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A Day in the Life of the Mall
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz
Anthropomorphism is part of the American ethos. Society acts decisively to protect animals which through happenstance possess human-like traits, like cuddly white seal pups with big, expressive eyes.
“Ugly” animals like the blue crab or the common cow can only count scientists and/or animal rights extremists as advocates—and that arithmetic is insufficient to save them from human dinner plates.
In 1998, a Maryland legislator proposed a law authorizing tax dollars to exterminate snapping turtles. The hideous reptiles were devouring the cute ducklings that Norman Rockwellized the Chesapeake Bay tributary fronting the lawmaker’s home.
I too am guilty of anthropomorphism. I see my body as the vessel for defenders, invaders, plumbers, carpenters, computer technicians and other inhabitants. I talk to my body as plant lovers converse with their philodendrons. I invoke Knute Rockne to my leukocytes to “win one for Paul” each fall as flu season commences.
I extend this idiosyncrasy to the regional shopping mall where I began walking twice daily for exercise in 1992. Like men and women the mall has daily and annual rhythms and rituals, a predictable aging process, and a defined life expectancy.
I attribute a consciousness to the mall and visualize it pleading with its vital components. Just as I urge my white blood cells to get me through the winter in virus-free fashion and insulate me from doctors’ unpleasantries, I visualize the mall passionately appealing to retailers not to fail during the vital Christmas season, thereby staving off death or the trauma of new-tenant reconstruction.
My mall exudes style and success. In sports parlance it reached the “top of its game” in 1998. The facility remains among the biggest, most profitable and luxurious malls in America in 2016 as this essay is written.
For decades this retail center has been my free health club, sociology instructor, and real estate mentor. Proprietary even paternalistic feelings have emerged as I’ve followed the mall through its life cycle and become intimately acquainted with this “main street” of American suburbia. It wasn’t always a world-class facility.
For almost a decade I knew it as a nondescript even homely neighborhood shopping center. Never did it radiate the charm of the brick, Williamsburg-styled Edmondson Village Shopping Center which had been a focal point of my youth in Baltimore City from 1947 to 1962.
The mall began life in 1959 as an unenclosed 240,000 square foot, four and a half million dollar center, anchored by a Food Fair Supermarket and built on land purchased from a local college. It reeked of suburban sterility but received a little cachet when JFK gave a campaign speech there during his 1960 presidential election campaign.
In 1973, the center was enclosed, transforming it from a strip shopping center into a two-level mall. It left childhood for adolescence. Ultimately it matured into a glamorous, four-level 200-store, one-million square foot regional facility grossing over $500 per square foot per month, making it a trophy center for potential buyers. It was 1992 when it became an adult.
Metamorphosis was driven by the original developer’s son-in-law, whose ambitions led him to access the easy, high-leveraged money made available to real estate developers through much of the 1980s.
Easy money resulted from government deregulation of the nation’s savings and loan industry and that industry’s zeal to share in the real estate largess born of inept government fiscal policy.
Developers’ high leverage norm was driven by lax appraisal regulations coupled with excessive tax benefits granted by limited partnership and depreciation laws. This government steering prodded lenders to fearlessly make loans in excess of a 100% loan-to-value ratio (LTV). It occurred because legislators without term limits pursued the interests of big businesses making large re-election campaign contributions. That dynamic worked to the detriment of citizens and savers.
Such LTVs enabled borrowers to procure more money from lenders than their buildings were worth, bolstered by the confidence that inflation would increase the value of a property or development project enough to cover the difference. Buildings were routinely over-appraised by unlicensed appraisers beholden to developers for future business.
Most developers scoffed at feasibility analyses, basing decisions on their instincts and the “greater fool theory,” which held that no matter how much you overpaid for a property someone would pay more. The “greater fool theory” was the near-universal exit strategy for real estate developers. It was validated in their minds by the double-digit inflation that became rampant during the Jimmy Carter presidency.
In a party game called “hot potato” an overcooked potato is passed around a circle until a timer expires. The individual left holding the scalding vegetable becomes the object of amusement. When the real estate equivalent ended, those holding the “hot potato” were elderly savings & loan customers. They were not amused.
Greed and deregulation had enticed the owners of those financial institutions to jump into the “greater fool theory” game just as the Reagan administration signaled its demise with the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It was unprecedented in that it failed to “grandfather in” the removal of limited partnership tax shelters. The consequences were far-reaching.
Appraisals became regulated, developers couldn’t refinance buildings, loans consequently defaulted, developers and S&Ls failed and uninsured life savings were wiped out, most egregiously when deposited in state S&Ls which had insinuated that accounts were federally insured when they were not.
The maestros of this madness were not greedy capitalists. It was orchestrated by ignorant, greedy, and spineless Federal lawmakers. The Federal Government was forced to form the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) to take over failing S&Ls and clean up the debris.
The consequence of this sequence of events was that early in the 1990s the nation’s most devastating real estate depression to date occurred. It engulfed developers like a giant tsunami. Industry-wide disaster ominously coincided with my mall’s second extensive renovation.
Investigations during personal bankruptcy proceedings in 1990 revealed that the luckless, over-leveraged developer’s son-in-law had secretly placed the trust funds of his father-in-law’s three daughters in collateral for speculative real estate projects and placed his confidence in the greater fool theory.
While the members of this hard-driving, ambitious, Italian-Catholic family maneuvered for each other’s jugulars—mayhem avoided only through the mediation of a local Catholic college president—a Toronto-based company purchased and managed the mall until divesting its portfolio of retail centers in 1998.
By then the modest pedigreed facility had shed its caterpillar’s skin and begun life as a butterfly with a grand re-opening in 1992.
