The light in the living room was still on when I got home at nearly ten o'clock. Oh,
good, Q said, still up and still dressed. A stab of guilt --I had had no intention of being out so late. All I needed to do was buy a softball for our team, the World Champion St. Luke's Church Pews, to autograph for our coach after tomorrow's historic game.
I knew I would have to go to the shopping mall to find one. I, who haven't visited a
shopping mall in years -- it would be my punishment for not having ordered a softball
from Amazon in time for the big game. There used to be a sporting goods store in town, but it's long gone, smothered by the chain stores in the mall. There were several with athletic-sounding names listed in the directory, and I checked online to see if any of them sold softballs. CHAMPS did, it seemed. This shouldn't take any time at all, I told myself, and off I went.
But no, CHAMPS didn't. They only sold softballs online. All they had in stock were a hundred different kinds of sneakers and about that many athletic jerseys and baggy basketball shorts. Sports equipment? There was not so much as a golf tee for sale at CHAMPS. I had misjudged: this was not a sporting goods store. It was a clothing and shoe store to make the customer look like he plays a sport.
The sales clerk seemed mildly surprised that I might have thought a sporting goods
store would sell sporting goods. Might any of the other sporting goods stores in the mall carry softballs, I asked? No, she was sure they did not. But a store in another mall nearby would. Oh. I would have to go to another mall.
Let me explain why I would rather have a root canal than visit a shopping mall. Well,
no, I can't explain, not exactly: nothing terrible has ever happened to me in one. But
as the years go by I find myself less and less able to tolerate them: their gargantuan
proportions, their blinding lights, their marble floors and glittering fixtures: surely these
things are terrifically expensive, yet always they combine somehow to look cheap. A
shopping mall is windowless, unrelated to the natural world, as indifferent to the time of day as the interior of a submarine. The mall is crammed with more things than anyone will ever buy: sequined purses, stuffed bears, sexy underwear, makeup, computers, flimsy plastic toys, huge odiferous cinnamon buns, store after store after store of shoes and coats and dresses, sweaters and bathing suits, with more arriving every day. To me the people who walk its airless avenues look stunned, overloaded with the seductions aimed at them from every side, waiting patiently to pay for things in which they already seem uninterested. Small children accompany many of them, children up past what must surely be their proper bedtime, trudging wearily along the glossy avenues, or wheeled along them in industrial-strength. The mall is surrounded by a dead moat of asphalt, filled with acre upon acre of cars as still as corpses, among which those who have managed to escape from the glittering cavern stumble into the night like zombies, each in search of his or her own way back into the world.
Shopping malls break my heart.
They remind me that the number one cultural activity in America is shopping. Has been for years. Not singing. Not dancing. Not reading. Shopping. They remind me of how isolated we are, how easily led, how much more willing to be fed images than to have ideas. They remind me of how lost to us now are the small-town shops of my childhood, long since buried under the chrome and glass of the immense temples that ave descended upon them.
At last, I found a softball to buy. It was almost closing time, and the steel mesh curtains were halfway down on the entrance to the sporting goods store, where I was paying for my purchase. The brightest of the artificial lights in the store were going out, leaving only the grey-white of fluorescent security lights. An irrational moment of panic: what if I couldn't get out? What if the steel curtain crashed down and locked, I trapped in the store all night? But all was well; I, too, emerged into the dark and humid summer night, welcoming the burst of heat after the prolonged chill of the overcooled mall, feeling as if I had just escaped a terrible fate.
All the way home I inveighed against the shopping mall, marveled at how dreadful it all
was, how vulgar, promised myself I would never go again. And all the while, I knew
there was something excessive about the violence of my revulsion to what was, after all, just a human creation.
What is wrong with you? Get a grip.
Because there were grace notes at the mall. A cluster of sofas and easy chairs,
incongruously set in the midst of all the chrome, attracted people to sit and visit. A
luminescent liquid in a panel set into the floor bubbled and shifted when a toddler
stepped on it, and soon there were two or three toddlers, squealing at the ebb and flow of color beneath their feet. Two of my favorite young adults appeared, grinning, on the escalator above me, set for a night of hanging out -- a night not so different from the nights we spent at the corner drug store, back when drug stores had soda fountains in them.
Come to think of it, I remember that my mother didn't like it that we hung out at the
corner drug store. Well, what do you DO? Just stand around? That was not very ladylike. It looked cheap. We seemed feckless to her. Shallow, probably, and aimless. She had never hung around downtown like that, she said. I wonder if my outsized reaction to the shopping mall isn't born of a similar feeling: A generation is passing me by. I do not understand it. I don't get its jokes. I cannot love what it loves.
Oh, why can life not stay the same for us? Why must it leave us behind before we are
finished with it? By the time we leave it, it is already too late: the world has become
strange to us. Hold your tongue, why don't you? Or if you must speak, keep it within the community of people who remember what you remember. Don't spoil the
experience of those who must take your place in a world for which you are no longer
suited. You cannot see the good that is to come because it does not yet exist. Give
them time to shape it.