Monday, October 31, 2005

Omega Julius Man: Xmas Redux

The grim reaper of retail lives in Johnson County and I’m not talking about the Burlington Coat Factory. This year I decided to purchase all my family Christmas gifts at the dead mall. My shrink declared that I was in the throes of a passive-aggressive episode.

She said, “Keep the receipts in case you get a moment of clarity before the stores close on Christmas Eve.”

“Nonsense,” I said. And besides, who pays a shrink for shopping tips? “I’ll be back on the couch after New Year’s Day. We can dissect the terse wording in the thank you notes I’m sure to receive when I return.”

Visiting the dead mall during the holiday season is the closest we narcissistic suburbanites come to witnessing the aftermath of the apocalypse. Natural disasters and riots aside, exploring an indoor shopping center that has lost its proverbial luggage store is the ultimate exercise in consumer ennui.

Parking was not a problem. I walked in a side door where barefoot kids with smiling eyes sold Chiclets to the new arrivals. The enterprising sales lad assured me these third-world sweetmeats wouldn’t stick to Grandma’s dental work.

I listened for the faint sound of falling water and followed my ears past a padlocked door. "Orange Julius is closed?" I asked, with mock astonishment. "And Mastercuts and Thom McCann too? They're all gone." Sad news indeed, Jim McKay. I wondered what else wasn't here as I circled the penny fountain on the ground floor.

There was no Santa this year. Once during the Nixon administration he parachuted into the mall parking lot on the day after Thanksgiving. Suburban kids waited in the crisp autumn air and looked skyward for a sleigh or a small Cessna. I wondered if his chute would open.

This yuletide ghost town fascinated me despite Saint Nick’s conspicuous absence. I looked through the shuttered entryway of a K.G. Men's wear and saw a few forgotten sock hangers strewn on the carpet. It evoked a feeling similar to the low level of background radiation left over from the big bang. Or maybe I confused this vague notion with the low level of Orange Julius drink powder residue that coursed through my veins after 30 years. In this post-galleria age they became one.

Exploring the dead mall for gift ideas allowed me to live out an Omega Man fantasy. I looked past the long-gone storefronts of B. Dalton bookseller and Lady Footlocker and prowled the inner-most recesses of this skeleton city like Charlton Heston with a shotgun and fuel can in tow. I searched for a glimpse of last year's calendar left hanging above the empty check out counter at the formal wear outlet. It's a moment frozen forever, like the pit-stains in the last tux rental back from the homecoming dance. My kingdom for a burgundy cummerbund. Just Dad’s size, and marked down 50% on the rent-to-own table. Score!

There was no chance meeting with a faux mannequin Rosalind Cash on this shopping foray; only surprise encounters with other mutant mall tenants. They are the last paying customers on the manifest: a rug emporium, a Chinese restaurant with the life-saving street entrance, or Dr. Zerbe's dental care office. A sign in the window touted “every check-up has a happy ending”. It sounded like they were pulling more than teeth in there, but you gotta pay the rent.

Mr. Bulky covered expenses. Confectionery traders filled the scales with chocolate gold coins and there was a run on gummy while I was there. A young girl with a headset bought virtual kilos of gummy bears, worms, and o-rings before she got the word on her flip phone. “Sell, sell!” Many customers held worthless sacks of the rubber confection when the frenzy subsided.

“If you can’t take the heat, get yourself to Topsy’s post haste,” the ebullient candy broker said. “You heard me, popcorn,” and pointed my way. I traded my Chiclets for five pounds of Pez and left.

A carnival calliope serenaded mall walking zombies in orthopedic athletic shoes. In this deadest of dead malls, the organ store played on like the Titanic band. I followed a woman in a purple track suit to the Hickory Farms outlet. The variety pack of cheddar wedges and summer sausage will tickle Mom this Christmas morning.

One name remained on my list; a music lover. Alas Babylon, Record Bar had gone the way of all the other music retailers in this place. Wasn't there a Christian Science reading room in the mezzanine? Who needs an iPod nano when free informational pamphlets make great stocking stuffers. Brother will be so pleased.

I paused to reflect on my successful shopping adventure. A childhood icon fell on hard times and this might be the mall’s last Christmas with all of us kids. Don’t wait too long to gather your returns. If the mall is dead now, it will be an archaeological dig in January. I trudged on in search of the elusive omega julius.

No comments: