By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
For many Twin Cities residents, the Mall of America means one thing: Your out-of-town friends are visiting and want to see the cities' most obvious landmark.
Our much-maligned mega-mall represents a highly evolved, if slightly mutated, specimen of a genus that sprung into being more than 80 years ago. The first modern shopping centers began sprouting up in America in the 1920s when car-owning shoppers began fleeing crowded and dirty city centers. The rise of suburbia expedited malls' popularity. During the '80s, super-malls came into vogue, as exemplified by the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, opened in 1981—to this day, it is the only mall in North America to best the MoA in total area. Eleven years later, our own colossus of consumerism opened its doors on the consecrated grounds of the old Met Stadium.
It's true that Southdale Center in Edina, opened in 1956, holds the distinction of being the world's first climate-controlled enclosed shopping mall. And yes, Eden Prairie Center is where Kevin Smith filmed Mallrats. But the Mall of America, despite now being "only" the 14th-largest mall in the world in terms of total leaseable area, is the one Twin Cities shopping precinct that manages to pull double duty as a tourist destination.
In many ways, the MoA is a distillation of America itself. Many of our nation's idiosyncrasies—both good and bad—can be observed the moment you step inside its hallowed halls: our preoccupation with jaw-gaping enormity, our irrepressible capitalist spirit, our cultural diversity, our insistence on wearing jorts even in mid-November.
But how to go about wrapping your head around a monolith that employs more than 11,000 workers, including clerks, security guards, tour guides, and ride operators? That spans 4.2 million square feet? That rakes in almost $2 billion a year from visitors? That, according to an awesomely arbitrary stat rundown on its website, can fit seven Yankee Stadiums into it?
One way is to eat, breathe, drink, and sleep in the place for seven days, inhabiting it during all open hours, 10:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Which is exactly what I did. I realized going in that boredom would be my greatest adversary. These misgivings were compounded by the guidelines I was determined to follow:
As I stepped inside, finding respite from the bitter morning cold, I took solace in the fact that at least my new home would be climate-controlled. I was excited to discover from mall officials that there's no need to heat the building. The skylights above the sprawling amusement park in the mall's core provide warmth via the greenhouse effect. In addition, the body heat emitted from the teeming hordes of shoppers—typically 100,000 or so per day—keep the temp at a balmy 70 degrees even on cloudy days.
The latter is not a pleasurable tidbit for the queasy to ponder. It's one thing knowing that warmth is due to UV rays trapped inside the building. It's quite another to realize the coziness you're enjoying comes courtesy of carbon dioxide emitted from the toxic pores of the garlic-reeking yeti standing in front of you in line at Sbarro.
I pushed these thoughts aside and found my way to the Rainforest Café, an artifice of a restaurant chockfull of faux foliage, plaster rocks, and sadness. The plastic barstools are shaped and painted to resemble the torso or legs of assorted tigers, zebras, and giraffes. I sat atop what appeared to be a decapitated mountain gorilla and tried to gather my strength for the week ahead.
The bartender struck up a conversation. I asked about the types of people that most often come through. According to mall officials, about 40 percent of visitors are tourists, mostly from Canada, England, Japan, Germany, and Scandinavia. The bartender confirmed a relative paucity of locals.
"They do their shopping at Southdale and whatnot," he said. "Just too hectic here, I guess. Spend too much time in here and you'll go insane."
I thought about the bartender's words as I walked out of the dank restaurant and into the bright mall corridor.
No, I thought. Not me. I won't go insane. There's too much fun to be had in this place.
Thus began my hurried meet-and-greets through a sizeable cross section of the mall's first-floor retailers. I started on the west side, a.k.a. The West Market, beginning at Nordstrom and making my way south toward Macy's.
"What can you tell me about this place?" I asked two clerks at Solstice, an uppity sunglasses retailer.
"Well," said Renae, a petite Laotian girl, exchanging a confused glance with her co-worker. "We've had a few celebrities come through here. Sydney Rice came in here and bought a $300 pair of Marc Jacobs. Brooke Hogan was here. But she didn't buy anything, 'cause she got mobbed by her fans."
At 5:00 p.m., I shambled up to the food court for supper. Every clerk had been exceedingly helpful and candid. One, an affable kiosk worker from Ethiopia, told me that the Mall of America is home to a gaggle of pteranodons. (I should note that she had a thick accent and there's a chance I misunderstood her.)
By 8:30, I was still going strong. My feet hurt a bit (I had probably walked three or so miles), but I had met some great people and figured that, if anything, the week would fly by too fast. When closing time arrived at 9:30 p.m., I was almost sorry to leave.
