Midnight at the Mall of America

What does the Mall of America look like at midnight on Thanksgiving?

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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. [1]

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.

[1] Arguably, America's small town farmer might also fit the category of 'endangered'.

Presented by

Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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