You're from Jersey! What exit?"
That's surely the best-known joke about my former home, but a more apropos punch line might be, "What mall?" As America's most densely populated and suburban state, New Jersey is the Land of Malls. My mother—proud owner of a horrifying "Shopasaurus" T-shirt—dragged my brother and me to the mall every Friday night for five years. From the ages of 10 to 15, I was treated each week to an ice-cream sundae and two aimless hours browsing lousy record, book, and novelty stores until meeting back at the fountain at 9. To live in New Jersey and not go to malls is a sheer impossibility, and, sadly, I had several years of Garden State residence still to go. When I moved to Seattle four years ago, I swore I'd never enter another mall. So far, the pledge has been an easy one to keep.
When charged with thinking up a fun holiday story idea, though, a deliciously masochistic thought sprang forth: Wouldn't it be fascinating to spend an entire day—from morning with the mall walkers to nighttime with the mall rats—at a local shopping mecca for a megadose of holiday cheer? Reliable sources assured me that Southcenter Mall would be the ideal locale for such an adventure. A loop around the sprawling complex's perimeter was enough to confirm the appropriateness of the selection and kick the d骠 vu into high gear. A Honda with a papier-m⣨頢loodied deer head on the grill temporarily broke the flashback (I've never seen that before), but a step inside the confines found things in Mallville virtually unchanged.
The best action this time of year, of course, is found at the temporary booths and carts occupying the center aisles. These are the places to get things monogrammed, "I Love My Pomeranian" T-shirts, quick-dying bonsai trees, and kitty cat blankets. Apparently, these are now also the places to get hand-painted hermit crabs. Many of them feature glow-in-the-dark paints, thereby eradicating one of life's great nocturnal hassles; thank you, Crab Shack, thank you!
There didn't seem to be much sense in surveying the big department stores like Nordstrom, the Bon Marche, and JCPenney—known quantities and not terribly exciting. Instead, I stuck to "specialty" boutiques. I was struck again by the abundant constants: cutlery store patrons are still as creepy as ever, the guy manning the organ at the piano and keyboard shop still seems lonely, and people still enjoy free meat treats on a toothpick quite a bit. Mall boutiques also remain great places to witness the death throes of formerly cutting-edge culture— witness the glitter-iffic fashions at Rave Girl and their fierce rivals at Rave.
Southcenter's crowning spectacle is undoubtedly the Rainforest Cafe. If a little taste of Vegas is what you're in the mood for, the Rainforest blows the strip-mall casinos away. A life-size mechanical alligator greets you at the entrance, but it's not nearly enough to distract you from the wonderland of flora and fauna within. Live tropical fish parade in huge tubes, a waterfall roars dully on the periphery, and giant butterflies flutter overhead under a canopy of vines, palm trees, and toadstools, all as dorks with headsets act as your jungle guides. Not surprisingly, there's a retail shop full of souvenirs for the most awed of visitors ("Look, they have things to sell, too!" remarked one woman in all seriousness). More importantly, some of the proceeds go toward saving the rain forest; it's heartening knowledge that a sandwich at the Rainforest, along with a Sting CD at Sam Goody, and some cruelty-free cosmetics at The Body Shop can be just as socially rewarding as numerous hours of grueling volunteer work.
As I sat in the buzzing hive of the food court I decided I wasn't going to stay until closing time (I didn't exactly arrive as early as I had planned, anyhow). I had other things to do, and there didn't seem to be much point. I still hate malls. Being back in one for a couple of hours awakened some dormant snobbisms that I thought I had shed, but the abundant fashion faux pas and crass consumerism weren't really what aggrieved me most. The worst thing about being in the mall was that it was completely indistinguishable from the ones back home, or the ones in Virginia, or the ones in Delaware, or the ones in Minnesota. Outside, the sun was starting to set. A brilliant view of a newly snow-covered Mount Rainier waited in the distance, a welcome and much needed reminder that, in fact, I wasn't in New Jersey anymore.