The morning started with a trip to Bebe's Sport, a store specializing in high-end fitness clothes for women. The store's manager introduced me to Ashley, the Mall of America's most notorious shopaholic.
"You're not going to believe how much this woman shops," the manager told me. "All the clerks in a lot of stores know her. You should follow her around and watch her shop."
With big, frosted hair framing a heavily made-up and fake-baked face, Ashley resembled a slender, über-hip Stepford wife. And while she was unwilling to disclose her age, I had it pinned at 41, give or take three years.
She agreed to let me tag along with her and her 13-year-old daughter-slash-shopping protégé, Julia, on the condition that I 1) not use their real names, 2) not divulge what her boyfriend does for a living (suffice it to say he's a "very successful businessman"), and 3) stay on the lookout for "any big sales."
"Okay," I said as the elevator whisked the three of us to the third floor. "Deal. If you don't mind me asking, though, what do you do for a living?"
"I'm a stay-at-home mom," she said. "But I'm not home often. I'd say I come here about six days a week—hey, let's go to Nordstrom Rack!"
For those not in the know, Nordstrom Rack is the clearance offshoot of Nordstrom, arguably the MoA's highest-end retailer. In essence, it's the dilapidated crack house to Nordstrom's posh coke pad. And Ashley was itchin' for a fix.
"So how much would you say you spend a week shopping?" I asked as she sifted ferociously through a clearance rack of children's clothes.
"Huh?" she asked distractedly. "Oh God, I suppose three grand. No! More like two. Hey! What do you think of this shirt, Julia? Isn't it cute?!" Ashley whirled around and showed me a blue-pinstriped shirt. "This was regularly $24.50, but it's on sale for $12.90! Isn't that amazing?"
"Sure," I said. "But what's even more amazing is that you spend $104,000 a year shopping!"
She stopped abruptly and glared at me. "You shouldn't have told me that," she said. "That makes it sound soooo much worse! $104,000! God, my boyfriend would have a heart attack if he knew I spent that much!"
Well, I thought, she's obviously exaggerating her spending habits to make an impression. No one could spend that much a year. I threw out a test question: "How many pairs of shoes do you own?"
"Ha! A few hundred, at least. Which is insane because I have pairs I haven't even worn. Some are still in the box!"
"Is all of this..." I paused and searched for a delicate way of putting it. "Do you find all this satisfying?"
"To be honest," she said matter-of-factly, "no." She turned thoughtful. "It's kind of like an addiction. It really is! Sure, it satisfies, but only for a little while, so then I go shopping again. It keeps going and going. And I have the worst buyer's remorse. Look at these!" She held up a pair of glitter-sprinkled Pumas she had picked out for Julia. "Aren't they cute?"
I've never had a manicure or pedicure before, nor do I plan on having either one again. But this assignment obligated me to partake in as many mall services as physically and financially possible, and I'd just as soon get the more embarrassing ones out of the way pronto.
Gentlemen, let me tell you something about manicures and pedicures you might not know: They're awesome. Hear me out. Disregarding the mangled cuticles, the irritatingly weird sensation of having your toenails filed, and the embarrassment of being mocked by a trio of Goth kids through the store window, it's really not that bad. For $50, you sit in black pleather chair with your feet in a tub of warm water. Two Vietnamese women proceed to simultaneously clip your fingernails and wash your rotting feet. As they do this, they chatter in Vietnamese, stopping occasionally to giggle. That is because they are making fun of you. They will then file down and polish your nails with the kind of strange drills and equipment rarely seen outside a dentist's office. While they do this, they will continue to make fun of you. But not to worry: At the end of the experience, they put lotion on your feet, hands, and arms and massage it in, leaving you feeling refreshed. Emasculated and humiliated, but refreshed.
I emerged from the salon whistling—that's how good I felt—but it wasn't long before my playful little ditty was drowned out by a much more declarative beat. The music could only mean one thing: Abercrombie & Fitch was lurking just around the corner.
DMX Music, Inc.—an Austin, Texas-based company that packages music for retail stores—has a term for the clubby, piercing melodies I was hearing: "Foreground music." For years, the firm has provided Abercrombie & Fitch with tunes, or, as they put it, "proprietary technology and systems that deliver the desired experience." Think of it as a hipper, more obnoxious version of Muzak. I thought DMX's motto was, "Where my dogs at?" but according to the website it's: "To some people engineering consumer behavior is weird science, to us it's an art."
