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In the mall, the feeling of being out of touch


In the warm spirit of the season, I went to the suburban shopping malls on Thanksgiving weekend, for it is written in the Good Book: Now is the time for spending money we do not have on gifts we do not need for people who will not appreciate them no matter how deep into the new year we're paying interest to Visa and MasterCard.

In the malls were many Americans, all of them standing in lines, huddled bravely over their wallets and feigning solvency. They looked as joyful as Kafka. They waited for overwhelmed salespeople who wished shoppers would all go away. They crowded the food courts and ate with both hands and talked earnestly of diets they would begin, perhaps as soon as this next double cheeseburger was consumed, and the bread pudding needed to help wash it down.

They examined the crowded shelves of stores and, with dull, vacant stares, like lambs to the slaughter, they bought items vitally important to the survival of the species.

A football, for example, designed specifically for getting wet. A giant television set retailing for what once constituted a down payment on a yacht. A telephone recording device just like the one Linda Tripp used. A Monopoly game with famous Baltimore landmarks where there used to be Boardwalk and Park Place. Uh-oh. Guess who just landed on "Property Tax"?

Also, a cordless rechargeable massager, designed to "relieve stress." What kind of stress? The kind you get from shopping in crowded malls for cordless rechargeable massagers.

We're wild about gadgetry. The Russians can't feed themselves, and the Bosnians are bombing themselves back to the Stone Age, but in America, if we have to walk three feet to change a television dial, we identify with the Joads and wish to apply for government anti-poverty grants.

Fourteen seconds after I arrived at the mall, I wanted to go home. Two hours later, having plodded through 137 stores, I bumped into a woman I've known since childhood. She seemed perfectly at ease in these surroundings.

"How are you doing?" she asked, smiling brightly.

"I've been here two hours," I said, "and this is what I've bought."

With two fingers, I held up three pair of sweat socks I'd purchased for myself.

Sweat socks, I can figure out. But the culture has otherwise passed me by. In the clothing stores, I'm certain they immediately spot me as a rube who just fell off the back of a seed truck, and intend to sell me outfits they've been trying to unload since the first Eisenhower administration.

("Are you sure this is what they're wearing this year?" "Yes," a salesman will say assuringly, "everyone will be wearing argyle tuxedos this year.")

In the music stores, I heard singers who seemed to be in great respiratory distress. I want to buy music for my children, but have to face facts: They may not be interested in songs composed 60 years ago by George and Ira Gershwin. Is such cultural indifference legal?

I asked a saleswoman in the music store for her record department, and she withered me with a pitying stare. Records? Oh, yes, sorry: They went out of fashion around the same time as my music taste. Well, what about cassettes? In a sea of perhaps 12 million compact discs, there was one tiny section devoted to cassette tapes, with gems such as "Hawaiian Favorites" and "Hula Hoop Melodies."

And how long before they begin to replace CDs with something new, thus causing us to begin our music collections all over again? In the minds of the great corporate thinkers, the best products are those that must be replaced.

The designer Isamu Noguchi once complained, "I once made a design for Zenith, and they turned it down because it was a design that would not go out of fashion. They asked, 'What will we do next year?'"

(Hence, for example, the never-ending value of bombs. The government buys bombs from the bomb makers, and then tests them by blowing up these bombs, and thus has to go right back to the bomb makers to buy new bombs for blowing up. Which is why munitions makers keep getting rich on government money, while whole cities starve. But that's another story.)

Do I sound grumpy? It's not just the shopping mall crowds, and not just the ever-changing styles that leave me in the cultural dust. It's the sense that, no matter how hard I try, I won't get it right. My taste will be wrong, or my choices. I'll hand over the gifts, and they'll pat me on the head like a puppy and wonder how fast they can make their way back to the exchange counters.

Which is where we should all meet in the first place, and cut out all those stores that merely serve as middle men.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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