An Hour at the Mall
On the way back from a weekend conference, my wife says she wants to stop at the mall. Just for an hour or so.
I don’t like malls. Especially huge malls like this one. I don’t like the idea of the mall or the reality of the mall. I don’t like the orgy of reckless consumption that they represent. I don’t like the bright lights and the crappy pop music that bleeds incessantly through the speakers. I don’t like the labyrinthine layouts that seem designed to trap and confuse me, imprisoning me in the mall’s frightful and constricting embrace.
All of this not liking was pulsing through my brain as I (wisely, no doubt) replied, “Sure. Let’s go to the mall.”
My wife has places to go and things to do, so I decide to do what I usually do at the mall, which is to grouchily retreat to the bookstore. But after aimlessly paging through a handful of uninteresting books, I decide to take a different approach to my purgatorial hour in the mall. I decide that I will pretend I am a sociologist or an anthropologist or some other -ologist that pays attention to people and the things that people do. Rather than inwardly whining and complaining about being in the mall (as productive an exercise as this has historically proven to be), I will simply observe. I will pay attention to the story unfolding, in all of its ugliness and beauty around me.
A few observations, then, from an hour at the mall on a winter Sunday afternoon.
There’s a young man at the entrance of a mega-bookstore sitting at alone table. He’s written a book about detoxifying your life. There’s a stack of books and a poster describing the wonders of this man and his book. This is a book signing, I surmise, but nobody seems to want his book or his signature. He stares straight ahead, blankly.
A little Chinese man with a stooped back and a slightly askew mall uniform slowly walks up and down the row of urinals in the men’s washroom. He’s probably 75 years old. His job, today, is to make sure the shoppers’ urine is flowing properly. I stare at him. I try to smile. He looks straight past me.
A toddler screams at her mother. She wanted the other one!!
There seems to be some kind of unwritten law at work in the food court. The (mostly) darker skinned people—people from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, or Sudan—serve French fries and hamburgers and tacos and ice cream and coffee to the (mostly) white-skinned, heavily tattooed people. They also wipe their tables when they are done.
There’s a store that sells very expensive handbags. At the entrance stands a young south Asian woman. She is very pretty. She looks like a shopper, but after a while I notice that she doesn’t move from her spot. Her job is simply to stand around with one of these expensive handbags. I watch her for five minutes. She shuffles from side to side. She walks over to a pillar and leans on it for a while. She leans back and looks up at the roof. She yawns. Then she moves back to her spot.
A boy (ten years old? eleven?) has squished himself into a stroller that sits beside one of those couches that they put in malls for people who need to rest from their shopping. All the seats are taken, so he sits in this stroller. He barely fits. The stroller looks like it is about to collapse, but he doesn’t seem to notice. His eyes are locked on to his gaming device. There’s a plastic tree beside him.
A song by Abba plays on the mall speakers. If you change your mind… Take a chance on me…
There’s a water fountain by the washroom that won’t turn off. It just keeps dribbling. I wonder if they expect the old Chinese man to come fix it when he’s finished making sure all of the urinals work.
Everything is for sale today. So many things. Things to put on my feet, things to wear over my arms and legs, things to stick through my ears or my nose (or God knows where else). Things to put in my house or on my computer. Things to make me happy and whole. Things with names that make them very expensive, even when they are on sale.
Little kids play on a plastic playground while their parents shop. It looks sticky.
A woman breast-feeds her baby on a bench underneath a large sign that says “Sale! 70% off!”
A group of twenty somethings with carefully distressed jeans walk loudly by. One of them has the pinkest hair I have ever seen.
A little baby sleeps in the food court. He’s got a soother in his mouth that makes it look like he has a mustache. I wonder if that soother was 70% off. I hope so.
A woman painfully lurches by with impossibly high heels and an impossibly short skirt. She’s arm in arm with an impossibly muscular and tattooed young man. I feel like telling them that they don’t need to try so hard, but I resist this urge. His muscles are quite a bit bigger than mine.
Everywhere, people stare at their phones.
An enthusiastic young man waves something in my face as I walk by a store. “Try this!” I think it is some kind of soap, but I can’t be sure. I don’t want to try it.
A woman waits in line in the food court. She’s wearing a long black ankle length fur coat while she waits for Famous Wok.
A woman with a headscarf is buying an ice cream cone. She looks happy to be buying ice cream at the mall on a cold January Sunday.
I walk by the bookstore again. The young man with the book is still sitting there. Alone. He looks like he wishes he was somewhere else. Anywhere else.
An hour at the mall has passed. It’s time to go home.
After pressing “Publish,” the WordPress robots informed me that this is the 800th post in the history of this blog. I probably should have posted something a bit weightier for such a significant milestone… Ah well, this will have to do. I’ll tell you what, the first ten comments on this post will receive 70% off their renewal fee for subscribing to this blog!
