Back in 2016, I wrote a giant eulogy for Concord Mall in Elkhart, when they planned on bulldozing the place to put in a strip mall. And I wrote a part two in 2018 when those plans didn’t happen. So now, a few owners and many vacancies later, there is a plan to “reimagine” the mall by building new housing around the perimeter, and turn the mall itself into light industrial space. And the natural conclusion here is that I’d write a giant part three about this. Right?
Honestly, I can’t. I can’t do any of this anymore. I need to take a big step back from this.
* * *
I’ve always been asked what my deal is with malls, why I liked going to them. Even before I worked in malls, even when we were “supposed” to go to the mall in the Eighties because that’s what the zeitgeist told us to do, people wondered why I liked malls, usually in the same tone as if I told them I enjoyed casually drinking turpentine every morning. I never really thought about it at the time, mostly because I liked a lot of things that kids in my class or my neighborhood didn’t like, and vice-versa. They could enjoy the poetry of Johnny Cougar and I could enjoy spending all Saturday at a Waldenbooks memorizing the Dungeons and Dragons manuals.
When I was in college and I no longer had the excuse of working in the mall and my contemporaries found it appalling that I’d want to go to a shopping center and buy nothing instead of going to a sports bar and listening to Johnny Cougar on a jukebox (sorry, John Cougar Mellencamp), I tried to unravel this a bit, and I posited that a mall was calming to me. It wasn’t a social hub for me; the food wasn’t exactly compelling; and I found myself buying fewer things at the mall. My literary tastes extended past Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, and Musicland wasn’t embracing the first wave of Swedish Death Metal, so I had to shop elsewhere for my media purchases. But there was something relaxing about walking a lap or two through the College Mall in Bloomington, even if I wasn’t shopping or hanging out with friends.
And the lens of nostalgia has a very nonlinear focal length for me, especially as I age. I started working on my first book, Summer Rain, in 1995, because I was nostalgic for the summer of 1992. Right now, the summer of 2020 feels like it happened fifteen minutes ago, and I can’t imagine being nostalgic about it. But the years between high school and the end of college felt like decades. Summers lasted years. I made a joke about my summer starting because I just finished school, then couldn’t remember what month it was, then realized kids are going back to school next week. Time has collapsed on itself. But back then, I could easily be nostalgic about a time that had only happened a matter of months before.
Anyway… so I bugged out of the midwest, and malls became more important to me, because they were a tie back to my past, my life in the middle states. When I lived in Seattle and Seattle was too much and I needed to regress and think about the past and college and how much I liked not having bills or corporate responsibilities or whatever, I would go to Northgate Mall and walk a few laps. It relaxed me. It was a neutral place, but more importantly, it was a connection to my former life. I could ignore the present and think about happier times.
And it wasn’t just malls. I would have these other ties to my Midwestern roots. Drop me in any city, and the first thing I’ll do is look for a McDonald’s, or see what’s at Taco Bell. I’ll look for the pieces of Americana that are deep-rooted in my DNA. I lived in New York at a time of exponential growth and radical change and a million unique cultural opportunities, but would take two MTA trains and a PATH train for an hour and a half to walk around a Sears in New Jersey and buy nothing. I remember one time walking an hour at night deep into Queens to go to the only 7-Eleven within the greater New York area. Me and Joel used to go to the only Taco Bell at the time on West 4th, even though it was infested with rats. I remember having a dream once that I found a secret Kroger store hidden in Fort Lee, and I could walk across the George Washington bridge to shop there. I don’t know why this stuff was so important to me. And yes, it’s all commercialized generic corporate garbage, and it’s stupid to pine over getting a Big Gulp when I could get a large vat of Coke virtually anywhere. The Coke wasn’t important. The teleportation to the past was.
* * *
Thirty-some years pass. I live in four or five different cities. I visit a half-dozen countries, and almost every state. Right around the time I start looking for places to log my daily ten thousand daily steps in the FitBit, I seek out a few malls in the area. They are my teleporters. They remind me of the past. They relax me. I like that. But… there’s something wrong with it. I ignore it. I wrote about it here about four years ago, as an aside, but still ignore it.
What is wrong?
* * *
In Greek, “nostalgia” literally means, “the pain from an old wound.” (I stole this from Mad Men, which is not only a nostalgic look at the Sixties, but aired in 2007, which itself is nostalgic for some.) I have a lot of problems with nostalgia. I burn a lot of cycles trying to remember old things, look at old pictures, dig up newspaper articles and videos. It is tranquil, soothing. It’s like a drug to me. I get that little kick of dopamine every time I see a picture of Concord Mall and imagine it’s 1987 and I’m just getting off of work and walking to my car to listen to the new Anthrax album. Flipping through a stack of photos from thirty years ago is sometimes like tucking a half-tab of Ativan under my tongue and letting it melt into my mouth. It’s chemical. It’s amazing.
