You’ve probably never thought of this, but there are regulars at the mall. Lots of them, and lots of different kinds. There are the employees of all the stores, of course, and the employees of the mall itself. But there are daily mall walkers, too, from all walks of life – and at all hours of the day. And there are stranger strangers at the mall, people who don’t see the world the way you do at all.
Nothing menacing, mind you. The Arrowhead Towne Center Mall is private property, which in Glendale, Arizona means, “Don’t make me throw you out you twice.” But the mall is a machine for you, a thing you expect to work at your command, without your having to think about what goes into anything. Nothing wrong with that. That’s how commerce works: It just works. But what makes the mall work is people, and many of those people are very different from you, from me – and from each other.
I think that’s wonderful – actual diversity. But the mall is a pond enfowled by the very oddest of ducks – who almost always go unnoticed by the grand swans gliding by with their bags full of swag.
Again: It’s cool. It’s what you’re paying for.
No one understands that better than me, after driving the choo choo train for months. Your actual belief, as expressed in your actions as you walk around the mall, is that I am paid to heed the laws of physics in your behalf. And you know what? You’re right. That’s precisely correct, even if I might think you are a fool to neglect your own safety – and your marriage, your children and all the rest of you life – as you shuffle along blindly, mesmerized by your smartphone.
Here’s who you have been missing among the adults at the mall, in four very broad categories: Regulars, Grotesques, Specials and Normals.
That’s a taxonomy of unlike types – Regulars are defined by their activities, Specials by capabilities, Grotesques by value-judgements – and the Normals may only seem normal because they leave all their weirdness at home. Borderlines, overlaps, hasty generalizations, jumped conclusions, all the everyday quibblebait – all overlaid with gross stereotyping amusingly named. So what? Get over it. I’m showing you the world of the mall – and my place in it.
And where is that? I’m a Regular, because I’ve been driving this train far longer that I ever thought I would. But I have been anything in preference to being Normal, going back forever. And it should pain me more than it does to admit that I must seem to be a Grotesque to most of the people who meet me.
Not a creepy, off-putting kind of Grotesque, but still not-like-you. Not when I’m dressed up in my loco engineer outfit, obviously. Then I am deliberately setting myself apart from you. But I’m doing that all the rest of the time, too, and for the most part people let me get away with it. How? By ignoring me, much as I am doing for them – most of the the time.
What I do with the rest of my time is poke my nose into other people’s business. I do even that in a distant and minimally-intrusive way, I hope, so you may not even know it’s happening.
What’s my plan? I’m shaling for better grown-ups, mainly by cultivating them from infancy.
Almost all of the Regulars are Grotesques in their way, each one required to wear the prison-uniform of the party to which he adheres, whether that’s the fake work-out clothes at the Shoe Palace or the all too real grease on the aprons at Chompie’s Deli. There’s Cesar the UPS guy in his carefully-pressed brown shorts and short-sleeved shirt – old Arizona-Mexican and very proud – with every strand of his razor-cut hair just so. There’s the Army Recruiter who makes GI Joe
dolls action-figures jealous. There are hair stylists and make-up mavens and servers and kitchen help and sales clerks, all schlepping back and forth to smoke a rushed cigarette at the designated outdoor ignominatorium.
Among the mall’s employees, I call the house-keeping staff Blue Bellies, in honor of their teal polo shirts. The security team is bolder, wearing shirts reminiscent of a soccer team from Milan, so I call them Yellow Jackets. I have denominated the two gray-coveralled maintenance guys Abbot and Costello for entirely too many good reasons. Meanwhile, only the boss of security and the mall’s office staff get to dress like Normals – except being dressed as a Normal for the office makes you overdressed for the mall – and so again they’re Grotesques.
Oh, were you hoping for more-grotesque Grotesques? After all, that’s what everyone wants from the mall, isn’t it? – the chance to mock everyone but yourself? I can give you that, actually, but only at a price. This is a Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story, after all. So here’s my deal: You can mock anyone at the mall you like – excluding the Specials and the children – provided you mock yourself first, in the most excruciatingly telling of terms.
Am I willing to do the same? I hope so. I never have so much fun as when I’m making fun of myself – pretty much always – but I can go you one better than that: I can show you everything that is beautiful and loving and kind in the people you would mock – everything that makes them so much more alike to you than they are different. Everyone comes to the mall to acquire – and to express – his differences. Accordingly, it would seem to be my job to show you how very similar we are, each one of us. Why is that my job? Because I’m a loco engineer – which means I’m just crazy enough to think I can change things.
