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'.

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.