Lost and Found

Pacific Place looms at the center of our city as a mall, a haven, and a glimpse of the future.

NEAR THE SIXTH Avenue entrance to Pacific Place, a man addresses the passing cars. "I get much money for everyone!" he declares. "No one gets no money!" Some days his rant is less clear than others. Always there are these elements in the diatribe's lexicon: money, police, and a smeared word that sounds like marijuana. He's well dressed, somewhere in his 60s or 70s, brandishing a cane. His demeanor is unthreatening. He could be a television lawyer making a case, only he's standing on the street corner with the wind on his back.

Walk past him into the mall, past the gleaming chokers in the Cartier windows, the deafening machines of the espresso bar, and stand in the middle of the first floor. Look up. Invariably someone will be looking down at you—a security guard, a stoned teenager, a businessman wolfing a sandwich. They linger up in the balconies, spies. Pacific Place is a spy's paradise, an eavesdropper's utopia.

Different tribes inhabit the mall at different hours. Weekday mornings and afternoons it's primarily downtown, white-collar 9-to-5ers. They're perfumed and purposeful, whizzing in and out of shops and crossing one more errand off the list, one more desire. Businessmen lunch at Il Fornaio, cell phones humming in their shirt pockets, a panicked look on their faces as they attempt chitchat:

"How's your staff?"

"All staffed up!"

"No more turnover?"

"I quit hiring 18-year-olds! Smartest thing I ever did."

"How's Howard? Is he squirming yet?"

Lunch passes and dark comes to the world outside, particle by particle. Inside the mall tribes shift and realign. Now the people seem much more varied, and the roar of consumption fades. Waiters about to start their shifts glory in pre-work cigarettes. Various drinkers push the happy hour. Shambling, waiflike girls stare into the jewelry store windows without going in. High school couples buy movie tickets and French kiss in the popcorn line. Zoned-out maniacs and sleepyheads make a beeline for the Barnes and Noble armchairs.

The mall contains and caters to these various tribes. Sometimes, looking down into the center of it, one has the impression the people are passengers, and the mall is some kind of ship.

SHALOM COHEN is 22; he has worked security at Pacific Place for nearly a year. His job, as he describes it, is to make sure the mall is "normal, secure, and comfortable." He's an anxious, strapping man-boy with a lot on his mind. He moves from floor to floor, watching for trouble.

Shalom came to America a year ago, from Lebanon. Before he immigrated, he was a soldier in the Israeli army. His best friend was shot and killed in combat; Shalom barely made it out in one piece. He lifts up the sleeve of his blazer to reveal a cluster of shrapnel scars. They're small, soft bits of red skin, grim reminders of a near-miss.

Shalom says he came to America to "clear out my head." He has an uncle who lives in Seward Park, a dual citizenship passport. He looks at his job at Pacific Place as the beginning of a new phase. Several guys Shalom works with have military backgrounds. "There are Army, Navy guys. Guys who've been in the Marines. I know a guy from the Somalian army."

Together these ex-military men guard the mall against invaders. Shalom has seen a small amount of action: a kid shooting drugs in the bathroom, a boy stealing a pair of deluxe tennis shoes. Referring to these violators, Shalom says: "You can't hit people. You talk to them, take them down to the office, take their picture."

From the balcony Shalom looks into the heart of the mall, halfway across the world from Israel. His walkie-talkie whispers in his hand, someone giving a warning, an order. He walks up and down with take-charge confidence. He carries himself like management material. He waits for something to happen. He waits for his head to clear.

WHAT DOES THE MALL protect us from? Generally, from excessive heat and cold; from weather, from loud noises. Specifically, in November of the year 2000, it protects us from WTO memories; with its illusion of order and blissful consumption, it's a piece of living proof that life can get back to normal, the holidays can be rescued a mere 12 months after one of the most remarkable manifestations of social unrest and class hostility this city has ever seen.

A couple of weeks before the WTO anniversary, two men lunch at Stars and discuss the impending reappearance of the unruly hordes, in the form of a city-sanctioned march slated for November 30:

"Got your gas mask?"

"It couldn't be as bad this year. Right?"

"Well they gave 'em a permit. I don't know why they gave 'em a permit."

As an afterthought one guy says, "Well I guess there isn't a meeting this year. So it couldn't be as big a deal this time around."

These men don't see what happened last year as organized, an action of an international network of protesters; rather they see it as arbitrary. What they saw was not an uprising but a mob; as their conversation circles around this vague, destructive notion of the mob, they're speaking to a growing split in the city between those who "believe" in the WTO riots and those who see them as an unnatural disaster, a corruption of the city's identity. It's a good-and-evil split that promises to become increasingly pronounced the more the myths around the riots grow, becoming black-and-white, one-dimensional morality tales told to bolster world views for the left and the right.

Of course the beauty of the anti-WTO action was that it was blurred, it was a moral and political mess, a ragtag repossession of the streets. Perhaps, ultimately, the mall protects us from the indecipherable possibilities of the street itself, a place where men conduct elaborate prayers at passing cars, prayers that are impossible to understand or answer.

IF THE TRIBES ON WEEKDAYS consist of 9-to-5ers and city dwellers, weekends bring the suburban throngs. Saturdays and Sundays, the mall teems with restless and expectant visitors from the outskirts. Particularly on the weekends, people look stressed and a little fearful, they appear most in need of the "normal" atmosphere Shalom is paid to protect. Couples and families swarm in beginning around 10am. The elevators are packed with teenage girls giggling furiously, class-clown boys walking up the escalators the wrong way, decked-out babies in tricked-out carriages. Dads hang out at the Store of Knowledge, fiddling with gizmos. A disembodied voice booms: "Welcome to the Store of Knowledge, your gateway to a lifetime of learning!"

Saturdays, one of the most popular stores is Restoration Hardware. Here people buy stuff manufactured to look like it has a past: small and large items burnished and polished to look old, like they've been passed down for generations. Carpentry tools like a grandpa might use, if grandpa were around. A bed someone might sleep on in Nantucket or Cape Cod, somewhere with ghosts. This is the comfort of Restoration Hardware: buying stuff that looks like it has a history, like it has really lived, without a lived life's ghosts or burdens.

As Seattle demolishes its own history building by building, Pacific Place becomes a premonition of our history-free future. In this future, citizens will buy items at Restoration Hardware that symbolize the past—memories of memory itself, talismans of nostalgia in a forgetful country. "I saw you last night but I can't remember where! I know I talked to you somewhere!" This is an overheard Saturday afternoon conversation between two girls at Gordon Biersch; they spend 10 minutes circling around the night in question, trying to remember where they started out, where they ended up. For the life of them they can't remember. It's an ordinary, post-drunk conversation, but in the city that forgets its past their lost night seems emblematic and freighted with meaning.

 
comments powered by Disqus