November 24, 2013
Saturday afternoon, and outside it is colder than a witch’s . . . uh, mammary—thirty mile per hour winds and a twenty degree temperature. There will be no river walk today. So I drive to the Alton mall. Four times around the second floor is a mile; I get in my fast walk groove and set out on my sixteen laps. I’m James Joyce’s Leo Bloom, Ulysses in a mall. Spoiler alert, I will not use the word ‘spandex’ in this report. I could do—I just did in fact. But no more ‘spandex.’ Not counting that second reference.
So off I walk, freakish sixty-five-year-old man, wearing a blue tee shirt—thus revealing my eight inch Frankenstein scar along my left arm—and blue jeans, walking twelve minute miles but prepared to slow down or even stop—should entertainment break out. And ‘what do I see/Comin for to carry me home?’
The mall is decked out gaudily, if prematurely, for the holiday season. The clerk in the gold-buying booth (I have never seen a customer) does her thang on her Eye Phone. The two cell phone booths are jammed with young people—Must have, must have! The second floor Christian Science Library is customerless, as usual; the handsome, thin woman who runs it always busily straightening and cleaning, the windows of the library filled with signs promoting health by prayer, not by healthcare. The beauty shop across the way holds no beauties. The new ‘half off’ furniture store is empty. Half of the mall’s stores are empty.
But! Cheer up! Santa’s workshop is next to the escalators and the line is long! Seasonal booths are hawking gewgaws that shopaholics only ‘need’ once a year: calendars, jars of honey, pies, bad paintings, even wooden animals made with a chain saw!
There is a fake train on the ground floor—a golf cart with wheels covered with painted plywood trainy stuff—old timey choo-choo engine and coal car—and four passenger ‘cars,’ glorified wagons on wheels, also trainy! And the kiddies are thrilled, and that’s great—they’re going for a train ride! And round and round the train travels, and the most interesting part is the parents stuffed into the cars. The parents are waving—to other mall goers, and the waves are returned.
Everybody waves here. They do it on the River Road, on Stroke Hill, in the supermarket, at the all-you-can eat Chinese restaurant. The wave says, ‘Hey, we’re Midwesterners, we’re unfailingly polite.’
Some of the words being spoken, some of the actions, are not nearly so polite. Babbit’s cousins live here, and Snopes’ cousins too. And decent people who keep their mouths shut. Meeeery Christmas!
I forgot to mention the two women from the wildlife rehabilitation station, in Elsah. They sit at a table on the mall’s ground floor. A tiny Eastern screech owl calmly perches on a wooden peg in front of them, its sleepy eyes drooping in spite of the crowd and the noise. Little kids lean towards the owl until moms pull them back. The volunteers are selling a children’s book, about their resident turkey vulture whose first sight in life was a human, and how the vulture imprinted on that human and now it follows the volunteers around, begging to be petted. A Premature Merry Christmas to those folks.
On lap one I see the elderly couple, the husband always wearing a very old St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, the wife with a book, and they always sit at the same table outside the Cookie Factory, always buying a cookie and a cup of coffee each. They have been here every time I come. The husband never speaks; the wife reads a romance novel. I’ve restrained myself from talking to them—Curious Gene—but today they reveal, like an upturned card in a poker game. A down-on-her-luck black woman (there is no light in her eyes) is sitting one table from ‘theirs,’ eating a very large iced cookie and staring at the table top. They see this . . . and—no communication between them—they turn left and take a new seat, twenty feet away. I’m no longer curious. What does the song say? ‘You’ve got to be carefully taught.’ Meeeery Christmas!
On lap two, Santa rides the up escalator, in the uniform but out of character, and looking gloomy, maybe needing a drink, heading for Olga’s Restaurant. Every time a kid yells, “Santa,” the guy comes to attention. “Ho-ho-ho,” then he sags again. Ho-ho-ho-sag-ho-ho-ho-sag.
At the top of the down escalator, a young couple coaxes their little boy to ride it alone. The kid isn’t having it. The dad picks him up and takes him down, rides back up and coaxes his son to come on down. The kid isn’t buying it. I smile because I recall my own first escalator experience. I knew monsters when I saw them, and I knew that mommies could turn monsters into thrill rides. I didn’t know then, it was a portent of what’s to come, the long fall down. Escalator as metaphor—sorry: Merrrry Christmas!
On lap four, I’m rapidly approaching two young women of the pale tribe, one of them holding a baby swaddled in a blankie. The girls are laughing, one daring the other to do something, for a cell camera moment. And I stop. The ‘something?’ The girl with the baby leans over the waist-high balcony, the baby suspended over the people below. Snap! Oh, that was fun, lean further out. Snap! I quell my urge to beat them senseless, snatch the baby and raise it in the wild, but I spot a security guard across the open, elongated, hole of the middle and wave and point. He sees the rapscallion ladies and runs toward them. I know what you’re thinking: spoil sport. That’s me! Meeeery Christmas!
On lap eight, a well-dressed young man, of the tribe of many hues, steps out of his sports apparel store and says, “Man, you are seriously getting down.” I’m already past him, perhaps missing a moment, so I stop and turn and say, “Thanks.” And off I go: an old man, inspiration to a kid! Right. Premature Merry Christmas to that young man.
On lap ten, a multiracial teenage couple saunter along on the opposite side, holding hands, content in their mutual glow. People pass them and cast surreptitious backwards glances. What might they be thinking, gentle reader? ‘Oh, look at that cute couple. Isn’t it great to be in love?’ ‘Aww, they’re stopping and looking in the jewelry store window—it’s not Jared’s, but hey, what’s the harm in dreaming?’ ‘Rand Paul for President.’ Meeeery Christmas!
I’m sweating by lap twelve. I’m from a tribe of sweaters—not the ones you wear, the ones who spout waterfalls of moisture, particularly embarrassing if you sport a shaved head and puddles form and salty drops spray from off your dome—so I slow down.
The four old guys, the wise men, drink their coffee and greet me as I wipe my head with napkins. One guy has a folded walker next to him. Another guy has two canes. The other two are wrinkled, rotund and bent, and loud—in a good way. I have always assumed they were Korean War vets. We talk about the two momentous Cardinals trades. Then Walker-man says, “How old’re you, anyways?” I tell him. The guys shake their heads. “Enjoy while yuh can,” Cane Man says. I ask their ages. Fifty, fifty-four (two of them), fifty-seven. What? What in the hell kind of force beat down these affable guys? They look like the parents of fifty-something’s. Premature Merry Christmas to the wise men.
On the last cool-down laps I’m reminded of how many people come to this mall just to get out of their houses. You can see the same widows and widowers, idly sitting on benches and staring at the floor. There’s the young handicapped guy who wears shoes with very high lifts. He always has a briefcase with him, is always hawking something or other. There is the elegantly-coiffed lady in her pink sport coat and matching slacks; she smiles radiantly and talks to everyone but me. A young black guy who stomps his walk: the Incredible Hulk; he is the only person who ever passed me.
And there are other soloists: old, alone men rubbing their hands together, seemingly lost in thought; loner teen black kids watching the passing parade; the sad lady with the cookie; the white pimple-faced computer geek hunched over his machine and frantically typing. They are not here for the holiday. This mall, Alton’s great economic hope back in the seventies, this architecturally monstrous mall . . . is home.
There is no punch line here. Only a punch in the stomach and a Merrrrrrrrry Christttttttttmas!