The Mall: A Survivor’s Tale

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?

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jenni on November 22, 2011 at 7:27 am

    You need to forget the mall and head to Target! (;

    Reply

  2. Posted by mcafeess on November 22, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Good post. Can’t stand malls. I entered one in Palm Beach not long ago, and realized I couldn’t afford a thing.

    I find myself having more and more experiences like these.

    Last night I attended a girls varsity basketball game. Three of our youth girls play for the team. They were playing against a team whose coach had been their own coach the previous three years. It was apparent they didn’t like him, and the parents didn’t like him.

    I sat amongst a group of parents for whom the entire game seemed to be about beating that coach. It had nothing to do with their girls. It had nothing to do with Christ (Christian school, of course). It was about tearing down the other coach, running up the score as much as possible, and getting revenge.

    It made me sick. I got up and left in the third quarter.

    I attend church with most of them.

    God, save us from ourselves.

    Reply

    • Sean, I’ve been in similar situations as you describe. What I find perversely comforting about those times is how naturally my stomach now turns in such situations. There are so many things that I know I should do or not do, and yet it is such a battle b/c I sincerely WANT to do the bad thing. That’s why its a relief to have those times where it’s like, “I don’t even WANT to do this. It’s not even remotely appealing to me.” Such moments make me realize how much more effective actual transformation is in shaping behavior than just “trying real hard” to do the right thing.

      Reply

  3. LOL. Since I live a stone’s throw from Citadel Mall (and have to go there to hit either Target or Sesame Burger, both of which rank among life’s necessities), I am well aware of how weird the mall has become. Back in the 80s, hanging out at the mall was a relatively safe thing for middle-class teenagers (of the sort who don’t drive yet) to do. You could window-shop, maybe hit a movie or get an Orange Julius, perhaps splurge on the food court. Nowadays, at least at our mall, there is an element of danger. Seems like the “kids” are older, roam in packs, and give off a distinctly not -middle-class vibe. I wouldn’t think of dropping Mary Elizabeth off there for a couple of hours.

    As for the consumer side, that’s also weird. You mentioned Abercrombie and Gap. I’m pretty sure that both of those, as well as Old Navy, are owned by the same parent company. Not only are there different price points, it seems like the “cutting edge” feel of A&F (with all the mostly-undressed models) has swallowed up what used to be “cheaper than Belk” khakis and t-shirts. I remember when we were first married that Victoria’s Secret was a NICE place, with classical music and helpful clerks. Up at Northwoods Mall they had a Fredericks of Hollywood that had trashy lingerie in the window, but even as a married person I didn’t have the guts to walk in. Now, VS has the stuff that Frederick’s used to have in the windows, but there are middle and high school girls shopping there.

    We visited a really fancy-schmancy mall in Charlotte a while back when we went up there to Carowinds and Ikea, and that place was REALLY weird. There wasn’t a single store that had anything in it that I felt like I could afford. The boys went off on their own and eventually came and collected me, just so they could take me to the Ralph Lauren store and say, “look, Dad! A $150 TIE!” All of a sudden I think they got a little insight into their mom getting secondhand polos at the thrift store when they realized a new one is $70 at Belk and $80 at the Ralph Lauren store.

    I guess you have to shop somewhere, and Target feels like the best “fit” these days. However, if there were no Target to split the difference, I’m pretty sure that I would feel more comfortable at Wal-Mart (with all the stereotypes that entails) than the mall. I like to joke that my crummy car isn’t just a vehicle, it’s a statement. To a certain extent, our shopping at Target, Tanger, and especially the Thrift Store is the same. In both cases, the saved money is a big factor. But there is a whole subculture involved that I also am very happy to avoid.

    Reply

    • I do love Target, but I’ve had bad luck with their clothes lasting. I still have two cardigans from the Limited that I got in 10th grade, and I wear them REGULARLY. Plus, I kind of hate shopping, so when I buy clothes, I want them to last. That’s the appeal of shopping at the outlets over Target. I’ll take last season’s Banana Republic top over a brand new one from Target, even if it costs more, because I know it will last for years. Gap jeans have kind of let me down lately with their holing up, but the bonus is that I walk in, buy “my” jeans, and walk out. That expedience is priceless:).

