I grew up in a town where there wasn't much to do as a teenager. While the popular kids were getting drunk and having sex (I assume; I don't really know what they did.), my friends and I were splitting the appetizer sampler at Applebee's, driving around, and wandering through Walmart for no reason. Better yet, if it was before 10 p.m., we were going to my favorite place: the mall.
I'm embarrassed now by how much I loved going to the mall. It was my everything, and it wasn't even a good mall! One of its fanciest stores was The Gap. The "food court" was a nub of a hallway where the featured offering was Cinnabon. But my heart beat faster when I pulled into that parking lot, because the mall felt like the only place in town where things were happening. My town — Lafayette, Indiana — wasn't tiny, but it was boring enough that being among people walking around and buying jeans felt like something special. It's the kind of town where there was an electric buzz in the air when our regular Target turned into a "super" Target.
In my young mind (and sometimes, still, in my now-oldish mind) buying anything new felt like an opportunity to become a brand-new and better person. I remember acknowledging the excitement I felt entering a store and thinking, This is what it must feel like to do drugs. (Again, I didn't know. I wasn't cool.)
The mall was therefore my magic portal to becoming a cool person, like Fiona Apple in the "Criminal" video, or one of the many popular girls who wore soccer socks with Adidas sandals.
How many trips to the mall until I look more or less like this?
I remember the first time I learned that there was a store called Wet Seal. I was flipping through a YM magazine, trying to find where I might buy the babydoll dress from one of the fashion spreads. I could not believe that one could actually name a whole store after a slippery sea mammal. Soon after, I learned that one had opened at my mall. It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen. I rifled through the butterfly tank tops and tiny denim shorts like they were original copies of the Constitution.
When a Hot Topic opened I was scared, but enticed by the danger. The first time I went inside, I had to beg a friend to come with me. Thirty seconds after we entered she said we had to leave. "That store is Satan's den," she said. If I wanted to buy a gothic lace tank top (and I did), I was on my own.
I remember what it felt like to psych myself up to go into adult-seeming stores like The Limited and Express. I expected the sales associates to laugh in my face. "Get out of here, you foolish child," they'd say. "These clothes are for cool adults with jobs."
I remember holding my breath before going into Abercrombie & Fitch — because of the perfume stank, yes, but also fear. It felt like stepping into a dark void of inadequacy. The employees actively ignored me, like I was invisible, which, as a painfully shy and awkward teenager, was what I preferred.
The mall of my day represented a golden age of brick-and-mortar shopping. Later I would leave town and forget all about my good friend, Mall. Later I would just buy everything online.
Earlier this summer, 15 years since my obsession with its fluorescent corridors, I returned to the mall. I missed it. And I feel gross saying that, because I know that what I refer to is really just a mashed-up glob of evil corporations. My fondness is misplaced, like looking back at a scummy ex-boyfriend — one who ate nothing but Pringles and wore cargo shorts to weddings — and thinking, I miss him.
I drove to the mall on a Saturday. As a kid this would have annoyed my mom, because that's when it's the most crowded. And while it used to be stressful to find a spot in the sprawling parking lot, now it's easy.
From my first step into those hallowed halls, I could tell the mall was different. Deserted. Empty. Sad. Unfamiliar. Filled with stores I'd never heard of, and things I wished I could forget.
Here are the weird, and at times depressing, things that I found there.
1. Relax Zone
2. A jumbo-sized Adam Levine on a Proactiv vending machine.
Imagine walking through the mall, minding your own business, and then, BAM. Giant Adam Levine right in your face. Is he pointing to his own face or the Proactiv?
I didn't realize you could buy this out of vending machines.
3. A random barnyard of balloon animals (plus a dinosaur).
4. A store called "Charming Charlie"???
5. A store called "Crazy 8."
6. Justice, formerly (and better) known as Limited Too.
7. Tilly's (???)
8. An unattended kiosk selling "Splat Balls."
I will admit, the mall did have some good deals on Splat Balls.
9. A store that (still) sells CDs and DVDs.
10. Hat-World, still going on strong.
11. Random coin-operated massage chairs.
12. This place managed to stay in business?????
13. The Limited — still weirdly intimidating.
14. Spencer's Gifts — still a thing.
15. Hollister (still a foreboding faux beach shack from my nightmares).
The Mall and Me: An Epilogue
I'll never forget our time together, Mall. But you're different now. You've changed. We've both moved on. Now my desperate attempts at coolness involve fewer soft pretzels. (And more time on the internet sifting through images of sunglasses we both know I can't pull off.) And you, you've got your Splat Balls.
But you provided me with a place to buy Dippin' Dots, and for that I can never repay you. You were my first.* Shhhhh. Don't speak; it's all over now.
*First place to buy a mock-zip fleece pullover that said "USA" on it.