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At what point did shopping malls become amusement parks for toddlers?

If I’d gotten the memo, I probably would’ve looked at shin level a lot more between Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods earlier this week. Instead, on that cross-mall walk, I was almost t-boned by a miniature train, snagged in a Studio 54-sized bottleneck by Build-A-Bear, and sideswiped by a diapered maniac in a pint-sized Bentley.

“Sorry!” the maniac’s mom called as I rubbed my calf and the Bentley sped toward Macy’s. “He’s new at this!”

How charming, I thought. Baby’s first hit and run.

Turns out there’s a whole fleet of these things: Bentleys and Hummers and Ferraris, and parents can rent them from a bored teenager in a smock for $25 a half-hour. So the walkway between Cinnabon and Claire’s is clogged with these miniature dream cars, their drivers weaving and smashing into kiosks like they’re coming home from penny pint night.

I guess there were rides at the shopping mall of my youth, if you want to call them that. My mall had a couple of those coin-operated cars made out of Bakelite bolted to the floor. I think the idea was you’d drop in a quarter and it’d rock back and forth, but even if it didn’t always have an OUT OF ORDER sign taped to the steering wheel, I wouldn’t know what that 30 seconds of reciprocating joy felt like because I was never allowed to ride.

Maybe that’s my issue with these kids experiencing unbridled joy at the mall. I’m bitter because my childhood relationship with the epicenter of suburban commerce was far more subdued.

My parents have always been pretty set in their ways.

They spent their formative years sampling life and figuring out what they liked. Then they stuck to it with a fierce and dogged loyalty, figuring why risk being disappointed with a new thing when the tried and true was so certain?

As such, being raised by my parents created a good deal of cultural blind spots. Blind spots that only became apparent in awkward social situations.

When I was 13, my girlfriend’s parents invited me for dinner. Her mom told me she was ordering Chinese and asked what I would like.

“Chinese sounds great,” I said, “I’ll have that too.”

Her mom blinked at me. “Right, what do you want?”

See, I’d eaten Chinese plenty of times, but for my entire life, my parents had ordered the same thing: chicken lo-mein and pork fried rice. They stayed so loyal to this order I didn’t realize Chinese food encompassed any other dish.

I was similarly ignorant about malls.

I saw teenagers at malls on TV, heard them referenced by characters on Full House and Saved By The Bell, but for most of my childhood, I thought they were fictional things. This is because the only part of my local mall I’d see was Sears or Macy’s at 8:30 A.M., sitting in the parking lot for a half-hour waiting for some bleary-eyed, hungover worker to unlock the doors so we could be the first ones in. Those trips were like SEAL team missions: move swiftly, execute your objectives, and bug out before anyone knew you were there.

In middle school, when I discovered roving the mall in a large unsupervised group constituted a social event, I wanted in on the action.

For my parents, this was a no-go.

Their true motive was that one of my mom’s 15-year-old students was shot and killed at our local mall during a botched robbery a couple of years before. They tried to explain this to me, but all I understood was that they hated fun and didn’t understand the dynamics of the pre-teen social hierarchy.

To make it up to me, my parents frequently took me shopping at not the mall. My mom favors Kohls, a department store you might have recently visited for the purpose of returning your Amazon purchase.

Kohls is the type of store that stocks almost what you want:

They’ve got Nike and Levis and Vans, but only carry the pieces designed by summer interns. I don’t know who is buying clothes designed by Tony Hawk and Marc Anthony, but if you’re interested, Kohls has you covered.

Like every other white suburban mom, as soon as they cut the ribbon on our local Kohls, my mother was sucked in on a tractor beam, a grip she hasn’t been able to escape to this day. She claims it’s because she loves the clothes, but I secretly believe she only buys things now because she can’t stand to have her Kohls cash expire. We have to spend this Kohls cash! If we don’t, it’s like burning money! 

My dad equally values consumerism, though he prefers the atmosphere of the flea market.

Each Saturday morning for almost a decade, he brought my brother and me to Berlin Mart, the white trash version of a Turkish bazaar.

How do I describe Berlin? Imagine a shopping mall built by someone who also designed 19th Century prisons. Then, imagine every person you’ve crossed the street to avoid congregating in that building—some the patrons, some the vendors. If your shopping mall smelled of Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s, this one smelled of rubber and rotting shellfish, because the tire store was located right next to the raw oyster bar.

The thing that excited my dad so much about Berlin was the mystery, a sentiment he encapsulated with his oft-repeated maxim, “You never know what you’ll find at Berlin.”

Indeed. Some shops peddled a mix of bootleg sports memorabilia, defective seconds, and goods that fell off the back of trucks, while others looked like your grandfather’s garage threw up. I tended to spend the most time in the stalls with the used Nintendo games and the baseball cards while Ben preferred the people selling the Hot Wheels their now-grown sons abandoned in the attic.

Though my dad loved stockpiling gear from George, the Army surplus guy, he also loved the Can-Can store, a shop devoted entirely to expired canned and dry goods.

A lot of the stock at the Can-Can store was name brand, but consisted of failed products, like Lay’s fat free potato chips with Olestra or Heinz’s EZ Squirt ketchup in green, orange, or teal. I was partial to the boxes of the lesser known Mike & Ike flavors, like Cherri & Bub and Lem & Mel.

For Dad, Berlin market made even grocery shopping an adventure.

Sure, you could go into Shop Rite and buy regular products from a boring list, but if you haven’t left a store with a basket full of expired sardines and a 24-pack of Pepsi Kona, have you ever even lived?

I did finally get the chance to spend my Friday nights at the mall once I started driving, but by then it had lost its appeal. It was the early 2000s and the mall social scene was dead, replaced by its much more emotionally fulfilling successor, the internet. Plus, the roving packs of middle schoolers were a little suspicious about welcoming a 17-year-old into their fold.

So I abandoned my quest to become a mallrat, and though I’ll occasionally dabble in a little window shopping at my local shrine to capitalism, I try to avoid it. It doesn’t feel good to be jealous of a 3 year-old squealing behind the wheel of a mini Corvette.

And yet, I know I shouldn’t mind, because while these little fuckers are crashing their Power Wheels into unsuspecting pedestrians, their parents are staring at their phones, more than willing to fork over $25 for a little time to themselves.

Maybe my parents didn’t let me roam the mall with my friends like we were in The Warriors, but at least they paid attention to me on those trips. It’s these kids that are missing out, because they’ll never feel the joy of using Kohls cash to buy a pair of ill-fitting Dockers with their mom or dig through a bin of Hormel Vienna Sausages with their dad. That’s all the amusement I needed.

Sam Hedenberg

Sam Hedenberg is a humor blogger living in Northern Virginia. When he grows up, he wants to be a writer or quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

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