Malls are like pitcher plants – traps designed to attract and kill. Nothing crushes the human spirit more than a mall. Nothing except thoughtful contemplation of the people who choose to go to a mall as a sort of social event.
I went to a mall earlier this week. I needed to buy a birthday gift and a card. There are two Hallmarks in the mall and, in theory, a couple of other stores and a food court that haven’t fallen into the open arms of urban decay. So I went to the mall because it was expedient.
Expedience is always the lever with which an otherwise good man tips his soul into the abyss.
My mall, the Wyoming Valley Mall, is not the saddest mall I have ever seen. That mall is the Schuylkill Valley Mall, which has a Gap, a 2-screen movie theater and a pack of feral children that roam the service passageways looking for fresh water, scraps of food, hot new jeans or Taylor Lautner. It is a deadly place for the body, the mind and the spirit.
As I amble past the food court’s promises of stuffed pizza and Hunan chicken, the bleats and beeps of the terminally ill arcade and the store that inexplicably sells only baseball caps, I see a kiosk recruiting for a local community college. Next to it is a Hot Topic. There’s something in the juxtaposition that I purposefully ignore. Contemplating it might drive me mad.
I bought my grandmother candy for her birthday. I nearly left the candy store without my receipt, but the cashier – a matronly-looking thing who was herself someone’s grandmother, I was sure – flagged me down. Thank you, I told her. Some days, I said, I’d forget my head if it weren’t on so tight. I’m a scatterbrain on the best of days, my mind going in three directions at once, and now on top of that my brain is certainly being rewired by my iPhone; I am fast becoming an iPhonePerson and I mostly don’t regret this because it’s like being a god with a small ‘g’, the kind that is responsible for small islands, specific plants or the kind of phenomena that happen once a generation or less. I once made a character for a role-playing game called Nobilis, where you play as small ‘g’ gods, and I made my character the god of bottom-shelf liquor. If I knew nothing about that game, I could look it up on my phone – I rule a magical knowledge cloud, and my dominion is limitless.
But I still forget my receipt. So I thank someone’s grandmother. I say something folksy. She smiles wisely and she says to me, “That’s the problem these days – too much thinking.” Too. Much. Thinking. Not, you know, that there are actual problems. That we think about them too much. This is what the mall does to us.
I walk deliberately to the most convenient Hallmark (there may be more than two; my sense of reality is no longer what it was twenty minutes previous), past Pillow Pets and gaudy cell phone cases and a woman who wants to sell me lotion. “Can I ask you a question?” she asks me. She is hopeful. Who would say no to that? I say “Not ever,” and walk past. I feel like I am Rorschach. It is not a good feeling.
Inside the Hallmark, I buy a card for my grandmother. I buy a plush Angry Bird for Eldest Niece, who loves the Angry Birds. She is more at ease with their role in her life than I am with their role in mine. She is nearly four.
When I check out, I am confronted by the girl behind the counter and she wants to know how they could kill Peter Parker. I am confused by this for a second, but I realize that I am wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt. She seems upset. “Spider-Man is my guy!” she tells me. I nod.
I don’t know how to answer this sort of thing. It reminds me of the times when I would lecture to students, where I would get asked a simple question and go off on a long tangent about all manner of things. I start talking about commas and end up talking about how it’s a sin that you kids don’t know that there was a movie called Halloween before the one that Rob Zombie made, where is your sense of culture. My brain is a web of senseless trivia, continuity and gossamer strands of context that blow about wantonly, connecting things that should not be connected. I try to find the right combination of context and trivia to explain Miles Morales to this stranger. I am in a mall. My consciousness is fuzzy.
I tell her that there are two Spider-Man comics, that one is set in an alternate universe, and that Peter Parker is still alive and spidering in the other comic. She says, “oh.” She seems let down by the reasonableness of my answer, maybe deflated. In the mall, you construct a lifeboat in your mind and reason is a long, sharp pin.