Imagine eating pastry on the second floor of your mall, when a platoon of hunched over elderly women in sweatbands emerges like a tidal wave from the handicap’s ramp. In this piece, Andy Axel investigates the collective consciousness of America’s most active early-morning consumers.
By Andy Axel
When we walk we naturally go to the fields and woods; what would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall?
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
There’s a song that goes “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.” But you can also just go to a mall. There will be people there, and they will be walking. And if the sentiment of that song’s classic refrain—Rodgers and Hammerstein, originally, but often covered—works both ways, well, then mall walkers are some pretty hopeful people.
What I’m talking about when I talk about mall walkers: the people who go to the mall early, before it opens, with their white sneakers, with their sweat bands, with the singular intent of walking around and around in it until they’re done. It’s a whole community. They’ve got badges, and clubs, and blogs and milestones, and maybe visors. I’ve seen them—in the morning, in tracksuits, eyes ahead, elbows working—and there’s something to it. A sense of misspent energy worth looking in on.
A clarification: Mall walking is sometimes referred to as (or otherwise lumped in) with power walking, which is the same thing, and is not to be confused with race walking, which is not the same thing, and is an Olympic sport dominated by spry, young Eastern Europeans, one of whom I watched on T.V. once induce vomiting (in the rain, near the end of the race) to gain a competitive edge (she lost anyway), which rarely happens in mall walking, and is discouraged. It’s about solidarity, not competition. It’s more of an old man’s game, honestly, but they’re open-minded. And so am I. I’ve read about the benefits—the low-intensity exercise, the temperature control, the freedom from fear of criminals and animals and elements, the sense of belonging, the easy bathroom access—and I get it, but that’s not the something. There’s a little more to it. There’s an else.
Here’s how it works: Get up at 6 AM and drive to the mall. You have to drive because if you don’t you’re walking, and if you’re walking already, then why are you going to the mall? Park near the part of the mall that you want to start walking in—but also the part that you want to finish walking in. Then you walk. How do you walk? One step at a time. And hard.
You walk past the shuttered-up storefronts and early shift janitorial staff. You walk past the perpetual fountains and unapologetically fake plants taking up space in the mall’s bright, empty centers. You walk past those fuckers in Cinnabon, who are out to get you specifically, or at least others like you, because you’re the only ones here this early, and hey, those things smell delicious, and hey, you have to eat at some point anyhow. But you walk past. You walk to the beat of the piped-in soft rock classics, or of your Walkman if you have one and you brought it (in The Complete Mall Walker’s Handbook, John H. Bland, M.D. and Jenna Colby, R.D., L.D recommend making “a cassette tape of tunes that have ‘walking’ or ‘walk’ in the title or chorus—it’s a great motivator”). And you walk with other mall walkers, because you’ll never walk alone, because you do have hope, and they’re there, and you’re in a mall, and you’re walking. As Wendy Bumgardner of About.com notes, “mall walkers may come for the exercise and stay for the friends they make.”
There’s a reason that I’ll never fully understand the typical mall walker experience, though. Here’s how it works: Wake up at 10 AM and linger in bed, pleading with your better dreams to let you back in, attacked by daylight. Your bedroom window in your mom’s suburban townhouse faces east (toward the casino-racetrack) and has no curtains, so this is difficult. Get up at 12:30. Consider showering, attempt to read, to write, to clean, to focus your addled brain on any one thing, anything at all. Drive to the mall, which is crowded now, because it’s lunch time. Park near the food court, near the carousel, for no reason other than that you always do. Then you walk. Slowly. Aimlessly. Into oblivion.
Some malls I’ve walked:
Houston Galleria (hung over, strung along)
Providence Place Mall (rain-soaked, chewed out)
The Poughkeepsie Galleria (with intent, with others)
D.C. USA (beset)
Landmark Mall (aimless, adolescent)
Midtown Plaza (foregone)
Eastview Mall (infinite, at home)
Still, I want to count myself among the mall walkers. What I lack in punctuality and enthusiasm I make up for in despair. Or maybe world-weariness. Maybe malaise. Flâneurs and other men about town have quipped about that peculiar simultaneous camaraderie and isolation that comes from walking along a crowded city street—Paris, maybe, or New York—at once in public and in private, above and among it, attracted and repelled. Baudelaire says “The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion.” It’s like that, but with a Sbarro. It’s the combination of the hollowness of a white neon consumerism and the perpetually renewing forward motion of the crowd, I think, that gives it this doubleness, that keeps me coming back. It’s in the details—the repeated patterns of pink and white and teal floor tiles that once we made to signify (lava, lasers), the weird acoustic combo of a general dampening and a heightened reverberation, the softened shift in light from day to night wrought by the skylights combined with never ending fluorescence. It’s what I need to walk to. It’s something, and maybe something the elderly early morning set picks up on too.
Parking lot-door-foyer-food court-leashed toddler straining-bathrooms-carousel-Arby’s-a half remembered classmate now employed-Burger King-Cajun Wok-Camille’s-Gloria Jean’s-Lids-Clark’s-interrupted by the piercing echo of a sneaker squeak-Icing-Hollister-H&M-Brookstone-Forever 21-thoughts of dogs now dead-PacSun-Journey’s-Hot Topic-Godiva-GNC-Cingular-wondering: is this not what I’m meant to do-Johnny Rocket’s-The Bon Ton- Men’s Wearhouse-KB Toys-Radio Shack-security guard kicks up to a half jog-Payless Shoe Source-Anthropologie-The Sharper Image-Banana Republic-Ann Taylor-the weight of the heaving, paved over world-Spencer’s Gifts-JCPenney-&c.-&c.-&c.
So, while I may not be a mall walker per se, I walk malls. It’s not a habit, and it’s not exercise; more a type of situated movement attuned to the absent center of the hive mind. More a drive-by conspicuous consumption in step with the shuffling masses. More a kneejerk slacker voyeurism, a future ruin porn, that keeps itself at least in motion, moving forward, excelsior. It’s something. And whatever time of year, whatever hour, whatever North American mallscape, I’ve never walked alone.
Walking Malls © by Andy Axel
Page © 2012 by Discount Liquors
Photo Credit 1: Keith Haring
Photo Credit 2: telegraph.co.uk
Photo Credit 3: chicagonow.com
Photo Credit 4: poughkepsiegalleriamall.com