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Cornucopia of Humanity:
A Parade through the Mall
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz
In Greek mythology the cornucopia was a horn from the goat that suckled Zeus. It magically stayed forever filled with whatever its owner wanted. In late twentieth century American suburbs, sprawling retail centers were horns from the dragon of materialism that suckled capitalism and what owners wanted them forever filled with was people spending money.
Sartre’s existentialist view proclaimed “hell is other people,” while the transcendentalist Emerson admonished “make yourself necessary to someone.” The human enigma is that we can’t seem to live with other people and can’t seem to live without them.
Whichever your viewpoint, the best suburban laboratory in America in which to observe the full spectrum of humanity at the dawn of the 21st century is a regional mall such as the one I frequent, situated on a mass transit line in a north-central suburb of a big Eastern city.
There the haters and lovers, the benefactors and exploiters, the innovators and clueless, the producers and parasites all pass like “ships in the night.”
Take a seat in the central rotunda and observe the rich and poor, the young and old, the highly lettered and illiterate, the rural landowner and urban homeless, the observers of Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the Hale-Bopp comet theology as the American melting pot choreographs a bizarre parade. There’s no perky emcee, no floats, marching bands or Tennessee walking horses, but it’s just as entertaining and far more insightful because it’s not contrived; it’s real life and the pot is percolating.
My personal parade reviewing stand is in the third floor food court. Under an expansive, whimsical mural of a blue sky bedizened with cumulus clouds, I enjoy a direct sight-line to the elegant, marble main fountain, an architectural feature which softens the convergence of humanity being channeled from above and below via multiple promenades, elevators and escalators.
From the fountain, which is embraced by an elegant bifurcated, curved stairway nestled against an ornate elevator cage, terrazzo pathways radiate like spokes from a wheel–hub, north, east, and west from the giant rotunda, jumbling the masses like a large lottery ball container then reorienting and propelling them toward their next spending adventure.
With Au Bon Pain breakfast fare to enhance my enjoyment of the never-ending migration, I sit back once each day, be it morning, mid-day, or evening, and internally command, “Let the parade begin!” Emily Dickinson was more succinct: “The show is not the show, / But they that go.”
In the late 1990s, retail centers in some neighborhoods harbored Goodwill trucks where used and unwanted clothing was collected for charity.
Imagine a five-foot tall haphazardly assembled pile of garish clothing stashed in a corner of such a truck and visualize that pile magically moving along a sidewalk whistling a Broadway tune with an attached yo-yo alternately thrusting skyward and retracting.
If you add a nondescript, wrinkled, elderly face with a charming smile, two stubby legs, and two short arms, you have an accurate image of my favorite mall-parade participant, the “yo-yo whistling man.”
A daily visitor to the mall for several years, he carried all of his worldly possessions on his back and in his satchel. He was perpetually whistling a show tune medley—The Sound of Music seemed to be the wellspring of his repertoire—when he wasn’t engaged in friendly chatter with mall workers. His yo-yo danced relentlessly.
His portfolio of yo-yo tricks, like that of his show tunes, was minimal. He was peripatetic except for a brief stop in the food court, which was the site of a daily inventory of the satchel and backpack, and I suspect the mall restrooms became the site of a periodic bathing ritual.
After several years of this entertaining vaudevillian rechauffe, I presume a predator struck, a mall manager redefined or reasserted the facility’s rules of decorum, or hopefully, the yo-yo whistling man simply grew bored with immersion in the aristocratic vanilla of this suburban mall and moved somewhere more palatable. He disappeared. In another era he would probably have been spotted riding the rails. I romantically nurtured an intuition that he had been a hard driven, wealthy capitalist who became enamored with a George Bernard Shaw-like observation such as: “Gardening is the only unquestionably useful job”, expropriated the idea’s essence and manifested it in his own inimitable way. Whatever the circumstances of his life, a virtual garden of joy and friendliness pervaded any space he entered and he had the stage presence to project that gift to a large audience. That’s richer than many legacies.
The most unforgettable lovers I’ve encountered at the mall were two octogenarians I called the “valentine cocoon couple.”
The ravages of arthritis and osteoporosis left both of these spindly senior citizens barely ambulatory. Undaunted, they devised a simple walking technique which enabled them to exercise daily while uninhibitedly broadcasting their mutual devotion.
Whereas most of the unsteady elderly utilize a cane or a “walker” (a light, aluminum frame which fronts and flanks the unsteady with a four-legged, moving handrail) for support, the valentine cocoon couple used each other. Walking abreast, their inside hands tightly entwining their bodies to form the image of a cocoon, they painstakingly navigated a quarter mile lap each morning. While their intent was not romantic but practical in that it enhanced stability for both of them, most mall observers preferred to view this ritual as an adorable public display of affection.
Both were obviously very gentle individuals who deeply loved each other. Their appointed hour of 7:30-8:30 a.m. was undoubtedly selected to minimize the possibility of being jostled by shoppers. The ritual continued for several years until their abrupt disappearance insinuated the inevitable reality that one or both had arrived at a level of debilitation dictating closure to another of life’s chapters.
Their legacy to me is that no Valentine’s Day will pass without their heartwarming memory haunting and brightening my spirit.