Ride my time machine back to 1998 and enjoy a day at this mall.
Early morning is my favorite time to visit the mall. I love to meditate as I walk. Meditation is tantamount to a cook running the garbage disposal or a math teacher erasing a blackboard cluttered with formulas. It disposes of emotional stress in my body and erases intellectual detritus from my mind.
If Ansel Adams were waiting patiently for the perfect mall photograph he would choose 7 a.m. on a Saturday in June, as close to the summer equinox as possible. Then he would entreaty the gods for a clear, sunny morning. That’s when my mall becomes Cinderella, evoking the fairy-tale moment when glass slipper and foot embrace to scream to the ugly step-sisters, “This is legitimate beauty!”
For several weeks the angle of the rising sun is perfectly configured with the mall’s east/west orientation to bathe the fourth floor in a soft yet brilliant yellow light, diffused through the ornate, faux etched-glass window panels in the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The 1/8th mile long, rounded glass ceiling—a carpenter’s illusion—creates a cathedral-like effect during an hour-long, ever-changing light display.
Slowly an observer’s mood changes from reverie to excitement as the sun continues to rise and solid light beams sporadically but increasingly punctuate the yellow glow and reverberate—as the architect anticipated—among the tall palms, the three circular rotundas, fountains, torchiers, storefronts, classical pillars, kiosks, the circular stairway, terrazzo floors, brass accouterments, and the statuary of mythological creatures which perch sentinel-like high above the promenades.
For this brief window of time between semi-darkness and full sunlight and with minimal human interruptions—humanity sleeps late on Saturdays—nature and mankind collaborate exquisitely.
Not surprisingly, the typical weekday’s early morning mood is a somnolent one at the mall. Bakers arrive at the pastry shop and the cookie store in the vicinity of 5 a.m. to begin producing their day’s wares. Seductive aromas soon permeate the morning air on the third and fourth levels. A skeleton security crew and stock workers at the two department stores anchoring the mall are the only other signs of life. The brown sparrows which have infiltrated the mall are still roosting. Periodically these birds disappear before they reach numbers that will create a disgusting environment for shoppers and diners. I’ve never been able to ferret out management’s solution but I don’t miss or pity the pests brought to America by a misguided Shakespeare lover who wanted the country to have every bird that appeared in his writings.
The ritual which signals the true awakening of the mall occurs at 7 a.m. when a security guard circulates throughout the retail emporium, unlocking the entrance doors. First access is always through the second floor’s ground level central doors which are closest to the reception desk and management office. Since the mall is banked the first floor is also on ground level. That 7 a.m. ritual coincides with the opening time of the mall’s primary breakfast site, an upscale duplicate of roadside diners that tired travelers have always used as welcome respites.
The first influx of humanity consists of businesspeople such as stock brokers, insurance agents, mortgage bankers, and seminar attendees from the hotel and business complex just north of and connected to the mall by a traffic footbridge. They network, schmooze and plot their day’s strategies over breakfast in the diner. Although I don’t belong to the qualifying population cohort, I sometimes get a $2.99 senior citizen’s breakfast in that eatery because that menu grouping’s portions don’t have the appetite-quelling immensity evocative of ancient Roman excesses.
Sitting alone among nattering capitalists—and the occasional proselytizing Christian minister—imbued me with deep skepticism about the confidentiality assurances of professional advisors. One paragon of indiscretion is a female divorce lawyer, a regular diner who harbors no qualms about revealing her clients’ intimate bedroom adventures or lack thereof, to whomever is sitting across from her scrambled egg platter.
Automatically assuming professional confidentiality rivals the naiveté of those who once regularly took risqué pictures of their lovers to neighborhood film processors unaware that back-room photo collections were frequent staff diversions in such establishments, including the one at the mall.
Meanwhile, the impeccably attired businesspeople are accompanied on the promenades by slow moving, elderly retirees meeting to socialize and/or walk for exercise. The mall is literally encircled by retirement, assisted living, nursing, and hospital facilities, ensuring a non-stop flow of elderly walkers and recovering medical patients.
Joining this pedestrian mix are many workers who are on the premises not to schmooze or eat but to exercise before work. They eschew the popular health clubs—a large one with a pool occupies the mall’s only below-ground tenant space—in order to walk the mall before commuting to their jobs. They walk fast and are usually dressed for work except for their footwear, which incongruously flashes the logos of companies such as Nike, Reebok and Easy Spirit.
I remember a time when consumers would consider such clothing advertisements annoying, and would reflexively remove them.
It’s a testament to the effectiveness of television, celebrity endorsements, and saturation advertising that in 1998 such logos on casual clothing are not only accepted by consumers, they’re de rigueur.
In a brainwashing feat that is the envy of every religious cult—and mainstream religions as well—Madison Avenue has consumers around the world eagerly buying its products and just as eagerly serving as walking billboards.
Enterprising capitalists haven’t transposed this miracle to formal-wear yet but I anticipate my first glimpse of a stockbroker’s thousand dollar suit emblazoned diagonally across the back with the bold, six inch chenille letters ARMANI.
Repairmen are in evidence on the mall promenades after 7 a.m., servicing escalators and elevators, changing light bulbs and boarding up/painting recently vacated storefronts. Earlier this decade, before the advent of long-life bulbs, the mall’s civil engineer once confided to me that 25% of his time was occupied by the mundane task of changing light bulbs.
Most of the workers will disappear by the general store-opening time of 10 a.m. in deference to the litigious society America has become. A witches’ brew of ladders, shoppers, lawyers, and deep-pocketed property owners creates a potion for lawsuits as fail-safe as the Jell-O recipe.
