“I’m King of the Mall” or: Confessions of a Teenage Mall Rat

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Sometime in my later teenage years, my elderly father told me that he enjoyed sitting on the benches in the mall and just watching young people be young. He appreciated our energy and liked sitting and letting it wash over him. I understood this more than he figured I did. I enjoyed going there largely because I found it possessed an energy that didn’t exist back home or at school. I liked being there because the people I met listened to the music it seemed only the smart, hip kids back home cared about. I liked being there because I was a kid who was sick of being thought of as a kid, and the division between the teenager and adult at the mall tended to be blurrier. This was especially the case between me and the 20 and 30 something employees I hung out with and eventually worked for and alongside.

When I was a kid I liked how sometimes, when we would drive to the Maine Mall at night, all of the lights that lined the streets and signs in South Portland reminded me of Saugus, Massachusetts. This reminded of the Boston suburbs my family lived in which, when I was a kid, felt so exotic compared to small town Maine. Considering everything I know now, it is funny to think about in retrospect, but the Mall, and everything it spun off, seemed urban and a place to aspire to be.

I used to produce a zine, which is how I landed back at the mall after being that wide-eyed, illuminated sign obsessed kid in the passenger seat of my mother’s car. The zine—a paper fold-and-staple, self-published magazine—was popularized by punk movement in the 70s. Before bringing the ones I had produced to print shops for reproduction, I would make them at under the willfully absent eyes of young substitutes I knew. I printed literally thousands of copies worth of paper from school photo copiers. I got caught when the parent of a classmate brought one of the sometimes outrageous, sometimes profane, always embarrassingly earnest first issues to the attention of the principal.

“Does this sound familiar?” she asked, before reading to me the tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment I had written and printed. “‘I would like to thank the taxpayers of SAD #55 for unknowingly underwriting this issue of No Magazine.’ Did you think that we weren’t going to find out?”

At age 17, my friend Marcus was a couple of years older than me and he had a red pickup which we would drive the 28 miles to South Portland to head to various shops in order to personally hand out my stolen paper creation. It was only a handful of nights into this adventure before we ended up frequenting the mall. This is where Marcus met Jackie, an older girl he’d date for a while while I crushed on her woefully. It was by spending the next chunk of time hanging around Jackie and the sports picture pushcart she worked at that I came to know an expansive group of her co-workers (in a larger, mall-wide sense) that would eventually become my own when I landed a job at a t-shirt cart, then a bonsai tree cart, and 10 or 11 other jobs between those two and Souper Salad, where I worked the longest. That expanded cast of characters, which also extended to people who simply hung out because there was nothing else to do in the late 90s and early Aughts, became essential elements of my personal community for years to come. It includes, and they might be embarrassed to admit this now, my friend, then-future roommate and occasional creative collaborator Arielle Walrath of Might + Main, Blues great and former mall rat Samuel James, and Cutler for Governor regional field director Annie Tselikis. I met people who would become clients, and it was through one of Jackie’s co-workers that I met one of my future business partners. It was at Souper Salad where I first saw a woman (that I would eventually marry) every couple of days while she was on break from her job at Best Buy. It wouldn’t be for another decade, though, that I would eventually ask her something deeper than, “Lettuce, spinach or both?”

Before I landed a job of my own, I met Kate, the teenage girl who would be my girlfriend from ages 15 to 17. I met her at Pretzel Time. This was the girl with whom I would share my first legit kiss and then lose my virginity to two weeks after we started dating. Kate was a teenager, and before I met her I don’t think I realized that cheerleaders were real and not from movies. At work, she wore a pink shirt and khakis uniform and pigtails and after work she smelled like flour and butter. Before knowing any of this, we had a sweet exchange and I left knowing her name and that sometimes she hung around Portland, not the one with the mall, but the one with the parks and shops that sold coffee for $2.

The following week, my friend Scott and I drove to Portland proper and we parked his maroon 80′s Mustang someplace it didn’t belong. We found this out because it had been towed by the time we came back to where it had been. At 15 and 16, neither of us had any cash in our pockets and it was before either of us had been lucky enough to have cell phones. We walked around and approached young strangers so that I could ask if they knew Kate, a short girl with blonde hair who worked at the mall and sometimes hung out down here. After all, Kate had money and she seemed like the sort of person who would help us out. Not long into our quest, we ran into two young punks in Post Office Park and they told us that they didn’t know Kate, but they would lend us the $67 that we needed in order to get the car out of impound. Just bring the cash back to Pizza Time, where they both worked, the next time we came into town, and that was that. Back home I had friends and got along with a lot of people, but there were still scary guys who loved their trucks and called me a faggot in the hall. Out in this Portland, and the mall, it felt like everyone looked like a fellow faggot, and they will let you, a stranger, borrow money when you are in a jam.

I would grab rides to the Portlands with friends’ parents who were heading into town for one reason or another. Sometimes I would head in to town in the morning with no plan for getting home. I would come back a day or so later whenever I would run into someone who was heading home. I crashed with my girlfriend or with people who worked at the mall. I became the guy on the couch to many. I would drive with my learners’ permit and hope I would not get pulled over, which I somehow never did. When I finally got a job at the mall, I had a boss sign off on my hours so that I could get my license, which became my key to getting out of dodge more often.

