I take it as an omen that when I pull on the door to Southgate Mall, just a few minutes after it opens on this frost-edged Friday morning, it makes a hissing sound. It’s similar to the sound you hear when you open a pickle jar, or when archaeologists in the movies lift the lid off an ancient crypt. It’s the sound of a seal being broken. I hear it as a signal that I am probably opening something big here, and I should prepare myself for what I find inside.
I have taken it upon myself to spend an entire day at Southgate Mall during the waning days of the holiday shopping season—from open until close, no break for lunch, no stepping outside for fresh air or direct sunlight, no phone calls to the outside world. The reasons are manifold and important. I have cast myself away in this place because I believe the key to understanding the nature of community—our community—is secreted away in here somewhere, and I’ll only be able to find it if I immerse myself utterly in the strange and arcane mindset of the mall itself. There is a lot of heavy stuff at work in the shopping mall, after all—commerce, uniformity, socialization, a weird kind of civic pride—and together I think they provide a sort of short view of just who we are, and who we are not. At least I hope so.
It’s going to be a long day.
The mall has been open for 14 minutes, and attendance can already be described appropriately as a crowd. By and large, the crowd consists of members of the senior set. Shopping mall lore—and let me assure you that such a thing does exist—has long held that senior citizens are malls’ staple population. It has been true for so many malls for so long that it has become something of a vulgarity. But it remains a fact.
In the case of Southgate, the presence of seniors has been institutionalized with “Peppy Steppers.” Mall literature describes it as a “free mall walking program,” which seems kind of odd considering that it’s already free to be in the mall, but it reinforces the notion that walking is what seniors like to do here, in the mall’s climate-controlled and relatively obstacle-free thoroughfares. It appears, however, that there are no practicing “Peppy Steppers” at this hour. They are all dressed as if they are going to undertake some kind of exercise, but the only ones I see are in the restaurants.
I go into a sandwich shop to find that the entrance is lined—one might say guarded—by senior citizens. They occupy all of the booths that flank both of the shop’s entryways, sitting deeply and sipping coffee, laughing with each other while casually eyeing the people who enter. A woman with a pink round face and a sweatshirt with butterflies on it gives me a quick look-over as I come in and apparently has no objections. I pass up to the counter, where a teenager is flipping through an order pad.
“Are they regulars?” I ask her, thumbing over my shoulder.
Her eyes widen slightly and she nods. “Yeah,” she says, like a gasp.
I ask for some coffee. She gestures to four pump decanters behind her, whose labels either describe the nuts that the coffee is supposed to taste like or the countries where it is supposed to be from.
“Which kind would you like?” she asks.
I huff. “I don’t know. I’m just looking for coffee.”
She looks over my shoulder. “Um. They’re waiting for me to go over there.”
I specify a nation of origin, and the clerk pushes three pumps of it into a thin styrofoam cup, before whisking around the counter to wait on a booth of seniors. I blow across the top of my cup and turn to leave through the gauntlet of elderly. On my way out, I notice that each of them has their own ceramic mug.
My tongue tastes like cold coffee now, and I’m sitting under a tree thinking about public space.
Many a master’s thesis has been written on the architecture of shopping malls, and rightfully so. Not since the medieval cathedral has there been a type of building so purposeful, so agenda-driven, so intent on creating a very specific reaction on a very particular kind of person. But while the cathedral was meant to inspire awe in Dark Age toilers who were desperate for any sort of meaning, the mall is meant to inspire confusion in consumers, who are, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, completely at peace with meaninglessness.
I am not alone in thinking this. Most scholars of shopping malls agree that there is something a wee bit insidious about how they have been designed. And one of the first things they compare malls to is, almost universally, Las Vegas casinos. When malls became de rigeur in the 1960s, they closely followed the obfuscating traits of the big gambling dens: no windows, no clocks, nothing to give people a sense of the passage of time. The longer folks remain oblivious, the longer they stay there, and the more they spend. Southgate, thankfully, is a member of the mall’s second architectural wave, dating back to the early 1980s, which permits one old-timey looking clock in the center and some frosted skylights, but still no eye-level windows and exits that are sufficiently hidden.
The other sleight of hand that malls are famous for—and Southgate pulls this off very deftly—is the creation of the feeling that you are somehow not on private property. All shopping malls take pains to make their interiors look park-like—with benches and pathways and even dozens of living trees—but the fact is, this seemingly civic space is owned by a development company (Southgate Associates), and is policed by security guards who enforce its rules. At Southgate, for instance, you are not permitted to swear, run, picket, distribute political literature, grandstand, sell merchandise without permission, utter racial epithets or dress “inappropriately.” If you do, you will be escorted out by one of the mall’s 16 private patrolmen.