So behold the Tweaker Mom – first among equals, in my rankings, of the Arrowhead Mall’s Grotesques. I know nothing about her but what I’ve seen of her, so I don’t know that she’s actually a former methamphetamine addict. I just know that whatever she had – meth, lithium, vodka – she had plenty of it. She’s bone thin, bleached blonde, street tanned and nervous as a cat, and yet she is still somehow always very stylishly underdressed – underdressed like an underfathered teenager, and never the same thing twice.
But she’s not a teenager, she’s a mom, and she hangs out at the mall as a way of spending time with her eight-year-old son at the indoor playground, when he’s there. Can I make up a back story that might fit the facts I’ve observed? Substance abuse or mental illness cost her custody, so she and her son are using the mall for undisclosed unsupervised visitation. Is that the truth? I don’t know. She walks the mall every day, whether her son is there or not, and there is a fine line between mall-walking and obsessive pacing.
In the end she is strange but harmless. We smile and wave at each other, and sometimes she stops at the train station to share a little small talk. So here’s another little bit of back story, perhaps even more likely to be true: If people in her past might have been right to have shunned her then, there is no justice in you or me shunning her now. She has done me no wrong, in any case. She is the most striking flamingo in my duck pond, and I love to see her stalking her way through the mall.
Or take in the Hippie Nun, who sometimes walks with the Tweaker Mom. She’s not really a nun, but she’s quite clearly an ex-hippie. But what style! She is a tiny, tiny little old lady, five-foot-nuthin’ in sensible heels, and she dresses almost exclusively in blacks and whites – again, no two days the same. Her occasional splashes of color stun the eye: An orchid-red cravat or a shimmering iridescent blue bulb of a hat. She carries herself like a relatively-phlegmatic mall-walker, but for all I know she is actually a living fashion collection: Curated couture for cost-conscious crones.
Do please remember that I know next to nothing about these people, other than what I see of them and what they tell me, when they speak to me. It is endlessly amusing to me to invent stories that knit together the few facts I have, but in the end I am never more than an unreliable narrator – just like all the others.
Meanwhile, what explains the unique fashions of the Hippie Nun and the Tweaker Mom? I like to think they go out yard-saling early Saturday mornings in the Hippie Nun’s venerable Dodge Dart. They’re shopping for two different cast-off, out-grown teen looks – SluttyBuddy for the TweakerMom, InfiniGoth for the Hippie Nun – but there is bound to be abundant inventory for both. That would solve their ever-present evanescent sartorial needs, and, also, plausibly, the Tweaker Mom’s everyday laundry problem.
Here’s what I know for sure is true: The Hippie Nun is a sweet lady – and her own unique self. Like the Tweaker Mom, she’s pursuing a process that makes perfect sense to her, even if it makes less sense to others, and she has no reason to change.
And that’s what it really means, ultimately, to be a Grotesque at the mall: It is to see and to wish for and to work toward a world that is so different from the one the Normals claim to prize that you yourself seem unaccountably different to them. They see every superficial difference, neglecting and rejecting the humanity that is your shared identity.
That rejection is all but universal, to be fair. The Normals reject the Regulars, the Grotesques and especially the Specials. But the Regulars reject all the others, too, otherizing them as ambulatory obstacles (ahem!) or whatever. The Grotesques embrace and reject according to their own strange rules, and only the Specials reject no one – although too many of them are beaten down by years and decades of unending rejection.
So take Bonnie and Clyde – the second time as farce. She’s tall and wide, he’s short and wider, both mid-sixties or older. They’re mall walkers, so they’re Regulars, and he has a speech impediment – my guess is stroke-borne – that makes him sound like a tongue-tied two-year-old, so people can treat them as though they are Specials. From their own point of view, they alone are the Normals and all the rest of us are amusingly wrong about everything that matters.
Which would be what? Coin Mining. Going from one coin return to the next, looking for unclaimed change. They also recover abandoned rental strollers and wheelchairs, returning them to their vending machines for the minor redemption value. That’s the kind of cheesy, chintzy, skin-flinty behavior people love to mock, but in their case it’s just a slightly different set of values amplified by a lifetime of habituated follow-through.
This is how Bonnie tells it: When she was a girl, she found a twenty dollar bill on the ground. One of Yogi Berra’s many ghost-writers was present, observing that, “You can find a lot by looking around.” She’s been looking around for abandoned money ever since, and the two of them have been looking together since they’ve been together. It’s the glue of their marriage – and their marriage has endured.
