Alpha and Omega: the almighty mall

When I was a kid, “going to the mall” was still very much a thing. Usually we’d enter though the women’s department store called Leggett’s, which had the most peculiar feature: a pathway of mirrors in the ceiling following the same course as the walkway through the store. I have no idea if this served to help spot shoplifters (this was the time before surveillance cameras), but we delighted in the novelty and would wander through the store, heads tipped as far back as possible, guiding ourselves by watching our reflections from above. We would say “yes” to every perfume purveyor who asked if we’d like a spritz despite the fact that, by the third or fourth spray, all of the scents would be indistinguishable from each other, and for the rest of the day our wrists would reek of a cloying conglomeration of synthetic scent.

The mall was mostly a very happy place, filled to the gills with fluorescent light and entertaining window displays, each store sampling different music, and smells emanating from everywhere: hot, herby parmesan from the pizzeria, butter and yeast from the soft pretzel counter, the vanilla nuttiness of fresh waffle cones from the ice cream stand, white musk and sandalwood from the cosmetics shop, the heady scent of leather beckoning from Brookstone. There was a system of fountains with statues, including a bathing brass maiden and a fish in full twist. The main drag was dotted with gumball machines and displays of everything from shoes to electronics, books to jewelry, toys to kitchenware, greeting cards to gag gifts, vitamins to candy. It was a place where you could buy basically anything you needed or wanted but couldn’t get at a grocery store, and the people-watching! Oh, the people-watching!

Thirty years later, the place has lost its splendor. Now it’s a kind of shantytown, a monument to abandonment, shuttered storefronts and darkened doors, all the spectacle replaced by vacancy, glitz gone to dust. Its demise was due in large part to the upsurge of online shopping compounded with big box stores and more national chain outposts materializing all over town. Even pre-pandemic, I honestly can’t remember the last time I’d gone there, until last week when I went to what used to be a J. C. Penney but was now just a giant empty space, the ghost of a department store (complete with a whole wall papered to advertise the St. John’s Bay line of clothing), to get my second vaccine.

The whole experience was entirely surreal, partly because it was so very unlike the atmosphere I’d encountered when getting my first dose three weeks earlier. That other day felt like a different season, frigid and dreary. The clinic was held under a tent in a parking lot and was staffed by Army Corp personnel in uniform, one of whom was manning the line outside by barking orders. There was no banter among waiting strangers, no eyes smiling above masks, and I felt like the only young, healthy, person there aside from some very pregnant women and a few young people with special needs, accompanied by their parents. The man in line ahead of me must have been breathing down the neck of his centennial birthday, and when the staff member in fatigues checking him in recognized his Marines jacket and cap, he thanked him for his service. The elderly Marine couldn’t hear him, but when the man pushing his wheelchair (I guessed this was his son), said, “He thanks you too,” I felt completely out of my league. What was I doing amid these people? How had I possibly qualified for the honor of a receiving a vaccine among this kind of company?

Three weeks later at the mall, the operation felt more like being at an airport than a disaster relief center. The line outside wrapped around the building, but a man ahead of me left his spot to join an acquaintance who queued up right behind me. They talked the entire time, one sharing tips on cooking with a George Foreman grill, the other telling the story of how his 97-year-old widower father had died the week before but he hadn’t seen him in over a year because of Covid. Once we got inside, the men parted ways, grillmaster with an orange Moderna card heading left and orphan with a chartreuse Pfizer card following me to the right. There were orange pylons punctuating the room as well as a labyrinth of retractable belt barriers, demarcating the flow of traffic and separating the Moderna crowd from the Pfizers. There were no uniforms in sight; the people staffing this clinic ran the gamut from an elderly man sporting a UVA golfing polo to a youngish woman with a buzz cut and a sleeve tattoo. As we waited, I halfheartedly read my book and looked around and noticed that the patrons were also a motley crew: a mother holding a baby, a statuesque model-type with beautiful bicolor cornrows so thick they made me think of challah, an athletic-looking young woman whose jaunty ponytail bobbed through the back loop of a baseball cap while she typed furiously into her phone with both thumbs and gripped crutches under her armpits, a young man in a business suit, and an old man with a mane of hair and about a dozen silver bangles around each wrist. It was strange to walk that line, every so often catching sight of my own reflection in the mirrored columns of the once-upon-a-time department store, passing the fitting rooms cordoned off with caution tape, scanning the empty display cases and shelving intended for showcasing retail, marveling at the architecture of this space repurposed in such a bizarrely wonderful way. This used to be a place where people shopped for capri pants and graphic tees; now it served as gateway for everyman to pass through from one side of the pandemic into another. Here we were, most of us receiving our second dose, entering those doors hoping to reemerge one step closer to finding our way to a different kind of life.

After I got my shot, I sat for fifteen minutes and listened to a conversation between two girls who knew each other but had never met in person. I gleaned that they took a college class together online, but neither had they ever glimpsed each other wearing a mask nor had they seen each other below the shoulders. One girl said, “I recognized your bun,” and the other responded, “People usually notice me because of my height; I’m basically five feet tall, but you’ve never seen me standing up!” What a weird, wild time to be alive.

It was impossible not to remember going to that mall so many years ago in what truly feels like a different lifetime altogether, and so strange to juxtapose that memory with the reality of the present day. As children, we’d be so excited to go there to get fitted for new shoes. I had my ears pierced at a pagoda in that building when I was six years old. A friend hosted a scavenger hunt birthday party there in middle school involving disposable cameras (I still have the pictures) and a feast of pizza with garlic knots. I remember feeling sheer delight in beholding the kaleidoscopic abundance at Candy Express and trying all the sample lip glosses at The Body Shop (can you believe they did that?). The sentence “I’ll meet you at the mall” was definitely one of the most frequently spoken among me and my friends in the nineties. I even had a favorite parking spot, for crying out loud. If any one location can represent the zeitgeist of that epoch, there it is.

I didn’t spend a penny last week at Fashion Square Mall, but I’m certain that I left with the most valuable commodity I’ve ever been fortunate enough to obtain there, along with an experience that nearly breaks the memory bank. Just don’t tell that to my six-year-old self who just got her ears pierced. Let’s let her have that moment.

1 thought on “Alpha and Omega: the almighty mall

  1. Ellen Jones

    🥇 #1 favorite piece you’ve written so far!! I love them all (duh), but this one brought me right back to MY mall in the nineties. The smells spilling out from every storefront! And I love hearing the little vignettes of strangers chatting at their vaccination appointments. Maybe I’ll consider making eye contact with a stranger and striking up a conversation like in the beforetimes thanks to this inspiration. MAYBE.


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