Let’s leave my parade reviewing stand and I’ll escort you to the first floor to begin a whirlwind tour of the pre-business hours’ parade route scene, complete with introductions to a small sampling of the cornucopia.
First let’s wave through the Silver Diner window to “Linda the friendly dynamo of a waitress” who wears her brother’s gift, a gold cross blessed by a pope (she cares not which pope), that she has not removed—even when bathing—in fifteen years. The Silver Diner’s tepid coffee won’t energize you in the morning but this sparkle-eyed, raven-haired Irishwoman will after she shoos the cook staff’s adopted pet mouse from the griddle.
As we leave the diner and round the corner, curb the pace slightly and peer into “the pizza lady’s” window as the heavy, fortyish store manager kneads the morning’s dough.
It has long been my unfulfilled whim to be entertained by the sight of her deftly spinning pizza dough high into the air, catching it, stretching it with fists, accelerating and seamlessly repeating the cycle like a pianist playing an allegro piece and following the Da capo sign, until, in a booming crescendo, the crust assumes its final shape and the transfixed audience applauds a spent artist.
To me, this has always been a pizza shop’s badge of authenticity. Her predecessor in the shop was a maestro at tossing dough. Her refusals to perform are scantily dressed in some mumblings about her contact lenses falling out if she looks up quickly.
Prosaic dough-making is an apt metaphor for suburban living; there’s always something missing, if only finesse and panache.
Despite her intransigence, the pizza lady unfailingly extracts a hand from the messy dough for a wave and a smile each morning and that produces a happier mallwalker, albeit not a more entertaining pizza production.
Passing us on the left is the “single-file Korean couple.” The Korean man walks about eight feet in front of the woman who maintains a straight line with him—as though connected by an invisible, taut tether. They maintain a steady pace, walk all four floors, don’t speak or greet others, and never avert their eyes to window-shop. It’s a cultural or religious ritual which won’t win many converts in this temple of chaos and commercialism.
As we pass the still darkened Walden’s Bookstore we should stop briefly to greet “the Christian couple,” middle-aged divorcees who met at their church’s Wednesday Bible reading class.
She has an unforgettable thin birdlike face with a long pointy nose that conveys the convincing illusion of a beak from a distance. Then as you approach greeting proximity fixated on the nose, her disproportionately wide mouth and high forehead topped with a big gray hairdo makes you yearn for your Audubon field guide.
I think to myself, “Isn’t the mall God’s version of Home Depot? There’s a little of everything here.”
Her warm personality quickly diverts and commands your attention and if you acquiesce for an hour, she will regale you with personal travelogues on Spain, Turkey, and Portugal, chronicle recent visits to relatives in New England, and apprize you of her husband’s cancer battle.
She’s the conversational equivalent of Jell-O in that all you need to add is one cheap ingredient, in this case a “hello.”
The husband’s attractively proportioned physique contrasts with the catch-as-catch-can design of hers and his omnipresent smile—in spite of his illness—masks the fact that he’s laconic in comparison to his bride of several years. As would be an auctioneer.
Be careful not to awaken the “G&E sleepy man” as we pass the bench where he adds an appendix to last evening’s sleep while awaiting a manager with a key to the Gas & Electric Company store. He has long been a Monday through Friday fixture between 8 and 9 a.m. but all I’ve learned about him is that he doesn’t snore.
Up ahead I see the “first floor maintenance/bookie” taking some money from a regular walker.
A skinny, churlish looking woman with a “leave me alone” look, she was once fired for lying to and then cursing her superior when caught in the lie. A hard worker when she’s not fabricating reasons for absence from the job, the maintenance woman has gotten a lot of mileage from “I had to straighten out a problem at my daughter’s school” in her unimaginative arsenal for achieving chronic absenteeism without dismissal.
Ah, here we are passing the Hot Topic store, the favorite clothes shopping venue for “the high school witch.” She’s an area student who achieved front-page notoriety in 1998 when she was suspended from school for allegedly placing a hex on a fellow student.
The store caters to funky dressers and aficionados of the “Goth” look, signatured by all black clothes, gaunt bodies, pale white skin and multiple tattoos. The witch, whose mother won reinstatement at school for her daughter by pleading freedom of religion, has an unwitchlike, decidedly capitalistic goal of becoming the proprietor of such a store. To glimpse her and/or her coven you’ll have to return in the evening. They assemble with all of their witchly accouterments save the cauldron bubbling with eye of newt and lizard’s leg.
Alternatively, I can introduce you to the “cookie bench lady” just ahead; a gentle, cherubic soul who would have enhanced Norman Rockwell’s portfolio had he inhabited the mall era and ventured upon her. Round features, heavy clothing regardless of the season, red flower always in her hair and an expression betwixt and between “Mona Lisa” and “Sad Sack” make her one of the mall’s most endearing figures.
Ensconced on the same bench six days a week following a long bus ride from the city, she sits timorously with eyes downcast, flitting back and forth between light dozing and more alert meditation—no conversation, no newspaper, no coffee—until it’s time to venture upstairs to toil at the cookie trade.