Maintenance personnel also begin appearing at 7 a.m. and are in full work mode within the hour. Some workers, who live in the inner city, will catch early buses either to avoid the crushing standing-room-only crowds encountered by later commuters or to counter the unreliable bus schedules. They arrive an hour or two early for work and either snooze contentedly on a bench or snuggle into a storefront niche to await a key-bearing manager. Food retailers are busy processing their deliveries and prepping their kitchens for the critical lunch business.
The green-clad plant caretaker wheels a large watering canister from specimen to specimen showing particular solicitude toward the giant Washington Palms, which are native to desert areas in California and Mexico.
The plant maintenance contract, which is re-bid and awarded annually, would assuredly be lost if disaster struck these behemoths, which are the centerpiece for each of the mall’s three rotundas.
The palms are a transparent marketing ploy to subliminally transport shoppers to more exotic and extravagant places, triggering self-demotion to bourgeois status if they dare exit such an aristocratic mall empty-handed. For me, the collective death of these palms would be tantamount to removal of a persistent splinter from a long-suffering finger.
Ironically the thirty foot palms—which grow to eighty feet—can only tolerate Baltimore in an artificial environment, and the mall’s accommodation of that imperative makes Baltimore less tolerable for me. I’d replace them with native dogwood, redbud and red oak—or nothing at all—and attendant seasonal debris be damned.
I’m not the only bearer of animus toward these trees. The palms’ tendency to fall over has consistently bedeviled the landscape crew which services all of the owner’s (a Real Estate Investment Trust or REIT) malls.
Shortly after the current owner took possession of the mall, I was treated to some Laurel & Hardyésque entertainment as the landscape crew tried for the first time in their careers—no other area mall has trees remotely approaching the size of these beasts—to straighten a thirty-foot tree with an ominous forty-five degree tilt.
A five man crew tackled the job. The foreman (the only thin one in the group) ordered one of the rotund workers to climb the tilted trunk and hold a strong hemp rope around it at a height of ten feet. Meanwhile the other four grabbed the ends of the dangling rope and attempted to yank the tree back to vertical. The only thing missing from this Three Stooges slapstick was a barrage of coconuts from the palm knocking them all senseless, which would have been a redundancy.
The tree didn’t budge. Plan “B” was to borrow the mall engineer’s motorized hydraulic lift, place the rope at a higher elevation and engage the palm in a tug of war. This World Series went into extra innings of the seventh game before the men won.
Then while the four heavies held the rope maintaining the tree at vertical, the foreman unveiled some dubious carpentry skills as he took untreated two-by-four lumber and proceeded to measure and saw, measure and saw, and measure and saw ad nauseam until he produced two boards which more or less wedged between the tree and its large, circular, masonry container wall. He then covered the boards with several inches of dirt, which is used for base plantings, hence, regularly subjected to water.
I assume he has resumes in circulation and doesn’t plan to be around to see whether the termites or the growth of the tree wins the race to disengage the minuscule leverage preventing the tree from crashing onto the fourth floor promenade.
Window-washing entrepreneurs are also busy during the pre-store-opening hours. Hired by each retailer, several firms vie throughout the mall for this business, which is a surprisingly lucrative albeit unglamorous enterprise. The washers always work at a pace suggesting that they’re an hour behind schedule and I’ve found that this observation can be reliably extrapolated to every profession to differentiate independent contractors from salaried employees.
Just as painters have wasps and yellow jackets interrupting their cadence, window washers suffer passers-by in their Holy Grail-like pursuit of the perfect, streak-free window.
The secret is as much technique as product and the clean-window obsessed can be as relentless and annoying in their pursuit as those who search haplessly and endlessly for the herbal or surgically engendered “fountain of youth.”
When my neighbor recommended cleaning windows with discarded newspapers, the absurdity of this particular cleaning obsession finally crystallized in my mind. I now live blissfully with imperfect abluents and streaky windows masked by sheer curtains.
In another pre-opening ritual the mall’s management brain trust will occasionally be seen touring the entire facility while compiling checklists of immediate and potential problems to address. Their faces typically broadcast gravitas more apropos to Middle East peace negotiations than deciding on grout replacement for faux marble promenade tiles.
The facility’s early morning population spans a wide spectrum of society and it’s the friendliest and least stressed of the entire day.
It’s a spiritual tonic to witness a melting-pot-affirming array of ethnic/racial groups, occupations, and ages mingling congenially. By 7:30 a.m. the fountains have been activated, lights have been turned on and music is permeating the mall. Occasionally rap or classical will be heard, reflecting the tastes of the first arrival in the management office, but invariably, easy listening music permeates the mall for the balance of the day.
Once all outside doors are unlocked, a security crew member winds his way around the mall’s four levels unlocking the escalators for the day. $8,000 per day is the cost for electricity, repairs, and maintenance for the mall’s twelve very tall and very wide escalators. Each stairway springs to life with the turn of a key and the push of a button and its Sisyphean task is usually underway by 7:30 a.m.
The escalators’ rare respites occur during infrequent extended maintenance sessions or when teenagers find the emergency stop buttons as tempting as Eden’s apples. By 8 a.m. the first floor café and the San Francisco-born pastry shop on the third level have coffee and croissants ready for the caloric ne’er-do-wells.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday a large, age fiftyish aerobics group assembles in the small west rotunda on the third level near a department store entrance. This free class is extremely popular and has been led for years by an assertive, gregarious, and gorgeous blond woman with the voice projection of a drill sergeant.