What brings this all to mind is, I’m sitting on one of the mall’s park-like benches, watching a woman with a green polo shirt preen the plants. She is leaning over a tropical-looking burst of green, spray bottle in hand, misting its leaves with a meticulous, almost surgical form of attention. From there, she pushes her cart—basically a portable water tank—to the next planter and begins dispensing water into it.
This is too much. As I watch her, I realize that she is gardening inside. She is husbanding tropical plants in northwestern Montana. She is quite possibly Missoula’s only indoor landscaper. I walk up to her and ask her what she is doing.
She is friendly and unfazed. “I check all the plants four times a week for water,” she reports.
I ask about feeding them. She explains that when plants are first potted the soil is treated with a time-released fertilizer, so she doesn’t have to bother with that.
“Basically, they don’t take a lot of work,” she says. “But the main problem is the damage from all the traffic.” She then adopts this intentionally clownish posture and galumphs up to one of the planters. “You know, they always ask me, like, ‘Hey, are these things real?’” Then she grabs a fistful of dragon plant like she’s testing it. She smiles and quickly fluffs the leaves back up and smoothes them over. “Every now and then we have to switch one out because of that, but over all they do OK,” she says. She inspects the next plant and stops at a leaf she doesn’t like the looks of. She pinches it off tenderly at the base with her thumb and forefinger, and drops it in a bag on her cart.
“How long do you spend here?” I ask.
“Five hours a day, five days a week,” she says. “Then I get to go home and water my own plants.”
I have papers and notebooks spread out on one of the mall’s park-like café tables, trying to balance my checkbook, and I find myself distracted by the noise. Only now am I aware of the strange aural texture of this place. It is a lumpy blend of children’s screams, snippets of overheard conversations, and the residue of music coming from each of the nearby shops. The women’s clothing stores play hip-hop; gift shops boom benign Christmas carols from their entryways; department stores feature dancing snowmen that gyrate to electronic jingles; and until the piano player started playing, an endless brook of holiday tunes was being piped in through the hallways.
Just below the old-timey clock stuck in what serves as the hinge of the L-shaped shopping mall, workers have wheeled out a snow white baby grand piano. A lean woman with a bird-like face and downy gray hair begins playing a medley of holiday familiars. Over the half an hour I sit watching, a number of passersby do a double-take as they stride around the piano, looking only long enough to register that there is someone sounding these notes on purpose, that among the uproar of voices and Muzak and other attendant shopping mall sounds, this is really music. No one stops to listen.
Her playlist consists of sensitive instrumentals, covers of standard sing-along songs that no one is singing to, and some excerpts of classical compositions. She plays them sweepingly and robustly. Near the end of the old woman’s set, a girl of 4 or 5 walking by with her family suddenly throws her arms out and begins spinning on her toes, pinwheeling around in a gangly imitation of a pirouette, her white sneakers squeaking on the floor. She stops and dizzily loses her footing, then grabs her mother’s hand and walks on.
The old woman stops to take a drink of water from a glass by the piano. I can see her eyes darting around to see if anyone is watching her. She swallows and keeps playing.
I am beginning to crack. It has been more than five hours, and I am only self-aware enough now to notice that I am no longer discriminating between people, events and social situations. I take this as a sign that the mall has finally drawn me into its elusive but powerful internal logic. I am of it now.
I pass by a kiosk—actually a display of metal screens with a cash register in the middle—that sells nothing but calendars. The range of animals, and breeds of animals, that merit their own calendars is truly impressive. On the bottom rack of one of these screens, I spot a calendar with a Jack Russell terrier on the cover, its head tilted in that quizzical and endearing way that dogs have mastered and which people always assume means something but probably doesn’t. Above the dog’s picture it says, “If you only knew how much I smell you.”
At this I begin to laugh out loud in a way that surprises even me. The laugh is punctuated with gun-shot like reports separated by asthmatic gasps. If you only knew how much I smell you. It goes on just long enough and loud enough that I suspect people are looking at me, but again, I’m not sufficiently self-aware to be sure. A pretty blonde woman walking down the hall skirts around me smiling anxiously. As I’m laughing I notice that as she passes she pivots slightly so that she is always facing me, as if to keep an eye on me while she’s within arm’s reach. I’m offended but still laughing.