That sudden breeze was generated by passage of “the Knights of Columbus gang,” a friendly group of six senior citizens, the largest that has endured at the mall as a walking entity without sustaining or causing collision-induced injuries. Their claim to fame is the sale of over three hundred hot dogs per home game at the city’s major league baseball park with profits benefiting a Catholic organization called the Knights of Columbus.
As in most milieus, the men and women within the larger group tend to segregate into single-sex clusters, the men replaying Sunday’s dramatic ninth-inning home run; the women retracing the meandering philanderings of the latest soap opera heartthrob.
Right behind that gang is “Martha the perfect walker/lifeguard,” a title unofficially awarded the age sixty-something exerciser after winning countless “walker of the week” awards from several leering men of her generation who frequent the first floor. A former lifeguard and pool manager, she inspires the men’s awe (OK lust) by her well-preserved muscle tone, quick, effortless gait, perfect posture, and overall attractiveness. She walks alone and the droolers who would pursue her forsake that pleasure because they understand the ramifications of cajoling atrophied muscles into matching strides with well-toned ones.
One who will never be indicted for conspiring or even accused of aspiring to achieve muscle tone is “Jack the munching attorney,” seated at a Nordstrom food-court table just ahead. Six days a week he makes his entrance on the fourth floor sporting a “Lieutenant Columbo”-like trenchcoat, the day’s court documents in tow, and then escalators his way down to the first level to claim his regular table.
He lays out the Wall Street Journal, frees various court papers from their valises, buys coffee and pastry, chats up the sales clerks and sits to commence his rituals, face to the central fountain, back to the walkers. Paralegals and/or clients occasionally join him but solitude is his norm. Big-boned but not sufficiently so to mask obesity, and mostly bald, this congenial counselor is considered one of the area’s courtroom giants among four hundred attorneys occupying office space within a one mile radius of the mall.
Give a wide berth to “Jerry the well-dressed reading/walker,” ambling just ahead. This septuagenarian, semi-retired real estate agent is the most dapper of the morning walking crowd. Always resplendent with sport jacket and tie, the friendly, white-haired gentleman has perfected the art of walking and reading simultaneously, although his gait is not a high octane one. I have never been able to discern whether his primary concentration is on the reading material or the walking route but there are considerable obstacles—fixed and moving—awaiting an inattentive pedestrian and his modus operandi endures.
Two denizens of the mall who do have a single-minded focus, at least at 8:30 a.m. when Friendly’s opens for breakfast, are Bill and Jason, security guards whose respective scales know the number 250 only as a useless, outdated artifact stored in digital attics and fondly reminisced about, like great-grandmother’s wedding gown. Based on the size of the breakfasts I’ve seen them buy, only the gown has any hope for an attic reprieve.
They’re in the carry-out line now and I see “lunch counter woman” is on her stool again, eating alone with that baleful look that seems to catch my eye regardless of the time of day I visit the mall. A heavy, sad looking sixtyish woman, she is almost as much a fixture at Friendly’s as their “Happy Ender” sundae.
“Looks-at-the-ground man” just scurried by as I slowed to greet Bill and Jason. He’s more of a hazard than Jerry the well-dressed reading/walker because he moves at a blistering pace with eyes so oriented toward the ground that his scalp is perfectly positioned for use as a battering ram. He will look up and reciprocate a friendly greeting but reflexively—like the panic bar on an exit door—his tête-à-tête with the terrazzo floor resumes.
Joe and Pauline, “the North Central Trail couple,” just came in the door. They’re a very friendly pair in their seventies who in clear, warm weather walk the North Central Trail, a hiking/biking path which replaced the railroad right-of-way extending into southern Pennsylvania, using the very railbed which bore Abraham Lincoln’s train to Gettysburg in 1863.
Joe is tall and thin with a narrow face, a peculiar tilting walk and a conservative political and religious mindset. Pauline has severe rheumatoid arthritis in her knees which slows her pace, forcing the devoted couple to separate in order to achieve physically appropriate workouts. Periodic cortisone shots are gradually diminishing in effectiveness, thereby expanding her periods of severe pain and functional immobility. Knee replacements loom. Meanwhile they walk seven days a week and Pauline’s anguish hasn’t extinguished a smile which adds candlepower to a dimly lit promenade.
If the “hair-dressing trio” is encamped on their bench, it must be Wednesday. Three elderly women have a long tradition of mid-week rendezvous at the hair salon, and for an hour prior to its 8 a.m. opening they exercise squatter’s rights on the nearby bench as they banter. All three heads are always coiffed to perfection making it impossible for the casual passer-by to know whether they are preparing for battle in the hydraulic chairs or assessing results after retreating from the hair-drying bonnets.
Nearby, pro tem proprietors of another bench arrive at the geographic center of the first level at precisely 7:30 each weekday morning. It’s the “elderly Friendly’s bench lovers.”
The couple occupies this bench until precisely 8:15, at which time they shuffle to the Friendly’s portcullis to await it’s lifting at 8:30, signaling the store’s opening. They maneuver with the skill of guerrilla fighters to be first in line at Friendly’s—the cheapest breakfast in the mall, ergo the most attractive to the elderly—thereby insuring possession of their adopted booth. The enemy, elderly usurpers from the retirement home just north of the mall, covets the same premium booths in the back of the restaurant, shielded from the madding promenade crowds.
