Because I was fifteen and couldn’t drive yet, I took the bus to the mall to get out of the house and spend an unsupervised afternoon.
The ride there in the early 1980s was like a tour of the economic history of the Seattle area. Starting from my Depression-era neighborhood, I passed a World War II–era steel mill; 1950s storefronts; warehouses and machine shops built in the 1960s; and rows of 1970s split-level houses. The trip ended at the Southcenter Mall, a sprawling, palatial monument to conspicuous consumption. Its parking lot was as large as a stadium’s.
Inside was a tropical fantasy-land where thick ficus and palm trees stretched toward the skylights three stories above. Flowering plants that never would have survived the cold Puget Sound climate thrived in the atrium. The polished white floors reflected the light. How did they keep them so clean?
The mall was a space where I could be anonymous. I looked like an adult and was treated that way by store clerks, which made it easy to try on a dress or suit I couldn’t afford. The clerk would bring accessories and shoes to complete the look. For five or ten minutes I could stand in front of the full-length mirror and appear to be someone of importance.
After wandering around, oblivious to the passing time, I would get back on the bus and experience the same history in reverse. When the smokestacks of the steel mill came into view against a zinc-colored sky, I was home.
My new stepsons were at the kitchen table, staring at an untouched meal. Their dad was at work, as usual, and I was bringing a load of laundry up from the basement. As I reached the top step, I heard Frankie grumble to his younger brother, Marc, “What is this stuff? Are we supposed to eat it?” Marc snorted his response. If mixing families was an art form, we were at the finger-painting stage.
In fairness, I was a pretty bad cook. So I drove them to Burger King and then to the mall to buy their “real” mom a Mother’s Day gift. As we entered, they asked if they could shop alone — not something they were normally allowed to do at the ages of eleven and eight. I gave them fifteen minutes to go to Hecht’s and back, knowing I’d hear about it if their dad found out.
Twenty-five minutes later they raced into view. Frankie proudly showed me the scented powder he’d purchased for his mom, and I praised his excellent taste, assuring him that she’d love it. Then he shyly reached into his bag and handed me a miniature glass vial with a folded cardboard tag. It was a perfume sample. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he said while his little brother gazed down at his shoes. They giggled self-consciously, punched each other in the arm, and ran ahead to find wrapping paper.
I popped the vial’s cap, took a whiff, and stifled a gag. Yet it was the most meaningful gift of my life: a preliminary sketch of our future family portrait. I didn’t know they had those at the mall.
North Potomac, Maryland
My older sister and I were looking at the cheap baubles at Claire’s when our dad arrived, wearing an orange winter hat and jeans stained with grease. We had been dropped off with instructions to meet him at the escalator at lunch, but he was early, eager to show us the color-changing mood pencils he had just bought us. I couldn’t pay attention because people were staring at him. Or were they? Did I see looks of contempt that didn’t exist?
I began walking toward the entrance, trying to get him out of the store. It was so clean, and he wasn’t. He smelled like cigarettes and car engines. My sister and I had been passing, in my mind, as “regular” shoppers, but with him next to us, we were dirty kids who had to be watched or we would steal something.
The women I thought were staring didn’t know the whole story. They didn’t know we had no indoor plumbing and that we cleaned ourselves the best we could with water from a bucket. They didn’t know the grease on our dad’s clothes was from trying to get the car running so he could treat us to a trip to the mall.
My sister had the grace not to show humiliation. She hissed in my ear that I was a little bitch for being embarrassed by our dad. She was right. I was hurting him. I am still embarrassed, but for such different reasons now.
My childhood home was in far western Massachusetts, in farm country cleared from the forests of the Appalachians. Four family houses were clustered together and surrounded by my great-uncle’s dairy farm. In two of the houses, my unmarried great-aunts ran an “outdoor school for girls” from 1917 to 1943, a few years before I was born.
In the 1950s my great-aunt Anne took my sister and me to the wonderful places she had taken her students: Nooks and Crannies, a pile of boulders under which a brook ran, where watercress could be picked and eaten right from the cold water. The Crooked Forest, where the trees had been deformed by heavy snow so that their trunks formed chairs for little girls. Pot-Hole Brook, where a waterfall splashed into a basin you could swim across. And the Hill That Never Moved, a grass- and tree-covered lump with an unobstructed view up and down the valley where there were other hills that might move.
