Sometimes I feel like those aliens from Third Rock from the Sun. I look like a human, but often, the basic elements of human society are completely foreign to me. I particularly felt that way on Friday morning, when I ventured into a “nice” mall for the first time in years.
I hadn’t been staying away from malls on purpose, or making some kind of ideological stand. No, the simple truth is that the greater Charleston area, where I used to live, is woefully lacking in decent indoor malls. Maybe it is because the ritzy, storefront shopping downtown on King Street provides too much competition. Or perhaps everyone goes to the upscale, outdoor mall in Mount Pleasant, as outdoor malls have inexplicably become some kind of trend in the South. And if not the outdoor mall in Mount Pleasant, maybe people are diverted, like I was, by the expansive Tanger Outlets. Whatever the reason, the two malls in the area are run-down and struggling. How bad are they struggling? While I lived there, the Gap went out of business in one of them, and the other didn’t even have one to start with! How, in the name of Pete, does a GAP go out of business in a mall?? That’s where Gaps live! It is their natural habitat. ”Gap” is pretty much synonymous with mall, in my vocabulary. Anyhow, since the mall in my hometown in Georgia was in similar straits and was also being effectively replaced by an outdoor mall (Seriously, people? How are you supposed to shop when it’s raining?), I just had not been in a mall for years. And honestly, I had not missed them.
It hadn’t always been that way. In fact, malls used to hold a very special place in my heart. In high school, the mall was an absolute haven for me. My mom and I spent untold hours on shopping expeditions for clothes for school, and my friends and I whiled away Saturdays hitting up what we called “the big three”: the Gap, Limited, and Express. Those were the “cool stores” at that place and time. (On a sidenote, I will never forget when my friend, Faith, came to school with a nice looking sweater emblazoned with the strange words, “Abercrombie and Fitch.” I had never heard of such, and I asked her about it. She rolled her eyes and explained that she had begged her dad to buy her something cool during his recent trip through Atlanta, and this was what he came home with. She balked, and he argued that the sweater had to be cool. He had sat in the mall and watched where all the teens were going, and every one of them was heading into this store. Faith and I were skeptical, but never fear: when we realized that A&F was, in fact, “cool,” we became faithful shoppers there ourselves.) Anyway, as a teenager, the mall held two important things for me: it held happy memories with my family and friends, and, perhaps more importantly, it held the promise of acceptance. This is probably typical of most high schools, at least at the time, but at my high school, it was all about the clothes. Buying the right “uniform” for school helped alleviate the Third Rock effect; I felt less like a misfit and more like a normal and acceptable person. That was a big deal to a teenage girl. Thus, I loved the mall. Being in the mall was comforting to me.
Fast forward to last Friday, when I found myself in possession of a gift card to Belk and in need of a winter coat for Anna. I also desperately needed some new running shoes and a pair of jeans. My most recent pair of jeans, a Christmas gift from my mom in 2008, had basically bitten the dust, and I had been in denial for months. The truth was that after nearly three years of wearing them multiple times each week, they were literally falling apart (and I say that as someone who is particular about the correct use of the word literally). It was a blowout in the knee that sealed their doom, but even without the gaping knee hole, there were several smaller holes, as well as ink stains, that I was determined to ignore. Sadly, I still considered them my “nice” jeans…but even I was forced to admit that they were done. I needed a new pair. My shoes were similarly ridiculous. I had only had them for a couple of years, but they were riddled with holes, perhaps from running in them an average of 145 times each year for the past two and a half years. And when I wasn’t running in them, I was just using them as my every day shoes.
On the Friday in question, I was wearing both of those attractive articles of clothing (double threat!), as well as a plain brown, V-neck shirt I had bought for $5 at Old Navy early this summer and had worn approximately every other day since. I topped off my fashionable ensemble with my husband’s extra large Lipscomb hoodie that he had gotten free from a youth minister conference a few years ago. I had gotten a similar one, but in the rush of the morning, I had grabbed the wrong one and so was looking even more like a bag lady than usual.