Meanwhile, they look where no one else looks, and they see what no one else sees. Just returning the strollers and wheelchairs is an unaccounted-for boon to the mall, but they have a cat’s eye view of every space and system in the building as they look everywhere for that next lost and lonely double-sawbuck. They see everything there is to see, every day. They know what’s the same, from day to day, and so they know what is different, too. Accordingly, I am confident that they will one day save the mall from a plumbing or power mishap that Abbott and Costello will have spent every day of their working lives overlooking.
But still, they know other people see them as being Grotesques – and they worry about being eighty-sixed by the Yellow Jackets – so they keep to themselves.
There are other Coin Miners – and other flavors of eccentricity – among the mall walkers, and there are other less-regular Grotesques who feel their own unique goads for their periodic appearances at the mall. All of these people are sweet and fun and uniquely interesting, if you take the time to get to know them – and if you allow them to be who they are, which they are going to do anyway.
More grotesque than the Grotesques, for all of me, are too many of the Normals.
First we have the sheer weight of these creatures, with the outrageous corpulence of Americans being a recent, and, we can hope, a temporary phenomenon. I called all of the morbidly obese mall patrons Manatees, at first, but I’ve since developed gradations of gluttony: Turnips are almost normal-sized at the head and ankles, but they bulb out like, well, turnips, in-between. Manatees are wide everywhere, even at the face, and they look like big rounded boxes from the shoulders down. Double-Wides are even-huger Manatees, and there are even some Triple-Wides out there, still able to lumber along on feet all-but-enveloped by their own ankle-fat.
All of these folks are big front-to-back, as well as side-to-side, so they seem to sail slowly through the mall like so many (so very many!) ungainly yachts. And while it may seem rude of me to see you so often as a slowly-moving obstacle, there are people at the mall who take up as much space on the ground as a car. And I never have to skirt around three or four cars in a clump of corpulence.
And they get fatter, believe it or don’t. The status of being a Flesh Mountain starts when you are consigned to a power chair – a comfortable place to engage in continuous eating while you shop. Eventually, the chair will have its own medical apparatus – an oxygen line or an insulin drip. Still can’t seem to shed those pounds? Not to worry! You’ll lose a ton of weight when they amputate your legs. The very fattest of the Flesh Mountains at the mall go about reclined, short-tons of humanity being ferried around on waist-high battery-powered Roman litters.
“Oh, the huge Manatees! Oh, the huge Manatees!” I hear that sometimes, in the chuffa-chuffa rhythms of the train. What started as a tiny minority of very fat people – mainly very old, very fat people – has become a stout plurality of the middle aged. And the out-waisting of the Western world includes almost all of us, not just the folks who have already broken the bathroom scale. It is rare at the mall to see anyone older than a teenager who is not continuously outgirthing his clothes, and it is not at all rare to see two- and three-year-old incipient Manatees.
This is the actual life cycle of the mall, how the ducks get plucked: First you waddle over to Wetzel’s Pretzels – where they turn flour and water into cash-packed piñatas – to snag a bag and a Pepsi. You snarf that down as you trundle down to JC Penny to score some roomier duds. Then to celebrate the surcease of pain at your beltline, you lumber over to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard. Are you being bad or good? Self-indulgent or self-responsible?
Good grief! Hansel and Gretel could not have had better clues that something had gone grotesque in their lives. They weren’t paying close attention to what was going on around them, either – but I am. Like Bonnie and Clyde, I look where no one else is looking, so I see what no one else seems to see.
So take a look at how the Normals dress. Expecting to see high fashion at the mall? Even though Greater Arrowhead is a pretty ritzy suburb, you’ll have to salve your disappointment. You may spot a little bit of middle-brow couture, mainly from department store employees. And there will be a little bit of office attire, mainly from folks who are running into the mall and running right back out again. All against an over-arching tableaux of tee-shirts, sweat-suits, gym-shorts, sneakers, jerseys, hoodies and backwards ball-caps.
That mix-’n’-match melange of what are, essentially, rumpled pajamas, is hugely popular for men and women of all ages, with half of all Americans seemingly desperate to camouflage themselves as the most thoroughly-useless kind of teenage boy. That look is stupid on underpubed slackers, of course, but they at least have the excuse of being young and stupid. For grown-up adults, parents and grand-parents, to dress that way would be obscene – except some of the women are hoarding all the obscenity to themselves.
That would be the girls who don’t dress like teenaged boys. Instead, they dress like strippers – only with less actual clothing. You may want to picture these gals as being young and svelte. That’s how they long to see themselves. Alas, this is rarely true – but very often astoundingly false. An outfit that would merely be arrest-worthy on a fit underfathered fifteen-year-old – a skimpy nothing of a top over peeky-cheeks Daisy Dukes – is a sight-not-to-be-beheld on a Turnip pushing fifty.
