The Mall of America

The warm oblivion and eternal present tense of the country's largest mall
More

I used to fly in and out of Minneapolis-St. Paul all the time. When you come in to land there, or soon after you take off, usually you can see just to the south of the airport a huge shape battened to the earth like a Garfield doll stuck to the inside of a car window. The shape is the Mall of America, the largest mall in the United States. It's basically a rectangle with four smaller rectangles at its corners, like Garfield's suction-cup paws. The four rectangles house Sears, Macy's, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale's, the "anchor stores" of the Mall. As it clings, the spraddled shape seems to curve slightly with the earth's roundness.

Sometimes when I came to the airport the Mall of America was among my local destinations. I am an author, and like many in my profession, I am also a traveling salesman, going all over in an attempt to persuade people to spend twenty-five dollars on a hardcover book by me. On two or three book tours I have visited bookstores in the Mall of America and signed copies of my books and introduced myself to store employees who I hope will sell them. Signing books at the Mall of America (or places like it) has become a characteristic experience of the writing life.

Once I was on a book tour and the singer John Denver happened to be following the same bookstore route as I, just a day ahead. He had a book out, but I forget what it was. When I went to a store called Readwell's in the Mall of America, the store manager, a young woman, told me that the day before, John Denver had sat at the same signing table where I was sitting. She added that, true to his hippie persona, John Denver often used the exclamation "Oh, wow!" She said that he had used it so much while at Readwell's that she had gotten a piece of paper and begun to count the times. She showed me the paper, which was a series of lines like | | | | . She had counted them up, and found that during his visit John Denver said "Oh, wow!" at least forty-seven times. John Denver died in a crash while piloting his own plane a few years afterward.

That Readwell's has since closed. At the Mall of America, stores come and go with regularity; when a new one opens, sometimes it's hard to remember what was there before. In that respect the Mall is like television—you know what you're watching when you're watching it, but it slips from your mind when new images appear. At malls, as on TV, history becomes feeble. If I were alone in the Mall, I might drift in an endless present tense, as I do in front of the TV in my hotel room at night, watching whatever's on. As it happens, however, I am not alone on book tours at the Mall. Going from one sales appointment to the next, authors nowadays are usually in the company of author escorts—people who know the local bookstores and media and who drive the authors where they're supposed to go and see that all proceeds smoothly. In the Twin Cities my escort is always a young man named Tim Hedges. Of the dozens of escorts I've had, I rate Tim at the very top.

Tim is tall, with hazel eyes and a wholesome midwestern face. A generous sprinkling of freckles would not be out of place on it if he had them, but somehow he doesn't. They would clash, anyway, with his short hair moussed into spikes, and the shades around his neck on a cord, and the cool Euro grays, blacks, and tans he dresses in. Tim grew up a few miles from the Mall of America, and his memory of the area goes back a ways. When I walk through the Mall with Tim, history revives. "I once took Marianne Faithfull to a movie in that movie theater," Tim will say, as we pass the Mall's multiplex (Faithfull was an author-client he escorted years ago; she had to keep leaving the theater, and the Mall, to smoke). Or he'll recall, at a boarded-up window, "This used to be a store that sold only hot sauce." Or he'll note, "I once spent three hours at a table in front of this store helping Mankind, the professional wrestler, sign copies of his autobiography."

Or, "Once I and a lot of other people worked on an event here on the stage in the Mall rotunda for a celebrity author, who was supposed to read from a book of her poetry. There were hundreds of people in the audience, and a guy got up to introduce her, and meanwhile she was sitting on a chair behind him on the stage talking on her cell phone. So the guy finishes his introduction, and the poet walks up to the podium, and she's still talking on her cell phone, and she holds up her hand like that, and the audience waits for a few minutes while she finishes her conversation. Then she puts the phone away and starts to read."

