I'd spent 10 minutes in the American Girl doll store when the music switched from a Billie Holiday classic to Michael Bublé schmaltz. I began to contemplate this moment, to assign it some meaning, when my small and cheerless thoughts were wonderfully interrupted.
Bounding up the escalator was a tiny ballerina of a girl, seemingly reaching the top without touching the stairs. She gasped at the very sight of the dolls, her huge smile revealing a couple of missing baby teeth.
The ballerina spread her arms, whirled around, and said something — in Russian, I think — to her father, who had just summited the escalator. He beamed.
This moment clearly made her year. It helped make mine. She had come to the Mall of America for a doll. I had come for an experience. This one.
The Christmas spirit took its sweet time getting to me this year, so I decided to jog my heart's memory with a trip to the monument to communal commerce. The mall was a helpful reminder.
Consider the 75-year-old man who sat, alone, through the performance of a junior high jazz band, then stayed for the little-kid choir that followed.
He rested a bony hand on the back of his neck, where carefully parted hair stretched over his balding head. He did little more than cross one thin leg over the other, dangling it like a half-broken pencil, as the choir took their best shot at classic carols. He had lingered to hear the children sing "Silent Night."
I venture to the Mall of America about once a decade, avoiding the place under the assumption that I am somehow above, beyond, whatever is happening at this cathedral of capitalism.
It's the home of moms, teens, purchase tourists, suburbia — things I'd prefer to see from the safety of Netflix. My land is south Minneapolis. Northeast, if I'm up for a trip out of town. These are places where the Mall of America is a punchline. Literally. If I suggest going there as I push my chair from brunch, my friends will laugh, groaning at the very idea.
Among the relentlessly urbane, the mall is beneath us.
I've always been annoyed by the kiosks, their gadget pimps who start their shifts by dipping into a vat of hair-gel. The music soundtrack adds insult to assault: Last week I heard songs by Owl City and Coldplay in the same store at the same time. And why does everyone have a smoothie?
Then there's all that walking. All those people. Old folks, hand-holding couples, children distracted and weighed-down by balloons — every damn one of them as slow as drooling sap. It felt so useless when everything I need to buy is somewhere online.
The Google search is my Mall of America. The only traffic jam comes when so many of us arrive at Target.com that we crash the site.
Staying indoors in December keeps my hands warm. But it's a cold experience. Almost all of humanity is on the internet, yet there's hardly any humanity in it.
I've built a life with all the creature comforts one wants but doesn't need, including the option of not leaving the house for anything less than opening weekend at a new craft cocktail lounge. I don't stand in lines, and no, I don't need your help finding anything today. I click my way through Christmas.
But now I was watching rapt as a little boy with calamitous hat hair realized his mom wasn't looking and darted through winter-coat traffic to a toy store across the way, avoiding contact like he was returning a kickoff. "Stephen!" cried his mom. But it was too late. He'd already picked up three stuffed animals.
A husky, white-bearded man who looked to be carrying a mini-fridge inside his stomach asked a mohawked teen about girls' sweaters at Hollister. A couple debated quiz games for children. These were people, not punchlines. They wanted the kids in their lives to feel well-dressed, to be smart.
I saw a middle-aged man walking solo and carrying a bag from the American Girl doll store. He grinned at no one in particular — or at everyone, at all of it.
The mall people I saw were all like this. They weren't head-down in a phone, scowling. Their eyes were open, alive to the world. It was weird.
So forsake the shopping if you must. But behold the shopper. It is free. Priceless.
On my way toward the exit, I noticed a middle-aged woman taking impossibly slow steps, while an elderly woman clutched her arm. At this pace, their trip would take some time. That's the whole idea. Or it was, once.
The stage nearby was empty, the children having long since been driven home. But with a little imagination and a lot of spirit, you could almost hear echoes of the choir.