Tattoos, piercings, earlobes-with-hubcaps – you think these are afflictions of the young, stupid and broke, but that’s true only in the most elastic of terms. Young, yes, in that almost none of the Normals wants to admit to being a day over sixteen. Stupid, yes, in that all of these choices are foolish in the context of a fulfilled adult life. And broke in that, no matter how rich these folks are – and some of them are very rich – damn few of them have any sense about money. But those kinds of ornamental displays, once the marks of savages, slaves, convicts and – oh, yes – strippers, are by now ubiquitous on teenagers of all ages. Someday soon I plan to write an educational bedtime-book best-seller called Let’s count Grandma’s tattoos!
And I could go on and on – so I won’t. Like the Grotesques, the Normals are who they are as the consequence of their habituated choices. Many of the Regulars are more normal than any Normal, away from work, and the Specials are made special by circumstances beyond their control. But unlike the Grotesques, the Normals represent themselves as being normal – all while being all-but-exclusively outrageously grotesque.
Why does that matter? Because there are children at the mall – and the Normals are presented to them as exemplars, as role models, as fitting representatives of the perfect practice and of the worth and benefit of the fulfilled and fulfilling self-responsible adult life.
Is that what the Normals are doing at the mall? Not so much.
Ignore the fat, ignore the tats, ignore the scuzzy, slutty duds. Ignore the inattention, the lack of direction, the palpable dearth of introspection. Ignore the farce of being publicly isolated, mesmerized by your smartphone amidst a mad mob of humanity – each one of whom is alike and equally fascinated by everything that is distant and irrelevant, each one uniquely and separately paralyzed to act upon immediate, exigent reality. Ignore the alleged grown-ups who can’t act like parents because they’re too busy competing for their kids’ attention and approval. Ignore the pretend adults who can’t raise their children because they can’t stop being children.
Ignore all of that and instead focus on this: To the right of the elevator in front of the choo-choo train station, there is a free-standing, unattended candy-machine kiosk. You see these things everywhere, two or three or five bubble-headed gum-ball machines mounted on a chrome stanchion. This is a bigger operation, two oval tables stacked one atop the other, with nine machines on top and seventeen more plus a dollar-bill changer below. Heavy-duty commercial-grade furniture – and I ought to know. The Blue Bellies move it too much in the train’s way, so they can sweep behind it, so I’m always moving it back where I want it.
Gum-balls, jaw-breakers, Skittles, Nerds – a quarter’s worth of palliation for anyone who feels a desperate need for a snack between snacks. If you’re guessing that I don’t love those machines, it’s not just because the kiosk is always in the way. The thing I like least about them is what they show me about the world I live in now – and what they foretell for the future.
So here’s Grandpa in a tropical shirt and perfectly-pressed trousers, not just the picture of suburban normality but the perfect cover model for Sun City Living magazine. Truly: Our Grandpa is a grandpa’s grandpa. So what is he doing? He’s teaching his grandson, also perfectly-appointed and barely three years old, to go from delivery shute to delivery shute on the candy machines on the lower table, shaling for abandoned candy – either forgotten in a hasty hand-grab or tardy to the party and dropped later by relentless gravity. Whatever. He’s teaching his grandson to shop-lift, to regard the propriety of theft as being a function of how well or poorly someone else’s property is defended.
Almost everyone will want to quibble with that, but it is beyond obvious that property cannot be both unclaimed and already yours. When you take it, you are making a claim that is subject to dispute – by the original owner and by other potential claimants. All of the Coin Miners could be met with the same debate, except that coins are fungible and are therefore almost instantly defensibly abandoned – and almost everyone already sees Coin Mining as being grotesque.
The candy belongs to whoever paid for it, first, and to the owner of the kiosk, second. That their absence and inattention makes it possible for anyone who comes along to seize that candy instead, taking it is nevertheless a crime, and an ugly one at that: It is not simply a taking of the unearned – entirely unnecessarily – but doing so in a way that seeks to go one up, and smugly, on the kind of suckers who trust other people not to cheat. This is the sociopathy of the gangster, the thug, writ small. But so much worse, our Grandpa is training his grandson in that life of gleeful larceny.
Yeah, but everybody does that… Yup. A lot of people do. I see them from the train station and as I drive by in the train. A smaller cohort, adults and their older children, will go from machine to machine, jiggling at the handles to try to shake candy loose. The jiggling grows with the children until it comes to resound with a snap. Among the very worst examples of the allegedly grown-up adults who pose as Normal people at the mall are folks who batter at the handles with everything short of a pipe wrench, like Cool Hand Luke – the second time as farce.