The man is skinny and gruff while she’s portly and reticent, so predictably there are no public displays of affection, but they are inseparable for several hours each morning. The nearby Just in Time store could synchronize its wares by their precision maneuvers. The couple is a poignant reminder that what’s important and sufficient early in life and again late in life, are simple things. The mystery is why that truth, and too often happiness, becomes elusive during the intervening years.
The second floor is the province of “Catherine the Bible toting maintenance worker,” uncontestedly the funniest person I’ve met at the mall.
Tall, solidly built and physically well-conditioned from years of manual labor, she is permanently assigned to clean the mall’s second level. Friendly and very religious, she loves to visit nursing homes and read the Bible to the sick. I’ll remember her more for her priceless stories and her laugh, which begins shrill and ends staccato.
My favorite tale harkens back to a day when she was working at the east end of the promenade, where the escalators cluster, the palms soar regally, and the mall space opens cathedral-like for one hundred feet from ground level to the barrel-vaulted ceilings of the fourth floor.
In her usual jovial manner she greeted an elderly woman ambling directly toward her, not more than four feet away. To Catherine’s amazement, the woman froze and looked backwards for the source of the “good morning.” The bewildered soul did a 360-degree spin looking for her greeter then desperately looked up toward the third floor railing. Only when the astonished Catherine tapped her shoulder did the woman realize that Catherine (with her equipment cart taking up half the promenade) was greeting her from point-blank range.
The woman, it seems, had left her glasses home and was almost blind. How that translates to the auditory version of searching for your glasses while you’re wearing them will forever remain a mystery.
No prose can do justice to the hysteria-generating voice inflections and physical gyrations which elevate Catherine’s riotous storytelling to Broadway quality entertainment.
A close second to this tale was funny in the telling but not in the living.
Catherine was worshiping at her Baptist church one Sunday and the congregation was on their feet in animated response to each of the preacher’s pearls of salvation. Suddenly, in a spasmodic outpouring of religious fervor, the woman in front of her swung her arms backwards in an “alleluia” and knocked Catherine to the ground, breaking her arm and wrist.
She missed six months of work.
Her rubbery, expressive face, and wildly gesticulating arms again added an outrageously humorous dimension to the storytelling that leaves my prose mired in bland. The paradoxes in this God-fearing woman’s everyday life also immerse her persona in an aura of humor. While an enthusiastic churchgoer, it seems she is equally passionate when attending her nephew’s professional boxing matches (“raucous ringside manner” is her self-assessment).
The juxtapositioning in one day’s schedule of comforting the sick with Bible readings and applauding while men punch each other senseless in a brutal sport, is grist for a television sitcom.
Catherine’s goodness, work ethic, and humor have made the second floor an appealing destination for me.
While this is Catherine’s day off, I do see “Liz the birdclock woman” uncharacteristically strolling the second floor.
I first encountered Liz downstairs wistfully peering into the window of the Lechter’s store during one Christmas shopping season. Upon inquiry I learned that this frail woman with the angelic smile is recovering from a stroke and lives with a pacemaker in her chest, a mechanical cavalry ready to ride to the rescue. She walks the first floor almost exclusively because it contains the only restrooms open before 8 a.m. Her regimen includes frequent rest stops on the benches and squeezing a rubber ball in her right hand, the side of her body affected by the stroke.
Liz is chauffeured to the mall by her husband John, who in lieu of exercising, follows a peculiar routine in which he eschews the mall’s benches, enters the self-serve post office, stands at a counter, and reads his newspaper facing a blank wall.
The object that so enraptured Liz that day we met at Lechter’s display window was a clock featuring birds for hour symbols. A different species of bird sings to announce each hour, but, mercifully, a light sensor disables the sound at night, sparing owners the ordeal of a 3 a.m. awakening courtesy of a robin’s mating song.
Liz already owned a virtually identical clock but considered it flawed because the birds were labeled with their Latin scientific names. Lechter’s was selling an English version and that precipitated an internal war between spiritual and material values, with “good Liz” decrying the purchase of a replacement clock as capitalistic excess pursuing ephemeral pleasure. After all, the Latin clock still worked and the birds were recognizable by their pictures.
“Bad Liz,” on the other hand, saw the new clock as a justifiable indulgence in the otherwise austere life of an ailing, elderly woman who had lived in a God-fearing, unselfish manner. “Bad Liz” prevailed and the new clock was found under her Christmas tree. To date, she can whistle six of the twelve songbird selections, but still can’t audibly discern the hour, because, unlike the wise cuckoo, these birds can’t count. The Latin clock awaits a neighborhood garage sale.
I just glimpsed the “withered arm lady” slipping into an elevator.
Overweight, somber and frightened looking, with a withered left arm, she walks all four floors at a brisk pace seven days a week, reliably alone and furtively catching unoccupied elevators to change floors. She walks with a pronounced tilt to the side of her bad arm while ever-darting eyes are programmed with a myriad of evasive tactics to avoid the incurrence of friendly greetings.
I’m torn between reaching out to such persons and respecting their privacy. Does she truly prefer solitude within a crowd (many do) or has she been rejected, stared at, and ridiculed enough that the emotional scar tissue has permanently encased that indefinable little spark we can all project which magically induces others to seek our company? The shortest path between two people is a smile, but the path to this poor soul traverses a marathon.
