Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mall Rat

Things to do if you accidentally stumble into a shopping mall:

1) Run.
2) Glare balefully at howling children; look away before their mothers catch you.
3) Run.
4) Marvel at pink-velour-clad, stroller-shoving women who somehow make time, in the middle of the day, to try on 15 lipsticks from Sephora. Wonder what their husbands do for a living. Wonder what their brains do for a living.
5) Come up with alternative names for food-court stalwarts: Arteree-freeze! Big Nap!
6) Circle "Cheese Shoppe" with vulture-like intensity, despite taking umbrage at double p.
7) Engage in half-assed cultural criticism.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I despise malls. I shop when I need to and stay the hell out when I don't. Or else I work up the odd enthusiasm and then afterward feel positively ill, as if I have eaten a whole bag of marshmallows. To me, malls constitute an embrace of all the worst elements of living (muzak, fake plants, unfettered greed) and a repudiation of the best (silence, reading, the outdoors). Sometimes, though, they're unavoidable. As when, say, you're trapped in a hotel with 900 polite women and the mall is the only way out.

Ergo, I walked in the mall today. I didn't buy anything. I wasn't even tempted, save for those few fraught moments of cheese-lust. Instead I stared at the big stuff: potted plants, waistlines, price tags, window displays. I scuttled past the gaping maw of the Abercrombie stores and tried not to choke on the perfume wafting from Origins. I juddered to a halt, cotton-mouthed and disoriented, in front of the Lucky Brand jeans store and stared stupidly at the words splashed across its plate glass: Turn off the news. Turn on the music.

Sure it's a platitude, but, like the mall, it can be teased apart, dissected and analyzed as an excrescence of mainstream culture. (What else did I do all those owl-pellet labs for, if not to conscript them to serve in my army of lackluster metaphors? Hmm?) To me, the arresting thing is the implied dichotomy: You've either got news or you've got music, but you can't listen to both. I'd say Lucky was talking out of its expensively-clad ass, except there was the controversy that recently flared to life on my local public radio station. Next month, to the disappointment of some and the jubilation of others, talk radio will replace the last few remaining hours of prime-time classical music programming.

So the conflict is out there in the cultural ether. But does it need to be?

Sure, I recognize that we only have one pair of ears. And simultaneous streams of sound, while popular in student compositions, seldom make for easy listening. But there's an unacknowledged variable here, and that's time. Most of us, unless we live sorry, gnat-length lives prior to being run over by a truck, have more than one opportunity to listen. Why not make use of it?

The mall troubles me because it's not a balanced environment: you have innumerable opportunities to consume, but none to produce, to create, to give. I have the same difficulty with Music vs. News: Clash of the Titans: it doesn't allow for the possibility of balance or moderation. Maybe I want to listen to Chopin for a while and then Fresh Air. Maybe I want to chase This American Life with Different Trains. Maybe I want to turn off the damn radio.

1 comment:

Samantha said...

I love the mall. The people-watching is second only to airports.