Even as children, you understand, we set our paper boats on a stream. We watch them go. M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away
I was gliding through the mall. I try to get out for a daily walk and when the weather is wet, cold, blustery, or otherwise miserable, I head for the mall and take advantage of the dry, warm, and sterile environment of its covered courts and stroll along to the boring strains of whatever generic music they’re piping throughout the concourse.
The retail space is quite empty these days. As I perambulate along the outer edges of the hallways, I can’t help but notice the same two guards trudging along as they make their rounds. We occasionally make eye contact, but that seldom lasts for more than a fraction of a second. In that fleeting moment they recognize I’m just a walker, nod a quick “hello” if they’ve the energy or are of a mind to, and as swiftly as that, we continue our appointments with health or security.
The mall has various places for people to rest. There are comfortable leather massage chairs people like to sit in, but I’ve yet to see anyone insert any money. They just sit and enjoy a chair that’s more comfortable than the standard mall couch or metal food-court seat as they await a friend or spouse to finish whatever they happen to be doing.
This particular day I found one fellow laid back and snoring away on a pay-chair by the sports team store. By the time I circled back for the second time, one of the yellow-vested security men was standing beside the sleepy slacker and informing him that while he could sit there he really shouldn’t sleep there.
I couldn’t help but wonder which I preferred – the purposeful snoring of a living being, or the digital tones piped over the metallic speakers spread throughout the mall, ensuring no one would ever have to endure the silence of their own thoughts, or the padded sounds of their sneakered footsteps. It was no contest. I preferred the earnest honesty of the snore.
There are also other walkers who, like me, are intent on getting in their “steps” or whatever measurement they are using. As with the guards, we walk, acknowledge one another with the briefest glance (furtively striving to look away – the better alternative for we shy types), and each continuing their way, lost in his own thoughts, adrift in her own bubble.
Each day I pass by the same venders. There are no crowds. There are no shoppers. There’s just us walkers, us mall-crawlers.
The venders situated along the center of the causeways sit in silence, face-down, scrolling through digital morsels proffered from their cell phones.
Could you imagine that anywhere else? In foreign lands, those venders would be crying out, calling for people to come check out their wares, fruits, vegetables, or baked goods. Not here. People sit in stony silence. If they’re on commission, they’re as good as dead. If they’re on salary, it’s got to be the hardest, loneliest buck on the planet to earn.
My one delight in walking at the mall was stopping and enjoying a good cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate at the beverage shop located mid-mall outside Macy’s. Sadly, it closed just after the first of the year.
A part of me died with its closing. I didn’t mourn for my loss, exactly, but just for what its closing represented – the slow but relentless death and decay of the traditional American mall. Yes, one can often buy things cheaper online, but I have yet to see the internet deliver a cup of decent coffee moments after ordering it. I have yet to see an electronic barista pass the time of day with pleasant conversation while working on my espresso or cappuccino.
I pondered this loss and glanced at a couple shuffling along hand in hand. They must have been pushing 90 or so. She leaned on him and the two of them hobbled along. Unlike the other crawlers, this couple was in no hurry. Unlike the others, the couple simply beamed, pleased as punch to be alive, walking, and together.
They looked at me and smiled. It was a gift – freely given. Thank you, God; they set free my own smile in this, our valley.