The Mall and its parking lots cover seventy-eight acres in the city of Bloomington, a suburb just south of the Twin Cities. The Mall structure itself encloses about forty-five of those acres. It is as tall as an eight-story building. Its more than 500 retail stores, plus restaurants, food courts, movie theaters, a bank, a clinic, a wedding chapel, and a business school called National American University, occupy the outer part of the enclosed space, extending down long corridors on four levels. The center of the Mall, a space of about seven acres, is open to the skylights in the ceiling far above. There are trees growing from the floor in this central space, and an amusement park, Camp Snoopy, with a roller coaster, a seventy-four-foot-high Ferris wheel, and a log flume ride whose chlorinated water gives the conditioned air the scent of an indoor swimming pool. Here the Mall floor rolls in small rises and dips, perhaps to encourage the illusion that it is earth and not cement painted gray.

The first time I went to the Mall, Tim took me on a quick detour to an obscure corner of Camp Snoopy. He said he had something he really wanted me to see. Set into the gently rolling gray-painted floor, between a shooting gallery and a photo shop where you could get an old-fashioned picture of yourself in old-fashioned clothes, was a historical marker in the shape of home plate. Made of copper or brass, it bore the words "Metropolitan Stadium Home Plate" and the years "1956-1981."

Had he shown me the site of Alice's rabbit hole, I could not have been more pleased. In this mall innocent of history, in the retail environment's eternal present, the plaque in the floor opened a vista to the past like a wide-screen keyhole. Time really did exist, contrary to what the Mall would have us believe. Specifically: Metropolitan Stadium, Minneapolis- St. Paul's venue for big-league baseball and football, once stood where the Mall now stands. From the sixties until the eighties the Minnesota Twins, of the American League, and the Minnesota Vikings, of the National Football Conference, played here. The small space marked by the home-plate plaque once had more than a hundred thousand eyes focused on it (game seven of the 1965 World Series, between the Twins and the Los Angeles Dodgers, drew 50,596 fans). In the early 1980s the Twins and the Vikings moved to a new stadium, and developers tore down Metropolitan Stadium to build the Mall.

A book tour is not a good opportunity to let your mind wander. You have to pay attention, remember salespeople's and interviewers' names, succinctly summarize your book in a "selling" way, and so on. But when I saw the home-plate plaque, I forgot about that for a moment and sat down on a rustic log bench nearby. In the plaque's immediate airspace invisible fastballs, curve balls, and sliders went zipping by. My mind fell into flashback mode, with few hard facts to go on (though later research supplied them). Before the Twins moved here, they were the Washington Senators, a team usually described with the epithet "hapless," as they sat year after year at the bottom of the league. Calvin Griffith, then their owner, once said he moved them to Minnesota because of Minnesota's lack of black people. "You've got good, hardworking white people here," Griffith said, explaining that they were a better audience for baseball. (Griffith's black players objected to his remarks, and he semi-apologized.) In the Twins' first ten years in Minnesota they improved a lot from when they were the Senators, and also led the American League in attendance.

A man and a woman pushing a crying baby in a stroller stopped on top of the home-plate plaque, unaware of where they were. The baby had already forgotten what she was crying about and looked up mildly at her parents with fresh tears still on her cheeks. The man said, "Do we eat first, and then go to the science museum?" The woman looked down at the baby and asked, "Do you want to do that, Katybug?" The man was standing just to the left of the plate. Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, the greatest Twin long-ball hitter ever, who batted right, stood there many times on the way to a lifetime total of 573 home runs. Rod Carew, another Twins great, batted from the left side as he racked up base hits seemingly at will. Indeed, most players of the period in the American League, and some in the National, vied over that piece of ground at one time or another—Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski and Thurman Munson and Dennis Eckersley and Mark Fidrych and Zoilo Versalles and Jim Rice and Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell ... From the nearby air I conjured Eckersley's long hair and drooping moustache, and the angle of the baseball caps sitting on top of the tall afros that some of the black players wore back then.

The couple with the stroller moved off, and a few moments later a woman with long, stringy hair bleached blonde at the ends and a man with a tattoo of a coyote baying at the moon drifted over the plate. They stood among the ballplaying phantoms with their heads close together, consulting a small folding map of the Mall. On a June day in 1967 Killebrew stepped up to the plate and swung his whip-fast bat and hit the longest home run ever in Metropolitan Stadium. I pictured the ball sailing from someplace near the man's tattooed shoulder far up into the higher regions, where support girders around the Mall's immense air-conditioning ducts are now. So much controlled violence in these few cubic feet of space, to disappear so thoroughly!

