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[Easy Chair]

Shopping-Mall Time Machine

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I started hearing it about two years ago, and then I seemed to hear it constantly: people in their late teens and early twenties complaining, quite sincerely, that they felt old. The first case I remember was a college student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I’d just finished speaking to her class about an essay I’d written on electronic surveillance, and during the discussion afterward she grumbled that kids a few years younger than she was — kids who’d been using smartphones and social media since their grade-school days — seemed to have no concept of personal privacy. Her tone was exasperated, almost disgusted, and she carried on for a few minutes about the sorry state of youth today. Spoiled. Without boundaries. Distracted. Apathetic. She sounded like she was ninety, not nineteen. She concluded with something like, “I can’t even talk to that generation. No point. Nothing in common. They make me feel so ancient.” I may have grinned.

My most recent encounter with young people feeling like elders occurred a few weeks back, at a shoe store in the Fashion Show Mall on the Las Vegas Strip. My wife, who at forty-one is thirteen years younger than me but feels like a peer in cultural time (maybe because we’re both from the Midwest, where cultural time passes relatively slowly), was hunting for a certain type of clogs that she said were “in” again. This surprised me. During my childhood in the 1970s, clogs had a big run, but because they coincided with other big runs that petered out and haven’t resumed — waterbeds, the Billy Jack films, quasi-incestuous brother-sister singing duos such as the Osmonds and the Carpenters — I thought we’d seen the last of them. In America, that is. In parts of Europe, I hear, clogs are ineradicably popular, but so are wineskins and berets, of course, which we over here only briefly tolerated and show no signs of wanting back. Indeed, if memory serves, clogs in America formed a sort of trio with wineskins and berets; people who owned one of the three tended to own them all. That is why I imagined that the extinction of two would have ensured the extinction of the third.

My wife could have bought her retro clogs on the internet instead of hunting for them with bow and arrow, but she doesn’t like to shop online. Me neither. In rural Minnesota, where I grew up, stores were the only alternative to home (other than school and the woods). This made stores thrilling, particularly mall stores. Town stores, the ones on Main Street, were generally mom-and-pop enterprises, disconnected from the world of taste as it was presented on TV. This showed in their amateurish floor displays, which often featured mannequins with ill-fitting wigs in unsettlingly bold hues on their putty-colored heads. In the mall stores, however, the mannequins were perfect — you either secretly wanted to make out with them or to grow up to be like them. One year, on a back-to-school run to Maplewood Mall in the St. Paul suburbs, my head was turned by a costumed plastic model of a slim male college student, decked out for fall. A long striped scarf knotted carelessly yet perfectly. Hush Puppies. Horn-rims. Wigless. There were no real-life college students in my world, but once I saw Joe Campus with his fake textbooks standing in a pile of paper leaves, none were needed.

The young person who confessed to feeling antiquated was the twenty-three-year-old sales associate who helped my wife pick out her clogs. I stood a few yards off, knowing this process might take a while. The reason my wife won’t shop online is that she’s picky, with telephoto vision that spots uneven stitching on buttonholes, which means she’d forever be sending items back. Plus, she loves malls more than I do. They’re like parks to her. Just west of Chicago, where she was raised, the natural world technically exists, but it’s a weedy, flat, beer-can-strewn affair that’s not worth risking a tick bite to hang out in. For her, the great wide open was the Gap.

The sales associate had no clogs — wrong store — so she showed my wife a pair of cute sneakers from a line that featured Looney Tunes characters. The associate said the shoe-store chain had intended the cartoon footwear for teens and kids, only to find out that teens and kids now aren’t hip to Tweety Bird and Pepé Le Pew. But not the sales associate, we learned; she’d been born on one side of an invisible line, joined to my wife and me, cartoon-wise, but separated from her little niece, whose cohort was into gaming — namely, Minecraft. Though only on PlayStation 4, said the associate. Then she shook her head: “They don’t even know what GameCubes are.” But I did. I’d bought a used GameCube for my kids once: five bucks at a pawnshop, three disks included. The associate and I exchanged warm smiles when this tiny bond emerged. No such luck with her Minecraft-loving niece, however. There was a gulf between them. “Sometimes I just feel so old,” said the associate. She said this to me, a man of fifty-four who’d lived to see clogs come and go and come again.

At the Fashion Show Mall that afternoon I learned that age is partly social. It’s not only in the body or in the mind but in the kind of calendars offered by one’s society. J. Alfred Prufrock, faceless modern Londoner, measured out his life in coffee spoons. One sensed he was tens of thousands of spoons old, a nobody Methuselah. I’m sure there are loyal readers of Gizmodo who measure their lives in versions of Mac OS. In clog cycles, which span decades, I’m only two, but in game-console generations I’m much older — yet roughly on par with the fresh-faced shoe-store sales clerk, since that clock didn’t start till I was grown. Now it’s ticking right along, and kids in their twenties are hearing the tolling of the bells. They also toll for me, in theory, but they toll much louder for my juniors, who are better tuned in to their frequency.

That is why humans will always read the scriptures, especially in times of racing progress. Books like the Bible take us back to zero. The Creation. Expulsion from Eden. The Great Flood. Sodom and Gomorrah, vaporized. The Tower of Babel, toppled. The Savior, murdered. Next stop, Revelation and the Four Horsemen — a total reset we’ll pray for, when PlayStation 90 rolls around and eight-year-olds can no longer connect with seven-year-and-eleven-month-olds.

