Visit to a Mall Planet

In the clearance sale of life, the emergence of Park Meadows has dumped Southwest Plaza in last season's closeout bin. But life goes on. You go, girls.

Southwest Plaza has, like, fifteen entrances, and that's not counting the downstairs at Sears where you go in next to the Die-Hard batteries and radial tires.

As if.
As if you would ever go to the mall to buy a tire. The fourteen-year-old girls who live in my neighborhood will never be old enough to need auto parts. They don't even seem to need money.

Sometimes I drive them to the mall--Southwest Plaza is the closest, and so it is their favorite--from the foothills where we live, a redneck dirt-road place where you can't even skateboard. The girls are broke, but absolutely prepared to spend as many hours at the mall--without buying anything, much--as their mothers will allow.

The beautiful, civilized mall.
Gia, a fourteen-year-old mall rat, says, "When they make me run? At gym? Which I hate? I just pretend I'm running toward a clearance sale at Southwest Plaza."

I let her off at the movie entrance. The entrance.
The entrance is graced by a three-sided phone kiosk. Upon entering the mall, the first thing you must do is call someone or page someone. Even if you have arranged with five or six of your friends to absolutely be here at 11 a.m.--and you probably also went to the trouble of arranging what everyone was going to wear, outfits that restrict all normal adolescent movement--your odds of an easy rendezvous are dismal. People's mothers are not reliable. They may say they'll drop off Stacy and Tracy, with a swing into Littleton to pick up Tacy, but then something stupid will come up, like somebody's little brother's swimming lesson. Or work, or something. Anyway, you have to stake out the phone for at least a half hour.

Except that now some grandma wants to use the phone to call someone. You're expecting a call, you tell her. She looks annoyed. You point her to one of the other two phones. Crisis averted.

Frankly, it is a rotten time of year to be fourteen at the mall. With one day left until most Jeffco schools start, there is a frenzy of back-to-school shopping going on. The good part is you may get to buy stuff. The bad part is that means your mom might come along, with her stroller's worth of younger siblings and embarrassing packages. If your mother wasn't so totally paranoid, she would drop the kids off in that scary-looking video arcade on the upper level with the sickening smell of popcorn and the sticky coin-operated horses and the blaring pinball machines. Otherwise, the kids will whine the whole time to go to the Disney Store. Or your mother would let you do your shopping by yourself. But she won't. So now it is going to be so hard to obtain the things you have to have. You will have to make snap decisions about things like big jeans and tiny shirts and belts and knitted wool watch caps. Luckily, you have spent much of the summer practice-shopping with your friends.

Up and down the aisles the mothers and teenagers go. The boys trying desperately to sag their pants so low that their underwear is visible to everyone but their mothers--or their sisters, who will tell. The girls trying to stifle the sudden spurts of glee that keep you from looking sophisticatedly unconcerned.

I meet Gia at the entrance, hanging by the phone with her best friend and shopping buddy of five years, Nicole. Both are Mom-less, and dressed in alternate mall style B. The one that says: Oh, I just threw this on. They arrived wearing the same light green Dishwalla T-shirt, so Nicole went to the bathroom to put hers on inside out. Now they look casual without matching too much. Nicole is wearing baggy plaid flannel shorts, Birkenstocks, braces, ankle socks and mascara. Gia is wearing black cords two sizes too big, those Mary Janes with lug soles, that shirt and more luxuriant black mascara.

On their first pass through the mall--before I got inside--they sacrificed babysitting money to buy the eight-piece Chik-Fil-A chicken bag, plus iced teas. Nicole took thirty straws, which she plans to use at home. She also gets a vanilla Dairy Queen with a hard chocolate crust. Thus fortified, they are ready to count down the last five minutes of phone-kiosk waiting. As usual, no one returns their calls, so forget it. It is time to roll.

Once past the headlands of the pretzel place--a concession to the low-fat craze, and it's not working--Gia and Nicole are out in the open water of the mall proper. Foley's on their starboard. The Limited dead ahead. Three high-school boys in the see-through elevator! The two in baseball hats are cute. The other one has the wrong haircut and the shocking bad manners to display it capless. Not cute. But anyway, sidle over to the elevator as if you were planning to go there in the first place. As it goes up, jump, to catch some air. De-plane in front of Mr. Rags, the best store in the entire mall.

Imagine working here, your high-heel sneakers at home on the bare concrete floor, showing suburban dweebs through stacks of huge jeans, huge cords and Leave-It-to-Beaver-esque Dad shirts with zippers, huge, and hugely overpriced.

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