Anne never lost her sense of wonder about the natural world. She knew the plants and birds well, and spending a day with her was special. Sometimes she took only me to the Hill That Never Moved for picnics, and I felt privileged to have time alone with her.
Years later my parents divorced and moved away. My sister and I went off to college. Our great-aunts and great-uncle died. The houses were sold, and the farm was cut up into lots.
Decades later, in a bout of nostalgia, I considered visiting some of those remarkable places of my childhood. I opened Google Maps and found my childhood home. In satellite mode, I followed the road we had walked to the Hill That Never Moved. There, where it had been, was a huge mall surrounded by an equally huge parking lot. The Hill That Never Moved had been leveled for a Target and a Starbucks.
My three siblings and I always got the same lecture from our parents before entering a store: “Do not ask for anything. Do not touch anything.” We usually shopped at the Post Exchange at Fort Hood, Texas, where my father was stationed in the Army, but when I was six years old, my mother took me on a solo trip to the mall. I dutifully held her hand and followed the family shopping rules — until we reached the Woolworth’s checkout, where I became enamored of a packet of brightly colored balloons. I begged, but my mother only said, “We’ll see.” As she turned to pay, I slipped the balloons into my pocket.
At home I ran to my bedroom, slammed the door, and started inflating my contraband. Half the air leaked out as I clumsily tied off a beautiful blue balloon. I finally had my prize.
I was just beginning to bat it in the air when my door flew open. My mother popped the balloon with her long fingernails, gathered up the rest, and grabbed her purse. We were returning to the store.
With her hand gripping the back of my neck, my mother marched me to the register we had just visited and cut in line. Other shoppers watched as she threw the balloons on the counter and said, “We need to purchase these since my daughter stole them.” She squeezed my neck and prompted: “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I’m sorry,” I told the cashier. “I won’t ever do it again.”
“It’s OK, honey,” the cashier said. “Don’t cry.”
“It is not OK,” my mother said through clenched teeth. “We do not tolerate stealing, and neither should you.” She paid and left the balloons on the counter.
At home I was sent to my room to await my dad’s arrival. My stomach tightened when I heard his heavy steps toward my bedroom.
My father burst through the door, and I stood up, as I had been taught. “Explain yourself,” he commanded.
Nothing I said would be acceptable, so I threw myself on my bed and sobbed. After a minute he said quietly, “I expected more from you,” then pivoted on his boot and left.
I cried so much that I gave myself a headache. I wasn’t punished, so I punished myself by going without dinner. I was too sick to eat anyway.
Later, in high school, a friend tried to convince me to steal an eye shadow, but I refused. I could still see my father’s arms crossed over his olive-green uniform. I could still hear his boots on the wooden floor.
My first adult trip to Washington, D.C., was for a business conference, and I wanted to see the White House (this was before the current resident) and the sights at the National Mall: the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian, and so on.
The evening I arrived, I went to the hotel lobby for dinner and invited two women with conference badges like mine to join me at a table. I wanted to get to know my future colleagues. My dinner partners appeared to delight in the idea of mentoring me and suggested which conference sessions I should and shouldn’t attend. They told me they had decided to skip the morning plenary: “That old windbag thinks he knows everything and goes on and on.” They were going to the Mall. When they asked me to come with them, I enthusiastically agreed.
In the morning I watched in confusion as we sped in their rental car away from downtown to a suburban shopping mall, where my new friends spent the morning looking at shoes. I attempted to show enthusiasm while wondering what my boss would do if he found out.
From then on I never again referred to the National Mall as just “the mall.”
Chula Vista, California
I spent a summer enduring twice-daily chemotherapy infusions. Since I was not allowed to drive, a friend would drop me off at the hospital in the morning, and I would stay until my husband picked me up late at night. Between infusions I had seven hours to fill.
I was supposed to stay out of direct sunlight, but one day I took a risk and ventured across several scorching parking lots to the posh Stanford Shopping Center. I arrived in the flower-studded courtyard bald and sweaty, carrying my sterilized rations and medications in my backpack. In a panic to find shade, I rushed into a small boutique and collapsed into the plush leather couch it provided for weary shoppers. I was immediately approached by an eager saleswoman. “Is this your first visit?” she asked with an aggressive smile. I nodded and got up to leave, but she laughed and said, “Looking is allowed! Can I get you some iced tea?” I hesitantly nodded and forced myself to feign interest in the closest pair of jeans. The price tag read a hundred dollars — no, wait, a thousand! I looked at the neighboring leather jacket: three grand.