Tim Hedges was telling me about the best times he had in Met Stadium, back in the seventies, when he and his friends used to come here on summer nights to watch a pro soccer team called the Minnesota Kicks. He said you could get any kind of drugs or alcohol you wanted in the parking lot, and the stands—he gestured up to his left and right, where the stands had been—were like one big party. Some kind of subverbal trigger in his words caused me to know exactly what he was talking about. Summer partying in the seventies in the Midwest: I had done it myself in Ohio, with my friends, at an outdoor concert arena called Blossom Music Center, in the country between Cleveland and Akron.

Our dope probably even came from the same shipment they were selling up here. I was not that much of a doper. I did drink a lot of beer, though. As Tim talked, I remembered sitting on the grass during a Blood, Sweat & Tears concert, when a girl named Kathy and I invented a game involving a Marlboro cigarette, a bottle of Stroh's beer, and a freshly plucked leaf from the weedy lawn. The game was basically just passing these three things—taking a hit from the cigarette, swigging from the beer, handing along the leaf, and keeping all three moving pretty fast. The game occupied both hands and took concentration, and the mental effort got us even higher as we leaned toward each other, and Kathy's lips were a pleasure to receive a beer bottle or a cigarette from. She and I never had a romance, but playing that beer-cigarette-leaf game on the grass at Blossom was better than some romances I had.

Now I imagined this space without a ceiling, encircled by grandstands, open to the Minnesota summer night. At eighteen in Ohio, I used to go out in summer nights that were warm, slightly hazy, echoing with unmuffled car engines; nights with a buoyant softness in the air, and maybe the scent of freshly turned earth from a farm field, and a gradually darkening summer sky that seemed almost combustible with possibility: the kind of night when you're eighteen and you step out on the front stoop and close the door behind you and you're sure that something exciting is just about to happen. For a moment a memory of those nights hit me, taking me by surprise in the midst of my traveling-author life. In the next moment the vividness of the memory was gone.

Tim knew I knew what he was talking about, though. History is memory shared, even when what's remembered has no particular significance or drama. For a while longer we stood in the timeless time zone hovering around the home-plate plaque. Then we went on our way, one foot after the other, selling in the Mall.

Recently I returned to the Mall to check it out again. I happened to be in Minnesota on other business and had some spare time. I wondered what the Mall would be like when I wasn't just passing through on a book tour. Also, several local people had told me that the Mall was either the main terrorist target in Minnesota or the only terrorist target in Minnesota. I arrived before most of the stores in the Mall had opened, and I walked around for a while outside—an unrewarding experience. On one side was the plain blank wall, on the other the parking lot. Architecturally, the Mall's windowless exterior has about as much character as the exterior of the cartons that contain the products it sells. Many security cameras watch in and around the Mall, and down in the basement guards scan banks of the TV screens the cameras are connected to. I didn't see any of the cameras myself. No police squads and no soldiers patrolled. The only security change I noticed was a policy regarding kids fifteen and under: now they must be accompanied by an adult if they come to the Mall after six in the evening on Fridays and Saturdays. This policy has existed for some time and is not aimed at terrorism.

Inside, the Mall was as I remembered. The same sense of warm oblivion prevailed. Unchanged, too, was the jingling thrill of acquisitive success that always seemed to be occurring just beyond where I could see. On the third floor was the only obvious sign of September 11 I could find: a small store called USA America Pride, which sold various clothes and knickknacks on a patriotic theme. The space looked familiar to me, and I asked the young man behind the counter what had been there before. He said the previous tenant was a store that took your picture and put it on the cover of a magazine and made a poster of it for you. Then I remembered passing by this space with Tim Hedges and noticing the faces of assorted Mall customers smiling out from enlarged "Man of the Year" covers of Time magazine.

