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Home: The Toast

All malls smell this same, which is mostly true. Auntie Annie’s pretzels and floor wax and perfume and air conditioning. All department stores are laid out the same way, which is actually true, and which gives me great comfort. Ladies shoes, handbags, jewelry, perfume, cosmetics, exit. Into the mall.

I grew up in malls–or, rather, I grew up in many different places, but the malls were always the same.

1. Regency Square Mall, Jacksonville, FL

8532828542_a01f59978b_nIt was right down the street from the library, and when I think back, I’m not sure which I loved more. At the library, I could take home as many books as I wanted. At the mall, I usually got what I wanted because I was the youngest. Books at one, or new clothes or toys and fast food at the other. Any of those things can still placate me, just as any trip to the mall did and does so now. I hear you’ve gone downhill since 1986, Regency Square, and that makes me sad. But the library is still there.

2. Hanes Mall, Winston-Salem, NC

2425964720_922c82b8a1_nHanes Mall–my adolescent love. My dad worked for a division of Hanes (Leggs, specifically. We always had boxes and boxes of pantyhose in those plastic eggs) before the divorce. And that made me feel like Hanes Mall was my mall. I still do, even though it’s been almost twenty years since I’ve been there.

My friends and I bought IBC Root Beer in brown glass bottles from the Crown Drugs because we thought/hoped the mall cops would think it was beer. I was terrified of getting into trouble, but I went along with it anyway. There were the semi-chaperoned visits in 5th grade, where I could walk around with a friend, and my mom walked around by herself, and we never passed her in the halls. Then, after the divorce, she started working in the bridal department at Belk’s and I learned how to use an ATM just outside on the second floor because I was trading her guilt for money. I was old enough to walk around alone or with friends by then and I would buy a cassingle or a cassette, a slice of pizza, the IBC. Or the $2.10 cookie on a stick with a frosting smiley face + small Coke deal at the Cookie Factory that I still dream about. Not long after, I was going on “mall dates” with a boy who was 6’3″ (in the 7th grade) and who thought I broke up with him (not at the mall) because he “walked too fast” (at the mall). I didn’t dissuade him from thinking that because I didn’t know how to tell him I only liked him because he liked me, which meant I didn’t really like him.

Then there was that time, in Spencer’s Gifts, when I think some guy fondled my ass. But I wasn’t sure and I’m still not. That fall, when a shopgirl told me and my best friend: “If you put a flannel over that, you’d be totally grunged out,” and we laughed and laughed at her and left the store. I still have the first shirt I ever bought at Abercrombie when it was still new, at least in North Carolina, with the money from my 13th birthday party that got out of control. The boys in my grade took lighter fluid from my dad’s workbench and drew a pentagram in the cul-de-sac in front of our house and lit it on fire. They put it out with their urine (at my birthday party, not at the mall).

We moved away from Hanes Mall the summer after my freshman year, and I was heartbroken. But I hold tightest to one memory there, the time my brother, older than me by seven years—a lifetime at 17 and 10—offered to drive me to the mall, just to be nice, and R.E.M’s “Orange Crush” came on the radio and I said I liked it and he said he did, too. And I got out of his car and walked into the cool mall air on a Saturday afternoon feeling like I had gotten his stamp of approval for life.

3. The Broadway Mall, Hicksville, NY

67932828_4483b9cde2_nI started my long career in retail selling children’s clothes at Broadway Mall, in Hicksville, NY, where we moved from North Carolina. The Broadway Mall was no Hanes Mall. But as soon as I had a car and a license, I retreated there, where everything was where I knew it would be and I was free of my new, strange classmates. I never seemed to see them when I was working at Gymboree—the place of my first good, adult decision. I decided not to work at the Gap, so I wouldn’t spend my whole paycheck there. But I spent almost my whole paycheck there, on my breaks, anyway, watching the sales and making friends with the managers. I took off my Gymboree denim shirt and khaki capris to try on different khaki capris.

There was the Ruby Tuesday’s with a salad bar in the Broadway Mall (which we always identified with the definite article), and I got a salad to-go and ate in the back room when I was sick of McDonald’s.   When they built the new wing and movie theatre, we called it “the new mall.” I’d still call it that, if I ever went back, which I don’t, even though it is less than 40 miles away from my current apartment and easily accessible by train. I remember driving to work after a hard day at school, smoking cloves and getting there dizzy and light-headed, afraid I was doing something like driving drunk and how much that scared me. That’s how I felt almost my whole time in Long Island—about to do something wrong, unsure of what I was supposed to do next, looking around thinking: “Wait, haven’t I been here before?” Familiar but strange. Searching for the familiar in my malls. But in my khakis and denim, collared shirt, folding miniature khakis and denim shirts and collared shirts, I grew up just enough to go to college.