When she returned with the beverage, I apologized and said that I couldn’t purchase anything; I was merely killing time between chemotherapy infusions. She smiled and said, “What you need is a little retail therapy!” She insisted I try on a few dresses and told me how cute I looked. She arranged scarves on my bald head, rubbed an essential oil into my hands, and gave me a sample. I felt light and refreshed.
On my way out, she hugged me and wished me luck. She said her sister was going through cancer treatment, too.
Santa Cruz, California
Waltzing through the Gap, I glide my hands over folded jackets, sweaters, and shirts. The closet in my apartment is filled to bursting, but I figure I can squeeze in one more piece. After all, the store is having a half-off sale that will be over in two days. (Signs announcing a repeat of the same sale three days later are rolled up in the back.)
I check the price on a pair of shorts I think I can afford, then decide to try them on. In line for the dressing room, I notice a tag on the shorts: “Made in Bangladesh.” I pause but end up buying them.
Two years later, during another sale, I pick up a sweater and spot the same tag, “Made in Bangladesh.” I remember seeing a woman at a sewing machine in a documentary: her piercing brown eyes, a baby atop a small blanket next to her as she worked. The narrator relayed stories and statistics, and said when the woman asked for a break, the manager beat her.
I put the sweater down.
I wish I had done my wedding differently, especially my makeup. When I flip through my pictures now, I see that my face is pale and greasy. I look nothing like me. Just a little mascara would have been perfect, but I had the brilliant idea to ask a friend to help me. She was glamorous and had done makeovers for other people. She had it all planned out: we’d head to Nordstrom, visit the makeup counters, and do some serious sampling. I had envisioned myself with dark, mysterious eyes and red lips, but she was more concerned about the texture and tone of my skin. I had never even owned foundation or concealer.
I felt self-conscious inside the fancy department store while my friend held bottles up to my face and rubbed oily liquids into my cheeks. Unhappy with the results, she used tissues and baby wipes to scrape the mess off, then started over. We did this until my face was raw. I felt tears welling as she pressed a tissue hard into my skin, frustrated that yet another color didn’t match.
I excused myself to go to the restroom, where I slipped into a stall and began to sob. I didn’t care if anyone could hear me. I just needed to let it out.
Eventually I heard my friend enter the bathroom. I had been gone long enough that it was clear what was going on. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll find the right color. We can always come back if we don’t get it today.”
I wish I had said no. I wish I had known what I wanted. But I didn’t. So in my wedding pictures I do not see my beautiful, freckled, simple self. I see a woman trying to play the role of what a bride should be.
Oak Park, Illinois
When I started sixth grade, my mom took my new school’s dress code seriously. “They recommend buying polo shirts from this company,” she said, a catalog in hand. She ripped out the order form and wrote her selections in neat block letters.
When the package arrived, the shirts were boxy, loose, and unfashionable. The fabric was so textured that stains would never come out.
My mom thought that everyone would order from the catalog. She didn’t understand that most girls shopped at the mall. I eyed my classmates’ slimmer polos with envy. The most fashionable girls had a little moose stitched onto their polo shirts — the logo for Abercrombie & Fitch. The clothes from that store were pure preppy fantasy: rugby shirts with wide stripes, khaki skirts, and slim-cut polos.
I made the case to my mom that she should take me to Abercrombie & Fitch. “You already have polo shirts,” she said, gesturing to the circus tent I was wearing. “Anyway, I thought they sold safari clothes.” She told me that when she was growing up, Abercrombie & Fitch was where one went to be outfitted for outdoor adventures. Eventually she agreed to take me, probably just to satisfy her curiosity.
Walking through the mall with my mom, I heard the store’s music and smelled its scented air before I even saw the sign. She stopped in front, and I felt the chasm between us yawn wider. “Katherine, the music is blaring,” she said. “What happened to this place?” Just inside was everything I needed to be cool, but my mom couldn’t see that.