The “Aerobics Mistress” is tall, solid, quick, and agile with a body resembling a hybrid of a pro-football wide-receiver and a world-class ballet dancer. Between 8-9 a.m. the bulk of this group works out to lively and loud music while the more advanced persevere until 9:30 a.m. to do yoga exercises.
The thirty-something Aerobics Mistress—obviously adored by her elderly and middle-aged students—then socializes in the food court with anyone caring to linger, until about 10 a.m. I suspect her looming presence significantly deters aerobics students from rewarding themselves with 700 calorie orange scones or equivalents. This lively and happy group seems to awaken and energize the entire mall.
In the same location on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 a.m., a smaller, older group, without any discernible leader, does a brief aerobic workout followed by a brisk mall walk.
These elderly citizens sport distinctive green tee-shirts which proudly herald their group, the Senior Striders. Occasionally they substitute a lecture from a health professional on a topic relevant to the “long since gray” population. The lecture crowds dwarf the workout crowds, punctuating the American reality that we love listening to advice or buying books and videos on staying trim and healthy; we just don’t like the concomitant exertion necessary to achieve those goals.
The personality of the first shift of humanity at the mall experiences a dramatic transformation on weekends.
Saturday is probably the smallest first shift crowd of the week. Businesspeople are absent from the population mix and it’s the one morning of the week—sans work or church services—when people are most likely to sleep late.
Those who are awake are probably supermarket shopping, chauffeuring kids to sports events, leaving for day trips, or attending to house and garden chores. On Saturday morning the mall resembles a ghost-town unless a special event such as a fashion show is in the offing.
Sunday reinvents the first shift mix again. The diner overflows with breakfast business. Couples in love meander hand-in-hand. Families visit the mall after church services to window shop and take a leisurely stroll with their kids. Everything at the mall happens two hours later on Sunday, with doors being unlocked at 9 a.m., anchor stores opening at 11 a.m. and the balance of the retailers at noon. In a nod to Christianity though, closing time is moved up to 6 p.m. It’s a friendly, peaceful ambiance, but without the socializing that occurs during comparable times on weekdays. The regular coffee klatches are absent.
Of the six identifiable shifts of humanity defining the daily rhythm of the mall, the first is the one most likely to produce a new friend.
The second shift of humanity is decidedly less amiable on Monday through Friday because many minimum-wage workers understandably procrastinate their arrivals, creating a frenetic atmosphere that’s not conducive to conversation. By 9:30 a.m. the promenade kiosks have shed their tacky plastic pajamas, many of the mall’s small retail store workers are prepping their shops for opening and others are joining long, impatient lines for coffee and pastries.
The pastry shop has one of those maddeningly malleable line policies which leads to conflicts. What begins as two lines, one in front of each register, evolves into one whenever someone takes a hedge position and splits the lines. The strategic plan is to hold a spot in both until it becomes clear which one will move the quickest. To avoid conflict, new arrivals must queue up behind this individual. Inevitably a newcomer will decide to re-establish two lines—which is, after all, what management intends—and in so doing leap-frogs ahead of those employing the single line tactic. The resolution is often ugly and tense.
Another line saboteur is the one who stands inappropriately far from the preceding person in line, but close enough that it’s ambiguous whether he/she is actually in line or just mulling options while perusing the menu on the distant wall. I once witnessed an obese, tattooed, slovenly dressed, male stock clerk in such a posture. An unfortunate well-dressed elderly woman, a salesperson at a mall shop, assumed he was not in line and stepped in front of him. This action precipitated a round-robin of insulting comments before she finally stalked off pastryless, mumbling an obscene euphemism for “chivalry is dead.”
Shoppers impatiently pace the promenades, alternately window shopping and checking their watches in anticipation of the ten o’clock store openings.
Some women will leave a shopping-phobic husband in the food court with a book to occupy his time. He’s present at all because, (a) she doesn’t drive a car, (b) she will need help with packages, (c) he is shopping-challenged and she will eventually take him into a men’s store to help with a purchase, (d) there will be additional stops of more interest to him on this outing. Benches along the promenades fill with the more patient and those pampering or conserving their leg muscles.
By 10 a.m. the reservoir of patience is straining the dam. Pity the store clerk unable to raise the gate at the stroke of ten if there are customers waiting outside glaring at their watches.
A second shift of late-sleeping retiree walkers, along with baby carriage-wheeling (or wielding) mothers, who have just completed off-to-school rituals with their older kids, arrives at the mall between 9:30-10:00 a.m.
Mothers imperil pedestrians as they propel the carriages at breakneck speed while babies nap. Carriage technology now provides double and triple decker as well as double-wide models with enough gadgets to provide all of the comforts of home.
This promenade hazard cries out for a local ordinance mandating “wide load” signs similar to those utilized on highways. It’s not much of a stretch to envision future models accommodating the homeless. Few workers, shoppers, mothers, or retirees are inclined to linger with new acquaintances at this time. A singles Mecca, this is not.
Mall management is, by now, on the job in full force. Security and maintenance personnel risk reprimands if detected loitering or engaging in idle chit-chat. Most of the first shift of walkers and the job-destined have vanished by 9:30 a.m.
Construction work on vacant stores has refocused on behind-the-storefront tasks by 10 a.m. This is the morning period when one might see management personnel, with blueprints in hand, ushering prospective tenants on tours of vacant space. It’s amusing to speculate on the linguistic gymnastics required to pitch a space for $40,000 per-month which hasn’t been leased in years. The spaces closest to anchors seem to be the most difficult to lease because shoppers’ focus is drawn to the big stores’ entrances, making them oblivious to adjacent small shops.
To succeed, such businesses need strategic plans which position them as “destination stores” rather than relying on the large anchors to lure impulse shoppers.
