When the mall ruled
My four year old daughters have evidently been drinking what's in the New Jersey water, since they spent most of the summer asking if we could go to the mall. I finally broke down yesterday, but we decided to go a little further afield than our local mall in Livingston and make a day of it. In any case, it was hot and brutally humid yesterday, with the kind of air you choke on more than breathe.
We took the 45 minute trek to the Rockaway Mall, located in the far suburban interzone of Dover, near the foothills of the Appalachians. I saw the trip mostly as a way to keep my daughters occupied and to find a couple of shirts on clearance for the school year for me and some pants for the one daughter who inherited my abnormally long legs. It was mission accomplished on both counts. The large play area in the mall was more than big enough to accommodate double toddler wackiness, and the clearance racks yielded a cut rate gold mine.
What I was not expecting was the feeling of peace that came over me at the mall. It helped that we were there at 10AM on a weekend, with hardly anyone about. With the prestige and attendance of malls now being eroded by online shopping, they've actually become much more pleasant places to be. On an awful, muggy day I could walk around in air conditioned comfort without sweaty balls. My daughters could expend their vast reservoirs of energy without making a mess for me to clean up or constantly demanding to watch some godawful kids show on TV. Sure they made the usual hue and cry for me to buy them a toy, but their general level of happiness at being in the mall made it pretty easy to turn back their entreaties.
Walking around the mall I also remembered what the mall meant in my youth. In my small town it was the center of youth culture, and luckily within walking distance of my house. My hometown mall was about a quarter the size of the Rockaway Mall, which made trips to Omaha positively thrilling. Going to Westroads Mall at age eleven was a sublime experience. I realize now that some of that experience was aspirational. In the 1980s the mall was the apex of the Hegelian unfolding of history, as far as I was concerned, and going to those big Omaha malls was a taste of what I could experience once I grew up and got out of my isolated, small hometown. I did probably spend too much time in college at the mall, but I took it as a sign of my independence and moving up in the world. I bought artsy movies at the Suncoast Video, existential novels at Barnes and Noble, and punk rock CDs at Blockbuster Music. (Some of those stores were mall-adjacent, but I went as part of my mall trips.) I was a sophisticated mall goer. Well, maybe except for the time I saw Showgirls at the mall multiplex.
The mall has lost its once mighty status, both socially and in my heart. Once I moved to Chicago after college my nascent love of urban life went full-blown, and I began to see the mall as a symbol of the tacky and inauthentic nature of mainstream American society. I rarely went to malls after that, unless out of necessity. Yesterday the mall was much quieter than malls back in the 90s were, almost sleepy. It felt like the times I'd been to church in massive medieval cathedrals in Germany with only a sparse scattering of worshippers. In both cases, the experience was spiritual. So much for the gulf between the sacred and profane.