hate chain stores, pregnant teenagers and food courts, and that pretty much runs the gamut of the mall experience in a nutshell.
I’d like to think that my anti-mall stance comes from a place of self-preservation rather than elitism. It’s not that I think I’m too good for the mall; it’s that for some reason I lack the means to protect myself from the mall. I let the mall get to me too easily. The mall oozes over my brain like melted cheese over a hot pretzel. I am powerless to stop it, and so I do my best to avoid exposure.
I have always been a little oversensitive– prone, since childhood, to bouts of melancholy that often seem to come out of nowhere. These depressive spells can be triggered by the most seemingly insignificant details– and somehow, malls are always swarming with such details. A woman in her fifties trying on pink stretch pants at Hot Topic. A dead-eyed teenage employee slumped behind the counter of a cell phone kiosk. A store that sells only baseball caps. Most normal, well-adjusted people will witness such depressing occurrences and move on without giving them another thought. But not me. I’ll spend five minutes watching a teenage father, in headphones, trying to quiet a screaming baby by feeding it chicken nuggets, and I’m ready to tear my hair out at the miserable agony of life. And then I’m ready to have some chicken nuggets.
Needless to say, I am not a popular mall companion. No one usually asks me to go to the mall with them more than once. I feel bad about this to a certain extent. I wish I could be the fun friend who says things like, “Hey, check out that cute security guard! Let’s get curly fries.” Instead, I trail gloomily behind you like Eeyore, mocking the “Just Nightgowns” store and sneering at all of the slow, obese children. I can’t blame my friends for leaving me at home. Who wants to browse Forever 21 with Droopy Dog? What’s pleasant about wandering through Crabtree & Evelyn with a Chekov character?
Part of the problem may be the lack of mall exposure in my youth. Growing up in Manhattan, there was a dearth of malls. We had big department stores that took up a whole city block, like Macys and Bloomingdales, but that wasn’t really the same. Mom took me to get my first training bra at Macy’s. Groups of teenagers didn’t hang out at Macy’s all day and make eyes at each other across the Home Goods and Bedding aisles. Macy’s was not cool.
As teenagers, we had to find other ways to entertain ourselves, and these included going outside between stores while we shopped. Sure, it was cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and when it was raining out we got rained on, but we also experienced sunlight and breathed in fresh air (well, Manhattan fresh), and avoided food courts. And somehow, I recall encountering fewer massive people in motorized wheelchairs and underage parents walloping their ratty children for spilling their Big Gulps.
We hung out at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, too, which was kind of like a mall in a way, except it was closer to George Romero’s version of a mall in Dawn of the Dead. That is to say, every third person in Port Authority would just as soon stab you as look at you, for various reasons. But, you know, there were shops and restaurants, and a bowling alley, and an ever-present urine smell. I always kind of liked Port Authority Bus Terminal, actually. Maybe it’s because there, the feeling of sadness and desperation is not hidden like it is in most malls. It’s out in the open; even palpable. The sense of danger and despair, the commerce and the crowds, the ugliness and the monotony and the meaningless passage of empty hours; all in plain sight. Maybe I don’t hate malls after all– as long as they’re done right.