      On a side note, I’m pretty sure A&F is not in the same company as Gap and Old Navy. It’s either Banana Republic or J. Crew that you’re thinking of…I always forget which. And speaking of quasi-facts that I can’t quite remember, Abercrombie (founded in 1892, as anyone who has ever shopped there knows well:)), used to sell camping gear before it became the semi-scandalous clothing line it is today. In WW2, they helped outfit the U.S. military. That’s a little tidbit I (am pretty sure that) I learned while researching a paper in college…and you are the only one I know who would be remotely interested:).

      Reply

  4. Posted by Heidi on November 22, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Wow. I had such a similar experience yesterday. I described it in detail to Alison but not as well said as you in this blog. After experiencing a multitude of emotions like you describe above… I finally ended up with a super comfy sweatshirt from Hollister (HOLLISTER?!!). Though I felt that the 12-year-old (or so it seemed) behind the counter could see right through me. I honestly posed like I was buying the shirt for my kid sister or something. And I shamefully walked out of the store with a RIDICULOUS shopping bag with a naked man and woman (essential parts covered) making out on the side of it. Really??!! Is this what we’ve descended to? Marketing clothing to preteens using sexuality so overtly. Yes, I guess that’s obvious to most of the world but quite a shock to me. I literally huddled over my bag as I raced to the car, trying to shield innocent eyes as I passed children in the Food Court. Though I have to give their marketing guys kudos for making my purchase smell like men’s cologne. I kinda like that. 🙂

    Reply

    • Ha! I’m glad you could relate to my awkwardness. The funny thing is that both you and Larry mention the heightened sexuality in the mall, and thankfully, that’s one of the things I didn’t notice…maybe because I was inundated as a teen by the very things that you guys are shocked at. Regarding your bag, for example, I distinctly remember getting a bag from Abercrombie that basically portrayed a menage a trois (almost googled how to spell that, but then thought better of it). And the only reason the graphic bag even made an impact on me was that 1) I went shopping there with both parents and so was mildly embarrassed by it (I just mumbled something about their bags being idiotic and moved on with my life), and 2) that year at Youth In Action, one of the speakers specifically condemned THAT BAG…while I was wearing one of the sweaters that I’d brought home in it. (Awkward….)

      So apparently I WAS one of those dissolute teenagers that shock you guys:). And I guess that is one reason that the mall was such a culture shock to me now…because I used to be so comfortable with it. Things have definitely changed in my heart!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Bonnie Webster on November 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    In the world but not of it… sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? Hmmm….

    Reply

  6. I really, really hate the mall. The only redeeming factors are the bookstores and the coffee place 🙂 I dont love it, but partly because I feel the same way you do. Except the sexual exposure is the one of the most bothersome for me (being a mom of three observant boys will do that to a girl). I feel like my kids are watching a PG13/R rated movie when we walk through there, between the advertising and the clothes that so many of the people there are wearing. I never really was a mall person even as a teenager, and never really got the whole trolling the mall thing so I dont really relate on a “what I used to feel like” level, not in the mall anyways.

    Though, I am often amazed by that feeling related especially to entertainment and music. Its funny because this post came through on my feed the morning after I watched the AMA’s with my jaw wide open, for as long as I could stand it the night before. It was really like a train wreck I couldnt stop watching. I had the same thoughts about the music, the clothes, the language, and the societal elevation of it all. Wow.

    Watching tv with that mind set is a “mall” experience for me. When I really open my mind to the ideas that are being belted about and then AWARDED with our highest awards. We are praising people singing about having menage a trois (thanks for spelling that for me so I wouldnt have to google it ;), one night stands, killing their wife by tying her to a bed and burning her alive ..seriously. It makes my skin crawl.

    I sounds rather judgey to say I am thankful I have raised above it all …that I am more enlightened by those who participate in all that with little thought to it. Yet, with an extreme effort to say it without any element of pride in myself. …the world I associate myself with would have no participation in such vileness.

    Its times when I do allow myself to be exposed to the world outside my bubble of a godly lifestyle, people who seek God’s will, and generally speaking at least make an effort to separate themselves from such influence, that I am the most aware of the separateness of the Kingdom from this world. Those moments are good for me, I think because while they do invite a fertile ground for impure thoughts and an involuntary mental dwelling on those ungodly images, they remind me of what living godly really means in contrast to the alternative.

    “Not of this world” takes on a whole new meaning when I allow myself a glimpse into what “the world” looks like…now, I am a good for awhile. I will go back to my bubble now 🙂

    Reply

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