Easy Chair — From the June 2017 issue

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.

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