No need to thank me.
There’s a song…
“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
I’ve been the person sitting at the entrance of the mega-bookstore. Set there by my publisher. Trying to catch your eye so I can smile winsomely and pull you over to pick up my wonderful book! Excruciating, believe me, those hours mandated by the publisher, and you’ve got it, what you saw on his face, oh to be anywhere else! — But here’s the deal (70% off), you don’t even have to buy the book. Just say hi, pick up the book, look at it front and back, ask a question, make some genuine remark about it looking good or interesting or whatever you can truthfully say, and that it was nice to meet and all the best, and off you can go, without any excuses required. Most writers, unless they’re trained salespeople as well, which most of them aren’t, won’t have a clue how to push their advantage or make you feel guilty. They’ll just be happy to tell you about their book, break up the time, smile some more. And if for whatever reason (it’s a wonderful book, for example) you buy the book, they’ll be thrilled out of all proportion to the loonie or so they earned by sitting there that hour! 🙂
Thanks for the perspective from the other side of that table in the bookstore, Dora. It sounds even more painful than it looked…
When I was talking about my hour at the mall with my wife on the drive home yesterday, she said something to the effect of, “So why didn’t you interrupt your little sociology experiment or whatever you imagined you were doing, and just go talk to that poor guy?!”
I didn’t (and still don’t) have much of an answer for her.
Great snapshot of humanity, Ryan. …yet at the same time,thoroughly depressing
I agree that you should have stopped to talk to the author. You were only killing time anyways and seeing you talking to him would probably have encouraged another to stop. Keep it in mind for the future.
I’ve got to say, Ryan, that I enjoyed this post very much, possibly the most of any of your posts. A very interesting way to reflect on time at the mall. I too HATE the mall, for the same reasons you give (although yours are much more interestingly stated). I never go there if I can help it, except for a mandatory hour or so at Christmas time. I do love watching the people, though, and when I was a kid, my siblings and I would make up stories about the people we’d pass when we were dragged around the city by our parents.
On another note, your story about the bored/discouraged man in the bookstore reminds me of an experience that has stuck with me for years. I was in the hospital to register for my youngest son’s birth (so I was 9 months & waddling) and as I was leaving, I saw a woman sitting alone on one of those terribly uncomfortable chairs in the foyer of the hospital. She was weeping. She wasn’t trying to hide it or be silent about it, but was weeping desperately. My husband was at home with the three preschool/toddler kids, had a major paper due and stress at work, and I already felt guilty for leaving him with the kids. So I left.
Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Whenever I remember that experience, I pray for forgiveness. I’ve always hoped someone else had been more sensitive and stopped to comfort her. I’m glad God’s grace is wide enough to cover those moments.
Thank you very much. And thanks for sharing this story. I suspect many of us have moments of pause before heading into situations of pain and/or awkwardness. I know that I don’t push through this initial pause nearly often enough.
Thank God for forgiveness, for grace, and for chances to try again…
I don’t necessarily agree that Ryan should have gone over and contrived a conversation (emotional pandering?) with the lonely author. Sometimes it’s just that type of ‘suffering’ that brings us to some truth we’ve been avoiding. Maybe the author will now try some other genre of writing and become insanely rich and famous, all thanks to Ryan! 😮
A farmer owned a beautiful mare that was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The farmers neighbor came and offered sympathy to the old man for his great misfortune. The man said simply, “Who can say what is good or bad?”
A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a herd of beautiful wild stallions. The neighbor came over and congratulated the old man for his good fortune. He said, “Who can say what is good or bad?”
The next day, the old man’s only son, while breaking in a stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The neighbor once again came over and expressed his sympathy at the old man’s misfortune. The man replied: “Who can say what is good or bad?”
The next day the army came to conscript the farmers son to fight in a war, but because of the son’s broken leg, they were forced to leave him. ….”Who can say what is good or what is bad?”
Old Chinese proverb
Love the proverb, Mike. But I probably still shoulda stopped and said hi 🙂 . It would have been a decent thing to do.
I have my doubts whether my avoidance of him was contributing to any pathway to riches and fame… 🙂 .
In cold winter months, I sometimes walk for exercise at a mall. I walk about four miles an hour, much faster than the typical mall shuffle, and I have found that mall shoppers never expect anyone to pass them from behind. They also often walk slowly, two or three abreast, making it hard to get around them. I’ve also noticed that malls are bright and garish, almost an assault on the eyes. Visually everything screams at you.
I think I’ve heard of malls with actual passing lanes, or something like that.
I’m sure you prefer the non-winter months for your walking 🙂 .