But there is a pain to it. You can never go back. You can never be that person in the past anymore. You aren’t them anymore. And maybe you never were them, or at least you weren’t what you think they are now. And do you really want to go back? And what is the end goal of swallowing your own tail like this? Where does it end?
I would find myself chasing this too much. I would subscribe to newspapers dot com and become so compulsive about finding stuff, I would need to force myself to unsubscribe. I had to install software on my Mac to prevent me from looking at Zillow and eBay during my writing time, or I would spend hours looking up places I’d lived and things I used to own. Like any drug, each successive hit was just a little less potent, and the next one was just a touch harder to find.
They built an entire empire on this horrible chemical trick: social media. Facebook and Instagram are designed to make you feel bad the more you use them. They are made to pull you in. They pump you full of these images of panacea as fast as possible, but intersperse them with things that piss you off, like when junk food makers found that mixing sweet and salty made you eat ten times as much. When I would fall into these nostalgia holes and scroll and scroll and look for more, my emotions honestly got far more worse than they would be abusing any physical drug. And never mind all the stupid social situations and arguments and drama I ended up in.
And in the meat-world, all the escape hatches were being boarded shut. Malls shuttered. Stores closed. I used to hate Sears as a kid, because I worked at Wards. Suddenly I was deeply saddened because they were all vanishing. I would feel a profound malaise every weekend when I went to Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton to walk my laps because I would pass this big dead Sears and remember how just a couple of years ago, I’d walk a lap through there and see the Christmas stuff and the tools and the appliances and I really missed all of it. I never worked at Sears. I never shopped at Sears. Prior to the end of 2016, I’d never set foot in that mall or the Sears. Why was I so bent out of shape about this? When Hilltop Mall closed a few years ago, I was so upset about it, because it reminded me so much of the long-gone Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, even though the two don’t look anything alike, and I probably only went to Hilltop maybe a dozen times in a four-year period.
Westgate is pulling out of San Francisco. Hilltop is getting turned into a Prologis warehouse. Stoneridge has two dead anchors and just sold its JC Penney and half of its parking lot to people who want to carve out apartment buildings. Sunvalley is about one bad Macy’s quarter from losing two anchors, and the other two are Sears and a JCP that was already slated to close once. Tanforan got sold. Honestly, any Simon indoor mall is in imminent danger of being sliced up into a “lifestyle center” full of generic 5-over-1 apartments.
Why am I attaching my well-being to something that is collapsing? Why do I think I was happier in the past? Why am I defining my joy with a road to nowhere? Why? Why?
* * *
I’ve come to a realization about this. For me, nostalgia is a trauma response. It’s a form of dissociation. I don’t want to be in whatever I’m in, so I walk a lap in a mall and I’m not in my current depression. I’m in 1988 and I’m ten steps from a Karmelkorn and I can get a corn dog and a cherry coke and sit at the fountain and everything is gone. It’s a nice feeling. It’s an escape.
The problem is that I’m escaping to a time that was arguably worse than now. I grew up in an abusive, xenophobic, myopic, poverty-stricken place. When I was 17, I wasn’t thinking about how wonderful it was in Elkhart. I was thinking about how much I needed to get the fuck out of that city, that state, away from those people, my abusers, in any way possible. I knew I had to get to college, but I also fantasized that if I didn’t, I would just hitchhike to Las Vegas or LA or Seattle or somewhere, and vanish, start over. I absolutely needed to leave, and I did. So why do I want to go back to that?
I don’t mean this to be a big shit-on-the-Midwest thing. For obvious reasons I won’t go into because I don’t blog about politics, news is a big problem for my mental well-being. Dwelling on the news, reading the bad news, keeping up with politics, it’s basically the same as the nostalgia thing without the upside. And when I read the news about what’s going on in Indiana, it bothers me a lot. I don’t live in Indiana. I don’t have any need to spend time there. It’s best if I avoided reading about it. Yet… I have a coping mechanism that involves me thinking about it? I feel a need to make myself better by going back to my abusers and my trauma, because it was “a better time?” This makes no sense. Why am I doing this?
* * *
I need a new hobby. I can’t deal with this anymore. If I want to create and I want to have a life and grow and become a better person, I need to turn myself around and stop looking back. I need to be a better person, and I need to surround myself with things that make me happy. I can’t keep dwelling on a memory that didn’t even happen.
I’m done. This is over. I have to move on.