Not a single item in the USA America Pride store was made in America. I knew that already, just from common sense, but I began looking at the labels anyway. Blue baseball cap with the letters "FDNY" in white outlined in black on the front: Honduras. Black T- shirt with "Born in the U.S.A." in red-white-and-blue letters: Honduras. Black baseball cap with "American Pride" in red-white- and-blue spangles: Bangladesh. T-shirt with comical image involving bin Laden and a camel: Dominican Republic. Coffee mug with picture of Twin Towers: China. And so on. I asked the young man behind the counter if the store had ever sold any products made in America, and he said he thought there might have been one or two, but he couldn't remember. "If we did sell stuff made in America, you couldn't afford it," he said. "It's just not cost-effective to make such small items."

In fact, most of what the entire Mall sells was made someplace far away. Reading labels in the USA America Pride store put me in an international mood, so I went to store after store on a label-reading binge, collecting countries like a grade-school student doing a geography project. I had not known that the Tommy Hilfiger "Classic Fit" line of blue jeans is made in Turkmenistan. Indeed, a year ago I couldn't have told you where Turkmenistan is, or that it shares a border with Afghanistan. I now know where the United Arab Emirates is too, and that many of its citizens don't like us; somebody there is making a lot of spaghetti-strap tops for Abercrombie & Fitch. The (I assume) hip clothing for sale at the New York & Company store is made not in New York but in China, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, and India. The clothes at Banana Republic come from Turkey, China, Hong Kong, and Macao, none of them banana republics. The Chinese workers who carefully paint the little details on the faces of chess pieces in the shapes of characters from The Simpsons (Marge as queen, Homer as king, Lisa as rook, Bart as pawn, and so on) probably have a general idea who those characters are. But what do the Chinese think of the loon snow globes, Christmas ornaments in the shape of sledding moose, Swedish farmer figurines, and other Minnesota-themed souvenirs they make for the Love From Minnesota store? Label after label, the countries piled up: Mexico, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Cambodia, Jamaica, the Philippines, Peru, Mauritius ... A few countries were prominent by their absence; I found nothing that was made in North Korea, Iraq, or Iran.

After a while I went down some stairs near the Mall's east entrance to the basement, where the administrative offices are. A security guard studied my ID, studied me, signed me in, and passed me through a door to another security guard. This security guard told me that probably nobody was in the offices just now, because all the employees were celebrating the opening of a McDonald's, the first in the Mall. "Before, it was only Burger King," the guard said, chewing, behind a desk piled high with Big Mac and french-fry packaging. Soon a woman named Lou Ann Olson, a media-relations specialist, came out and talked to me. She said she couldn't comment on any new security measures at the Mall, referring me to someone higher up who wasn't there then. She also said that the Mall will have its tenth anniversary this August 11, and will mark it with a big event the details of which are still sketchy. I asked her if there was any larger mall in the world. She said yes, a mall in Edmonton, Alberta, is larger. It doesn't draw nearly as many customers as the 42.5 million that come to this mall each year. She said that soon the Mall will build an addition to its northern side, where parking lots are now. After the addition this will be the largest mall in the world.

I thanked her and left and walked around some more. Once, when I was here with Tim Hedges, he led me through a door and down a back staircase and into another part of the Mall basement, where cavernous, high-ceilinged concrete corridors lit by bare light bulbs dwindled into a far distance of converging perspective lines, and small figures on forklifts crossed occasionally. A persistent but not overpowering smell of garbage—the Mall recycles a lot of its trash down there—made the place a sketch of an up-to-date infernal underworld. And somehow Tim and I had then climbed other stairs and found ourselves in the space behind the stores, between their back walls and the outer wall of the Mall. The Mall stores are like stage sets, and this odd between space is the Mall's backstage, full of cardboard boxes and two-by-fours and old caulking guns and wiring and blind alleys. Now, though I looked and looked, I couldn't find Tim's door. I was getting hungry, and feared I'd lose my train of thought if I ate in the Mall. As soon as I slid into the driver's seat of my car, in my good parking space right by the Mall's south door, cars clustered around behind me, panting for me to leave.