It was in that exquisite wardrobe that I ventured into the Cool Springs mall for the first time in years…and received the culture shock of my life! For one thing, did you know that most of the shoes in Belk cost more than $100? One hundred dollars! And they aren’t made of gold; they just look like ordinary shoes! Having shopped in the protective bubble of Shoe Carnival all of my married life, I was unexposed to such craziness, and about passed out when I found out how much “normal” shoes cost. So…I wasn’t going to get shoes at Belk. I did try on some jeans that were on sale, and though they weren’t ludicrously priced, they just didn’t fit right. Oh, well.
The prices weren’t the real problem, though. The problem was how visually overwhelming a “nice” mall is. Unlike our ghetto malls in Charleston, every surface in this mall–floors, walls, counters, ads–was designed to exude opulence. It was also really smelly. Not in a bad way, but in a perfume-y way. There were so many aromas coming from so many different places, it could make you a little dizzy. After not being able to find jeans in Belk, I decided to try my old stand-by for jeans, the Gap. Though those jeans are crazy expensive, they are also the ones that fit me best, and I figure one pair per every couple of years is worth it. As I made my way out of Belk and into the main mall area, the visual and olfactory stimulation met with a heightened aural component. To put it in English (I’m telling you, it’s like I really am an alien sometimes and have to translate my thoughts), all these people from the little kiosks in the center of the mall were trying to talk to me and vie for my attention, apparently in an effort to spray stuff on me or to get me to sign up for something. Honestly, I don’t really know what they were trying to do, because my “stranger danger” instincts kicked in, and I tried to shuffle past them as quickly as possible. (Thankfully, there was also a chance, with my jeans and shoes, that they thought I was homeless and not likely to buy anything, so they didn’t try too hard.)
For old times’ sake, I wandered into the Limited and Express, and both times, the smiling sales representative asked, “Are you looking for anything particular,” as she eyed me with a look that said, “Because you are clearly in need of a lot.” Honestly, I felt completely out of place. I really did feel like I had landed my spaceship in the parking lot and walked into a different world. And even more than that, I felt distinctly like I did not belong there. The craziest part was that it wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, for once, it was kind of a relief not to relate to my surroundings. The fashions all looked kind of crazy to me, the prices were ridiculous, and the ads were just…well, they were just kind of inexplicable. They mostly consisted of women in heavy makeup and strange clothes, posing provocatively and looking…well…not happy, exactly. I’m not sure what their expressions said or what it was they were trying to convey. Elegance? Class? Wealth? Beauty? Whatever it was, the distance between the picture and my life was too wide for the image to be appealing to me. Overall, I got the impression that the purpose of this mall was to sell something that I was no longer interested in buying.
Metaphorically speaking, of course. I did get the exact pair of Gap jeans I had on, just a little shorter. And not so ragged. And I got two pair of shoes from Rack Room shoes, which did not cost $100 each. But I did not buy, not even for a moment, the image of life that the mall was selling, this image of air-brushed, fashionable perfection. And not only was I not buying it, it seemed utterly, patently ridiculous to me.
Part of that is just growing up. At age thirty, I can recognize naked and transparent marketing attempts more readily than I could at fifteen. But another part of it is that, thank God, my life is on a completely different path than that “mall life.” I don’t know that I would say an “opposite” path, but maybe a perpendicular path. Our goals are not in any way related to each other, and they will never meet.
When I walked out of that heavily perfumed, artificially lit emporium, and back into the crisp, fresh air and natural sunlight, I felt a my soul lighten a little bit. And I thanked God that, for once, I felt like an alien and stranger in this world in the biblical sense, and not just the socially awkward sense. Sometimes I feel so cozy and at home in this world, and being in the mall was a refreshing reminder that as a follower of Christ, I am very different from others. So many of the worldly messages that once enthralled me now bounce right off, and serve as an amusement, if anything. And so, even though sometimes I feel like I have so far to go to be a good citizen in God’s kingdom, I was grateful to learn that He has been working on my soul and showing me the way things really are in this world. No, the mall is not my enemy (I got a great pair of jeans there, that will hopefully last me another three years!). But it is also not a haven, or a draw, or a source of any kind of subconscious meaning. It’s just a place that sells stuff, usually overpriced.
Have you ever had a moment like that, a moment that makes you realize how different you have become from what you were? And do you also find malls mildly terrifying, or is that just me?