I feel like I need to duck in somewhere to remove myself from public view, so I enter an upscale outfitter clothing store. (That I look upon the store as less public place than the hallway, I think, is a further measure of the fact that I have now given in to the shopping mall weltanschauung, which encourages us to believe that there is, somewhere, an area of the mall that is indeed a civic space.)
A clerk folding sweaters asks me how I am, and instead of answering I ask him for the time. He tells me and adds, “and our watches are 25 percent off.”
This comes across to me as a clever pitch, a little too clever, really, and I begin caroming around his store aimlessly in the way that store clerks hate. There is something about taking an innocent question and using it to shill wristwatches, and to a person who’s obviously not in his right mind, that strikes me as truly guileful, and I begin to wonder about the power dynamic that occurs between sales clerk and consumer. Does the opportunity ever arise when consumers can take advantage of clerks instead of the other way around? Are there ways to befuddle them with rhetoric the way they do to us?
What if I started asking him about a sweater I really wanted—one I’d seen there a few days ago but could no longer find—a sweater that did not, in fact, really exist? What if I posed him a bunch of forbiddingly technical questions to test his product knowledge—questions about manufacturing practices, stitching techniques, the tensile strength of mercerized thread? What if I told him that what I was really in the market for was not outfitter gear for myself but for my dog? My Jack Russell terrier? Would any of these things shift the delicate balance of power between buyer and seller?
I weigh the ethical underpinnings of what I am thinking about doing, and try to remember passages from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in case I decide to start quoting any great thinkers to back me up. It’s then that another clerk approaches me and asks if I have any questions. I blink at her and say no.
My manic and unexpectedly deep appreciation for the mall has now given way to dull docility. In a sort of fortress I’ve found in an encirclement of planters, I sit motionless in a black metal chair. I wear what I imagine looks like an expression of shock.
School is obviously out. Boys in stocking caps bellow down the halls to one another; benches full of girls pretend to ignore them. The unassuming piano player has been replaced by a quartet of high school girls playing the flute, led by what I’m guessing is their music teacher, who also plays. Despite the pitched, lilting tones they manage to produce, playing the score to The Sound of Music, they too go unnoticed.
The sheer volume of people has reached such a point that the scene on the thoroughfare can longer be described as crowd but rather as a welter. In the crush, lanky boys in outsized jeans walk alongside matrons with chignons. Huge masses of girls with backpacks part slightly to swallow people who travel through them and emerge on the other side as if having passed through a school of fish. It would be an idyllic American street scene, were it not for the fact that no one is talking, touching or even looking at anyone outside their own group. Instead, they all careen around each other as if caught in separate streams. Their faces are all similarly welter-stunned.
And then I realize that, while I have been surrounded by these teeming hordes the whole time, I have not spoken to anyone in an hour and a half.
A choir has assembled at that crook of the mall where performers have been working all day to entertain shoppers, if only they would allow themselves to be entertained.
Perched on a set of metal risers, a total of 30 women stand soldier-like, a mix of retirees, professionals and soccer moms, all decked out in embroidered holiday-themed sweaters they brought from home. They each hold a red songbook though none of them reads it; their eyes are all riveted on the choir mistress, whose hands are caressing the air in front of her to the tempo of the tune.
They are singing “Silent Night,” and to my amazement, only three or four songs into their set, a crowd of no less than a hundred people has huddled around the choir. Not yet today have I seen so many people in one place standing still. Suddenly, by the time the band of volunteer singers reaches the middle of the first verse, I begin to hear a dull but expansive moaning sound. It is vaguely melodic and seems to be coming from all sides. As the women in front of me sing, the moan thickens and clarifies, and I recognize it to be other people’s voices; the crowd, with a tenor that would not too sentimentally be described as miraculous, is singing along.
I look around to make sure that this is true. I look even further, beyond them, and I see a crowd forming behind the crowd, people trickling in from the rest of the mall, which I can no longer see from in here. They wade in and give guessing looks to the people singing in front of them, and all at once it strikes me as beautiful and astonishing when I see that they too start to sing. As I look back I see row upon row of Missoulians, mouths moving in unison and not sounding half bad.
And it is here, in the wake of 10 hours of chaos and distraction, that I look upon this group, already having drowned out the mall’s own din, and I watch all of us, housewives and businessmen and old folks and off-duty store clerks and exhausted journalists, raise our voices, and as we enter into the elongated and airy strains of the phrase “in heavenly peace,” I suddenly feel a sense of gratification—you might even say a sense of renewal—knowing that, for one fleeting but extremely elegant moment in this place, we all shared what felt to everyone like a truly civic moment.