Five Things You Cannot Un-see at the Mall

The other day I went to the mall. It is a rare occurrence, but occasionally I will find myself plying the wares the many different stores offer in their glass cubicle enclosures, like human fish tanks of consumerism. As I wandered down the antiseptic looking open corridor which runs down the center of the structure like a spine, all the wings just ribs connecting this concourse of pedestrian traffic, I saw many sights and wondered how this ever appealed to my youthful self years ago.

When I lived in Old Town, Maine over ten years ago, it was, and still is, the edge of civilization, the last bastion before the frontier. If you traveled any farther north on Interstate 95 you would travel miles upon miles before passing an exit, and even then, there was no guarantee a town would be waiting for you. So the Bangor area was where masses congregated, the night life of the air, the pulse of the great white north. It is where people from all Northern Maine shopped, because, lets be honest, if you’ve been to areas like Fort Kent and Presque Isle, you would understand. With that said, if you were bored and had a lot of time on your hands, you might just find yourself becoming a mall-rat at the Bangor Mall…and unfortunately, I had a lot of time to kill.

So as I walked around the Maine Mall in South Portland the other day, I had a lot of time to kill, and observe the tomfoolery that occurs in these bastions of retail panacea, and cringe at many of the sites.

Before I even entered the doors to the mall I noticed an unusual character worth note, and is number five on my list.

5.) Oddities

Like entering a circus or an old fashioned carnival, the mall seems to attract the characters which PT Barnum would have drooled over. Although it is not my intent to judge or make light of certain fashions, I noticed the mall seems to attract a certain demographic in large numbers. The individual I noticed the other day would stand out anywhere he went, but it wasn’t for his dress, but the whole package. As he stood outside the food court entrance, his baggy pair of basketball shorts falling off the second pair of basketball shorts underneath, and the long baggy tank top that he wore, the outfit was three sizes too large for his wiry muscular frame. His hair, standing straight off his head about nine inches, as if gravity had stopped working and was now operating in opposite fashion, was dark brunette in color, and looked like Eraserhead from David Lynch’s cult classic about a dystopian dark future. But again, this was not the oddest thing, and neither was the child size backpack he wore with both straps fastened. No, it wasn’t that at all. What struck me as odd, the strangest things of all, was how he walked around with a fifteen pound hex dumbbell. And along with carrying this weight he performed sitting tricep presses straight up into the air high above his head. It seemed irrelevant to this young gentleman that everyone in the food court was staring at him as he performed a workout with a single weight, and the whole time I observed him, he never switched arms, but continued on the left arm, over and over again.

4.) Where have all the arcades gone?

One of the best things about hanging out at the mall was the arcade games. I grew up during the revolution of gaming. Pong and Atari, Colecovision and Commodore 64, Nintendo and Sega, these were the gaming systems that defined my generation’s gaming experience. 8-bit arcade games were everywhere, and even in bars, adults found themselves drawn to their flashing lights, the idea of gaining top score stroking many an individuals ego, their initials forever etched in the memory of that cpu, like George Costanza and his obsession with Frogger. So why is it all the arcades have disappeared? Is this a telling trend that video games are  only to be enjoyed in the home atmosphere, where teens shamelessly down bottles of Monster Energy drink while chowing down on some cheese curl?. I know that bars like Arcadia in Portland, Maine and many others in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, find an audience swarming their bars to play retro arcade games that harken back to our childhood. I still find myself playing 8-bit games at home on my computer, or try to beat Zelda in record time, finding all the hidden extras, or defeating it without any. Even to this day I try and beat Contra without the secret code that we all have ingrained in our memory– more vivid than that first time we kissed or took that first fateful shot of rotgut stolen from our father’s stash of whisky. So where have all the arcades gone? They are not at the mall, and that is something I envision every time I walk past the crappy retail store which now occupies the space that was once painted with black walls and ceiling, the dark lights glowing on the walls, illuminating neon paint, as the sound effects of tie fighters blowing up the death star rang through the air.

