Some people wince at the first mention of shopping malls. They recoil at the crappy preteen culture, the cleancut, shirt-tucking families with quickdraw checkcards, the looped muzak Tears for Fears, and just about everything else that they despise about twenty-first century America. I’m just the opposite though; being as I am, the product of a childhood spent in the commercial vortex that is the Greater Hampton Roads Area of Virginia. The Seven Cities. This area, for the unfamiliar, has no soul, no cultural epicenters, no viable selling point. What it does have is two malls for every library and an infinite breadboard of stripmalls, seven-elevens, and mega-multi-googleplexes teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
But humans are clever animals. And children raised in food courts, footlockers, and videoarcades will eventually thrive in that fluorescent environment. This is what we’ve done. In the land of dollartrees and radioshacks and applebees, we soon learn to impress culture upon it. We manufacture meaning within the glass walls and marble planters. We test and pester the counterlady at the Embroidery King, for thirty far-fetched minutes, before admitting that cockerspaniel needlework is really not our style. When we go, we go to try on women’s clothes, to read good-smelling books from cover-to-cover in bookstore cafés, to crawl through the attic latticeworks, to wander through the secret employee passageways and drywall labyrinths, to conduct sociological research on unsuspecting shoppers, to swipe cardboard “proptronics” from Sears and Roebuck, to swim in the midmall fountains, and to skateboard the clean marble indoor architecture before the police descend upon us like the growling Hounds of Hell. We go for the heart-to-heart promenades, the free coffee to restore the vital juices, the hazelnut body sprays and eaux de parfum, the free neck massages and eye exams, and for a chance to temporarily own everything in the world, without having to wonder where we’ll put it all.
Here’s the thing: with us, the shopping mall has little to no economic reality. Under the gas of our abstruse motivations, it becomes, as best as I can describe it, a self-amusement park. A climate-controlled wonderland, completely invisible to the eyes of all the just-so customers, who kindly fund the upkeep for us sky-blue-souls running up and down escalators the wrong way. These people pave the way for us anomalies of the consumption-cycle. And rather than cursing them and their offspring, like so many people I know, I thank them for their unwitting generosity. The dynamic is subtle, shifting, difficult to see sometimes, I understand. But on this particular day, in the Providence Palace Shopping Mall, I distinctly saw Baron’s eyes widen as this new reality hit home, after some unbelievably successful research in “experimental commercial psychology.”
We were there to test a fundamental weakness in financial mechanisms of the shopping mall. You see, one of the wonderful upswings of steep corporate hierarchies is that corporations cannot or will not pay the bottomrung workers enough to care about the company dollar. They can make them recite jingles or watch motivational cartoons in the back office, but this usually just creates an unstated resentment for the company and everything it stands for. In most cases, any member of the retail teenage workforce will do almost anything in their power to royally screw their employer and slowly drain the jet-ski fund of their handwringing regional managers. This is where we come in.
Arriving at the Mall, for a lovely evening of luckpushing, our first stop was Nutbusters, the blacktie, blacklite, afterwork videoarcade. Baron just wanted to show me around, give me a little update of arcade games in the Age of Playstation. But the bouncer, probably inventing the houserule on the spot, did his best to stop us cold.
He stopped Baron, asking him if he was over twenty-one— which he obviously was— and informing him that adults were not permitted entry without shirtsleeves.
“Oh, I’m not over twenty one,” Baron said, mock-innocently.
“Well then you need to be accompanied by someone over the age of twenty one,” said the bouncer.
“I’m over twenty one,” I offered, but when prompted for a form of identification, I felt through my pockets and realized that I had forgotten my license at home.
Baron had a better idea. He told the bouncer “wait, that’s right, I am over twenty one. He’s the one who’s under twenty one. We always get that confused.”
With that, we switched shirts, collected our free token, and breezed on by the meathead bouncer who could do little but shake his head and wonder where-the-hell-these-faggot-freaks-come-from. But Nutbusters turned out to be a blinking, ringing, hulking waste of prime real estate with very few interesting circumventions. Ten dollars for, like, a minute of virtual waterpolo or whatever. Maybe fun if you were in the mafia (which is no rarity in the land of jailbird mayor Buddy Cianci). New England meatheads, prying eyes, and overpriced videogames, with all the coziness of a New Jersey stripclub… Screw that place.
We abandoned ship and crossed the hall to the cinema multiplex, with only lukewarm reviews for the Now Showing. But just then, we spotted the nearby Eyemax theatre. “3-D Space Station Adventures, narrated by Tom Cruise”— perfect. We cheerfully approached the box office.
“Wondering about memberships,” we opened.
The countergirl started filling us in on memberships, but we spaced out, not really being interested in memberships at all. Larger things were at stake. We had come to test an old hypothesis, a brassball method of economic circumvention. A way of rendering the dollar null and void and obsolete.
“Actually, we were wondering if we could have some complimentary tickets. Samples before we become members.”
We were told that they cannot give away free tickets, unless we knew Mr. Feinstein, the local philanthropist, self-publicity mogul, and namesake for the Providence Eyemax theatre.
We told them that, in fact, we did know Mr. Feinstein.
“Yeah, get him on the phone,” Baron insisted.
“We don’t have his telephone number.”
“Well do you have a telephone book?”
From there, the conversation spiraled down, further and further, until neither side was really sure what anyone else was talking about any longer. The bullshit continued as long as language could allow, fizzling out with Baron and I, elbows on the counter, eyes connected unabashed with the countergirl, held in a moment of springloaded silence. Until finally: “Click, click. Here are two tickets,” she says, and we’re all aboard for the International Space Station, still unsure whether we conquered the Eyemax by charm or exhaustion or a dangerous mixture of the two. Baron was still not satisfied, however. “I’m thirsty,” he said. And sure enough, when we get to the ticket-taker, Baron leans in and requests two complimentary sodas, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“What? No!” she says, sotto voce.
“Just two, that’s all.”
The young ticket-taker looked at us, then looked at the long queue of impatient family men and screaming Pokemon fanatics, and came, I think, to the right decision— “Okay, okay. Just go to the counter and tell her you want free sodas.”
I collected my 3-D spectacles and found some great center seats. Baron returned with two Orange Drinks and a sharp grin digging into his cheeks. He was, I could tell, dumbstruck with infinite possibility. It was a perverse combination: my twisted theories and Baron’s absolute lack of social conditioning. Commercial psychology, as we had discovered, is a two-way street. It can work both ways. To close a sale or to string along desperate sales associates to the brink of homocide. So after securing food and coffee with the same methodology, we went to Borderland Books to brush up on some pop-psych Dale Carnegie and slick commercial hardball. One text advised us to exploit people’s “innate automaticity.” The same automaticity these employees learn on training day. The automaticity of company guidelines. The automaticity of presumptions followed, of economic contours and conditioning, of met expectations, impulse purchases, public decency— of Life half-lived. We sat and smiled over free coffee and vowed to return, to polish our latest tricks on the shopping mall marble.