Give Me Air! I’ve Been Malled!

Other families go to Park City or Antigua over Christmas

break. We go to the mall. The mall I’m referring to is in Albany, N.Y., about a

half hour from our weekend home. Albany is actually blessed with two malls-the

Colonie Center and the supposedly more upscale Crossgates Mall-though the

distinction is lost on me since both have many of the same stores and

restaurants (the Body Shop, Friendly’s, Barnes & Noble, etc.).

I grew up in Manhattan,

which doesn’t have malls-though there are undoubtedly those cynics who consider

the whole city one extended mall-so when I first visited Albany’s malls about

five years ago, it was something of a revelation. The primary difference

between malls and Manhattan is that shopping in Manhattan requires occasional

contact with the outdoors. I believe this is an important, even spiritual,

distinction.

I frankly don’t love the mall. On some level, I loathe it.

But I look forward to it nonetheless. It’s a contradiction I’m at a loss to

explain. That’s why I’m writing about my visit to the mall rather than, say,

George W.’s ominous cabinet picks or the dot-com meltdown. I’m trying to sort

out my feelings about malls.

This year we hit both malls, Crossgates and Colonie. I don’t

remember what had prompted our first visit that five or so years ago, but since

then it’s become an annual ritual. In fact, when my mother asked me what our

kids wanted for Christmas this year, I told her mall money.

My inaugural visit to

the mall began on a high note, and one that would probably have been impossible

to sustain under any circumstance: I found tasteful flannel shirts (a rarity as

any flannel wearer can attest) at Sears, which anchors the southern flank of

the Colonie Center. Even though Sears dropped the pattern after a single

season, I keep returning in the hope they’ll have reconsidered. Once it’s been

established to my satisfaction that they haven’t, we hop back into the car and

join the snaking line of vehicles waiting to gain admission to the jammed

parking lot at the Crossgates Mall.

My wife visited Crossgates on her own before Christmas and

told me it was even more crowded than on our latest trip. But that seems

physically impossible. The mall is always packed. And, mind you, in the first

few days after Christmas, there’s not a lot to buy. Most of the stores have

been wiped out of merchandise, including the Lindt Chocolate boutique, the only

store of the hundreds at Crossgates that holds any allure for me. It always

seems that they sell their last party-sized bag of Lindor milk chocolate

truffles, for which I have a certain weakness, minutes before my arrival.

With its ransacked shelves, people obviously aren’t coming

to the mall just to shop. They’re coming for the climate-controlled mall

experience, for the fountains and indoor vistas, for the social life.

I have no doubt that, were I 16 again, the mall is where I’d

want to be all the time. The mall is a Petri dish of teenage sexuality.

Adolescents flock here the way pink flamingos do to the shores of Lake Nivasha.

Teenage longing-for clothes, for makeup, for the opposite sex-is the mall’s

underlying motif.

Unfortunately, I’m not 16 and probably never shall be again.

Teenage girls no longer hold the allure they once did for me. And the

adult-people-watching leaves something to be desired. I’m not prepared to say

that Albanians are less interesting to observe than, say, the self-consciously

hip residents of Soho or Tribeca, because the mall has an insidious way of

amputating mallgoers of their individuality. You cease to be a person and

instead become part of the inexorable, faceless consumer stream.

The highlight of our

visit to the mall is undoubtedly lunch. For some reason, visiting the mall

rarely inspires me to buy anything. But it does make me enormously hungry. And

red meat, in the form of a cheeseburger, is the only food source that seems

capable of appeasing my appetite.

But something always goes wrong at lunch. First of all, you

inevitably have to wait ages for a table. The list to get a reservation at Jean Georges is nothing compared to the line to

get a seat at Friendly’s. I’d blocked out the fiasco that was last

year’s lunch at Houlihan’s, one of the mall’s finer dining establishments.

“We waited for half an hour and we only got, like, water,”

my 7-year-old remembers. It was worse than that. We waited a full hour before

our waitress (if nothing else, one must give employees at the mall credit for

being relentlessly personable and upbeat; unlike Manhattanites, for whom jobs

in the service sector are a purgatory to be endured until their greatness is

recognized, those who work at the mall seem to appreciate their good fortune)

informed us that they were out of almost everything.

This year, eager to avoid the sort of ugliness her admission

provoked in us, we decided to go to Pizzeria Uno instead. The wind seemed at

our backs as we sailed in and immediately spotted a free table. But this was

only an optical illusion. The maître d’ informed us that the table was spoken

for, that we’d have to wait at least 20 minutes, and handed us a futuristic

pager that was to inform us when we’d be welcome.

Unfortunately, its range was limited-so, not unlike those

prisoners forced to wear an electronic ankle bracelet when they’re sentenced to

house arrest, our movements were restricted to stores within a range of

approximately 50 feet.

That didn’t pose a

problem for our 7-year-old, who found the present she’d desired above all

others for Christmas but that Santa, in his inscrutable wisdom, had forgotten

to bring her. It’s this year’s Furby, or rather what last year’s Furby would be

if Furby had been raised at the mall. Called Diva Starz, it’s a plastic

companion, a piece of teenage jailbait whose collagen-injected lips light up

while it makes such pronouncements as, “You rule, Giggle Girl.” After only 24

hours, my daughter admitted that her gift, purchased with her mall money, was starting

to annoy her.

Lunch was predictably disappointing. To Pizzeria Uno’s

credit, they warned me it was going to be. All burgers are cooked medium-well unless otherwise requested, they

explained on their menu. I obviously requested otherwise, but my wishes never reached the chef, who produced a meat

patty of surpassing flavorlessness.

Perhaps it’s because lunch is always such a bummer at the

mall that by mid-afternoon I inevitably start to have a panic attack. This

year, while my 12-year-old waited on a line that stretched roughly to Utica to

buy a pair of $15 pleather pants at H&M, I began to believe that the mall

was piping some sort of gas through its ventilation system that accounted for

the sleep-state in which I and my fellow mallgoers found ourselves. My very

survival, it seemed, depended on departing as promptly as possible, and my

crazed expression apparently convinced my family it was time to go.

In fact, my favorite part of going to the mall is leaving.

Getting back on the highway and returning to the countryside with its farms and

open fields, I feel a sense of liberation, a shedding of encumbrances that

approximates flight. The further I get from the mall, the more I like it, so

that by the time we pull into our driveway, I’m already starting to look

forward to next year’s visit.

Give Me Air! I’ve Been Malled!