I just nodded to “Mr. Intense,” another solo walker who never greets other regulars.
He bears the permanent expression of one being pursued by a mob hit man, who’s just spied his appointed hunter in the mall. It’s the face I would expect Salman Rushdie to wear as he tries to survive a death sentence imposed by Iranian Islamic leaders, who objected to one of the British author’s books. Rushdie projects a Ghandi-like tranquility compared to Mr. Intense.
One particularly officious mallwalker has taken the initiative to inform other female walkers of the injudiciousness of greeting this man because she intuits a nefarious quality about him, a conclusion based entirely on his facial expression and body language.
I remember it was on my birthday one year that he finally returned my nod (no verbal accompaniment) for the first time, and, strangely, that is my only memory of that birthday.
Interestingly, we all seem to have a few genuinely insignificant events that forever linger in our memories, vastly out of proportion to their impact on our lives. This was one such event for me.
Mr. Intense and I have sustained our nodding relationship.
There’s nothing intense about the approaching “Hee Haw twins,” also excoriated by Ms Officious as people toward whom it would not be prudent for well-bred Ivy-pedigreed women to greet in a friendly manner.
The two brothers are short, stout, happy-go-lucky, laid back, flannel-flaunting country boys whose dress, demeanor and dialogue makes them eminently qualified to pop up in a cornfield and deliver a lame one-liner in country music star Roy Clark’s former TV variety show Hee Haw.
One of the brothers was a professional boxer, so if you are ever afflicted with Ms Officious’ air of superiority and feel the urge to snicker as they pass by, I counsel; a) self-restraint or; b) join their company and snicker at Ms Officious instead.
When I see the word foppishness, I think immediately of best-selling author Tom Wolfe and his trademark white wardrobe. Rounding a corner of the promenade fronting an elaborate restaurant construction project is our mall version of an eccentric fop, “green man.”
My brother first pointed him out to me one Christmas season as he jauntily strode past us wearing a lime green blazer with clashing iridescent, sequined green dress shirt, emerald cuff links, chartreuse tie and olive gabardine slacks. There is such a deluge of strange sights at the mall it’s rare that one person immediately commands attention, but this one did. I still delight in occasional green man sightings but they’re not frequent enough to reveal any patterned behavioral quirks other than his obsession for green. It occurs to me that if he visits the new Rain Forest Restaurant to dine, he will be virtually invisible.
At the fringe of a group of white-clad medical workers trailing just behind green man is “effeminate man,” yet another solo, non-greeting, daily walker who’s middle-aged with a big, tight, curly hairdo and the stereotypically exaggerated effeminate walking traits of some gay men.
Conveniently, I can confess that sinful, narrow-minded caricature to “the woman priest” who is right behind effeminate man. This ordained Episcopal priest walks with her frail, elderly father each morning often wearing the distinctive white collar of the priesthood, either to avoid being targeted by flirtatious men or more likely because imminent church duties beckon.
A fellow Catholic mallwalker and I ruminated one day about one of the serious ramifications that will occur if the Vatican ever acquiesces to public demands for sexual equality within the priesthood.
Catholics reflexively address priests with, “Good morning Father,”—an unacceptable salutation for a woman. “Excellency” is reserved for Catholic Church hierarchy, “Holiness” for the Pope, “Mother” for heads of convents, “Sister” for nuns, and unfortunately the most logical moniker,” Priestess,” sounds stiff and, moreover, has a pagan pedigree. Protestants and Jews presciently coined the sexually neutral terms “Reverend,” “Vicar” and “Rabbi,” and it could spawn an ecumenical crisis if the Catholic Church expropriated one of those titles.
My best guess is that it will require a Vatican III Council to beseech inspiration from the Holy Ghost to select or neologize something appropriate.
Up ahead near the mall’s main reception desk I see the “dance devotee duo,” Brenda and Janet. While most walkers tend to stroll with the owner of any familiar face they haphazardly cross paths with, these two have a pseudo-appointment to team up on certain days, at fairly specific times, on the second floor.
While kindred spirits, their friendship has never blossomed beyond mall corridors, and if one disappears for a week or so, the other doesn’t initiate a concerned phone inquiry. The mall is a fabulous place for finding light coffee, light pastry, and light relationships. With minimal effort you can enjoy congenial, regular, long-term companionship in large quantities while assuming no responsibilities, expectations, or commitments.
Brenda and Janet, two retirees, are like that. Both are over age sixty, gregarious, talkative, congenial and interested in current affairs, each other’s families, and age/gender-related topics.
Their chemistry works because both are good listeners and neither typically commandeers a conversation. They’ve been acquaintances for years and their identification as a couple has the fringe benefit of sending signals which prevent walkers they deem obnoxious from taking the initiative to join them. Walking with them is by invitation only. When either walks alone, however, she becomes fair game for anyone (as are most who walk solo and resemble anything cheerier than Silas Marner), since both are too polite to insult unwanted company.
Love of dance is the tie that binds them most deeply. Janet is a jovial Irishwoman direct from central casting whose dance preference is the Irish Caili (pronounced “kale-lee”). Cailis pre-date the potato famine and were simply gatherings of neighbors of all ages at nearby crossroads to dance various group dances, play music, and tell stories. The tradition endures in America and it’s Janet’s favorite hobby.