I would spend entire days at the mall or in the Portland where you could order burritos from people who looked like they were in cool bands, sip fancy coffees that did not come out of metal boxes from the gas station, and buy used CDs from pretty, older girls with rings in their eyebrows and noses.

While these two destinations, the behemoth commercial zone of South Portland and Portland proper, exist as two very distinct entities in my mind today, they were then on a more equal playing field. They were united by being the places that were at once wholly away from my home and totally accessible. I could go there to be the version of myself that felt off-limits at school, where I could flirt with girls and pursue relationships with people I hadn’t known all my life, and where I could discover new perspectives, music, and points of view.

For a long time, I felt liberated. I would spend scores of hours sitting at carts, reading, socializing, thinking, scheming and studying. I dated fellow mall rats, became target of the affection of lecherous old men, made myself the enemy of overzealous mall managers, and heard ridiculous stories. A coworker—a teacher by day—told me that he and a friend of his, also a teacher, would do their Christmas shopping at the mall the day before Christmas eve, and then they would go to the strip club. This was a tradition before one day they were recognized at the club by students—dancers who were 18 but had not yet graduated—and were enthusiastically greeted with a special message by the club announcer. A few years later a mall rat told me the same exact story, though from her perspective as a dancer. I partied with strangers, went skinny-dipping with some of them, and I lived out the teenage years I felt unavailable to me back home. I cringe to think about it in retrospect, as I am sure the term carried a lot of baggage I was then not aware of, but more than a few people called me the king of the mall when I was there because a handful of years in, I had come to know everyone. It was my home away from home, one where I actually felt at home, and so I was proud of the title.

I stopped working there in 2005, after putting about 6 years in. I was in college then and I had stopped working there full time the year before. Jackie had moved on years before, but I got a seasonal job working for her old boss. He had one of those carts where one could buy “handmade” Christmas ornaments and get it personalized by a fine tipped Sharpie thanks to the steady hand of a cart employee. I knew my days were numbered when a customer said, almost in the exact intonation of a sitcom housewife from the 50s, “These are adorable! Handmade? Handmade by whom?”

The mall had been where I would experience a great deal of the aforementioned firsts and where I would meet many who would become my friends and colleagues. It was there, in the Generation X cliche, where I would come of age and have many formative experiences. But I had begun working and finding community on the peninsula and over time the difference between the indie culture of Portland proper and its brazenly-commercial Southern sibling had made itself more apparent. I was in my 20s and the magic of coming-of-age activities had long since faded and the feeling that questions like these evoked in me came to possess me. I was a political radical / jaded know-it-all by then and I knew that these ornaments were all made in China and so I told the woman as much. With that the case, I explained, they were likely made by the hands of a child in a sweatshop or they were fabricated by political prisoners.

“Oh, you are too funny! But really, by whom?”

I don’t know if it was the fact that she did not take me seriously, or that she insisted on properly employing “whom” that drove me craziest. These types of interactions were commonplace and would eventually became impossible to overlook. In fact, dwelling on them became standard operating procedure for many, and led to incredible doses of bitterness directed at the whole of the consumer class. One of the first interactions of these type I remember clearly occurred immediately after 9/11 when I worked at a t-shirt cart and we were selling a handful of patriotic styles. A woman came to the register outraged, demanding to know why her Proud To Be An American shirt, which she had bought a few days before, was literally coming apart at the seams. “Because,” I began to explain, showing her the tag, “It was made in Belize and you bought it for $2.99.” Speechless with disgust, she took her shirt and huffed off.

The mall was becoming the sandbox in which I felt forced to interface with brainless consumerism, and this was becoming the case as I was entering my jaded and entitled 20s. I came to understand Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which takes place at a mall and, by the admission of Romero himself, acts as a commentary on the mindless, zombie-llke nature of American consumerism. After the holiday season of the handmade ornament exchange, I called it quits.

Now I am 31 and I am not embarrassed to admit that sometimes I find myself going to the mall for no reason, and my wife does the same. Sometimes we do it together. We won’t do so consciously; we convince ourselves that we need something that can only be found at the mall, but when we get there one of us admits that we were drawn there by something from our past, which we can’t quite explain to each other. In Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s zombies do exactly this—they return to the mall due to some sort of muscle memory of the undead collective conscious. This has happened to us about ten times since we got married two years back.

Usually we come back with nothing and we feel let down by coming away empty-handed and feeling embarrassed that we expected to find anything there in the first place. By the way, we wonder aloud, is the mall dimmer? Smaller? Are there less people working there? Does everyone seem tired, or is that just us? She, her stores, her body and her employees appear to be more worn by the aftermath of the recession—recovery be damned—than her surroundings. She is from another place and she is for another time, and it was stupid of us to think we would come away any way but disappointed. But occasionally—very occasionally—we walk away feeling washed in the energy my father described to me 15 years ago, heartened by seeing two kids on a date, or a pack of gleefully mischievous teenagers going about their business without one responsibility between them. We feel pockets of that free-floating, weightless feeling that accompanies learning things for the first time, the hard way, that comes before we have convinced ourselves that we know everything as our 20s emerge. We brush past the residue of these parts of our youths, these whimsical specters, and we are reminded of what it was like before Romero resonated, back when it felt magical, back when it was “away.”

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.