I spent three days in the Mall of America, and all I got was this existential dread

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Pictured: The author, somewhere near the center of a place with no center.

My greatest fear was that the Mall of America would not be big enough.

I didn’t want something merely big. Big is conceivable. I wanted inconceivable. I wanted an imperturbable immensity, a space so large that if one region were threatened, there would be other consecutive regions.

The myth of the Mall of America is that it’s a kind of unsealed pocket in space-time where chain stores repeat infinitely, like corporate fractals. I wanted to be able to see a Cinnabon and -- memory-free, like a goldfish -- not know whether I’d seen that Cinnabon before. I wanted to feel subsumed.

What if the Mall were just a mall? I know malls. I grew up close to one in Memphis called the Oak Court. I used to go there after school and sit vacantly near the decorative fountain, avoiding home, where I would be alone. for hours. If I was going to be alone, I wanted to be alone around others. 

If I didn’t go to Oak Court, I went to Wolfchase (the “good mall”) or to the Mall of Memphis, colloquially referred to as “The Mall of Murder.” The Mall of Murder had an ice rink.

I arrived in Minnesota via air-locked containers -- bus, plane, train -- and a succession of travel centers, each identical to the next, each describable only as “freshly mopped.” I felt less like I’d crossed thousands of miles and more like I’d idled in different parts of the same room for a long time.

At first impression, the Mall seemed feasibly large, if not science-fictionally giant. 

When I finally made it to the rotating doors, my stomach twinged with a familiar adrenal rush. Plinky music fell from somewhere above. I smelled cookies. Not normal cookies, mall cookies. I saw the entrance to an aquarium in the basement and, beyond that, the ridges of an indoor roller coaster. I had arrived.

In March, the Mall of America offered four days residence, a $2,500 honorarium, and a bunch of vouchers to a writer who might commemorate the Mall's 25-year anniversary. I applied to the residency late one night with an unmemorable pitch (something about an oral history of the food court) and never heard back. In late spring, the Mall announced that the residency had gone to Brian Sonia-Wallace, a live art poet who writes on an antique typewriter and is interested in “eco-consciousness.”

I was disappointed, but undeterred. I’ve read the beginning of enough Wikipedia articles to know that fame and fortune don’t come to those who wait around. Maybe Sonia-Wallace had the keys to the kingdom, but there’s usually a spare under the mat. A new plan — born of necessity, born of boredom — began to manifest.

I truly wanted to be the mall’s Writer in Residence. And if you truly want something, you sometimes have to buy $120 round-trip tickets on a budget airline to fly to Bloomington, Minnesota, and make your fate. You have to accept, in kind, that you are the level of unemployed where an unplanned trip to spend three consecutive days camped out in a mall, the Mall, is your normal. If I could not be the Mall of America's first-ever official Writer-in-Residence, I would its first-ever unofficial writer-in-residence.

In early June, I boarded a Chinatown bus from New York to Philadelphia, where I spent a sleepless night listening to soul-flavored Muzak in the Philadelphia airport, then took a 6 a.m. flight to the Twin Cities. I arrived at the Mall in an exhausted daze, ready for what promised to be the great literary experience of my youngish life. Or, at least, a literary experience.

The Mall is Big

Before arriving in Bloomington, I’d agreed to a semi-ascetic engagement. I would buy only food and the occasional ticket to an attraction. Also, my budget airline makes you pay for carry-ons, so shopping was out of the question.

My only solid goal was to try to know the extent of the Mall’s breadth.

The Mall of America consists of 520 stores, 50 restaurants, and two hotels. It is owned by the Triple Five Group, a development corporation helmed by the Ghermezians, Canadian moguls who also built the massive West Edmonton Mall. Triple Five Group is regularly reported to be in talks to develop other, larger malls on the North American continent, but to date none of those projects have come to fruition.

The geographic center of the Mall of America is also the center of an indoor amusement park known now as Nickelodeon Universe, formerly Camp Snoopy. The park sits beneath vaulted glass ceilings and is abutted by four floors of marble hallway. To stand in the middle of the Mall is to know you are at the crux of a place that is crux-less, unified by neither form or design.

No true center of a mall exists, only a suggested midpoint, and this is what makes the experience so pleasantly limitless.