The thing to remember when you're driving west on I-494 near the Mall is to stay out of the right-hand lane. Unless you want to exit immediately, that is, because again and again the right-hand lane becomes an "exit only" lane, and getting out of it can be tough in traffic. At many hours of the day I-494 stutters and pulses and groans with a great mass of traffic, like those high-voltage urban power lines so freighted with current that they crackle with the volume of it. I used to think driving was fun. I am amazed to recall that now. My friends and I used to drive around aimlessly night after night. We would get in Jim Graham's father's Cougar and cruise, up and down the country roads near our Ohio town, and from stoplight to stoplight on the commercial highway strips farther away. What possessed us?

The throng of vehicles soon shouldered me off at an exit a few miles from the Mall, and I found a hotel there and checked in. I had an early dinner at a Perkins Restaurant (walleyed pike, a Minnesota specialty, very tasty), and the next morning went back to the Perkins for breakfast. The place was packed, so I took a seat at the counter. In a few minutes a man sat on the stool beside me. He was in his mid-sixties, with a full head of hair, dark eyes, and a florid face highlighted by broken capillaries. He said something to the waitress and then turned to me. "She didn't like to hear that," he said, "but if I hadn't said anything, they would have made the hash browns the way they did last time—so overcooked they were crunchy. Well, I'm the one that's paying, so I guess I ought to be able to get my hash browns cooked like I want."

I was barely awake and didn't really feel like talking, but we fell into conversation. The guy said he was a dry cleaner. He owned the largest dry cleaning business in a nearby town. He said that his was the richest town its size in the country. No other town has as many millionaires and billionaires as this one. All the rich people from Minneapolis moved out there and have houses on a lake. They all got their clothes dry cleaned, and some of them sent him everything down to sheets and towels and underwear. There were rich families he knew who spent ten thousand a month on dry cleaning, although you might not believe it. He did $1.4 million of business last year. He was doing more business than any dry cleaner maybe in the country. Some of his customers also had houses in New York City, and when they went there they FedExed their laundry back to him overnight and he cleaned it and FedExed it back to them.

He expanded on various dry-cleaning themes—stains, and the good work ethic of his Vietnamese employees. Eventually the topic turned to Minneapolis's large population of Somalis, whom he called Simoleons, confusingly. He said they sponsored terrorism and should all be kicked out of the country. I felt it would be awkward to disagree, so I got up and paid my check and said good-bye. He had a puzzled look in his eyes. We had been chatting amicably up till then. Before he got onto the Simoleons, much of what he had been saying was familiar music to me. I knew it from my childhood: out here we had the biggest and the most and the best. For us in Ohio, the kids of Shaker Heights were the smartest, the football teams of Canton the toughest, the track stars of Akron East High the fastest. Our cars were fastest too, and the women beautiful to a mythic, indescribable degree.

Anything you wanted might be Out There somewhere. The dream was of amplitude. Our two-lane country road was an aisle through cornfields under white, high clouds, and it went on indefinitely and came out who knew where. And amplitude extended on all sides. You might be walking down the street in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, and look up from the sidewalk and across a wide lawn to an imposing house just at eye level on a rise, and the front door would be open, and far back in the house the back door would be open too, and you could see clear down the center hall to the light coming through, and in the hall an annoyed young woman surrounded by light was pushing the head of a mop with her foot, not thinking of you, not knowing you existed ... The hopes we had are as evanescent as confetti, harder to pin down than the reasons we went cruising every night. But the hopes were real; they drove us all.

From the parking lot of the Perkins Restaurant, I could see the gas-station parking lot next to it, and more parking lots beyond, and a six-lane road leading to a bridge over another six-lane road. Buildings that differed from the Mall of America only in size spread across the landscape all around, close enough to one another that a person wearing half-league boots could jump from one roof to the next for mile after mile—from the Mall of America to the vast Sportsmart store to Office Depot to Old Navy to Toys 'R Us to Target, pausing finally at yet another local mall, the Southdale Shopping Center, the world's first enclosed shopping mall, built in 1956 by a Minneapolis department-store owner in order to provide comfortable indoor shopping during the cold Minnesota winters. Southdale is the original of the Mall of America, and of all malls. It's the seed crystal that continues to grow, turning the limitlessness of the Midwest into a limitlessness that holds no surprise.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In