Day Care for the Indigent


Frederick -- The most compelling detail to emerge from the story of little "Wolfie" Nester is where his parents selected to desert him: a shopping mall. Wolfie is the 3 1/2 -year-old boy abandoned by his parents in San Bernardino, California, and later found wandering the aisles of a Montgomery Ward store. Authorities recently found his parents wandering the Appalachian Trail.

Wolfgang Nester Sr., in a post-capture interview with police, revealed that the decision to leave Wolfie at the mall was painful, yet calculated. The parents could no longer supply the young boy with necessities such as food and clothes. They tried to leave Wolfie at a church or with relatives; but the church was closed and the relatives were not at home.

Since it's difficult to leave a toddling 3-year-old on a doorstep with a note, the parents headed for the mall. "We found a definite area where we knew he'd be found," says Wolfgang. "There were workers all around." While something distracted Wolfie, maybe a huge Styrofoam plane doing loop-de-loops, the parents walked away and thumbed it for Boonsboro.

They were confident they had delivered their child unto the cozy environs of a friendly, helpful place. The mall would satisfy all of Wolfie's needs. Maybe someone could take him to GapKids for a new outfit. He could go to the food court for fries and a pizza slice. Even if someone didn't immediately notice Wolfie, he could still watch "The Lion King" on a new television in Ward's, or hang out in housewares to see if the cheese ever stuck to the non-stick skillet. To 23-year-old Wolfgang Nester, his child was safe, sheltered and entertained in the mall.

For Wolfgang's generation, the strategy of leaving a child in a mall does contain some contorted logic. American shopping malls appeared about 40 years ago; Mondawmin and Harundale were among the first. As consuming with convenience became more attractive, strip centers succumbed to malls as the places to shop in America. By 1978 in "The Malling of America," an article for New Times, William Kowinski characterized shopping malls as "a virtual one-stop culture, providing a cornucopia of products nestled in an ecology of community, entertainment and societal identity."

In his mind, Wolfgang didn't abandon Wolfie. He left his son in a place with delights like trees, benches, fountains, carousels, glass elevators, Santa visits, shiny waxed cars, spurts of perfume, bouncing aerobic dancers, free cheese and summer sausage, roving clowns with balloons, a kindly footman on patrol, and all the gifts a person could ever wish for. Wolfie had day care for the indigent.

But despite all the coziness and enchantment with which they imbue themselves, and despite the trendy euphemisms like "Station" or "Town Center" for their names, malls are lonely, insecure places. The attractions at a mall are meant less to entertain, and more to enhance (or even cover) the true intention of the place: to make one spend money. Thriving malls simply disguise this intention much better than unsuccessful malls.

Anyone who has ever seen George Romero's 1979 horror classic, "Dawn of the Dead," has seen a mall in its true form. In this film a handful of humans hole up in an empty mall while trying to stave off an advancing horde of zombies. The self-sufficient humans can run down to Hickory Farms for cheese and to the sporting-goods store for shotguns. The real repulsion of the film isn't that the humans may become worms' meat themselves. It's the realization that malls are fortress-like shells, where wandering zombies enter to traipse the levels and feast on the bargains they find.

Shopping malls take us away from our two most secure places, our homes and our cars, for long periods of time. They dazzle us with an array of goods which we can never hope to own. And although they come equipped with multi-color maps, malls are inherently confusing. They are more conducive to slow wandering than to straight shots for a specific store. We can shop at a mall for years and never quite figure out which entrance will bring us in closest to Thom McAn.

And as we shop -- separated from home, lost in a milieu of store fronts and unfamiliar faces -- we become isolated. There is no greater bond among us in a mall than that which links us as consumers.

Wolfgang Nester left his son in a shopping mall. He left him there because he accepted that the mall could satisfy Wolfie's basic needs better than a down-and-out parent could. What he didn't understand was Wolfie's next need after the clean T-shirt and pizza slice, a need the mall couldn't hope to fill. Love.

:. David H. Britton teaches in middle school.

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