The high-decibel music does a damn good job of killing one's ability to think. Never in the history of human folly have two people debated international trade policy within 25 feet of an Abercrombie & Fitch. To check out the effect for myself, I took a step inside and recorded my thought process in my notebook. Here's what I wrote: OOMCHA, OOMCHA, OOMCHA, BA-DA-DA, OOMCHA, OOMCHA, OOMCHA, BA-DA-DA, SHOP! (WHAT?) BUY! (WHO?) BA-DA-DA, YELLOWCARD RULEZ. (This goes on and on for many pages.)
I spent the better part of today occupying the Amusement Park Formerly Known as Camp Snoopy (the moniker was abandoned in 2006 due to a dispute between the mall and United Media, the owner of the Peanuts brand). There I partook of the disorienting madness of the Mighty Axe, the centrifugal vertigo of the Timberland Twister, and the sheepish "God-I-hope-no-one-I-know-sees-me-riding-this-fucking-thing" rapture of the Tree Swing. Unfortunately, Paul Bunyan's Log Chute was out of commission because of a logjam that left one poor sap with a massive headache.
During the afternoon, I worked my way along the mall's south side, a.k.a. South Avenue, toward the east side, a.k.a. East Broadway. I figured it was time to check out Underwater Adventures, which at 1.2 million gallons is the world's largest underground aquarium. Although I was disappointed to learn the place lacked an aviary (no pteranodons), I did get to hang out with Sharky, the aquarium's toothy mascot.
John Sullwold, a lanky, good-natured "PR specialist" for the aquarium, introduced me to the two guys who portray Sharky, the coupon-dispensing mascot. Sullwold asked me not to use the names of Sharky's alter egos, so as not to sully the mascot's mystique. "Just go with Sharky #1 and Sharky #2," he advised.
Sharkys #1 and #2 sat in the break room at opposite ends of the table. Sharky #2 thoughtfully ate his roast beef sandwich. Sharky #1 sat to my left and did most of the talking.
"I'm usually very laid-back and shy," Sharky #1 said. "And I have a bit of a stuttering problem. When I'm Sharky, I'm a totally different person. I can be wild and animated and run around just being a huge dork."
"So how is that different from your day-to-day life?" quipped Sharky #2, taking a sip from his Arby's cup.
"Ha, ha," replied Sharky #1 sarcastically.
"What's the worst thing about being Sharky?" I asked.
The Sharkys turned, and silently consulted one another. "It can be physically grinding, especially when you're working off-site in the summer heat," offered Sharky #2.
"One time, some punk kid tackled me from behind," added Sharky #1.
"We get that kind of shit a lot," confirmed Sharky #2.
"I guess when people see mascots, they forget that an actual person is inside," mused Sharky #1. "Or something."
With that, I left the Sharkys and decided to sample the mall's various relaxation services. This was hump day, so I figured I'd get myself physically replenished. Unfortunately, MinneNapolis—the store that rented mall-weary customers private sleeping quarters for 70 cents a minute—closed last year, so a powernap was out of the question. Aqua Massage seemed like a reasonable substitute.
I crawled inside the coffin-like enclosure and lay on my stomach. Eight bucks got me ten minutes, during which powerful water jets blasted incessantly against the thin, waterproof tarp protecting my back. It's a bit like being in a car wash.
Next up: Oxynate, an oxygen bar-slash-massage parlor, complete with painted cumulonimbus clouds adorning sky-blue walls. The store's lone employee, Cynthia—a rotund black woman with a penchant for calling customers "Sugar"—led me to the back of the store, where an array of plush chairs lined the wall.
"All right, Sugar, you're going to sit in this chair with this in your nose," Cynthia said, handing me a tube with two tiny spines to be placed up my nostrils. "This will give you 95 percent oxygen. You can choose a different scent if you'd like."
The tube led to a bong-like water tank divided into three segments, each labeled a different scent: Ocean Mist, Tropical Watermelon, or Original. I went with Original. Cynthia left me alone to relax.
But I couldn't. Maybe it was because of the six coffees sloshing around in my belly, but I found the massage chair fiercely uncomfortable. Blunt machinery relentlessly prodded and kneaded by back, neck, legs, and hindquarters. I briefly considered crying out for help, but decided to try to fight through it, transcend the pain, find nirvana.
Nirvana felt like being pummeled to death with a sack of grapefruit.
After my 15 minutes were up, Cynthia led me to the bar near the front of the store. Time for Phase Two of Operation Chillax.
