Before the start of my sophomore year of college, I did a little fall shopping at a north Seattle mall. Per usual, I parked outside The Bon Marche, wove my way around Men’s Shoes and Active Wear, past the Lenox and Waterford near the Bridal Registry, and through Cosmetics to enter the grand internal cavern of Northgate. I don’t remember what I was there to get. Perhaps I needed socks or jeans or the perfect sweater to motivate me through Economic Geography.
The first sense to be activated upon entering a Mall is scent. Newness outnumbers shoppers, so unless a heavily perfumed person is close by, I am always taken by the lingering quality of freshly steamed twill, perfectly folded wool, or never-worn shoes. Almost simultaneously, the brain responds to what the eyes bring: chin-high racks, shirts sorted by size, sleeve, or sale; rotating racks, affording views of the entire necktie collection; sturdy glass cabinets, proud of their shiny contents. Shiny associates, perfect skin, managed hair offer: ‘Are you finding what you need?’, ‘Can I help you find something?’ ‘Let me know if you need any help.’ Entering the heart of the Mall slams the senses: the constant buzzing hum of indistinct voices, weary parents chastising running children, laughter, crying, Mrs. Field’s, Woolworth’s popcorn, the cathedral-sized brick façade of Nordstrom.
After only a few visits, the brain acclimates to what it now knows as MALL. I can enter without any particular awareness, thoughts busy elsewhere as I find my destination. If everything remained new or unusual to our brains, we would get nothing done. On this trip, such was my disposition-expecting a usual mall experience. As I walked toward Nordstrom, I began to rouse, take notice of something very different. Why were these people, mostly children, milling about wearing eyeball-bobber-antenna-headband things? They were everywhere, in packs and herds.
During the dark ages before Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, or cell phones, it was possible to get away. I had experienced a summer full of sun, ferries, witty, intelligent people, no TV, and the joy of operating a Jacobson Outfront Deck mower. I was away the summer E.T. visited our humble planet, an alien who apparently brokered a deal with fast-food chains to offer movie related paraphernalia to children. I was 19. I was going to save the Third World. This blatant pandering for economic gain sickened my imperious little self. I vowed, really not so imperiously, that I would never watch the movie.
Attitudes such as imperiousness or vanity or justification are blinding. I was unable to see the irony: I was in a Mall, the sole purpose of which is to pander for economic gain. The clothing, like the movie gadgets, originated in the developing countries that I felt so tied to. I was wearing, buying, using products just as bad, or worse, than the ones I was judging.
I’d like to say that I’ve spent the intervening 30 years aware, activated for change, fighting for worker rights, justice for all. I haven’t. I’ve had moments, causes through the years, but it wasn’t until I became a mother that everything started to change. I set to learning and dominos started falling. The impetus of participating in a child’s history, feeding the roots that his life would grow from, assisting him in acquiring skills to navigate that life, has moved me to think differently, live differently, and personally grow. I can’t change society, I can’t change governments, but I can change myself. And though the reasons have changed, I still haven’t seen E.T.