What does the Mall of America look like at midnight on Thanksgiving?
When my partner's family picked me up at the airport the night before Thanksgiving, our first stop was Lund's Food. At the checkout counter, our grocer stuffed our 13 pound turkey and Lurpak butter into plastic bags with the expertise that had won him third runner-up in the National Grocery Association's Best Bagger Championship, held every year in Las Vegas.
This is how I knew I was back in the Heartland, where grocery baggers are still judged on their "speed, distribution of weight, and proper bagging style," where strawberry Jello and Cool Whip is still served as a traditional dessert, and where much nasally lilting small talk is currently being devoted to the unseasonably warm weather. As a transplant, it has always seemed mildly ironic to spend Thanksgiving, the archetypical American holiday, in the place The Great Gatsby's Nick called "the warm center of the world" -- the Mid-West. Yet here I was, in south-eastern Minnesota, in the Driftless area. The first time I heard of this ovaloid Mississippi floodplain, I was standing in it, in the dirt of a field of baby corn in a town where everyone knew each other's grandparents. I thought 'Driftless' was a reference to its stolid, hearty inhabitants, but in fact the term indicates a lack of glacial drift, the material left behind by retreating continental glaciers. Before today's Nordic descendants migrated into this new far-North, the eroded plateaus and deep river valleys were covered with tallgrass prairie and bur oak savanna; its isolated ecosystems are still home to at least one endangered species, the Iowa Pleistocene Snail. 
But today, the Driftless area is also home to another unique specimen -- the world's original mega-mall. On the edge of the region, past Fort Snelling, on the skirts of Bloomington, the hulking Mall of America occupies 4,200,000 square feet, or 96.4 acres. It is large enough to fit seven Yankee Stadiums inside. Its 400 stores employ a small town to cope with the 40 million customers who arrive every year. As the pinnacle of consumer America, the economic crisis has hit the mall hard. Its slogan has morphed from the original 1992 "Where Something Special Happens Every Day" to 2010's pragmatic "More Stores. More Value," and its schedule has followed suit; the Mall (referred to here the way New Yorkers refer to 'The City,' in the emphatic singular) decided to join the ranks of those hoping to entice Recession-era shoppers. For the first time this year, the Mall decided to start Black Friday a day early. When I heard, I couldn't help wondering: What does the Mall of America look like at midnight on Thanksgiving?
The line for the Mall began on the freeway. Melting snow lurked in gray crevices on the exit ramp. It was 11:27 when I finally pulled into the looming parking garage and left the car on level P3 West Hawaii, under a yellow pineapple painted on a pillar. I could hear girls squealing with the car door still closed.
Inside, it was hard not to flash back to the scene in Mean Girls where Lindsay Lohan's character complains, "Being at the Old Orchard Mall reminded me of being home in Africa. By the watering hole. When the animals are in heat." The Mall was a jungle, if jungles were inhabited solely by humans between the ages of 16 and 20. Tweens and teens sprawled on the floor, running, laughing, filling the hallways. I did a lap. Legoland, open; Nickelodeon Universe and Nordstrom's, closed. Full priced purchases have been increasing at luxury stores, so most high-end retailers weren't planning sales for Black Friday this year, creating a strange bifurcation in retail environments that is indicative of their customer profile -- most of the people in the Mall were clearly not in the 1 percent.
Other social divisions were also painfully evident. The striations of high school left lurkers leaning against balcony railings, peppy girls in spandex bouncing around snapping pictures of themselves with friends, hipsters propped against the walls. This generation's modus oprendi for boredom was in full display; smart phones winked everywhere, brighter than the Christmas lights strung from the ceiling. "Fuck," or some derivative of it, replaced every other word. The crinkle of plastic shopping bags attempted to cut through the echolalic chatter.
 Arguably, America's small town farmer might also fit the category of 'endangered'.
At midnight, I watched H&M open. Four mall security cops waited in front of the metal grill while harried employees ran around with hangers, carrying checklists and sale placards. A cop's plea to "Go in slow" prompted immediate, ribald laughter, and when the doors opened, a horde crushed through. I was reminded of another noteworthy annual event in the Driftless area -- the rising of the fishflies, a kind of mayfly that streams into the sky by the millions to mate. By 12:04, the store was over-run, clothes ripped off hangers and strewn over the floor.
A lost father on his phone ventured 15 feet in, broke a sweat, and retreated. The Conscious Collection was selling for $34.95, Fashion Finds for $5. Phrases from the frenzy reached me as I clung to a small safe space around a mirrored pillar: "I feel like I'm forcing you to shop," "You're the one with all the money," "We should go Urban," "Do you think he's gay?" The security alarm wouldn't stop going off. By 12:12, the line for the cashier stretched past the sensors. There was nowhere else to go.
