What It’s Like To Be In A Mall Right Now
There are a lot of moments where you can be deeply unsettled by the current moment, by capitalism and its shadows, by the spectre of industrialized and or monetized death, by the cultish aspects of American denial, but for my money the best place to experience all of these feelings together is on a Saturday night in a mall during the Christmas shopping season, in the year of pandemic, where you have gone alone to see the light night showing of a horror comedy in a 250 seat movie theatre with only one other person in the room.
This was my experience last night and it was quiet and interesting and thought provoking and unnerving and potentially beautiful, though mostly not. Shopping malls have been crumbling for years, becoming emptier and emptier, more and more devoid of shoppers. Nevertheless the lights in them remain on, the music echoes through empty corridors, the stores and ads and fountains continue to run even when there is no one there for them to run for. It sort of gives the impression that shopping itself has gained sentience, that it is a life force that will continue on its own long after the people are gone.
I have visited a few malls since pandemic began. In Nyack, NY we saw a carousel in an empty mall, in front of a giant window. In Hayward, CA we sat on a bench and watched high schoolers in coordinated sneakers and masks walk past us in small groups. But last night I wandered alone, getting lost on my way to the theatre, ascending and descending on empty escalators through a network of twinkling lights and gaudy bows while Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time echoed. It was almost too on-the-nose-creepy. If I saw it in a movie I would be annoyed by the use of hacky post apocalyptic cliche.
But of course it is the cliches that kill us. That is how we come to the end of things because cliches are evidence of a kind of spiritual overfishing. We do the same things over and over and over again until we have used up everything there is to use, everything we need. At the mall I was struck by the truculent optimism, the refusal to yield even a moment from the the ceaseless pumping of sales, of banners and music, products and discounts. The refusal to acknowledge that not only was this holiday shopping season sad, but that in fact all holiday shopping seasons have a sadness underneath them. That is partly how they work. The promise of warmth, of togetherness, family, love, is enough to make us buy everything we are being sold, enough to make us wade through endless imitations of the things we want so deeply; to be safe, to be happy, to be held. The thing is we are rarely safe, happy, or held while shopping, but on some level we are shopping for things that we hope will get us there. An empty mall during Christmas and Covid reminds me of the mechanical skeletons underneath the skin of animatronic characters. It’s a little weird to see how something passing itself off as loving and cute is actually just cold and lifeless, but at least you now know how it works.
The main thing about the going and going, about the advertising and the playing music, the waving of banners and flashing of lights even when the people have stopped coming, is that none of it allows room for mourning, for sitting with, experiencing the grief. I am not here to advocate for “tenderness” which in principle is right but in practice has been co-opted by some to prioritize feelings of emotions over acts of justice. This is just to say that if you don’t acknowledge what you have lost, then you will lose it again and again. Until there is no more of it left. Thusly, mourning death is an act toward the preservation of life. As a culture, a society, a collective, we don’t do enough of that. So people like me just do it alone. At the mall. On a Saturday night. While Christmas music plays.