Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Baby powder air freshener time machine

I went to New Jersey yesterday, in an effort to see something other than my job and my apartment for once. It was okay. I’ve been trying to sleep without Tylenol PM lately, and went through the whole week without taking any. By Friday night at about 11:00, I was pretty much dead, and fell asleep. That meant I woke up way early and spent the morning reading in bed. After that, I went to Neptune for a grilled cheese, then hopped the subway down to 34th street. Then I got a ticket and got on a PATH train to New Jersey for the trip to the Newport Mall.

I know a lot of people go to NJ every day, but it’s still a rare novelty for me to take the PATH. It’s a completely different train system than the MTA, with different cars, different announcements, little paper tickets, and fairly clean train stations that look much more modern than the century-old New York system. I only go to Newport maybe once a year, and it always reminds me of when I first lived in New York and found it a really Big Deal to go out there.

I guess part of it is that I never go to malls anymore unless I’m in another city on vacation, and I have this strange obsession with them. Even when I am not buying stuff, when I’m not shopping, I still used to love to go to malls and just walk around and look at people. I grew up working in the Concord Mall after years of riding my bike there as a kid, and then I spent a lot of college going to the mall in Bloomington to do my laundry, go to Morgenstern’s, shop at Target, and just walk around the place. In Seattle, when I didn’t really have any money to do anything for the first year I was there, I would always drive to different malls, trying to find new ones to check out. I know that all sounds strange and pathetic, and I know a lot of people think the mall is the death of society and the symbol of homogenization of our culture, but I guess I see it differently. A mall is a huge open space that’s always static, the perfect place to go during the winter when you can’t walk around outside, but strolling a mile or two indoors might get things going. The culture of the mall is very relaxing, at least to me, and it always seemed futuristic in the sense that so many different wares are presented in this single modern building, the next step toward just having a teleporter that magically made corn dogs and new CDs for you to consume.

New York City doesn’t have malls, of course. You’re supposed to go from store to store in the rain and sleet and shop from an even more limited selection that’s marked up 400% because the place has to pay an insane rent to keep the store going, and you’re supposed to like it. I don’t care about the shopping aspect, seeing as I just buy everything I need online, but the giant open space aspect is something I miss. There are malls within a dozen or two miles of NYC, but without a car, most of them are not reachable. I know that seems silly, seeing as we lived in Elkhart and would drive to South Bend to shop all the time, but a Target store four miles away from me here is practically unreachable because it’s not on a subway line.

I got out to Jersey City, and the first thing I notice off the train is the faint perfumy smell of whatever they use to clean out the stations. It smells almost exactly like some kind of baby powder air freshener that was in my mom’s old station wagon in the summer of ’93, when I had to borrow it every night and drive to my third-shift job. So in addition to memories of the summer of ’99 and when I first explored the PATH, I also have memories of Indiana twelve years ago as I walk up the tile-lined tunnel that empties out to the street level.

The area around the Newport Mall is that sort of generic suburban commercial genre of architecture, with lots of five or ten story office towers covered in mirrored or emerald glass, belonging to anonymous insurance companies. It’s a drastic change from the buildings-everywhere look of Manhattan, where everything is a hundred years old and brick, instead of late Eighties corporate expansion modernism. It reminds me of the east side of Seattle, or the north side of Indy, or any outlying part of a major California city. The transition from Penn Station to the open air surrounding these buildings always astonishes me. It also makes me think that I’m some kind of weirdo, the only person who actually enjoys being around office sprawl architecture instead of the look of New York City.

You have to walk through an office building to get to the mall, and then you’re in a typical Simon mall. Simon owns a bajillion malls in America, including College Mall in Bloomington; Northgate Mall in Seattle; and Newport Centre in Jersey. I can tell I’m in one of their malls the moment I set foot in it, just from the arrangement of the stores and the look of the common areas. It seems like every one of their malls is a wormhole into some other part of my past, which is another reason I like to go there.

I didn’t actually spend a lot of time at the mall once I got there; I was mostly interested in the trip, in killing a few hours to get out of the house and do something different. I made a couple of laps of all of the stores, walking through the three stories and looking at the shops for anything I might need or want to buy. I did spend some time at Sears looking at power tools, but didn’t really think it would be worthwhile to spend a few hundred bucks on a table saw and then haul it home on the PATH. I also went to the pet store and looked at the dogs, wishing I had a big house with a yard so I could get one or two of them. Mostly I just window-shopped, then got bored and headed back to Manhattan, so I could go to Best Buy and blow some money on new DVDs.

I had a state tax check burning a hole in my pocket this weekend too, but I dumped it into E*Trade and bought some stock. Despite the fair amount of stupid discretionary spending I’ve done this year, I’ve actually managed to sock away some cash. I wonder if that trend will continue. (Probably not, especially when I start thinking about vacation again.)

Made tacos tonight, for the first time in a while. Sunday turned into taco night for a while, a worthwhile tradition. I just finished reading a book about the post-Soviet expatriate bubble when capitalism briefly flourished and everyone bought lots of Russian bonds at 220% interest and drank thousand-dollar champagne like it was kool-aid, until the bottom fell out in ’98 or so. I have a stack of other books to read now, I need to find out what is next. It’s good reading weather, dark and cold outside, the perfect conditions for bundling up in bed with a good book…