Brenda crosses many ethnic and cultural lines with her preferences. She is expert at over two hundred dance steps ranging from recently re-popularized swing dancing to ballroom and country-western dance. She typically attends dances (appropriately costumed, of course) two nights a week and persists with lessons in spite of her expertise.
Both women have retirement jobs. Brenda is a receptionist at the mall, which always keeps her storybag full, and Janet is an office assistant at a university’s graduate biochemistry office.
Physical fitness, particularly weight control, is a primary driver of their mall presence and since that goal is a perpetual journey rather than a destination, food and diets are prominent in every conversation. Both maintain attractive figures and make delightful company.
As we escalator up to the third floor, disembark and turn right toward an anchor department store named the Hecht Company, the imposing presence of “the aerobics mistress” will immediately command our full attention. A resonant alto voice reverberates half the length of the eighth of a mile promenade as she puts thirty or so middle-aged to elderly students through their free, one-and-a-half-hour thrice weekly paces, demonstrating the moves with a body worthy of a U.S. Marine recruiting poster.
One would expect her vocal chords to receive a well-earned respite at workout’s end, but the aerobics mistress merely turns down the volume and keeps on talking as she entertains a dozen adoring students in the food court for an additional half hour. One recurring tête-à-tête never fails to leave me laughing.
“Bill the listener,” the elderly husband of one of the students, patiently reads alone at a food court table each day until his wife is ready to exit the mall. She belongs to the post-workout social group, exclusively women, which chats nearby with their leader. The mistress’ voice is animated, happy and never still. The best the other dozen women can do is talk simultaneously.
Considerate to a fault, the mistress never fails to pay a solo visit to Bill. She typically leans over the table, gets right in Bill’s face and begins an animated soliloquy, hands continually and dramatically gesticulating, yakking sports results at gentle Bill, who resembles a display window mannequin, hands glued to his lap, speechless, nary a sign of life. Somehow the chemistry works because he always returns and she doesn’t seem to find the absence of feedback discouraging. Sometimes during these sessions I visualize Bill magically turning into a sheet of drywall as she keeps right on talking. Such a magical transformation wouldn’t even be a speed bump on her conversational Autobahn.
The drill-instructor volume of her aerobics exercise directives and the accompanying music from her boom-box create a decibel level which effectively obscures the approach of “coughing lady.”
My first encounter with coughing lady was in 1995 when she spent an entire winter walking the mall afflicted with such dreadful, persistent (every ten seconds or so) and loud spasms of coughing that my annoyance was tempered by compassion because I was convinced she was terminally ill and would soon be gone. Eventually, compassion transformed to anger when I learned that selfishness was her only serious malady after she informed a complaining mallwalker that she was unconcerned with how many mall visitors she was virally infecting and/or annoying with her “Opus from Hell” in D-minor.
Compared to her, I would have welcomed a barking dog as though it were the Vienna Boys Choir. Proving that there is a merciful god, her interludes of silence now extend to fractions of hours rather than mere seconds.
That was “the man who doesn’t swing arms” who just zipped past us. As demonstrated, this bald, thin fellow walks extremely fast, keeping both arms glued to his torso. Try that sometime. The quirk doesn’t appear to be injury-related, making him the first human I’ve encountered with a zero arm swing incorporated into his normal gait.
Just ahead, at the base of a tall Washington Palm Tree, I notice that “plant girl,” the mall’s friendly but incompetent caretaker of all things green and growing, is still searching for the leaf-eating slugs she’s been battling.
My solicited recommendation to this erstwhile actress, who performs in the Rock Church’s theatrical offerings, was to introduce small, secretive, slug-eating snakes (DeKay, Ring-necked) to the gardens. Her immediate rejoinder was that eliminating slugs, not mall customers, was the preferred objective.
As we wind our way up the staircase to the fourth floor, “whirling dervish lady” is doing her step exercises. This human dynamo is a short, perky, attractive, blond, thirtyish lady who virtually flies around the mall in no predictable fashion. One moment she’s scurrying up and down the central staircase, the next she’s prancing along a promenade, doing a ballet review of temps de fleches, grand jetes and pirouettes—literally. This unharnessed conductor of raw energy must be the antithesis of her patient, precise, and focused ophthalmologist husband. They’re divorcing.
Also climbing the staircase is “Simon the muscle machine salesman,” a fiftyish man who has managed the Nordic Track store for years, attired exclusively in his signature khaki shorts regardless of the weather or the season. Short, lean and well-toned, he joins the morning parade for coffee at Nordstrom’s, then opens his store and works out on each machine, hoping in Tom Sawyer fashion to broadcast the fun he’s having and lure folks in to participate—and buy.
There’s a large ladder approaching, so be ready to greet “Frank the chief engineer” (the mall’s only engineer). To say this congenial, baby-faced civil engineer’s talents are underutilized in the morning is stating the obvious. The assistant-less engineer must spend the morning hours each day until 10 a.m. simply changing light bulbs around the inside and outside of the facility. He estimates that the chore accounts for twenty-five percent of his total workload.