A men’s discount clothing store leased such a space adjacent to a pricey department store in 1997 and I’m still debating whether to salute Adam Smith or P.T. Barnum. Management must salivate when they woo credit-worthy tenants who are driven by intuition and ego rather than professional market studies.
The third shift of humanity sets the most frantic mood of the day in the mall. Its approximate time frame stretches from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. It seems everyone in the mall is on a tight schedule as they attempt to cram multiple chores into their lunch hour and find time for some actual lunch.
Office workers create long lines at the mall’s two banks, the food court overflows with diners, and store clerks must be at their most efficient because patience is in short supply. Cellular phones and beepers are ubiquitous.
The entire mall populace seems to be eating food and many are spilling it. Table-cleaners are numerous and efficient, but the maintenance workers face the dilemma of whether to wet-mop floors, thereby risking litigation-inducing customer falls, or let them stay dirty until the lunch crush is over. The latter option incurs the wrath of those who take exception to less than pristine surroundings. The mall receptionist laments that she will often receive a complaint about spilled coffee, dispatch maintenance personnel to mop it up, and quickly receive a complaint about a dangerous, wet floor.
The fourth shift of humanity extends from the end of the lunch period through the lazy afternoon hours. Workers are ensconced in their offices, kids are in school, toddlers are napping, no work shifts are changing, and soap-opera fans are indulging themselves.
This period extends from roughly 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. While sheer numbers are down, pedestrians are more likely to be shopping and spending money. Elderly couples are more in evidence because they are less likely to be pummeled about than at any other time of the day.
The modus operandi for some elderly couples is for the husband to establish a base camp on a promenade bench while the wife shops. Periodically she returns to utilize him as a merchandise repository. This enables her to remain unencumbered and maximally efficient. She and her credit card can then effortlessly cut a swath through the sea of merchandise, much like a shark gliding through a coral reef.
I pointed out to one such septuagenarian that he seemed to have been left holding the bags and he tartly quipped, “That’s been the case since my wedding day.” I left wondering whether any bemusement tempered his cynicism. His body language left that answer obscure.
The harbingers of the fifth shift of humanity are giggly blue-skirted girls in private school uniforms. Like the robins in spring, they portend change as they filter into the mall between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m.
The paradigm for a group of high school girls cruising the mall seems to be one mentor and several protégés. The mentor is always first to intuit and implement what’s “cool.” Whether it’s tattoos, body piercings in exotic locations, a postmodern hair color, tighter pants, shorter skirts, personal cell phone models, or an avant-garde name brand; she’ll lead the way and the others will follow.
Constricted by parents who envision futures for their offspring at Stanford Medical School rather than as rock band roadies, the protégés adopt a few but not all of the mentors’ behaviors. This dynamic seems to work whether a group of girls is dressed as preppies, nerds, jocks, Goths, or any other identifiable cultural subset. Boys display identical behavior with emphasis shifting to baggy pants, prestigious sport shoe-wear, cap-manipulation, and hair styles (or shaved heads).
Just as my mall is surrounded by various facilities for the elderly, it is likewise ringed by private schools. Seven private secondary schools are located within a two mile radius, and that creates a significant afternoon presence of teens at the mall. They travel in pairs or in small groups. Parents are persona non grata with mall-cruising teens, lending credence to the premise of universal teen/parent separation expounded in the just published book, “Get the Hell Out of My Life, but Drop Me Off at the Mall First.”
This fifth shift also sees a spike in the number of United Parcel Service (UPS), Federal Express, and other delivery service personnel. They maneuver huge carts of packages throughout the mall under enormous deadline pressure, but the male delivery people often find time to linger and flirt a bit with attractive store clerks.
Stereotypically, women have always been charged with a visceral attraction to men in uniform and since the absence of a major war has created a dearth of the military variety, it seems any old uniform will suffice. I do see this dynamic at the mall and don’t believe it’s a mirage attributable to my latent chauvinism.
This lazy afternoon period is when one commonly witnesses job seekers, perched on benches or at food court tables, filling out employment applications. Store managers are likely to be in their shops during the late afternoon to ensure that one shift ends without disaster and the next—the all-important closing shift—begins uneventfully. Before the shift change becomes imminent, managers are most likely to conduct their personnel interviews during this customarily slow period of the day. They are often administered at a table in one of the two food courts.
I once unavoidably overheard a female district manager for a women’s-wear chain in the midst of an interview with an obese thirty-something man. He wanted a management trainee position.
The improbability of this situation could only be explained by the store’s legal need to document a broad demographic profile for interviewees.
This small store sold a lot of funky and slinky women’s clothes, suitable only for a petite individual. Most such stores prefer to hire personnel who can wear, hence advertise the stylishness of their apparel.
When she asked how he would handle delicate, fitting room situations in which assistance was required, his inappropriately succinct response was, “That wouldn’t be a problem for me.”
Most of this formality-stamped interview consisted of the woman regaling the applicant with the details of her rapid rise in the company and the amenities in the new company car she had just received. After her self-congratulatory monologue, she shared that she hadn’t fielded any intelligent questions in her last three interviews, and expressed hope that he would have a few. Her hope went unfulfilled. His first and only question, before they shook hands and parted, was an inquiry about the company’s sick leave and pension benefits. I wondered how long the company’s sales volume would be able to absorb the waste represented by this woman’s efforts.
The sixth shift of humanity, the closing shift, dramatically dichotomizes the mall’s personality. The structure itself undergoes a striking visual transformation as sunlight dissolves into darkness and the mall applies its evening makeup.
