When I was in Arizona a few weeks back, visiting and playing golf with my old buddy Dick, we talked about exercise, and about how important it is to do it consistently. I’m just beginning to pull level after some four years of a physical decline. “I should walk,” I told Dick, “but the weather’s so lousy, I just can’t seem to do it.”
“Go mall walking,” Dick suggested.
In terms of how I thought about myself, Dick might as well have said, “Take up skateboarding.”
But as in so many other things — dress, deportment, golf — Dick influences me for the better, so when I got back to Massachusetts, I went for a walk in our nearest mall. It’s real walking, I can report. You feel it in the legs. Because the floors are slick, you swing along with a different action in the feet and ankles than you do outdoors. It’s been a good thing. Some days I can do 30 minutes at a fast clip, and feel like I could do more. Some days, my legs turn to stumps after 20 minutes, and then I’m thankful for the food court, where I can get a cup of crushed ice to soothe my dry throat.
See, I’m an old guy now, no more the windy boy and a bit who used to lope from Columbia University to Washington Square Park on a lark. I’ve been walking in the mall for a month. Here’s what it’s like.
ON THE OLD SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, they used to have a repeating skit set in The Mall, usually in The Scotch Tape Store. Nothing much ever happened, and outside the people who worked in the stores, nobody was there. It suggested that mall stores were so narrowly focused on products of a single use that they couldn’t pull in any customers.
In fact, malls offer up just about exactly the opposite. They sell products of such a total superfluousness, you wonder that the stores can make a business out of such nothing. And the customers pour in.
Look, here’s my mall, The Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. It’s shaped like an elongated V, with Sears and Filene’s (now going out of business) anchoring either end, and J.C. Penney’s and Macy’s in the middle. It has two stories, with a food court at the point of the V on the second floor. I can do a lap of one level in 10 minutes.
The mall map lists 138 businesses on the map in its directory, including the food court concessionaires, not including the four big department stores. The map also does not include the kiosk-based businesses that rent “open-air” booths, so to speak, mostly on the first floor. These include five for cell phone providers, three for T-Mobile and two for Cingular. They are staffed by aggressive young men who call out to you as you pass, like carnie barkers, “Sir! Sir! You have a cell phone? How you doin’ this morning, sir?” I find this disturbing, not at all in the passive, gorgeously feminine spirit of mall marketing (occasional obnoxious music excepted): I think of the mall as a lush movie star reclining in a vast silken bed, richly piled with fabric and scent.
One of these kiosks purveys salt-base cosmetics and therapies from the Dead Sea. Two others offer piercings and the jewelry to go with it. At another, you can sign up for laser plastic surgery — undesirably wrinkled or distorted body parts pictured aplenty. Three more sell framed pictures of figures in sport, music, or show business: Jerry Garcia, Teddy Bruschi, Manny Ramirez, Bob Marley, Kanye West, dozens and dozens more.
A popular theme, pictures are featured in several of the formal numbered stores along the mall’s corridors, too. Many of us must have an impulse toward pop culture iconography in our homes. I have been tempted to stop and ask for the photo of Payne Stewart cradling the trophy for the 1999 U.S. Open, on one wrist his WWJD bracelet. One store displays two life-size cutouts, Paris Hilton looking the total skank next to George W. Bush smiling stiffly in a suit.
CONCEDE THAT SOME USE MAY BE found for clothing — though vendors like Pink stretch the idea of utility till it screams. Allow that everybody needs to prepare food, thus cookware — though surely three specialty kitchenware shops overdo it. And accept that everyone eats — though stores specializing in giant pretzels, cookies, sweet buns, and candy abound. Of the 142 businesses, including the four giant department stores, which simply sell the same things the mall shops sell all over again, at least 40 sell something for which there is no real life utility at all.
Imagine selling Nordic Traks in Uganda. Or Build-a-Bears in Afghanistan. Or opening a Brookstone store in Haiti. These are the products of insane prosperity, simply flexing its muscle. On the other hand, Urban Made Impressions appears to sell totems, and its products might appeal in primitive societies indeed.
Of all mall businesses, one stands out as the archetype. Yankee Candle, a 50-year-old publicly traded company (and one of the stars of the 2003 growth market), sells candles. Nothing but. Just that. Colored, scented, fancy, plain. Candles, just like you can find in drugstores, hardware stores, department stores, and grocery stores. Yankee Candle has made a specialty out of an ordinary item, something like the way bottled water became a hot product in the 1980s.
About the time I left California, in 1990, the anti-smoking movement had become a 900-pound gorilla, and, looking around for what might be next, I figured scents and fragrances would make the hit list. Yankee Candle, with its stores full of perfumed product, proved that prognostication wrong.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, as I tramp four or five times a week through my mall, a small one as malls go? In American society, commerce has achieved such a hyperbolic apogee that we engage in flourish and decoration for its own sake. We are in a new age of rococo. We create, we sell, we buy just for the sheer heck of it. Television sprawls out into stores: The Disney Store, The Discovery Channel Store. We invent language: Gap Body advertises “Sexy Tops for Spring.” (N.B. I used the word “tops” in that way in a piece of fiction in 1973, and no one in my writer’s workshop knew what it meant.) We support enthusiasms that mean absolutely nothing. Our welfare recipients buy luxury goods.
So when I take my mall walks, I’m walking through a kind of museum. And I imagine what the museum would look like to a resident of Mexico City, where 4 million people get running water only for an hour a day. Or to a young Muslim man with his brain on fire who who has never known a woman.
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