The “meat and potatoes” of his duties includes overseeing the renovation of all stores for new tenants, major repairs, new capital projects, compliance with county codes, access for the handicapped, and handy-man type jobs for tenants. He is on twenty-four hour call, which routinely finds him at the mall at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday or 9 a.m. on a Sunday. When asked if he minds this time away from home he answers; “I’m deluged with ‘honey-do’ tasks at either location, but I get fewer at the mall.”
When I first met him, attorneys were cleaning up the detritus of three home-based honey-do’s via separate, unrelated lawsuits against his Realtor, pool contractor and an in-law. Three financially expensive moral victories bolstered his ego if not his retirement portfolio while blurring his sense of which environment—home or mall—was more relaxing.
As the fourth floor promenade circles around the huge central rotunda, the third level comes into view and I see “the veterans club” assembling at its usual table. These six World War II survivors meet five days a week to share coffee, reminisce about a bygone world, and revel in the present world which they—journalist Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation”—preserved and shaped.
To the rest of their respective universes they are Bernard, Dennis, Bob, John, Frank, and Gene but to one another they are Morocco, Ardennes, Normandy, Solomon, Pearl Harbor, and Guam. Theirs is a bond nothing else in human experience approximates. It’s a bond beyond non-combatants’ ability to understand and beyond language’s capacity to elucidate. It cannot be diminished by philosophical differences or personality clashes. It’s a bond only death can remove.
Ambling toward us is “Ben and Peggy.” He’s also a World War II veteran who flew torpedo bombers in the South Pacific and chooses to spend every waking moment within earshot of the wife he loves, while she’s a devoted spouse, mother, and grandmother with a fascination for dollmaking.
If a yearbook were produced for the mallwalking community, these elderly, hand-holding seniors—Ben always resplendent in his tweed jacket and Peggy with beret shading two hazel windows to an impish Irish soul—would easily win the “cutest couple” award.
The mallwalking community’s most improbable and only incendiary relationship evolved over a several year period between “the General” and “Ms Officious,” both walking ahead of us and maintaining a significant and measured distance between themselves. Nicknamed the General by mallwalkers because of his military bearing, he’s a retired army man and a conservative Republican.
As the moniker suggests, Ms Officious has a penchant for unsolicited tough love. She is a career feminist/writer/professor and liberal Democrat, who once criticized a terminally ill close friend for “dying poorly.”
Together they formed an entertaining mallwalking version of Mary Matalin and James Carville, respectively the Republican and Democrat parties’ national strategists, “spin doctors” and “attack dogs” who found enough common ground—and profitability—to induce a union in holy matrimony.
The General and Ms Officious, however, lack the humorous perspective which softens the polemics of Matalin and Carville, and could find no utilizable terms of endearment or euphemistic ways of communicating to make the other’s company enduringly palatable.
The coup de grace was delivered to their walking acquaintanceship during a particularly vitriolic debate over the merits of impeaching President Bill Clinton. Mall legend has it that the career military man and ex-Vietnam attack-helicopter pilot reduced the hardbitten feminist to tears and abruptly aborted their debate by calling her an “old lesbian,” a decided departure from Roberts Rules of Order and a not so subtle ad hominem debate tactic, which, in a nod to the ex-English professor, was also a non sequitur.
As we round the fourth floor’s final turn into the parade’s last furlong, the “retired high school French teacher” comes into view. Exercising to lose weight, he never ventures below the fourth level for fear of encountering someone connected with the third floor’s Museum Store, where he worked for several years to keep busy and socialize. He fears being pestered into returning to work part-time and is evidently too timid to simply say “no.” Such timidity is paradoxical coming from one who spent his adult life dealing with American teenagers.
The distaff side of the “inter-racial baby carriage couple,” with her bleached white hair, just breezed by pushing the chattiest baby I’ve ever encountered. The thirtyish white mom and black dad alternate days pushing the carriage, with rare appearances together.
The “lonely Jewish Mexican” is once again standing by the promenade railing. One of the most unusual entrepreneurs I’ve ever observed, he began his association with the mall by opening a third floor kiosk for about $2,000 per month, selling Mexican artifacts exclusively.
The mall’s primary market area is a predominantly white, Christian one with a large evening influx of inner city African-Americans. There is only a token Hispanic population, smaller even than that of the Arabs, Jews, or Asians. Presumably he contracted for some type of market study to justify such an enterprise, but if so he was cheated. He is a small, wiry, solitary figure, always wearing a yarmulke and always working alone, be it 10 a.m. or 9 p.m. I can’t recall ever seeing a customer at his kiosk nor have I ever seen an employee. He subsequently opened a second kiosk adjoining the first in the futile hope that displaying more wares would attract more customers. He single-handedly manned two kiosks and still attracted no one.
Finally he opened the fourth floor store we are now passing. He spends his entire day at the store seven days a week and when I see him he is usually standing outside by the promenade railing, watching pedestrians go by. I once observed two women staring at his display window and one opined that “the owner couldn’t pay me to take anything in the store.” The store was cluttered with garish pottery and artifacts like the huge, colorful, papier-mâché macaw which might sell in a New Mexico mall but doesn’t have a chance in an upscale north-side Baltimore County market. I’m told he is $25,000 in the red and about to close.