The day after my wife tracked down her clogs, I went back to the mall. I hurried back. I’d read on my phone — which pushes glum news at me because I enabled some feature that now I can’t turn off, because my phone baffles me, because I’m old — that national retail chains and big department stores are closing right and left. Some analysts think that Sears won’t last the year, and malls themselves may be on the way out. You tear down a park and put up a parking lot — and then, when you’ve learned to like the parking lot, or at least the gargantuan shopping center it serves, Amazon roars in with free delivery and driverless Ubers replace the family car. The rate of expansion of the universe is either speeding up or slowing down, but people are doing both at once, retreating and advancing concurrently. Those who profit from this infernal turbulence call the process “creative disruption,” a masterstroke of sophistry that’s a lot like calling cancer “freestyle cellular division.” These types breezily note the death of physical stores, where human beings can meet in person and touch stuff and earn money to service the student loans with which they purchased the educations they pursued in the hope of finding jobs in fields that certain geeky former classmates are automating out of existence . . .

“It is akin to evolution,” I planned to write, “and analogous to a natural process.” Instead, I’m disrupting myself to prove my point.

Look, a drone — with a juicer in its talons! You ordered it only seven minutes ago. And it’s landing right next to your self-driving Tesla, whose windows are screens for first-run movies featuring scanned images of actors captured at their ideal age and weight!

The Fashion Show Mall that afternoon was very low energy, to use a Trumpism. I entered via the escalator at the uppermost level, where the food court is. A hectic rush of insights overwhelmed me:

1. The real value of money is the trance state produced when it is spent. I learned this from an automated stand about five feet tall and two feet wide that charges two dollars to your credit card in return for washing your glasses and killing 99% of bacteria that I for one didn’t know exist on glasses and am still not worried about now that I do, because the bacteria probably comes from me since no one else touches my glasses, so what’s the problem? The unit’s real service is to distract you from the accelerated, time-lapse aging process. Like those gumball machines that charge a quarter so you can watch that quarter spiral down a nifty, curving plastic track, the Opticwash’s transparent cleaning compartment is needlessly but divertingly complex. The service it provides for your two bucks is to annihilate four dollars’ worth of your patently not-precious time. When the squirting, spraying show is over, you’re also ninety seconds closer to death.

2. Emoticons are the many masks worn by the demon of absolute indifference. Outside a restroom, there is a curious lecternlike device with a sign that asks: how was your bathroom experience today? The gadget offers just four nonverbal answers to this personal and potentially fraught question: a happy-face button, a sad-face button, and two buttons that denote ambivalence, one wanly smiling, one halfway frowning. Who collects the responses isn’t revealed, nor is any promise offered that anyone collects them, ever. Maybe they just pile up in the machine, if they even register. A URL in the bottom corner, Happy-or-Not.com, might settle these matters, but who’s bored enough to check? I’d rather pay to watch my glasses be rinsed. And who wants to hazard contact with greasy buttons that are intended for people who just got off the toilet — and are chiefly used by people who I suspect found their toilet “experience” so ghastly that they overcame their fear of germs to satisfy their intense need to vent. Not that pressing a sad-face button that may do nothing amounts to venting. And not that simplistic, stylized emoticons correlate with actual emotions. I think they’re meant to drive a further wedge between the micro-generations by training the young to communicate and think in one-click hieroglyphics. They’re cultural programming tools, I rather think, meant to displace and supplant emotions so artificial intelligence won’t feel so cold to us.

3. The virtual moon above our Martian colonies will be a glowing white apple with a bite gone, and the rights for this ad will cost ninety trillion dollars. Apple stores have the best spots in upscale malls. They’re the nuclei that the other stores orbit. I step inside the one at Fashion Show and ask the search engine on a new MacBook: Will malls disappear? The top four results are well-researched articles from Business Insider and Time, and they’re unanimous: Malls will be mammoth fossils of our next epoch, which is soon to dawn. I’m not ready. If my clogs don’t fit, should I ever give in to clogs, I don’t want to have to ship them back cross-country; I want to hand them to the nice young sales clerk who just measured my foot with a device (you know the one, with the hash marks and the sliding metal piece) that’s the same as it was more than ninety years ago, because feet are the same as they were ninety years ago. Why the perpetual flight from equilibrium? Why all the goading and rousing of sleeping dogs? Why no headphone jack on my new iPhone? If the customer is always right, that jack would still be there, but the new rule seems to be that the customer should adapt to fit the product, while the product should be designed to remind you that you’ve fallen behind, again.

Why does it matter that young people feel old, like outmoded phones or brick-and-mortar stores? Because it depletes us of a resource, their energy, which the world relies on to fuel change — real change, not seasonal product-cycle change — which they possess in abundance, or should.

Fatalism is for the middle-aged. Those who stand on the verge of inheriting the world, with all its challenges and unsolved problems, deserve to feel that the world is theirs and that it’s responsive to their hopes and visions. We want them to feel attached to what’s around them, not resigned to losing it.

I’m buying a Swatch for my son, who’ll turn sixteen soon (it’s the new sixty-five, I’ve learned), when I realize night has fallen. How I realize this is hard to figure, since the part of the mall I’m in has no visible windows, and the amplified strains of “Hotel California” are drowning out any nocturnal-seeming noises. My guess is the lighting has been subtly dimmed over the course of the past hour. How bright was the mall originally? No memory. I didn’t expect the light to wane, so I had no reason to pay attention. Whatever the sensory indicators are, though, it’s most definitely dark out there, because my mood dips every night at dusk. The mall is emptying, yet the stores remain open.

The last man in the mall. It’s like a dream.


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June 2017