EVERY FRIDAY AND Saturday at 5:45 p.m., over 150 stiff-lipped security guards, marching in squadrons of five, sweep through the Mall of America, rounding up anyone under the age of 16 under the terms of the curfew imposed by the Mall last October. On the Saturday before Mother's Day, a trio of clean-cut, teen-age Mall employees are taking a dinnertime smoke break outside the entrance to the Sears store as armed officers from the Bloomington Police Department hold the door for the exiting minors. "Since they started this thing, I've been a lot more comfortable working out here," one of the rosy-cheeked kids says while fiddling with his earring. "No doubt," his friend agrees, taking a puff. "Not to be racist or anything, but we used to call this place the Mall of Africa."
Not to be racist or anything, but it's easy to find Mall employees who echo the boy's sentiments. Two girls from Apple Valley High School, munching pizza between shifts at an upscale shoe store, look out over Camp Snoopy, the megamall's Central Park, and laugh. "Camp Shoot Me," they say in tandem. "You can run for your life at Camp Shoot Me." A grizzled security guard working the food court, requesting anonymity ("I don't think the Mall would appreciate it if I were talking to a reporter."), also adds to what seems to be a prevailing sense of paranoia among the Mall's work force. "You've got shoplifters. You've got these gang types. Good kids who work here get frustrated. People who shop here get scared." He too favors the curfew, saying, "Every little bit helps."
In a crime-ridden neighborhood, jittery shopkeepers can buy a gun at the local pawnshop. At the big, bad megamall, minimum-wage workers shop at the Security Store, a shop located on the east wing that deals in personal security devices like tubes of high-powered tear gas ($18), high-pitched body alarms ($19), and high-voltage Air Tasers ($250). "From day to day we get the most consistent business from Mall employees," says Cory Growden, the store's 18-year-old sales associate, tapping his own holstered Air Taser. "With all the crap going on around here you can't be too careful."
"What we see in our store is peace of mind," says Growden's boss, Security Store manager Paul Barnes, who thinks the media should do a story on the curfew policy now that it has proven to be successful. "If the night after you shop here you go to bed feeling safer, you've gotten your money's worth. It's the same thing here on weekend nights. The age policy is about peace of mind."
Inside the store, the quest for peace is at a fever pitch. Mother's Day weekend is always "a busy one," Barnes says, as he prepares a bundle of carnations for Growden to give away to passers-by. Those who stumble upon the small specialty store usually finger the stun gun with laser-sight (Rodney King comments are a staple), ask a few earnest questions about the cellular-phone program tailored to give callers access in emergency situations, and giggle at the store's promotional posters, designed by the Minneapolis-based ad firm Fallon Mcelligott ("Sex without a condom isn't nearly as dangerous as sex without a choice.").
Some customers arrive on a mission. A young woman, waiting out a layover on her way from Seattle to Boston, has taken a cab from the airport in search of mace. "I think there's a guy on the plane stalking me," she says with wide-eyed certainty. A couple on a bus tour from rural Michigan are buying a doorstop alarm for their hotel room. "It's not like home, where a chain on the door will do the trick," the man quips while at the register. Todd, a salesman from St. Paul who heard an ad about the Security Store while listening to Rush Limbaugh on KSTP-AM, is looking to drop a couple hundred bucks on a home alarm. "I want to make sure I don't have that one unfortunate incident," he says. "Y'know, some guy breaks into your house when you're gone, attacks your wife and you spend the rest of your life wondering if you could've done something to prevent it."
An acquaintance of Growden's comes into the store in search of pepper spray. She used to work at the Mall, but now she's helping peddle women's clothes at City Center. "Don't use my name," she says, before she and Growden exit to grab a smoke. "But I'm so glad to be downtown. Because the Minneapolis cops keep their eyes open all day, every day. No more bullshit."
"It's funny," Barnes says. "During the Christmas season in '94 we set up a stand at Gaviidae Common downtown and it just died. You'd think people downtown would be savvy about personal security. But you know what? They're not."
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