The delicate, faux etched lattice-work in the ceiling glass casts striking shadows which move with the fading light across the promenade walls of the third and fourth levels. The predominately indirect or bounce-lit mall soon closets its daytime, understated femininity and unveils an ostentatiously macho persona.
By day pale, muted, pastel colors draw the eye to the appealing architectural features of the structure itself. With carefully regulated signage, the storefronts take a visual backseat to the palms, fountains, sculptures, glass, brass and marble. The daytime mall is the head-turning beauty while the storefronts are the homely cousin.
At night, however, the beautiful ingénue turns decidedly masculine. The storefronts take center stage, dominating the visual landscape with their brightly lit interiors and colorfully lit signage. The dimly lit promenades and rotundas, while still attractive, are secondary in the pedestrian’s eye. There’s no softness to this mall at night. It becomes a man.
Appropriately, two floors during this transitional shift are patrolled by post-operative transsexual maintenance workers. They arrive for work in pants and leave in skirts. Perhaps they see their own sexuality mirrored in the mall’s dramatic transformation—kindred spirits with unusual soulmates.
From a demographic perspective, the closing shift undergoes just as pronounced a dichotomy. Business suits and school uniforms have gradually disappeared from the landscape.
During the 1990s the distinguishing feature of this shift has been the astonishing racial dichotomy of the mall’s population before and after 6-6:30 p.m. From a 95% white population during the day—which roughly corresponds to the neighborhood population within a five mile radius—there is a shift to a 40-75% black population.
This phenomenon doesn’t occur at other upscale suburban malls in the metropolitan area. The mall I frequent is one of the largest and most glamorous in Maryland, but those factors are not primarily responsible for the evening influx of blacks.
The mall is situated on a major north/south arterial road, which is also a primary bus line running directly into the center city. Its north and central suburban location virtually splits the city, maximizing the population for which it’s convenient. The 1998 Wall Street Journal Almanac attributes the seventh largest black population in the nation to Baltimore City. While Baltimore’s Inner Harbor district offers the only glamorous shopping venues geographically closer to the black population core, that area provides virtually no free parking.
The mall offers acres of free garage-style parking, which protects patrons from inclement weather. Evidently a significant black population finds it more desirable to regularly travel distances of ten miles to the suburbs for the accessibility, the glamour, and a safer environment.
Retail developers in 1998 lack confidence that a predominately black populated area—outside a central business district (CBD)—can viably support a prestigious shopping facility. Beyond its harbor tourist district Baltimore City has none. America’s center-city crime rates have also led national retail chains to redline urban cores, decreasing shopping options for city dwellers. Blacks therefore must migrate to find classy shopping, an unfortunate, apartheid-like reality in today’s civil rights conscious era. The mall’s dramatic population shift becomes most pronounced on Friday and Saturday evenings when the black population percentage may reach seventy-five percent.
The evening shopping population is usually the largest of the day, if only because everyone is home from work and school. It’s a louder, more animated mix, with few business suits and virtually no mall walkers in evidence. The elderly tend to shy from evening shopping due to their fear of crime, falls, and night-vision problems that make driving problematic.
The college-age population becomes significant at night. The college located a block north of the mall adds a genteel, aristocratic flavor to the demographics while the student body of the large state-run university a half mile south is more bourgeois and blue-collar.
Most of the surrounding neighborhoods are white and 90% Christian. Many Jews travel some distance to shop here but there is a minimal Hispanic and Muslim presence at the mall. There is a growing number of Asians buying homes in the area and shopping at the mall.
The evening crowd, particularly on weekends, may evidence the most diverse gathering of people in the metropolitan region in terms of age, race, religion, sexual preference, and economic status. Weekend evening crowds are evocative of the streets of downtown New York, without the cats, dogs, rats and hostility. The people are generally amiable, if not sociable.
Mall sources claim that sales are very strong in the evenings but for many young people, the lure is social and recreational. On one Friday evening, I observed five security guards sprinting through the food court east on the third level promenade. Spontaneously, about twenty-five young people, oblivious to potential danger from a crime in progress and propelled by curiosity and a thirst for adventure, dashed after the guards much like proverbial cars chasing a fire engine.
Evening-wear for teen boys at the mall features the baggy, saggy, loose and disheveled look, while girls overwhelmingly opt for the short and tight. Both sexes sport tattoos and jewelry attached to multiple body piercings which include ears, eyebrows, tongues, lips, navels and destinations best left to the imagination. What are called PDA’s (public displays of affection) in schools have become commonplace on weekend evenings among young people.
One curious clothing preference has been adopted by young black men. During my years of mall-walking I have seen nearly 1,000 black men wearing New York Yankees baseball caps, often worn backwards. I’ve never seen one wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap. It’s not clear to me whether this is indicative of racial dissatisfaction with Orioles’ management, a preference for identifying with a more macho town, lots of transplanted New Yorkers, or whether it’s a cultural quirk to which I’m not privy. In the heart of a 59% black populated city, Orioles’ crowds are overwhelmingly white.
There is a significant security presence at the mall including uniformed personnel and off-duty, moonlighting county policemen. They are all needed. The mall’s many wealthy shoppers and the high-rise garage-style parking combine to make this the metropolitan area’s Mecca for car thieves. All of the other upscale suburban malls in the metropolitan area have open surface parking, which means that car thieves must operate in plain view of scores of potential witnesses.
At my mall, a facility three-quarters encircled by six-story garages, they can operate in virtual privacy. To combat this, security vehicles are very much in evidence as they conduct non-stop patrols through the garages, varying their routes and frequencies.
