Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Malled to Death

Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad - Def Leppard (mp3)

I went to the Chattanooga's primary mall today for the first time in at least two or three years. In the imaginary movie of my life, in which I'm playing the main character in real time, Hamilton Place Mall was once a central character.

The mall wasn't quite of the supporting actor category, but then, if Judi Dench can win an Oscar for six minutes in Shakespeare in Love, then the mall should get some consideration for its role in my adolescent years. It was, for me, the Central Perk of Billyville.

The movie analogy is only important because, having not been a regular at the mall in almost two decades (so help me God), and having only gone a handful of times since I became overwhelmed with children, I somehow managed to convince myself that the mall was losing its popularity. How could something survive if people like me, who used to go all the time, no longer go?

Yes, I know how foolish that seems, but I think most of us do it. We go to this restaurant everyone is talking about, and we don't know why everyone loves it, so we don't go back. And whaddaya know, six months later, the restaurant is closed. Coincidence? Sure. But we get the luxury of believing we have that kind of power, because it's our movie, dadgummit.

Yet there the mall was on a Saturday, just where I'd left it.

Because it was only two blocks from my house, I walked or rode my bike down there frequently, at least two or three times each week. I was not, however, a Mall Rat, because rats congregate in clusters, and I was a solitary explorer most of the time. I was more of a Mall Declawed Wolverine.

As a teenager, the mall was about possibility and variety. I would eat lunch there every Sunday after church. Dad would hand me a generous $5 for lunch, so my goal was to eat as economically as possible so I could max out the spare cash for use in the arcade, at the movie theater, or to help purchase a cassette or a book. I discovered the best stores to hang around to observe the alien species that was the Teenage Girl. If I wanted to try accidentally bumping into a GPS student, I milled around outside the Laura Ashley store. If I wanted to run into your more standard upper-middle public school girl, the Gap was my best bet. (There were no Abercrombies or Eddie Bauers in "Hammy" at that point.)

When I wasn't busy repeatedly viewing a single movie ("Young Guns" and "Die Hard" come to mind), the mall was mostly a venue for fishing. I was fishing to catch some incredibly attractive, lonesome teenage girl who was searching for some awkward boy milling around alone, one so appealing that she felt compelled start a conversation with me, maybe invite me to continue with her on her shopping adventures, offer her advice on how she looked in various outfits, maybe even get married and have a brood of children.

This was fishing in the same way it is for thousands of drunk males in the South. Which is to say, they have to call it something other than "sitting in a boat and getting shitfaced," because that sounds pathetic, so they call it fishing even though they don't ever care to catch anything. Likewise, I was "shopping," but mostly I was shopping for something that was neither on sale nor even of the real, non-imaginary world: a spark-lit relationship built on nothing but a sideways glance across the food court.

If this comes across as agonizingly, uncomfortably pathetic, imagine what it must have been like to live as that person. Maybe that's why I don't go to the mall much anymore. Because I see the Old Me -- or actually the Young Me -- there, and I feel so damned sorry for him.

But maybe he'd feel sorry for me. All I see at the mall now is overpriced crap, old people sitting around staring into the ether, minimal numbers of rowdy teens, and no Frank & Stein's, where I could stare at the beer taps and long for the day I could legally purchase a beer and drink it in the mall (ohhhh, Glory Day!). But Young Billy saw potential, promise, hope. He saw fun in the arcade, possibility in the bookstore, adventure in the movie theater, and beauty in all the stores. He got nervous when the girl at the movie concession stand was cute, because maybe he could buy some popcorn and then invite her to share it with him, and maybe she'd say yes! He would walk around imagining the conversations that were never going to happen.

What is it in our natures that allow us to look back at such embarrassing, awkward, isolating and confusing times and think, "Geez, sometimes I miss those days..."? Whatever it is, I somehow think we oughtta be grateful for it. It probably shaves years from our lives.

The sad reality is, I'm very very grateful that the Internet didn't exist when I was a teenager. I don't know for sure what kinds of problems would have sprouted for me from the computer, but I'm damn sure I was just naive and desperate enough to locate my fair share.

Had the Internet been thriving in the late '80s, the video below would even more painfully mirror my own ineptitude:

(Yes, this is linked from a place called GodTube. And yes, apparently this song has deeper religious implications, although I can't seem to find them.)

To continue the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the above, I will admit to enjoying my fair share of Def Leppard, but I won't go promoting what album this song came from or how to best get your hands on it. If you liked Def Leppard, you prolly already have this. If you didn't, you prolly don't and hate me for using it in this post.

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