All of this is shop-lifting – theft – and much of it is vandalism: The cranks won’t work because the Candy Vandals broke the handles. I’ll bark at tweenagers and teenagers when they get too frisky, but what can I say to a putative adult? And – lord have mercy! – what can I possibly say to a parent or grandparent who is teaching a child to be a thief?
Here’s what I don’t say: “You reap what you sow.”
But: Even so: That’s what I know.
And so I guess that’s what I’m doing. I started this with a not-very-lofty goal. I thought driving the train would be temporary, anyway, but I took the job because I wanted to run a very simple marketing test: I’m a carney in every way that matters, and I wanted to practice closing on buyers incapable of guile. I can make a lot of jokes about how easy that turns out to be: I have quite literally taken candy from babies and made them smile about it. But the rules I set for myself resulted in me playing a completely different game, anyway. I call it The Visibility Game. You’re soaking in it.
So take a look at the guy who owns that candy kiosk. He’s six-foot-three and then some, tall and lean with a long, thin face, like Gary Cooper – the second time as grace. He’s an accountant by profession; I asked. He had the candy kiosks – he used to have five in the mall, now he’s down to this one – as a side business, so his wife could stay home with their four kids. Then he lost his job at Honeywell – and now he is scrambling.
Knowing the facts of this guy’s life does not make stealing from him any more or less moral. If you are not doing mutually-beneficial business with him, then you have no business touching his property. Period. That would be so even if he were a billionaire, instead of a guy sweating college for four kids. And like the man said, you can be nibbled to death by ducks – if there are enough of them.
But of all the ducks we’ve talked about so far, he’s the one I admire the most. He shows up every Thursday pulling a four-wheeled cart loaded with shipping boxes full of bags of candy. He cleans and services each machine, scooping out the quarters and refreshing the inventory in each colorful, bubble-headed globe. The quarters go into the bill changer and dollars and fives come out. Another life-cycle-of-the-mall: Candy bought for a nickel sells for a quarter and is transformed, coins into currency, into another chance at another chance for a guy who can make good use of it.
And of all the parents we’ve talked about so far, it’s his children I want to put my money on. I’ve seen them. An unexpected delight of working at the mall is getting to see Regulars when they show up with their families as Normals – as shoppers. They’re bright, eager, active, well-turned-out and well-behaved kids. Too old for the train and they all knew it, which I take as a sign of good fathering. However they work out their educations, I’ll take the four-way bet on them, because they’re all going to do valuable things.
And that’s what I mean: Everything I’m seeing is making me, more and more, into a loco engineer – a guy just crazy enough to think he can change things. I started out just smiling and waving – The Affectionate Display, to give it a name. But smiling and waving at everyone won me small friendships with the Regulars – with the mall-walkers and the Blue Bellies and the Yellow Jackets. In time I wore down most of the Grotesques – simply by refusing to see them as being grotesque. The Specials are all mine because almost nobody else wants them, and to the unwitting children I am The Pied Piper of Arrowhead – the second time for keeps.
I see the normal in the Grotesques and the grotesque in the Normals – I see it all, over and over again. I see everything in you that is human – and everything that isn’t. I see everything that is broken in the people I see at the mall, and I see everything that can and cannot be fixed.
I told you I’m shaling for better grown-ups, and despite all these grotesqueries, I’ve met some amazing parents at the mall. But the grown-ups I’m most interested in are busy being babies and toddlers for now. That Grandpa is breaking his grandson. The time to heal that damage is now – and never later.
I came here to learn how to close on the two-year-olds. Instead, the two-year-olds closed on me. Do you want to see Loco Willie mocking himself? Here I am: The Catcher in the Rye – the second time as farce. Except I don’t want to catch the children before they become ‘phonies’ – which happens long before the teen years, anyway – I want to catch the toddlers and give them – at a minimum – what they may not be getting anywhere else: A good example.
I can’t say anything at all to an alleged grown-up adult training his kid to be an even-worse creep, but I can and do say whatever I want to children – on the train, in the playground, anywhere – and I know I’m having an impact. The Coin Miners want to take your change and the Candy Vandals yearn to take your candy, but I’m taking your kids – if you’re not a very good father – and I’m hanging on to as many of them as I can.
What’s my agenda? Too much I am Jude the Obscure – the second time redeemed, I can hope. And so I’m telling you now for the third time, but I doubt you’ll ever believe me: I’m shaling for better grown-ups, mainly by cultivating them from infancy.
Mock me if you like. I know I will. But this is loco engineering. This is how it’s done.