The garages are equipped with emergency buttons which will sound in the large first floor security office. That spacious and conspicuous law enforcement presence was created when the now defunct Bank of Baltimore vacated its centrally located bay on the mall’s first floor. The office is equipped with closed circuit television monitors which can switch to any of the numerous cameras situated at entrances and other vulnerable areas throughout the mall. Security can quickly dispatch walkie-talkie equipped foot or mobile patrols to investigate suspicious or unacceptable activity. What they can do is limited to calling the police because they possess neither weapons nor arrest powers.
While few weeks go by without the local newspaper’s crime log listing at least one mall-related robbery or auto theft, any safety evaluation must incorporate the staggering attendance figure of eleven million a year.
Finishing a close second to the thieves as mall undesirables, are those irrepressible roaches. One sultry, summer evening, when my anti-palm tree fervor was unusually high, my hopes soared as I observed numerous, large black insects flying and crawling near the palms in the first level food court. My suspicion was that the palms were being attacked by the South’s notorious Palmetto bugs having arrived as merchandise stowaways.
My glee was born of a report I read that day describing a plague of tree-killing beetles devastating thousands of trees throughout Chicago. Reportedly they had hitchhiked to the United States in wooden packing crates from China and were boring into tree trunks to feed. Once inside a tree they are safe from any known extermination technique—short of killing the tree of course—and so they eat with impunity.
Ultimately they destroy the tree’s ability to absorb water and it dies. My glee did a chameleon change to disgust upon learning that I was watching mere roaches—very large roaches—but not the tree-killer variety. That disgust triggered a three month hiatus from my customary snacking rituals. Those roaches were the size you didn’t squash without a nearby shoe refurbishing facility.
Although big roaches assuredly kill appetites, sadly, they don’t kill palm trees.
The third level food court roaches are much smaller cousins, albeit no less alarming when you are in the pastry store’s line and observe them scampering through the glass display case. Exterminators arrive once a month, but roaches haven’t outlived the dinosaurs to be dismissed so cavalierly, plus the roach version of the cavalry arrives daily with fresh food deliveries. They’re the penultimate hitchhikers.
Special events play an important role in the mall’s rhythms. Lapsing into anthropomorphism once more, I believe that the mall building might look forward to special events in much the same way that people need diversions from suffocating daily rituals.
A variety of special events keeps my mall happy and well-adjusted and that’s fortuitous because my imagination hasn’t envisioned a mall equivalent for drugs and alcohol.
Christmas, of course, is the most important event in the life of many retail businesses. Spanning the period from the last Friday in November (the day after Thanksgiving, aka Black Friday) through December 24th, it’s more a season than an event, but I perceive it as an extended event for the retail industry.
In terms of rhythm, for baby-boomers the Christmas season is tantamount to removing a slow LP from an old turntable and replacing it with a 45-rpm record. For younger generations it’s like cruising the Internet with a cable service as opposed to a 14,400 bps acoustical telephone modem.
Christmas endures a love-hate relationship with most people. People love the music, the excitement, the enhanced religious fervor, and the spirit of giving and festive good will which actually transcends religion. They hate the materialism and attendant guilt as well as the pandemic loneliness that darkens the season for many.
It’s a family holiday and the family-less are relentlessly reminded of that for months. The mall loves that this holiday will provide retailers and management with the wherewithal to pamper the building for one more year. It hates the expense ($30,000 to assemble and dismantle decorations) and that it must endure a licking of legendary Timex Watch proportions from the throngs that stress the building to its limits.
As an inveterate people watcher, I love the exponential increase in the numbers, variety, and sheer aliveness of the crowds. Peoples’ emotions are on their sleeves. Each Christmas season brings fisticuffs over parking spaces. There’s more nastiness but there’s also more gentility and many random acts of kindness. There’s crass commercialism but there’s more unabashed joy and generosity.
Early on a Saturday morning each new December, a throng of kids between three and seven years old, accompanied by their parents, gathers around the main reception desk on the second level. Mall workers temporarily block access to the up escalator. Diner personnel, meanwhile, are transporting huge quantities of scrambled eggs, bacon, and other breakfast goodies up the elevators in warmer-carts to the main food court area. At a signal, the excited crowd surges up the escalators and my favorite mall moment occurs when the kids—wide-eyed with anticipation—reach the top and find themselves running through a faux snowstorm of confetti that would do a New York parade proud. The happy faces and subsequent snowball battles—maintenance workers lurk in the shadows with brooms to quickly remove the paper blizzard—are a prelude to their much anticipated “Breakfast with Santa.”
In raising children, such moments become addictive for parents but are far too infrequent in the modern two-working-spouse America. The stampede of video and snapshot-camera toting adults is evidence that their joy rivals that of the kids and they’re savoring rather than taking the fleeting moment for granted.
As a detached observer, my perspective always skips temporarily to that of the mall. This is serious public relations work. Happy memories for kids create loyal shoppers as adults. Sadly, that transformation won’t be in time to help the five or ten mall businesses for which Christmas bells will be tolling a death knell. But then Santa’s baritone, “Ho, Ho, Ho” mingles with the joy of hundreds of children who believe in magic, and foreboding beats a hasty retreat.
My second-favorite special season begins early in September. It began as an event but America has made it a season.
A Halloween costume/home decoration store temporarily leases a thousand square feet in one of the mall’s vacant bays. It will close in grand style on October 31st as the mall hosts its annual free Halloween party for kids.
Malls across the United States began this tradition to counteract an incipient and ominous trend in the late 1980s.
Door-to-door “trick or treaters” began experiencing dangerous and rapidly increasing incidences of poisoned candy and needles in fruit. Hospitals began offering to X-ray “trick or treat” collections for free, and malls began offering parties as a safe alternative to wandering dark neighborhoods.
