Do kids still hang out at the mall? I know my little sister goes there, but she actually shops. I mean legitimate mallratting, loitering, messing around, surviving off chicken teriyaki samples on toothpicks and free soda refills at the food court, catching dirty looks from the management for huddling obnoxiously around whatever video game they had hooked up at GameStop, or sitting in the corner of FYE (is this store in business? Are any CD/DVD stores still in business?) passing around the shitty beginner’s acoustic they had on display and banging out a few chords from a Blink-182 song. Does this behavior still persist?
In the early years of the new millennium, as a fresh-faced middle school kid with a crew of similarly inclined counterparts and a lot of time to kill, I spent so many afternoons of my transition to semi-adulthood with the mall as my oyster. There, meeting with my friends, devising bizarre ways to mark that place with our own not-so-clever personalities, I learned many things, and may have offended a lot of people.
Staring down at that open space where the kiosk vendors waited, hustling stray suburbanites out of their hard-earned hours of minimum wage in exchange for gaudy cell phone cases or ironic t-shirts, we used to shout random names through the atrium from the upper floor just to see if any ‘hot girls’ would look up as they walked by. They did, but not encouragingly. How could we think that this was productive?
We spent hours locking eyes with sad puppies in the pet shop window, feeling their plight, arguing about whether buying one would be saving them or perpetuating a system of clandestine puppy trafficking and abuse. We mythologized about the hidden corridors that connected every store together, and what we could accomplish with that knowledge. We held an all-day Risk game at a table by the Starbucks that actually drew a small audience. Once we were chased through Macy’s by some older teenagers who had really overreacted to a few innocent middle fingers. That was, by my count, the only time the mall cops were our friends (but also, a time before mounted Segway patrols – when the men worked their beat on foot).
There was a movie theater across the parking lot, and occasionally we would venture forth to this auxiliary hangout, which had the distinction of being the place where once during a showing of Undercover Brother I attempted to feel up an unsuspecting crush mid-make out, a move that she incredibly relented to, providing me with a few days worth of outsized bravado at the expense of depriving me of what I can only imagine was a watershed cinematic experience.
We weren’t alone – the real, diehard mallrats were always present around us, the ones who would hover disconcertingly around the entrance near the arcade smoking cigarettes, eyeing us with suspicion. They were the ones with strange objects pierced through even stranger places, sweating through furious rounds of Dance Dance Revolution, with neon colored hair, torn black band tees, and disdain for the people they called normal. Somehow obtuse, socially awkward, and manically attention-grabbing, these guys had their own thing going, and we gave them their space. The mall was big enough for the both of us.
Hanging out at the mall is a mildly subversive activity. Every aspect of it is obviously designed to get people to spend their money, not to provide a giant playground for kids with no respect for the laws of retail. At the same time, your parents might feel a little safer dropping you off there, enclosed in that air-conditioned, well-lit and populated oasis, instead of walking the streets looking for something to do. Maybe we felt good knowing that, for our purposes, we had the run of the place to ourselves, and it was always easy to get there. I don’t remember seeing kids just hanging around the mall last time I was there, but I wasn’t really looking. I just didn’t notice. My time there ended – there were more important things to do, and we found much more appropriate places to do them. We weren’t sad about it. I mean, we still went to the mall, but at some point it ceased being an end in itself.
I remember when we would claim a ledge outside the Hot Topic and just kick around a hacky sack, wondering what Nirvana’s next record would have sounded like if Kurt Cobain hadn’t died, or who would be at Warped Tour that year, and whether we could convince one of our moms to drive us. With new perspective and the old limitations, our senses of wonder and injustice simultaneously heightened, we were finally capable of dreaming far, but achingly deprived of any means to action. I mean, look at us.