Those of us not shopping found each other in the slipstream. Another, braver father waited in an eddy near the corner of the cashiers' desk, averting his eyes from the lingerie display. Bob Nordquist explained that his two daughters, ages 11 and 17, had asked him to bring them to the Mall. "I wanted a Bluetooth," Bob said, and then, gesturing at the fray, "Nothing surprises me anymore." He continued, "My daughters wanted to shop, so I'm fine being here, but I feel sorry for the people with families who had to work. If I had to work tonight, I'd be upset."
In fact, not everyone out in stores was thrilled to be there. At Urban Outfitters, an employee who asked not to be identified stood on a display of jeans, watching a similar scene unfold. "I'm not getting overtime," he said. "I wasn't supposed to be working tonight. I was just accompanying my brother here to shop, but when they saw me they asked me to work." Employees collected 190,000 names on a petition urging a nearby Target Center to abandon its midnight opening, delivering it to Target's headquarters in Minneapolis on Thursday to no avail. As a NYSE: ACN study explains, while consumers are expected to spend more than last season, 72 percent of people still expect their spending to be "careful" or "controlled." One quarter of shoppers are planning to be "thrifty," and one in five admit they will be focused on "necessities." In that kind of a market, non-luxury stores feel they need all the help they can get.
After living in the Beltway, with the people making our country's economic policy (who also happen to be the only people in the country where the majority of the population is still optimistic about the economy), I had been eager to find some clear demonstration of the nation's pulse. But I wasn't the only one searching for meaning at the Mall of America. Michelle Bachmann arrived at 8:00 on Friday morning for a book signing. In an interview, she revealed a different kind of high school experience. "I wasn't invited to my junior or senior prom. It was one of the heartbreaks of my life," she said. "I was the ugly duckling at the ball." I'm sure a few of the girls desperate to find just the right sweater a few hours before could have empathized.
When Bachmann left the Mall, she was headed south to Iowa, where the first presidential caucuses will take place. As other stories from Black Friday began to hit the news (the Californian woman who pepper-sprayed fellow Wal-Mart shoppers to keep them from grabbing the Xbox she wanted, the two shootings in Wal-Mart parking lots, the arrests of shoppers in Connecticut, New York, and Florida), I couldn't stop thinking about the young kid in a janitor's uniform I'd passed on my way home at some early dark hour on Friday. He was standing outside one of the Mall's entrances, watching flocks of giggling girls stream past, smoking a cigarette. I wish I'd stopped to ask him his impression of the Heart of America, but I was tired. It might have been my only chance to talk to the most endangered species of all: the next generation of Americans.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
I’m not a dog person. I prefer cats. Cats make you work to have a relationship with them, and I like that. But I have adopted several dogs, caving in to pressure from my kids. The first was Teddy, a rottweiler-chow mix whose bushy hair was cut into a lion mane. Kids loved him, and he grew on me, too. Teddy was probably ten years when we adopted him. Five years later he had multiple organs failing and it was time to put him to sleep.
When I arrived at the vet, he said I could drop him off. I was aghast. No. I needed to stay with Teddy.As the vet prepped the syringe to put him to sleep, I started sobbing. The vet gave me a couple minutes to collect myself and say goodbye. I held Teddy's paw until he died. Honestly, I didn't think I was that attached.
This week we have images of a Chilean volcano, migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, the "Blue Forest" in Belgium, Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu, the Boston Marathon, Orcas hunting on a Patagonian beach, Saudi attacks on Yemen, tule elk along California's coastline, and much more.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 2,200 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
In the fall of 2011, the U.S. Secret Service orchestrated a sting operation. The target was a Vietnamese man named Hieu Minh Ngo. Investigators believed he was a big-time identity thief who sold packages of data known as “fullz,” each of which typically included a person’s name, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, Social Security number, and e-mail address and password. Criminals could buy fullz from Ngo for as little as eight cents and then use them to open credit cards, take out loans, or file for bogus tax refunds. They could also pay Ngo for access to a vast database of people’s personal records.
As part of the operation, an agent attempted to buy the identities of hundreds of U.S. citizens. In such illegal transactions—be they for drugs, guns, or stolen identities—finding a payment system that both sides trust can be tricky. Cash is safest because it leaves no record. But handing over a briefcase stuffed with bills isn’t an option when the parties are on opposite sides of the planet. Ngo suggested an alternative. In an e-mail to the agent, he offered simple instructions: “Please pay to our LR: U8109093.”
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.