How I Learned To Love The Mall

I get a text: “I am at a mall.”

It’s Jim. He’s at a mall. This is not the first time I’ve received such a text. People tend to think of me when they visit malls.

“Still awaiting the illuminating essay how I learned to stop hating and love the mall.”

Earlier that day I’d gone to the mall to see a baby kangaroo. I follow this mall on Twitter; they follow me back. We have a mutual love. It’s no secret.

“Because this makes me want to build a doomsday shelter.”

I know: I have a fetish. I have a strange and insatiable fetish for malls. For the skylights and fake trees, the slick reflective tiles, escalators carrying teens to the food court. Nail salons. Generic clothing stores. Kiosks. The fountain.

A fetish for something that everyone else hates. A fetish for ugly. I can try to help you love the mall. But it might just be a predilection.

* * *

I have very distinct rules for enjoying the mall.

I never, ever go to the mall with other people. I can’t even imagine going to the mall with other people. (Jim, as a male on your own, this might not work for you, especially if you bring your camera. I acknowledge that this part of it makes it a huge benefit to be a white female, although I still think I get weird looks sometimes.) This allows me to experience it at my own pace; five minutes if that’s all I need, or fifty if the mood strikes. The Zen of the Mall is being alone with your thoughts; not speaking, just listening. Mall acoustics are fantastic in that they both magnify and mute: the hubbub of commotion reduced to a hush of distinct words. It allows you to both be very much in the moment, and also alone and separate from other people’s experiences should you wish to be.

Of course, it’s important to support the businesses in malls or there would be no malls. Many of the stores in malls today are small businesses: locally-owned, specialized; I feel completely comfortable spending money to support the local artists in the airbrush store, or the family-owned baseball cap store where the bags are generic and the grandson helps at the cash register during the holiday season. (I also spend money in locally owned businesses downtown and in my own neighborhood.)

Whenever I feel obligated to go to a mall to shop, though, I can feel the same pressures that make other people hate the experience. I don’t like feeling obligated to move faster through the crowds, I don’t like that there has to be a destination. There is no enjoyment when you have a distinct purpose: there is no stopping to enjoy the way the light through the skylight hits the walls, the way the fake leaves on the fake trees are flapping in the fake breeze.

I know the plants are probably fake; I love them anyway. They’re well-placed and well-chosen, symmetrical; a form of interior landscaping artwork. I love their futuristic plasticity; I love that maybe someday when we’re no longer here, they could still be.

(UPDATE: I have since learned that the plants are, marvelously, not fake, but that they’ll still be here when we’re not.)

It’s very likely that one day I will be approached by mall security for the number of photos I take in malls. For the fact that I go to the mall almost exclusively to take photographs. (In fact, I have been approached by them once, when I’d very obviously arrived at the nearly empty mall to take pictures with my larger camera. Since then, I’ve stuck to cell phone photographs and point-and-shoot cameras.) Of course, I try to avoid taking pictures of children, and anyone else who very obviously doesn’t want to be photographed. While it’s too late to create something like this, I also think that mall society presents a very interesting cross-section of humans, and documenting it makes sense to me. More than anything, it’s the light I love. Mall architecture is designed for photography: the skylights filter the light perfectly, creating a beautiful assortment of postive and negative space and well-lit landscapes. There are focal pieces, textures, and a calming emptiness. There is ample room to move around and find different angles, find the way the light hits the geometry of the cathedral ceilings best. The mall is, to me, a playground of light and portrait subjects and sculpture, the largest photographic studio you can imagine.

After visiting the mall kangaroo, I was headed back to the car when I saw an older lady sitting cozily on a bench near the Macy’s entrance, just watching the people go by. She had a smile I recognized from older ladies on park benches; the joy of experiencing humanity as an observer, watching life happen, watching the people go about their business, feeling their experience in a way that is easy. When it’s too cold for park benches, mall benches make wonderful substitutions. I can’t wait until I’m the age where it’s acceptable to stare at passersby with that look in your eye: I’m enjoying watching life through you. I’m enjoying imagining your stories, where you might head next, what brought you here in the first place.

I wanted to take this woman’s picture, but when I thought about it, I realized that it was enough to take her story and her lesson. Sit down. Watch life go by.

But these are just my rules.

* * *

When I moved back to Ohio three years ago, the first thing I noticed was how suddenly accepting I was of everything that once stood for conformity. Sports. Cars. Malls. These were the things that, when I lived here in the 90s, drove me to dress all in black, and yet to decry the proliferation of Doc Martens worn by those who didn’t even listen to punk music; to make blanket statements like “I hate jocks” or “look at all those assholes with cellphones.”

But when I moved back here, I started to understand something important that I couldn’t grasp before: There’s a unique and delectable challenge to finding self within sameness. It narrows the scope of vision and focuses it on smaller but more important differences you might not have noticed before: it helps you to realize that, truthfully, there is no sameness. That’s a myth constructed for us, a myth we don’t have to buy into even when we’re participating in the very thing they are selling.

Of course, there’s also a huge element of nostalgia embedded in these “conformist” fetishes. Not the nostalgia for something familiar but just the opposite: the nostalgia of an alternate reality. When I go to a ballgame, I’m imaging what it might have been like to grow up as a jock, a girl who embraced the sports side of her tomboyishness (instead of the side that cut her hair off and played bass in bands). When I visit the mall, I’m visiting someone else’s teenage years, someone who spent hours with friends swinging their feet under a table and gabbing over a shared tray of french fries, someone who flipped through records at Sam Goody’s (not just on the occasion you were there with your grandma and convinced her to buy you the new Sir-Mix-A-Lot cassette in spite of the explicit content sticker). Someone who wears lots of Ed Hardy.

Because more than lists of rules and appreciation of the way the skylight forms the sun onto its walls, my love of malls is about other people’s stories. I visit to absorb them, to reimagine them, to collect them. What the mall teens wandering in packs are talking about. What the woman at the MAC counter with a saddlebag of makeup brushes does when she clocks out from showing people the best way to apply eyeshadow. I go to the mall because I want to be that old lady on the bench, absorbing life as it goes by. There are a million places I could do this, but the light, the plants, the shiny floor tiles, the people: it’s a little slice of perfection for me. It’s easy. It’s society under one roof. It’s social commentary. It’s both futuristic and nostalgic. It’s heaven.

More: #mallzen

(There is a much longer essay to be written — one that would require a lot more research than I have time to give right now — about where I think malls should be headed: more social and community engagement, less commercially-focused. I also want to acknowledge that malls have been accused of being horribly unenvironmental, both ecologically and socially. This doesn’t mean that they always have to be: I’m a believer in progressive approaches to improving the impact these already-built structures have on our lives and our environment.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.