4. The Oakes Mall, Gainesville, FL

6277973187_fb18341bb2_nI transferred to the Gymboree in the Oakes Mall my sophomore year of college, in the same khakis and denim. The Oakes Mall wasn’t so different from Hanes Mall, and became another kind of home—one my parents never stepped foot in—where I thought I was an adult. I became a manager, worked more hours, became way too invested in matching socks and hairbows. I socked away parenting tips from the moms I worked with because, surely, I’d be having kids soon. Definitely before I was 30. (FYI, Skittles are an effective potty-training bribe.) I was 20. Thinking—while refolding tshirts for 4-year-olds around a Plexiglass board that produced the most perfect creases and satisfying stacks of thick cotton—that maybe I could work retail for the rest of my life, fit writing in around my shifts, not go to grad school, not get an MFA. Especially while [redacted college boyfriend] was in medical school. We’d need the money, after all. I was doing fine in college. Great, even. I didn’t need to try harder. I didn’t need to write more. I was doing fine. Coasting. That was okay, because these socks matched those tops and leggings and I held the record for largest single sale for three years, to a woman who came up from Puerto Rico once a year. $1200. I picked out engagement rings [redacted college boyfriend] could buy me (that he would never buy me) from the jewelry store circulars that came in the mall mail. I still spent my paychecks at the Gap on my breaks.

5. Turtle Creek Mall, Hattiesburg, MS

3298098773_518c0772ee_nThis mall sucked and the Gymboree there did not meet my standards. I went in to survey it when I visited the campus of the university of where I would get my MFA, and I was appalled. (There was no more [redacted college boyfriend]. I had cut bait, as they say. Second adult decision ever.) Turtle Creek Mall was dark and old-looking. Barely two anchor stores. The woman working at the Gymboree when I walked in was wearing jeans. It was a mess. I knew I would go in there, get the job of course, and try to change everything. Get everyone back on dress code. Refold every shirt. Rearrange things according to the company mandated GymMap. I knew I would do this instead of writing in the MFA program I was being paid to go to and I knew everyone at Gymboree would hate me. Instead, I just wandered through the halls, past the American Eagle and the Buckle and the Wilson’s Leather that was only there at Christmas, waiting for the welcoming, familiar mall-feeling that never came. Alone and lonely and spending too much of my grad school loans on bigger clothes because everything in Mississippi was fried and delicious, except the food at this food court. Worst food court ever (except for its Chik-Fil-A.) Writing was hard. I did some writing in Mississippi, but I made it harder for myself and I was lonely. I wanted a cookie with a smiley face.

I cut bait again. I wrote intensely for 3 months and graduated early to get out of Mississippi, and I shipped a trunk and six boxes, mostly clothes from the Gap and books, to New York. I sold the rest of my stuff, packed my car, and drove north.

I do not miss the Turtle Creek Mall.

6. The Broadway Mall Redux, Hicksville, NY/Roosevelt Field, Garden City, NY

8736573377_5400314808_nI walked back into Gymboree at the Broadway Mall and my old manager there remembered me and offered me a job on the spot. It was twice the pay as when I’d left, but now I had an MFA, so that was clearly worth it. I was just there until I could get a job in the City, and I was living with a friend’s parents because my mom moved closer to her first grandchild (not mine). Here I was again, back in the safe arms of the mall, watching the morning speedwalkers as I pulled up the loud metal gate. Entering in my employee ID, which was the same from when I was 17 and in college, folding things. Selling the doll wearing the dress that the toddler can wear, too. The food court had gotten was only slightly better since I’d graduated high school, but there was always the Ruby Tuesday’s. Soon I was picking up shifts at the fancier mall, Roosevelt Field, a few towns over because it was taking longer to find a job in the City than I thought. The fancy mall had a Johnny Rockets and a Tiffany’s and I’d bought my Jessica McClintock prom dress there.

I was driving the roads I’d driven in high school, which was weird for me, because malls were the only places that were familiar. I was a grown up now. Graduated. Master’s degree. I’d written some stuff, but not things I was sending out into the world. I wanted my real life to start now, thank you. Where I knew what I was doing and stayed in one place that did or did not have a mall, where I could walk around in the world and get somewhere, not just circle back around to the JC Penney’s. I was scared to leave the mall, because it had been so good to me, because it was where I’d felt safest, even when I wasn’t, really. I had to leave, though, and so after 6 months, I quit both malls, left Nassau County, and moved to Brooklyn, where, at the time, there was barely any mall to speak of.

Now we have a Target at the Atlantic Center. And an H&M and a Gap Outlet at the Fulton Mall, which isn’t a real mall, because it’s outdoors. But I still walk down there sometimes, on my way home from work at the job I’ve happily had for the last 7 years, in a real career, where I want to be, (though still not really writing, because it’s easier to say this author matches with this editor) to feel the familiar blast of air conditioning when someone walks out of the Armani Exchange, or hear the loud music pumping out of the no-name discount clothing shops where the dresses last barely a month. I want to hear the rustle of thick plastic shopping bags, and walk slowly behind people walking slowly, because they’re not rushing off to work, because they’re shopping. Buying things that might make them happy. Because the mall might make them happy.

Images via Flickr (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

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Kate McKean is a literary agent in Brooklyn, NY. She's on Twitter.

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