In the fifth grade, I remember looking forward to Friday nights more than anyone else. Friday nights were when my brother—eleven years my senior—and I would hop into his used, powder-blue ’86 Honda Civic and drive to the mall. Once there, we’d follow our traditional route, which always started by taking the escalator down to Auntie Em’s. On the escalator, I’d put my hand out and politely request $2.52, which was the price of two large chocolate chip cookies (now, in the year of our Lord 2021, that is the price of one  birthday candle at Milk Bar). My brother’s a good one, always acquiescing; if the roles were reversed, I’d have been like, “I don’t think so, you tiny unemployed homo!!!!” Someone give that man a medal.
After successfully acquiring two, deliciously gooey chocolate chip cookies, a recipe long discarded by Auntie Em’s, and replaced by a bland counterfeit—a hate crime!—we’d begin walking toward the lower level of JCPenney, which was on the other side of the mall. Once we had made our way there, we’d loop around to walk towards Sears, which was on the other end. By then, I’d have finished my cookies and begun presenting my argument for a Sprite. We’d climb the stairs to the second floor and begin our upper-level loop, stopping for said Sprite somewhere along the way, usually from the old-school McDonald’s that had the faux vines and brown plastic seating with matching tiled floors. TAKE ME BACK. Not to digress, but when I die, instead of my life flashing before my eyes, I hope it’s just a montage of countless moments spent in a Wendy’s sunroom.
After completing loops of both the lower and upper levels—occasionally stopping at stores like Gamestop to buy the new Street Fighter for Dreamcast, or the new Legend of Zelda for GameCube—we’d make our way back to where we had parked, which was to venture through Macy’s, and then we would drive home.
This little tradition has survived the years, and still does occasionally continue when I’m back in town and feel like doing a lap for old time’s sake (even though our hometown mall looks nothing like it did back in the early aughts).
Like any high-schooler in suburban New Jersey, I spent ninety- to ninety-five-percent of my time at the mall with my best friend, Rachel. For those of you who read my book: yes, that’s the same Rachel who screamed over the railing overlooking the bottom level about wanting to work at Build-a-Bear. (What’s even more unhinged is that this was, at the time, part of their application process.) And for those of you who haven’t read my book: sorry, but you gotta buy it to find out if she ever even got the job!!!!!!!!!
The mall was our destination by default. If we were driving around aimlessly, we would always end up in the mall. It didn’t matter what, why, or when. If we were bored, we’d go to the mall. If we were high off a surplus of serotonin, the mall would absorb the extra energy radiating from us. If one of us felt the ache of unrequited teenage love, the mall was a balm to soothe that wound. An after-school job meant money to blow on stupid shit from Spencer’s. Every date took place at the mall in some capacity. (Or so I’ve been told; obviously my Twitter presence suggests I remained dateless until my twenties.) The mall was a depository for all the teenage angst, joy, boredom, and everything in between; it remains the place to return to when feelings akin to emotional indecision rise up. Take a lap before saying something you’ll regret. Nibble on a free sample of teriyaki chicken from Panda Express before making that phone call. Have un petit meltdown at Yankee Candle. The mall won’t judge; it’s seen it all before.
Even when I went off to college in Long Island, the first place I visited off-campus as the weekend shuttle ferried students to and from various locations was Roosevelt Field Mall—a juggernaut compared to the mall I had known back home. When I moved to New York City a few years later, it was the mall that I missed most. When I moved to Brooklyn five years ago, I was elated to learn that there was a bus right around the corner which stopped at Queens Center, the mall closest to me now.
Whenever I meet someone else from New Jersey, I don’t need to know which town they're from—I ask them which mall they went to. I can glean more information about someone based on the mall they grew up meandering around than I ever could just by what town they were from. Conversely, I can usually guess which mall you hung out at as a teenager based on where you grew up. Oh, you’re from Moorestown? MUST BE NICE (referring to the giant, sprawling oasis that is the Cherry Hill mall. Before my hometown had an Apple Store, my ass had to drive forty minutes south to Cherry Hill because they had an Apple Store before Apple was even invented. Those bitches have it all).
I am perfectly happy being thirty. You could not pay me to be eighteen again. But I would make an exception to wander the teal and white-hued levels of Quakerbridge Mall while “Dance Floor Anthem” by Good Charlotte blasted from a nearby Hot Topic. For an hour. Then please bring me back because my spirit does not have the capacity to weather a popped collar any longer than that. But something I will do is to pull up Sum 41 on Spotify, or just put “Misery Business” on repeat, to try and conjure the feeling that I’ve never stopped chasing.
Malls represent to me what a library or a cozy nook may represent to someone else: a sacred space where the world, in all its fluctuating degrees of pandemonium, remains on the outside, and inside, the respite of familiarity. There are no expectations to be met, because you already know what you’re going to get. There are no surprises. When I turn that corner, I know the only thing I’ll have to confront is a Things Remembered. The only discomfort I feel is the pungent aroma expelled from the Hollister that’s so dim and so loud you leave with a club stamp on your hand. But you just keep walking; there are no dead-ends, only another route to take. The mall is auto-pilot for the mind.
My mind is—as you well know by now reading this newsletter and/or anything else I have written, ever—as loud as the music blaring from a Hollister. It should come as no surprise that I gravitate towards the nearest mall, finding the same relaxation from doing laps as one would in a pool. It’s a comfort I return to when I can, and one that I am excited to introduce myself to whenever I’m in a new city. Seriously, don’t take me to your museums when I come to your town. Take me to your mall. There is, after all, no place like home.