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,
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
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,
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.