I sat at the bar, again huffing sweet-smelling oxygen. Cynthia offered me a water and a highly concentrated caffeine drink, both included with the $20 fee. She proceeded to whip out an ominous-looking device with dozens of flimsy metal tentacles extending from a battery-pack core. It was a scalp-massager, and it felt good.
"You know, I had an 84-year-old woman come in here one time," Cynthia said. "When I showed her this, she asked me, 'Can I use it anywhere?'" Cynthia laughed heartily. "Lord, I hope I'm still that frisky when I'm that age!"
I laughed nervously, paid the bill, and got the hell out of there.
Last night, I managed to get the "spend one night at the mall" requirement out of the way when the good people at Underwater Adventures let me "sleep with the sharks." I lay on a mat under the 100-or-so-foot glass tunnel and watched the sand tiger and nurse sharks swim lazily overhead. A massive birthday party—some 40 kids ages 6 to 10—slept down there as well. The little bastards jibber-jabbered like caffeinated gibbons all night long. Which is understandable, I suppose. But sound travels well through that glass corridor and, consequently, I got less than two hours of shut-eye. At 4:34 a.m., I grew quite convinced it wouldn't be long before Bloomington police escorted me out of the mall on 40 counts of murder.
As for today's events....
I'm well aware that there are few things creepier than an unkempt, unshaven dude brooding alone at Hooters. But that was me today for about an hour.
Desperate to mend my ailing self-respect, I eventually left my table and sauntered up to the bar and asked if there was anybody—waitresses, cooks, regulars, anybody—who'd make for an interesting interview. Which is how I met Christina Sanders, the deadliest waitress ever to don orange hot pants.
Hyperbole? Probably, but let's roll with it.
With two tours of duty in Iraq under her belt, Sanders, 23, spoke and acted in the detached, world-weary fashion you'd associate less with a Hooters girl and more with...well, more with a person who's seen two tours of duty as a combat engineer in Iraq.
"If you're a woman in the Marines, you're considered either a dyke, a slut, or a bitch," she explained as she poured a beer behind the bar. "I decided I'd play the part of the bitch. It's the only way to get respect."
"Did you see much combat, or...?" I trailed off, realizing the absurdity of trying to discuss war stories with Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise" blasting in the background. "It's cool if you'd rather not talk about it."
"No, I'm fine talking about it," she said.
"Was it scary?" Stupid question! "I mean, what was the most frightening thing that happened when you were there?"
"Hmmm...a roadside bomb hit our Humvee once. I shit my pants. I didn't realize it until we got back."
She flashed an embarrassed smile. "That I shit my pants."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't mean to laugh; it's not funny. I'm just surprised that you'd be so upfront about...that." She shrugged nonchalantly and took off to attend to another customer.
I didn't know it then, but that hour spent at Hooters would be among my last sane moments in the Mall of America.
The lack of slumber and the monotony of my days were beginning to erode my morale. Everything—the bright lights, the distant drone of the shoppers' jabbering, the smell of plastic rebellion wafting from Hot Topic—meshed together and enveloped me in a hollow, dreamlike stupor. Paralyzing boredom.
I lay on a bench, my coat shielding my eyes from the unforgiving fluorescents. The thought of crawling over to a bar and just getting rip-roaring, unapologetically shitty entered my mind, but I brushed it aside. Can't drink on the job. That would be foolhardy. Maybe I'd go to a movie and try to take a nap—
Wait. Why not get unapologetically shitty? It was wholly irresponsible, sure, but maybe—just maybe—it would give me my second wind. Yes. It was settled. Having successfully rationalized the idea to myself, I ambled over to Kokomo's Island Café, a Caribbean-themed restaurant/bar featuring a garish tropical decor.
I hunkered down on a barstool and chatted up the bartenders: Kristen, a bubbly blonde; Brittany, her brunette duplicate; and Jason, a wiry little guy with a quick laugh. I was a bit lonely, so I chided the trio into drinking with me. They were hesitant at first, but eventually caved.
They served up an array of shots with peculiar names such as "Mr. Little John's" (Bailey's and Rumpleminz), "Bart Simpson Purple Squishy Pants" (Absolut Peach, Absolut Mandarin, grape Pucker, and margarita mix), and "Tequila" (tequila). The next two hours unfolded in a blur. I remember at one point asking Jason who the hell was paying for all the booze. "Don't worry," he winked. "We'll give you the writer hook-up. That's how we roll around here. You treat us right, we'll treat you right." Which, in my current headspace, I thought was just fantastic. Journalistically unethical and physically unhealthy, but utterly fantastic.