For several hours on Halloween night most retailers at the mall will give free candy to “trick or treaters.” This is not spontaneous altruism by the merchants but a mix of pure good will and expedient public relations work, for which each retailer is assessed a mandatory $50 fee by management.
Needless to say, costumed kids of all ages create virtual gridlock on all four levels of the mall as they circulate like worker bees, attempting to fill all manner of containers with treats unencumbered by apprehensions.
The mall party has become one of the true spectacles and happy community occasions of suburban living. The camaraderie of mingling witches, ghosts, princesses, bunnies, monsters, athletic superstars, and even human portrayals of McDonald’s hamburgers & French fries, creates an appealing pageantry which I never fail to witness and preserve with my venerable Canon A-1 camera.
While there are many other special events which give this mall a distinctive, family oriented appeal, Christmas and Halloween are the only ones that dominate the mall’s operation and rhythm.
Among the many other distinctive and important special events, the most endearing to me takes place during Baltimore County’s “Learn to Read Day,” when fully costumed Sesame Street characters such as “Big Bird” wander the mall, and celebrities from the Baltimore area conduct readings for children. Bringing television characters into contact with the very young in order to demonstrate the adventure and fun inherent in reading is a wonderful public service.
The annual Easter egg hunt is another popular event which attracts hundreds of young children who parade from store to store searching for hidden eggs containing candy. It’s a sales clerk’s worst nightmare but a lot of fun for spectators, participants and parents.
Periodic celebrity visits, fashion shows, auto and boat displays, home improvement and garden shows, health exhibits, and the occasional filming of TV commercials all ad zest and variety to the mall environment.
They provide educational and community-building services to the public, and help build the critical mall population mass necessary for retailers’ survival in an age when huge discount stores, catalogue, and Internet sales all threaten the viability of the regional mall concept. Future projections are that malls will have to increasingly shift their focus toward entertainment, restaurants, and community-building activities in order to survive.
The mall’s official closing time is 9 p.m. but most stores won’t throw out customers to comply. Often it’s 9:30 p.m. before managers can lock their doors and begin their closing bookkeeping chores. Escalators are turned off at about 9:30 p.m. but pedestrians can linger until almost 10 p.m. before security personnel politely begin shooing them out.
Afterward, maintenance and construction work deemed too dangerous or disruptive to coincide with shopping hours commences and continues throughout the night.
As the entrance doors finally lock and the daily cycle ends, from the mall’s perspective the melting pot of people has usually evidenced sufficient good will to make sufferance of palm trees in a northeastern city almost palatable.
From my point of view, I still experience a wicked, gleeful sense of hope each time large palm fronds turn yellow and droop ominously. Invariably my hopes are dashed when it becomes clear that the yellow fronds are just symptomatic of the normal growth cycle.
In comic irony, some ritzy areas of Florida have had their palms devastated by a deadly, incurable disease, while Baltimore’s interlopers thrive.
Perhaps Florida will replace its palms with dogwoods, redbuds and red oaks; I can swap homes with a Palm Beach mall-lover; and we can both revel in our preferred inappropriately sited treescapes.
Now let’s leave 1998 and return to present-day 2016 America.
The new century heralded a substantial influx of Hispanic, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrant residents into my mall’s neighborhood and relegated those of white European ancestry to minority status for most of the mall’s day. It’s now a melting pot all day, not just in the evening. It’s no longer a head-turning aberration when sari-clad women and teenage girls in micro-shorts share a line for French-fries.
The invasion of malls by youthful gangs has combined with convenient Internet shopping to kill many American malls by driving away or co-opting customers. Surviving malls are often converting to open air "Main Street” formats with free-standing and “big box” stores. At roughly age 60, the mall era is on its deathbed and it’s unlikely any new, enclosed regional malls will be built.
The American government devastated the nation’s urban cores by simultaneously implementing the Interstate Highway System, promoting the VA and FHA mortgage programs, and exclusionary zoning without any braking mechanisms on what should have been a predictable migration to new suburbs. A ten-year period of tolls in the morning on incoming city rush-hour traffic could have been one such mechanism.
As builders rushed to take advantage of tax incentives to construct and market suburban housing and shopping facilities in the 1960s, government accelerated the migration away from the city cores through the “politically correct” imposition of high tolerance for lax discipline in schools, social promotion, a soft on crime attitude, removal of the teen pregnancy stigma, and high taxes. The “soft bigotry of low expectations” led to high crime, a pervasive drug culture, a high unmarried teen birth rate, more poverty, less self-reliance, and the consequent fleeing of businesses with their crucial jobs. Suburban malls thrived as cities died.
Ironically government policies created the mall and have now introduced the instrument which will kill it. The Internet was an invention originally for the use of the American military that was made available to the whole world without regulation. As the American ethos embraces instant gratification, Internet shopping and the advent of drones is rapidly negating the need to visit retail stores.
More ominous is that unregulated use of the Internet around the globe, allowing it to be adopted as a primary recruiting and communications tool for radical Islamic terrorists in their quest for a worldwide caliphate.
Once again we witness a short-term good idea become a long-term disaster because elected officials are driven to provide short-term vote-gleaning programs without sufficient provision or even concern for long-term consequences.
My mall seems to be one of the few still thriving in 2016 but its fate is sealed. Economic realities will not allow another major refurbishment (2008 was the last) and as the fear of terrorism rises more people will avoid such soft targets as aging, unprotected shopping malls.
The mall has been a vibrant part of my life producing hundreds of congenial acquaintances of all races, religions, and ages. We’ve aged happily together since my family moved nearby in 1962. I hope she gets to die a peaceful death.
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