Midnight at the Mall of America

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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.
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Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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