3.) Kiosks

I am not sure when Kiosks became a year round occurrence. I am sure if I kept a journal throughout the years I could pick out a time and watch the spread from there. Like a virus, the kiosks spread from one end of the mall to the other, as these itinerant peddlers of crappy wares found space in the center concourse of the mall. Cutting this pedestrian area in half, it is now a gauntlet of heavy pressure salespersons constantly honing in on those who seem the weakest and most likely prey of consumerism in our society. Locking eyes with one of these displaced hucksters is certain doom, and their brain focuses on you like a homing beacon, leaping in front of you as if throwing themselves in the path of a bus to save an elderly woman crossing the road further down the line. You are filled with self loathing and regret that you did not just dodge or dip out of the way, a quick pivot like a basketball player with the smoothest of moves. Instead they trap you in their toothy smile like a tractor beam, and you become hypnotized by their sales pitch. It is not yourself you have to worry about, but who you are with, your hope that they have enough fortitude to fight off the barrage of congenial platitudes that swirl around their head in a dizzy mist of obfuscation. It is like they are Jedi’s telling you these are not the droids you are looking for, but instead you need a buckwheat neck pillow or you should buy a calming mint liniment. You walk away dizzy and confused, but somehow you now own a collection of standup comedy DVDs from Bob Marley, even though you think his acts are boorish and crude.

2.) Foodcourt Food

I remember when the foodcourt had places you looked forward too, because, hell, when you are bumming around the mall, Sabarro or Taco Bell is the way to go, along with a big Slush Puppy from Auntie Em’s or Orange Julius. A tall Mountain Dew and crunchy taco used to get me by for hours, but now, fast food chains I have never heard of dominate or local food joints. I don’t know, I love sushi, I eat it at some of the best places I can in the greater Portland area, but there is something unsettling about buying sushi at the mall. This is not a judgement against the workers or owners of these locations, but it just seems wrong. A big triangular slice of greasy cheese pizza is what is called for when palling around the mall. What about a hotdog from Orange Julius with a slice of american cheese and bacon? Or how about just an Arby’s Big Montana sandwich, replete with the Horsey Sauce and potato cakes, all completed with a side of uranium yellow dipping cheese sauce–now that was classic mall fair. But now we find sushi restaurants, local soup joints, fast casual burger shops, and local Italian fair taking over the perimeter of the seating area. It is as if they are trying to give the mall a conscience, giving it the ambiance of Portland, even though the mall is in South Portland. Let’s be honest. I don’t go to the mall to eat at one of my favorite restaurants from the Old Port and gentrified Portland. If that was the case I would get in my car, drive back north, and swing into Pai Men Miyake for Sushi and Campari. When I go to the mall, I want the guilty pleasure to be just that, guilty, but I guess we can’t have that anymore, so I will save my slice of cheese pizza for another location, and not the pizza place that is no longer Sabarro.

1.) Black Friday (aka Consumer Insanity)

When did Black Friday begin? The crazy lunacy that encompasses this crazy-ass holiday of its own, seems to have spun to a legendary status that is an accepted part of society. As if people need the newest television or a DVD marked down five dollars, they become rabid animals, foaming at the mouths, throwing all convention of politeness out the window. It seems that people are hard wired to search out deals and purchase, or execute, with no question on whether or not they really need it or even want it. What happened to the Sear’s Catalog Wish Book? I remember pouring through page after page, putting a circle around what I wanted, and my brother the same, our initials next to our wishes so my parents knew who wanted what. There was no guarantee that we would get what we wanted, but we wished for transformers, G.I. Joe figures, or those awesome D battery powered robots that just wheeled around the hardwood floor–and you better hope you have a hard surface for it to operate on. Now, we have the ultimate devolution of humanity as people scrap and fight over  televisions and DVD players in big box stores, while the snarl of parking begins on Thanksgiving night, that holiday now nothing more than a prequel to Christmas Consumerism. I have visited the mall a few times on Black Friday, and it was interesting, depressing even, and as throngs of people crowd stores, I am reminded that the weightlifting Eraserhead, thin man, sitting in the foodcourt, pumping a weight over his head clearly out of place outside the context of the gym, is the normal one while the hoards of people threaten each other over the newest toy their child needs.

Malls, like video games, were great in the eighties and early nineties, but as time moved on, and the consumer evolved, so too do this space, and it became less and less appealing to me. I guess I will just buy my clothes and L.L. Bean, at least the animals there are taxidermied.