A small Midwestern town’s mall stands for a lot more than stores gathered under one roof. It’s even truer for you, who left this place several years ago, than it is for those who chose to stay. The mall’s the place you can go to when you’re back, once in a while, but not too often, and decide to listen to your innate voyeur. The mall’s the best place to contemplate the forever-gone reality of your childhood, the desolate world you’ve abandoned.
The only constant in life is change, you think, as you realize the mall’s eternal omnipotence. It may be a dying institution because of Amazon et al., but small-town people need the mall. It’s entrenched in their collective consciousness like the subway’s entrenched in the minds of city people. The kids live, love, and hate in the mall—they all do, without a solitary exception. Even you, the book-savvy intellectual, whose existence is predicated on rejecting your birthplace and all its problematic problems, couldn’t escape it.
And whether you like it or not, you still can’t. After all, here you are again.
If you dig up the bitter memories of your soul, you know there’s a legitimate reason for the mall’s survival. You know it matters. You saw too many things within the confines of its walls: you saw Rebecca holding hands with your crush, Tyler; you saw Jenny, that b****, with her hair dyed too dark; you saw Jeremy, the bully, walking with crutches at last; you saw the boy who was pretty, the boy whose name you did not know and never asked out—your only real regret, it turns out. You saw these things you wish you didn’t see but had to somehow—everything you disliked, wanted to destroy, and let sink into oblivion. You saw your social life, and the childhood you might have had, passing you by as you passively sat around. It shaped who you are now.
And now you’re nostalgic—nostalgic and sitting on a seat you despise. You’re sitting on a bench that belongs to the food court, which fills one-fourth of the mall’s space, surrounded by tables and chairs and garbage cans. You bought into what you call a “capitalist farce” for the first time in your adult life. You sat on the bench, leaving your theoretical bullshit aside, to contemplate the real, the concrete, the undeniable. You really are nostalgic. Do you feel humbled?
Still, you’re here only physically. You’re never back from California, are you? You’ve never been, and never will. Since the day you moved to the golden state, everything else turned to bronze. Now you look at the country with San Francisco as the only reference. Nothing has changed in the mall, really, you think, again. Nothing but a few stores which opened and closed—the rise of the powerful, the downfall of the bankrupt. But then, without notice, you realize what’s changed radically, what’s been at the back of your mind although you were oblivious to it. You call yourself stupid because it now strikes you as so evident. The kids don’t look the same anymore—that’s what it is. The Rebeccas, the Tylers, the Jennys, the Jeremys, the pretty little strangers, they’re gone. They’re all gone, with your childhood and the old world. Now you see a brand-new kind of human, one that looks uncannily familiar.
The boys, with their long curly hair, wear hats and t-shirts all branded the same. Logos populate their expensive clothes, drawing from the environment of a place you so well know. They’re waves and skates and mountains, and they give the boys fresh, clean looks. The girls, dressed in bikinis under white tank tops, share about the same sassy demeanor. They give you that look you’ve seen a thousand times before. These kids aren’t yours, nor are they the ones you knew growing up. But you know them still—you know them all too well. You’ve seen their brothers and sisters, wandering in the streets of your neighborhood; you’ve seen their clothes, hung in the vitrines of Oakland boutiques; you’ve heard their language, inflected as that of celebrities on TV shows; and, more importantly, you’ve faced their mortal silence when you tried to teach them political theory in university.
The kids parade through the mall with a can of soda in their hands. As soon as they can, they take their longboard from under their arms. They carry with them broad, arrogant smiles, along with the conviction that their future is certain. They skate down the alley daringly, under the shopkeeper’s unimpressed looks. They dodge skillfully and stylishly the baby-boomer, reactionary judgments. The kids have no time for this bullshit. They’re too busy looking westbound, gazing toward the Pacific Ocean. The sun is warmer in California, their smile reveals—like yours did years ago. You put down your burger for a second. You think. Your nostalgia turns into embarrassment. California got you, and now it got your hometown, too.