A few regulars came in and we all whooped it up. For reasons I can't recall, someone brought up the topic of the smoking ban.
Alcohol mixed with sleep deprivation mixed with the restlessness of being cooped up for six days does strange things to a person's inhibitions. It doesn't just lower them; it grinds them into the floor and leaves a three-foot deep crater of neurotic rage. It was time to take what I drunkenly assumed to be a principled stand. I demanded a cigarette from Brittany.
"I thought you don't smoke," she said.
"Just give me a cigarette."
Cigarette in hand, I stumbled over to each patron, one after the other, and asked if they minded if I smoked. "Yeah, go ahead," some said. Others were more into the spectacle and shouted variants of "Do it!" Once I got everyone's blessing, I stood in the middle of the floor and held the cigarette to my nose. "Do it, already!" the crowd roared.
I lit the cigarette to the inebriated cheers of a few onlookers. I was soon raving.
"People say this law is about smokers' rights versus nonsmokers' rights, but that's not what this is about!" I bellowed. "It's a matter of principle. It's a matter of property rights!"
An uncomfortable silence descended. You could almost hear the record scratch. "It should be the owner's call whether he wants smoking or not! Not ours. Not the city or state government's. Even if our intent is good, what kind of arrogance makes us think we have the right to someone else's property?" I took an exaggerated drag from the cigarette.
A few people clapped, probably because they figured I'd shut up if they showed me approval. Unfortunately, I didn't.
"There's a lot of this shit going on right now. Saying we should give up liberty for security. Saying we should give up property rights for health reasons. It's all bullshit. Can't you see? You can't be truly free when you're constantly trying to control everyone else."
"Sir?" It was the manager, Nick, standing beside me.
"Just wait. I'm not finished—"
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to put that out."
"Come with me."
He pulled me aside. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave," he said. "I don't want to see you in here for the rest of the week."
I told him, okay, you're just doing your job, here, have the rest my beer, don't worry, I'm not sick or anything.
Last day. Feeling haggard. Embarrassed. Vaguely nauseated. Hungover.
I spent this morning meandering through the amusement park and listening to the screams emanating from the roller coasters. They no longer sounded like gleeful yelps of fun—more like horrified shrieks of the damned.
Any one of these screams could be from a victim warding off a mugger, or fending off a gaggle of pteranodons, and no one would bat an eye, let alone call for help. Not here. Not in a place where blood-curdling screeches are more commonplace than laughter.
At noonish, I left that hellish echo chamber and wandered through the myriad kiosks dotting the corridors, trying not to make eye contact with the gregarious workers who accosted me.
"Sir, do you have a moment?"
"Sir, come try this! It's nice!"
"Sir, are you okay? You don't look so good."
Many had accents. As I would find out later, kiosk workers disproportionately hail from Israel and Russia.
"Their work ethic compared to Americans is not even close," says Ryan Carroll, the 24-year-old owner of two Green Tea kiosks. "They'll come here for three or four months, work their asses off, go back to their country, and they're set for life."
The booths generally cost $50,000 a year to rent, and proprietors hawk everything from Confederate flag belt buckles to perfumed lotions to T-shirts that say things like, "I'll give up beer right after I give up breathing." In a way, the setup's a throwback to old market squares, only with worse puns. (The two worst offenders both sell purses: Sacks in the Cities and Sacks Appeal.)
I tried to talk to three Israeli chaps working at a booth called Natural Beauty, but they seemed suspicious. They must have thought I was doing some kind of investigative hit piece on their booth, because one of them took me aside and said, "Do not write anything bad about us. The owner is very powerful in the Israeli mafia and he will kill you if you do."
By the time afternoon rolled in, I was too exhausted to walk any farther. At 2:13 p.m., I lay on a bench near the entrance of Macy's and counted the seconds going by:
2:21: A woman sitting on the other side of the bench says to her friend, "I'm not racist, but I hate Mexicans."
3:23: I see Sharky entertaining a cluster of children outside a Caribou Coffee.
4:30: I discover a $3,300 pen at Paradise Pen Company.
4:50: I take 18th place in a race simulation at the NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway Racing Center.
5:57: I observe a large woman mercilessly beating her child in Legoland.
7:12: I sit on a bench in the amusement park, casually emitting high-pitched, tortured screams.
7:15: An Alan Thicke clone tells me, "Stop that nonsense."
8:00: I drag myself to Caribou Coffee and start scribbling paranoid jeremiads in my notebook.
9:30: I exit the north doors and mosey through the busily emptying parking lot to my car. I feel worn-out and ill. But free.