I grew up in a tiny town where pretty much the only thing to do on a given afternoon was to go to the mall, so I spent much of my adolescence in giant, sterile shopping emporia redolent with the scents of industrial cleaners and Cinnabon. To this day, I can feel my mood lift the second I enter a mall. It’s not about shopping—I’m usually broke anyway. I just like the fluorescent lights and the high ceilings and the unparalleled people-watching opportunities (yep, I’m the long-looker at the food court who’s creeping you out). I know some people dismiss malls as just massive, gaudy tributes to modern commodity culture—and, to be sure, they are, at base level, places you go to buy stuff that you don’t need with money that you can’t afford to waste—but to me the mall is so much more than that. The mall can be a refuge, a haven, a place to take a time out from the complications of your “real” life.
The mall is one of the first public places that parents—even a lot of otherwise overprotective ones—allow their kids to roam around unsupervised. I imagine that parents find some comfort in the fact that the mall is usually crowded and always well lit, so there’s nowhere for some creep with ill intentions to hide their nefarious crimes. So when you’re in high school and your comings and goings are basically dictated by a council of adults in authority, the mall is one of the few places you can break free, for a few hours, from the direct supervision of said adults. And you don’t even have to lie about where you’re going or where you’ve been! The mall is a rare space where you can feel totally free without rebelling from anyone or anything. You can be relaxed and goofy, you can openly flirt with cute strangers, you can spend your money any way you like, and, most important, you can be a regular human being, exercising actual autonomy in a relatively harmless way.
For example: The mall offers a rare break for adolescents from the tyranny of the “balanced diet.” When I’m at the food court, I have very few qualms about eating whatever—concerns about nutrition basically evaporate in the building’s recirculated air. The food of my dreams is just an escalator ride away, so it’s like I have to indulge, you know? Where else am I going to find the four Bs of fine dining—burgers, burritos, baked ziti, and beef with broccoli—in one place? Then there’s the magnificent cornucopia of sweets available at most malls: cookies, ice cream, soft pretzels with sugary dipping sauces, and, of course, the crown jewel of the food court, Cinnabon, where you can purchase an unholy behemoth of a cinnamon roll that I’m assuming contains roughly 100,000 calories (I don’t dare look up the actual number). Clearly, mall cuisine isn’t something that you eat every day, at least not if you value your digestive system and overall health, but the food court can provide you with a wonderful opportunity to treat yo’self.
But the real secret of the mall, the thing that makes it a magical oasis for me, is that you can just go loiter there without ever spending a dime. It’s free entertainment, open all day, seven days a week! I know, mind-blowing, right? Even though it is a space that is designed, head to toe, to get people to spend money, you can actually just wander up and down the walkways and browse through the shops from morning until closing time. Once you’re hip to this fairly obvious but also somehow not at all obvious fact, you’ll start to see the mall in a completely new way. Suddenly it isn’t an evil tool of late capitalism—it’s a temperature-controlled kickback spot with no entry fee where you get to look at interesting stuff or just lounge for hours, usually without being hassled or asked to leave.
When you aren’t buying anything at the mall, you can really exploit the potential of the space in inventive ways. If you’re an aspiring actor or just want to amuse yourself, you can go into the Apple Store and, straight-faced, ask one of the employees or another customer a series inane questions about the inventory (e.g., “Are these computers Y2K compatible?”). Or you can be a total renegade and do your homework in the food court, which is what I used to do. If you, like me, have problems working in the absolute silence of the library, the hum of the mall crowd provides the perfect level of white noise.
I know I called it a “kickback spot” a couple of paragraphs ago, but the truth is that the mall isn’t super relaxing. The mall is, almost as a rule, crowded and bright, and visiting one can be an overwhelming sensory experience. This is why they are off-putting to a lot of people, and sometimes I feel the same way. But there are other times when that manic energy is exactly what I need to bust me out of a bad mood or a ball of stress—the mall is pretty bonkers, and that’s precisely why it is soothing for me at such moments. When I want or need to blow off responsibility or to separate myself from a situation or place that’s bumming me out, the mall is always there for me.
The term mallrat is usually used derisively, to describe a sullen or obnoxious, usually suburban teen whose free time is spent milling about the local shopping center. But what is a mallrat other than a human being who finds pleasure in the mundane? These people should be respected and learned from, as they naturally possess a skill that can be very necessary in life but difficult to acquire. Sadly, the mallrat’s natural habitat is in danger—the rise of internet shopping is threatening the existence of brick-and-mortar shopping centers. Economists say that within the next decade, malls everywhere could disappear. It’s cultural evolution, I guess, and I will have to accept it if it comes to pass. But right now, since I still have ability to do so, you’d better believe that I’m going to throw every last care away and go to the mall today.
In the words of the immortal Robin Sparkles:
Put on your jelly bracelets
And your cool graffiti coat
At the mall, having fun is what it’s all about. ♦