For the first time in a long time, I went to the mall. My wife made me.
It was different from the mall I knew as a teenager. No more Alexander’s, no more E.J. Korvette and someday, I bet, no more Sears, J.C. Penney or Macy’s.
Mall department stores rise and fall like civilizations, and before long Nordstrom will get replaced by Tractor Supply Co. or Ocean State Job Lots.
Some things, however, never change. When we arrived, I immediately realized the same air was circulating that I was breathing in 1979. It had that recycled, perfumed, ionized smell, and I could detect the scent of chicken tenders, pretzels and honey mustard sauce, which leads me to believe you’d get fresher air on the Space Shuttle.
The mall is a surreal world of neon lights and curious sights and sounds, a combination of Dante, Fellini, Dali and Bath & Body Works. It reminds me of the Maze Runner movies because you can find your way in, but you can’t find your way out. Some people I saw looked like they’d been wandering around for days, perhaps years, searching for an exit sign.
My father-in-law and his buddies used to meet every morning at the mall and spend the day, sitting on benches, eating nachos and watching the world go by — or more likely watching women go back.
Back then, malls were senior-friendly and had benches, but I couldn’t find anywhere to sit. They probably ditched the benches to deter loitering. And I suspect a lot of the pedestrians weren’t even shoppers — they were seniors walking back and forth for a cardiovascular workout. They had a purposeful look on their faces, and were the only ones who weren’t text-messaging while they walked. Everyone else wandered zombie-like from store to store, window shopping, shop lifting and wasting precious time, which is worse than wasting money.
My wife dragged me along because she didn’t want to go alone. Her friend had given her a gift card to one of those heavily scented cosmetic boutiques, where they sell perfume, body lotions and potions, and the smell is more overpowering than the Yankee Candle factory.
I’m always wary of places like Sephora and L’Occitane because they make me sneeze and wheeze, and pretty soon my eyes start to tear and itch. Whenever I’m in Macy’s, I rush past the cosmetic counter, where women line up to have their faces painted. Usually, I get accosted by someone who’s wearing more makeup than the entire cast of the Twilight vampire series and is brandishing a spritzer with the intention of squirting perfume up my nose.
“Tell your friend to give you a gift certificate to Burger King next time,” I suggested.
While my wife was exploring the world of cosmetics, I went to study the mall directory, which resembled the war map for the Normandy invasion. I must have looked like a man lost in space, because a security guard promptly approached and asked, “Sir, may I help you find what you’re looking for?”
“Certainly,” I said. “Where’s the Perfume-Free Zone?”
Every boutique had a distinct odor, and I wondered how they decided what the stores should smell like. Is there a discussion at the highest levels of the corporation, where branding gurus select the appropriate scent?
Even the music annoyed me. They were playing tunes from the 1970s like “We Are Family,” “I’ll Be There” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” The only music that upsets me more is from the 60s, which they play at Trader Joe’s. Picking just the right music for a store is another decision the executive team and the CEO agonize over.
“What should we play today?” the big boss asks. “Music to encourage shopping or nervous breakdowns?”
“How about Abba? The Bee Gees? The Carpenters? Maybe Led Zeppelin?”
Then the VP of Culture and Conformity promptly responds, “Captain & Tennille! Our research shows that shoppers spend more when they hear Captain & Tennille!”
“Captain & Tennille it is!” the CEO yells as the entire team bursts into a spirited rendition of the hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together” and does the boogaloo around the conference room.
“Love … love will keep us together … think of me babe whenever …”
Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org