Journalists and urban planners routinely excoriate suburban regional malls as bland, sterile, unimaginative places devoid of beauty, charm, and history. Most newspaper writers and planners prefer to live and work in the cities, visiting suburban malls as often as they dial 911; so they speak vicariously and generalize, like my friend who visited Paris once and perceived a waiter as less than a paragon of good will, then extrapolated that experience into the conclusion that the French are rude and loathe Americans.
Condescending scribes and patronizing pundits confirm only their narrow-mindedness while a convenient and fertile human research laboratory like the mall goes underexamined. The mall is truly a cornucopia in that it is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas and the supply of people is bountiful.
It is also a zoological park in that it gathers a large, diverse population and lets them intermingle in a confined but unstructured way. It’s confined enough that they’re easily observed, yet spacious enough to allow interaction in a multitude of ways. Visitors dress to suit themselves in contrast to church congregations, orchestra audiences, or business conventioneers.
Some are unshaven and some are in formal attire simply because they wish to be, unconcerned about any societal imprimatur.
Unlike the zoo, these specimens can leave at will, but enough return on a regular basis that one can gain character insight into many through mere observation. American author and playright Marilyn vos Savant said: “To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.” Savant has credibility because the Guinness Book of World Records lists her 228 IQ score as the highest ever recorded.
Regardless of your position on the power of observation, there is no better place to observe a diversity of humanity and behavior in the year 2000 than a regional mall on a mass transit line into an urban area.
Behaviors such as the abject frustration of the man who abandoned his Shirley Temple look-alike two-year-old for twenty minutes one night at the mall; just left her screaming on the fourth floor outside a store while he shopped. Presumably he was a single parent whose job left him no free time for certain chores. Since he couldn’t find a baby-sitter, couldn’t get the little girl to stop screaming, and couldn’t take her into a store unless she quieted, he just plunked her on the mall floor and left. Each time I completed a five-minute lap a new crowd of aghast onlookers had gathered, staring in disbelief at the abandoned, screaming child. Occasionally a passer-by would kneel and try to console the inconsolable but most didn’t want to get involved.
The father returned before the snail’s-paced security force intervened. He sat on the floor beside the little girl, whose screaming mellowed to normal crying and then mere whimpering after ten additional nerve-wracking minutes.
This single episode spoke volumes about the American family, child care provisions for workers, good Samaritans and individuals’ priorities.
An illuminating episode on race relations took place one morning at the Au Bon Pain pastry shop in the food court. Once an order is placed which must be heated, patrons are directed to another area of the counter to await delivery of their food.
Unfortunately, that area contains the cream, sugar, napkins and plastic tableware needed by those simply getting coffee and cold pastry. Prodded by an inefficient system, coffee buyers—at least those who like to drink it before tepid becomes a memory—must barge into the group awaiting microwaved food to access what they need. During such a scenario one morning a white man barged into a group containing a large black man who was evidently not a regular and he took exception to the typical traffic dynamic.
He assumed the white man was impatiently “disrespecting” him because he was black, and essentially went berserk, scuffling furiously back and forth along the entire length of the bakery counter while waving his arms frantically and assaulting the air in scattershot fashion with strident racial epithets. The unspoken fear of the all-white crowd was that a gun would soon materialize from the gym bag which the black man was waving about.
Nearly half the seated patrons abandoned discretion and beat a hasty retreat down the escalator. As the 21st century begins, there still isn’t much “benefit of the doubt” flowing in either direction where race is concerned, although the amoeba of egalitarianism is glacially absorbing the protozoa of racism.
Then there was the married couple I observed while walking the fourth floor of the mall on a Friday evening. They had just exited Nordstrom’s and the mall’s closing time was looming. As they neared me, the woman suddenly and silently peeled off into the Laura Ashley store.
With a visage as though pierced by an arrow dipped in despondency, the man reflexively rolled his eyes and head skyward muttering; “Oh gees!” and meekly parked himself at the promenade railing to await her return. His capitulation was evocative of a pro wrestler in a tag-team match, struggling to the ropes after enduring a merciless beating. The economy of verbiage and efficiency of body language within this micro-drama was more eloquent than a Shakespearean soliloquy.
Hopefully, a quid pro quo awaited to ameliorate the man’s gloom. That three-second episode revealed more to me about their relationship than I could have learned in a two-hour interview, after which I would have had to separate the contrived from the real.
On this very public stage that’s the mall, toddlers are throwing tantrums, teenagers are being intransigent, lovers are quarreling, surgical patients are rehabbing, relationships are igniting, adult kids are tenderly assisting decrepit parents on therapeutic shopping outings, employees on break are grumbling, and the lonely are desperately grasping for friends, all against a backdrop of commerce.
Again, Emily Dickinson paints a less embellished canvas than I, and unveils a masterful assessment of zoo patrons which aptly applies to mall visitors: “Menagerie to me / My neighbor be, / Fair play— / Both went to see.”
If the adjectives of future historians describing suburban malls include “dull,” it will be revisionist history; for while shopping can be dull, the essence of the mall is humanity and whatever else God’s pièce de résistance may be, it’s never dull.
Furthermore, doesn’t everyone love a parade?
Paul Belz Writings
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