What did it mean to be a writer in residence of this place? The Mall isn’t exactly a place at all, it is every place. Its only semi-original feature is a Wisconsin-themed store that sells cheese hats. I’d never been to the MoA before but I’d been a million times. To write it would be like trying to describe the face of a loved one -- how can you really see something you’ve seen so often, something that feels so unquestionable, so entirely natural? All I knew was that I had to try.

It was there, positioned somewhere in the unknowable cosmos known as Nickelodeon Universe, that I began my unappointed residency.

How and Where Do You Write In the Mall of America?

I tried to stop first at one of the food courts, called (in gutted English) simply “Culinary on North.” But because it was impossible to tell which way was North without a compass or map kiosk, I didn’t find it. I did find three Caribou Coffees, architectonically variant but spiritually identical, and an attraction called the Amazing Mirror Maze. The Amazing Mirror Maze, a 1980s-looking theme park diversion encased in a third-floor storefront, bore a sign that said, “YOU ARE BEING WATCHED AT ALL TIMES.” I’d figured as much.

I paid the lithe teenager behind the counter $9, and he gave me a set of plastic food service gloves so that I wouldn’t leave fingerprints on the mirror maze.

I got genuinely lost in the Amazing Mirror Maze -- “TRULY A-MAZE-ING” -- and, in that respect, it felt identical to the other parts of the Mall, only with more eighs casino carpet. Mirrors are everywhere throughout the Mall. Time and again over the course of the day, I observed myself in these mirrors, looking wan and exhausted.

No quiet place exists in the entire Mall. You can always hear at least a song playing, and usually two songs -- one in the foreground from whatever retailer you happen to be near, and one in the background from the Mall itself. (They played a double-time club version of “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman several times. I swear, I heard it.) I brought headphones, because a long stay at the Mall requires periods of abstention and deprogramming.

Every few hours I’d find a Caribou Coffee, recharge my phone, and loop a track called “White Noise” through headphones. This helped me to stay focused (on what, I don’t know, perhaps my soul) and to fight the creeping urge to buy Yankee Candles in bulk. I did stop to smell a candle called “Man Town.” Man Town smelled like an ottoman.

The Nordstrom Cafe on a weekday morning lies abandoned, with wide-ranging views of the Minneapolis airport, the Ikea, and an eight lane expressway. Coffee is cheap and comes with a complimentary biscuit. I determined the Nordstrom Cafe was the best place to write inside the Mall of America, in amongst its seven foliage plants, which must live utterly confused plant lives there at the Mall.

The worst place in the Mall to write is the Starbucks inside the Barnes and Noble because 1) it’s acoustically horrible 2) you’re surrounded by "adult coloring books" more publishable than anything you will ever write, and 3.) the Barnes and Noble is too close to the exit of the Mall, and thus too close to reminders of what you might otherwise be doing with your life.

Like all malls everywhere, the Mall of America operates on a narrow fiction, a pseudo-democratizing shadow of collectivity. The architect Rem Koolhaas would have dubbed the Mall a “Junkspace.” The Mall needs you to not assert anything. For maximum success, it’s best to occupy what Koolhaas called “a state of post-revolutionary gawking.”

I tried my best.

Post-Revolutionary Gawking

I went to an attraction called Fly Over America for which visitors are strapped into a moving bench and hoisted into the middle of a 360-degree theater, spritzed with water and blasted with air, and made to feel as if they are flying over rural America. I read a guide to the Mall of America inside the Barnes and Noble.

The other mid-week Mall denizens seemed to be mostly tourists, or solo women, plus the occasional group of after-school teenagers. The Mall is a great place to be ignored. Barely anyone spoke or even looked at me the whole time that I was there. Once, a woman with bleached hair asked me, “Did I just see you before?” I had no idea. “Maybe,” I told her. We smiled at each other balmily.

I wanted to know the Mall’s secrets. Everyone does. The idea that the incredibly smooth space -- an interlocking network of gleaming escalators and soundless elevators -- hides a nefarious underbelly makes intuitive sense. Perfect facades are always kept perfect through some dark mechanics.

Whenever I did talk to strangers, I asked if they knew any weird things about the Mall. CJ, 17, cherub faced with curly hair, riding beside me on the Dora-the-Explorer-themed ferris wheel, told me about the basement. “It’s giant! It’s like, twice as big as the whole mall. And there are whole roads down there,” he said, while we made creeping progress up the wheel.

CJ recently got a job working for Nickelodeon Universe, where he makes minimum wage. He’d been to the basement for training. “People drive around on golf carts, but there are no signs or anything so everyone just honks all the time. It’s like this huge space, and everyone is honking constantly.”