Years later I finally believed what she had been telling me: I’m cool no matter what I wear. But back then I could only grab her hand to try to bridge the gap. “OK,” I said, “we can ask them to turn it down.”
I was fourteen in 1970 when my sister and her friend introduced me to shoplifting.
The plan was simple: I would enter the department-store dressing room, slip on an item under my clothes, walk out the door, stash it in the car, then go back for more. My sister’s friend would sometimes leave wearing several layers. She bragged that she had once exited in five pairs of pants. I didn’t enjoy the actual thieving, which was nerve-racking. The thrill came after we got away with it.
I told myself I was merely getting even with the huge stores for overcharging; it wasn’t the same as stealing from an individual. The Vietnam War was raging, civil rights were being debated, and most people seemed to me to be hypocrites who lied to feel good about themselves. In my young mind, I was smarter and morally superior.
Then a mall opened down the street. There were so many things I wanted, but store owners were beginning to figure out what was going on. Kids in my social circle started to get busted for shoplifting. I pictured getting caught: believing that my actions weren’t hurting anyone wouldn’t save me from feeling like a criminal.
One day I was in a lingerie store, wearing overalls and a peasant blouse. I even contemplated buying something, but everything was overpriced, and I decided against it.
I had just left when a woman who worked there approached and asked me to empty my pockets: “You took a pair of panties. You put them in your pocket.” She must have thought anyone who dressed like me was a thief. People were watching. Mortified, I pulled my pockets out to show her they were empty. The employee went back to the store, the bystanders walked away, and I left the mall feeling embarrassed. But mostly I thought about all the times I had gotten away with it, all the times I could have been caught.
The mall I go to is a single floor where a few woebegone stores huddle together. It’s located in a nondescript town in the boondocks of South Africa. No shining tile floors or chain restaurants — only a hair salon, a bottle store, and, my favorite, a butcher offering sheep innards for less than two dollars.
It’s a far cry from the quintessential American malls, those pristine, glamorous spaces with boutiques and escalators. Americans are lucky, dressing in Nike trainers and Rolex watches, washing down double cheeseburgers with Jack Daniel’s.
But in their majestic public spaces, do they get to see everybody or know who they are? If I’m a few cents short at the bottle store, the attendant says, “Don’t sweat it, Phaks. The difference is on me.” The grocer knows my name, too. Phyllis, the Zimbabwean-immigrant hairdresser, offers service on credit. But don’t try to con her; the town is too small for you to hide.
I fantasize about a flashier place, with huge billboards and movie stars, but here we bump into each other and rub shoulders along the passages. Time moves slowly. Under the scented pepper trees behind the mall, we swig from quarts of beer, grateful to be favored in our simplicity.
Back when I was unencumbered by children, I was once seated on an airplane next to a woman with a screaming baby. She was alone and struggling to calm her pissed-off traveling companion. As the child wailed, people around us began emitting audible puffs of irritation and pleading to change seats. I was doing my usual thing: reading a book and pretending not to be there.
When a delay was announced, there was a collective why-does-this-always-happen-to-me exhale. The baby also took it up a notch. Then the guy sitting in front of us turned around, removed an earbud, and asked the mom if there wasn’t something she could do to quiet the infant; he acted as if maybe she were enjoying an in-flight movie while her child screamed.
At this point an older woman approached and wordlessly took the baby in her arms. She walked him up and down the aisle until he stopped screaming and fell asleep. I watched in awe, convinced this angel in a tight perm and elastic-waist jeans had descended to earth to show us how to make the world a better place: all you have to do is help out.
A few years later it was pouring outside, and, in an effort to allow my twins to blow off a little steam, I took them to the mall. Apparently everyone in San Francisco had the same idea. The place was filled with damp, dripping bodies.
My kids had recently decided it was hilarious to run away from me in opposite directions. At one point I was crouched on the slick mall floor strapping Oliver into the child-containment device we call a stroller while begging Maggie to stay put. She disappeared into a forest of legs. Droplets of sweat ran down my sides. I felt judged and slightly panicked.
Just then, an older woman in pink lipstick and a rain bonnet touched my shoulder. I looked into her face, expecting salvation. She put her lips to my ear and said, “Dear, everyone can see your butt crack when you bend over like that.”
San Francisco, California
My first job was at a movie theater beside the mall. At sixteen I hated the sexless polyester uniforms and the manager’s proclivity for scheduling me to close one night, then open early the next day. I quit.
Three months later I took a job at the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shoppe on the upper floor of the mall, near the escalator. We sold giant ice-cream bars dipped in chocolate and rolled in a topping of your choice. You could smell the melted chocolate from halfway down the mall.
I was infinitely happier wearing the Ice Cream Shoppe uniform, a white-and-red polka-dot dress and a dainty hat. My minimum-wage paycheck was going into my college savings account. I spent most of my breaks on the benches outside Sears, hoping I wouldn’t run into any kids from school while I ate my packed-from-home lunch.
Sometimes, after I ate, I walked to the lonely ends of the upper floor and watched store owners tend their rarely visited shops, wondering how they made ends meet. I guessed they were trying to take care of families by selling knockoff purses, suitcases, and waving-cat statues.
The Ice Cream Shoppe manager liked me, probably because the register always balanced at the end of my shift. She wanted to train me for management, and her eyes welled up when I told her I planned to go to college.
I felt terrible, but I couldn’t be tethered to that place for the rest of my days. I didn’t know what my future held, but I was certain it couldn’t be found inside a mall in my hometown.
My friend died last year from multiple sclerosis. She was fifty-four years old. Our friendship had begun when we were nine and lived within walking distance of each other.
As pubescent teens in the late 1970s, a group of us would walk to the local mall on a mission to find cute boys. Sometimes we would head to the second floor, lean over the handrail, and, giggling, bombard the unlucky boys with Jujubes candies — dashing away before they could identify us.
During the last ten years of my friend’s life, that same group of girlfriends would get together each year to celebrate her birthday. We always went back to that mall. By then my friend was in a wheelchair, unable to move her arms or legs. We’d spoon-feed her soup and her favorite coffee, trying not to let any dribble down her chin. Since her vocal cords weren’t functional, we’d recite the alphabet until she blinked to stop us at the correct letter, and we’d piece together her words. And we’d take turns pushing her wheelchair through the mall, remembering a time when it meant giggles and pimply boys.
All my friends were talking about the shiny, beautiful stores at the huge, two-story mall. It was 1967. I was thirteen years old and wanted to see this wonderland of commerce where my peers were hanging out.
My mother told me there was no reason to go. We didn’t need anything. Our family was on a budget, and she took in ironing to make ends meet. We could barely afford gas for the car, and groceries were chosen with attention to sales and coupons. Our mother made our clothes, or else we got by with hand-me-downs.
In August temperatures hit triple digits and stayed there for days. Our neighbor bragged that she was getting through the stifling afternoons by taking her kids to the mall to run around in the air-conditioning while she window-shopped.
Finally my mother gave in. After an hour of scrubbing my three younger brothers and putting them into their most presentable summer clothes, she got behind the wheel, and we took off. Unfamiliar with the freeway, our mother got lost. I could see her worry about how long the trip was taking; we needed to be home to get dinner on the table and pick up our dad from the bus after work.
I tried to keep my brothers calm by giving them my leftover Easter chocolate. Roughhousing ensued. The chocolate got all over their clothes, and one of them had a bloody nose. When we finally arrived, we fell out of the car agitated, sweaty, and dirty.
As we walked through the high-ceilinged, brightly lit mall, I could see my mother’s embarrassment at all the things we couldn’t afford. There was no joy in this outing. When I passed a group of friends from school, chewing gum, laughing, and flirting, I wanted to disappear.
Sometimes I pull out the photo albums at my parents’ house to look at my childhood pictures. My mother always wrote the date beside each photo and a note about what was going on.
In one album is a picture of my older half brother and me. We have the same mom, a white woman from a well-to-do Catholic family, but his dad was an Iranian who left when our mother became pregnant. Our mother’s family told her she would be disowned if she did not give my half brother up for adoption, as a fatherless, biracial baby would be unacceptable.
He was adopted by an ex-priest and an ex-nun who wanted a family. The adoption was open; my mother stayed in contact with my half brother as he grew up, but visits were rare, and my mother’s family never spoke of him.
One summer when I was six, my half brother flew two thousand miles to spend a couple of weeks with us. He was about twelve, and so tan. He’d flown all that way by himself. I thought he was cool.
We lived in Minneapolis, so my mother took us to the Mall of America — the biggest mall in the country, complete with an amusement park in the middle. I rode my first roller coaster sitting next to my half brother. I was terrified almost to the point of tears, but his confidence gave me courage.
In the photo my mother took that day, we are in some novelty store, wearing matching Timberwolves jerseys and funky hats and making funny faces at the camera. My mother’s caption says: “My boys. Mall of America ’98.”
My half brother and I have not kept in contact. He struggled with the knowledge that his birth mother was raising his two siblings without him, along with the racism of his birth mother’s family. I can count on one hand how many times I have seen him since that summer. But in that picture he was just my brother, and I loved him.
Decades ago I moved to Washington, D.C., to intern with a nonprofit dedicated to reducing American consumption. While brainstorming ideas for a “Simplify the Holidays” campaign, I suggested visiting local malls dressed as Santa’s elves to spread messages about giving loved ones the “gift of time” instead of more stuff destined for the landfill.
That idea was nixed by my bosses, but my fellow interns and I went forward with it on our own. Donning thrift-store Santa and elf costumes, we visited malls to promote ideas for alternative, earth-friendly gifts. The response from shoppers was overwhelmingly positive. The response from mall security and management was decidedly not. At a mall in Georgetown we were kicked out for soliciting. “Soliciting what?” we asked, pointing out that we weren’t distributing anything.
“Soliciting ideas” was the answer. Oh, the crime! Our small, humorous act represented a threat to an economic system that depends on growth at all costs.
Years later my sisters and I began a new holiday tradition: We went to a Delaware mall dressed in Santa hats and white T-shirts that read, NOTHING — What You’ve Been Looking For! on the front and Ask Me About NOTHING on the back. The final touch was the free-sample bags filled with bottles of NOTHING.
As soon as we entered the mall, we were surrounded by shoppers eager to get a sample of what we had. We asked them to put out their hands and “poured” samples of NOTHING while giving an enthusiastic sales pitch: Zero waste, 100 percent nontoxic, sweatshop-labor-free, guaranteed not to put you in debt.
A man exclaimed, “Nothing — that’s exactly what I’ve been telling my wife I want for Christmas!”
One year mall management threatened to have us arrested if we didn’t leave. We were ushered out on the opposite side of the mall from where our car was parked and had to trek through a massive sea of cars. A vehicle screeched to a halt in front of us. It was the police, who arrested us even though we were leaving. We were put in handcuffs and had mug shots taken, Santa hats and all.
After a second arrest the following year, a jury trial ensued. Delaware is a decidedly corporate state, home to more than 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and we were unable to find a lawyer willing to champion free-speech rights in malls. We were found guilty and banned from the mall.
In a way it was a relief. We could now spend more time with our family members, who every Christmas are still apt to receive a gift of NOTHING under the tree.
Silver Spring, Maryland
When I was a kid, I would lean out my bedroom window on a spring night to smell the air and listen to the mooing of the cattle that grazed a mile from our house. I remember the Black Angus cows and the field with a huge oak in the middle.
Developers, however, had other plans for the field: a shopping mall. The cows were taken away, and the tree came down. When I was in high school, my friends and I snuck into the mall while it was under construction. I remember the smell of freshly poured concrete and our laughter as we explored the forbidden space.
The mall opened with Montgomery Ward as an anchor, a Kroger grocery, and a discount chain. The main concourse featured fountains surrounded by plastic gardens. At Christmas, Santa arrived to pose with children. The late 1960s was a good time for shopping malls in our small industrial city.
Then the good times ended. The factories shut down or moved away, and my hometown became another Rust Belt casualty. Montgomery Ward was replaced by a discount store, and the fountains were turned off. The shops that had first occupied the mall moved out, and the ones that replaced them didn’t stay long. The mall began to look shabby and worn. It wasn’t long before I left town, too.
I returned now and then. I’d drive past the abandoned mall and its vast, crumbling parking lot. On the outskirts was a multiscreen theater with a flashy marquee, but the mall stood empty. Not long ago it was finally torn down, leaving nothing but a field of scarred concrete where the oak tree once stood and the black cows grazed on spring nights.
Saint Paul, Minnesota