I examined the other sutures in the Mall’s skin. In one corner, recently abandoned by the former anchor retailer Bloomingdale's, some sort of hidden test proctoring took place. I peered in the door: massive concrete ceilings, cubicles demarcated by number.

Another time, I saw a whole police K-9 unit emerge from an unmarked door. I walked the exterior perimeter of the Mall. In one outdoor corner, on an out-of-the-way patio that connected to nothing, a man slept. I wondered how long it had been since another pedestrian had passed through here.

The Answer Is Yes!

On the third day of my residency, I ate lunch at the American Girl Doll Bistro before heading to the theme park. The American Girl Doll store features displays of dolls in neat ascendent rows, organized by race, like the crayon-box version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A sign over the dolls says that they are “Truly Me!” dolls. Another sign reads, unhelpfully: “Scientist, Writer, or Gymnast? The answer is Yes!”

The host at the the American Girl Doll Bistro, a displaced-looking middle-aged man wearing a headset, asked me if I’d like to dine with a doll. A neat row of dolls lay at the ready, attached to pink chairs that you could snap to your table. Already painfully aware I was the only unaccompanied adult in the doll bistro, I declined. All around me, tiny girls sat in picturesque arrangements with their dolls.

Tiny tea cups in front of the dolls lay untouched. The totemism at play seemed natural, powerful. I intuited a hierarchy: At the top, dolls. Then, little girls. Then, older women. Lastly, the men. A man in the American Girl Doll bistro is kept outside the magic. Indeed, the magic depends on keeping the men outside. Only then can the dolls remain on top.

When I went to the bathroom, the inside of the stall featured a strange ornament -- a tiny metal restraint, labelled “Doll Holder,” with an illustration of how you might hang your doll so she can watch while you peed. You are meant to hang her crucifixion style. Better cultural theorists than me can explain what this means.

I ordered a veggie burger from a waitress who also serves tiny food to dolls. Through the window, Nickelodeon Universe expanded and contracted in predictable movements, a series of causal actions and reactions caught up in the sad maw of time. I knew this would be my last day here. Not just on this trip, but probably forever. What had brought me here in the first place? Would anything ever bring me back?

That afternoon, I rode a Spongebob-themed rollercoaster and played a game where you race a VR drone through a space desert. I got on the old log flume, which passes through a cave of Paul Bunyon-themed animatronics, and shot ghosts in a ghost-shooting ride. I regarded the small children I sat beside on rides with neutral benefaction. They regarded me with neutral suspicion. On the roller coaster, I avoided the gaze of a brunette boy with a nametag that said “Trucky.”

As dusk fell through the glass ceiling, I filed into the House of Comedy in the Mall's fourth-floor "club district." There, I watched a show alongside a group of 20 old-timers who’d once served together in the Navy. I listened to the comedian tell jokes about cats, and about marriage. I zoned in and out as she engaged in a call-and-response with the frigaters.

What had come of my residency?

Only, dear readers, an increased imperative to put this Mall into words. Because otherwise, it will not be recalled. It will phase out of consciousness like bright sunlight behind a closed mini-blind. It’s not made to be remembered. It’s made to occupy a forever-present white marble chasm in the surface of the world. In the hours in which I walked the Mall, the powerful, odorless sameness obliterated my memory and left me new, a babe born and born again. I never tired of the Mall.

I never felt anything about it at all. It is impossible to love a place you cannot hate.

But I did, improbably, become older. I lost hours off a finite life in circular progress around the Lego flagship store. The Mall makes for a good purgatory, but it isn’t a place for the living.

My residency concluded on the same note it began. I felt unchanged, if a bit physically beat from all the escalator riding and mediocre food. I’d kept a journal but what I’d written -- impressions, rather than complete thoughts -- felt like patchwork that never formed a full quilt. What remained was a hunger. I wanted pink sneakers, a candle, a bodycon dress. I wanted to sit in the cool dark dressing rooms of the American Eagle and imagine myself at the ocean, looking hot.

I had not only heard Muzak. I felt as if I was Muzak, such was my state of personality erasure.

As the Mall of America’s unofficial writer-in-residence, I was utterly alone, impeccably resident, consistently amused. I had attempted to capture the Mall but it had, instead, captured me.

I took an elevator down four floors and exited into the warm Minnesota evening.

Eileen Townsend is a freelance writer. She lives in Memphis.


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