My Life as a Mall: A Day in the Life [As Told to Ryan Dixon]

A bi-weekly blog featuring the recollections of a soon-to-be demolished super regional mall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as told to Ryan Dixon. For previous installments, please click HERE

They’re boarding me up as I write this. A crew of twenty burly men attach plywood over my doors and windows. The little light that had managed to sneak its way into me through the Pittsburgh gloom has given way to total darkness.

Unable to see my funeral preparations outside, I can now just pretend that the sun has yet to rise. I’ll be opening up again in just a few hours. To tell you about a “day in my life” is to reveal my life in a day…

It’s Saturday, September 16, 1989. There are no performances scheduled on the center-court stage – Jem and the Holograms Live! won’t arrive for another two weeks – nor are any department stores having major sales. Santa and the Easter Bunny hibernate in their holiday homes and it’s up to the off-season choo-choo train to offer amusement to the tiny ones (the carousel doesn’t arrive until 1991). Even the escalators manage to survive the day without breaking down. A few people fall in love and some fall out of it, too. But mostly, the 19,211 shoppers who will walk through me go about their business, head home and sleep safely into the future that will be September 17, 1989.

7 AM. Big Mike takes one full lap around me. Armed with his infamous black book, nicknamed Bertha, he’s on the lookout for anything out of place — burnt out light fixtures, broken benches, carpet stains — that would prevent me from looking brand new.

In a far corner of the third floor (the least looked-after), an ashtray holds a mass grave of cigarette butts. This infraction is logged into Bertha. Next stop, the food court. Angelo and Sal – pounding pizza dough at Mama Fortuna’s for the past two hours – convince Big Mike to try the new meatball slice at lunch (Big Mike hasn’t paid for a lunch for two years running). Back in his spacious corner office in the administrative suite, he signs paperwork regarding the upcoming repairs my HVAC system needs.

8:30 rolls around and store managers file in.  As always, Henry Blackstone is first in my northern parking lot. Not much to say about him aside from that he’s the menswear manager at Kaufmann’s, wears bright orange socks and tells anyone who’ll listen how happy he is to have a job that pays the doctor’s bills for his two kids. Unfortunately, it’s his health he should be paying attention to. Three years later, on overcast morning much like this, a heart attack takes him just as he steps out of his car.

He’s not the first person who dies here though. Margaret Channing, currently re-stocking beef stick gift boxes at Hickory Farms, will drop dead of an aneurysm doing the same task two months later. She’ll be 39. Come January, after the mad rush of the holidays, Big Mike organizes an after-hours memorial service at the food court. Not as many come as I hope –  an incoming blizzard scares away most potential attendees.

Look at that… 9:30 already. It’s the first rush of  foot traffic as employees head to their stores and the Pittsburgh Prowlers Mall Walking Association give their final lap the hard push.

At Happy Time Pizza Place, Leyland Dalmane watches a band featuring four animatronic animals – Beau Bear on vocals, Coyote Carl on bass, Myrna Muskrat on sax and Otis the Octopus on drums – perform Neil Young’s “Old Man.”

“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…” Beau Bear’s voice floats underneath the final notes of Coyote Carl’s guitar. Somehow, the gravely, dirge-like quality of an animatronic black bear growling makes the song even sadder (I always got depressed when I was forced to play it).

The stage lights fade out, tin can applause pipes-in from the side speakers and the band gives energetic waves to the empty house. High-pitched squeaks then accompany the contorting hydraulic bones and wiring innards as each animal descends into their hibernating trashcan caves.  The house lights return and Leyland whistles the same song, only in a major key.  He’s over-booked with birthdays and can’t afford his all-star attraction breaking down.

At 10AM the store gates are lifted. I’m open for business.

Five minutes later, Bertha in hand, Big Mike takes his second lap to confirm that all the stores are, in fact, open. That’s rule number one if you want to live with me: all stores must open promptly at 10AM and close no earlier than 9:30PM. After three violations, a store would be fined. After five, a store could be closed down.

“My mother’s been in the hospital all night, just got here,” Nancy Kwan says as she unlocks the gates to Kwan’s Jewelry. Nancy’s fate is sealed though – it’s 10:05.

Across this alcove of mostly local mom and pop shops Eric Martek stands outside his own jewelry store, smirking. Eric and Nancy were married co-owners of Martek Jewelers, but after Eric had an affair,  Nancy used the divorce settlement to open her own store.  I used to catch them smiling to each other from across the alcove even after they became competitors, but the smiles disappeared after Eric started dating Sheila from Wicks “N” Sticks.

“Sorry to hear that Nancy,” Big Mike says without reopening Bertha. Even though most violators were independently owned stores without many employees, Big Mike didn’t show any extra mercy. “But you know the rules. I didn’t make them, don’t always like ‘em, but we’ve all got to follow ‘em.”

Nancy will have to hire a temporary employee two weeks later to cover the increasing amount of time she’s away with her mother. A year later, Nancy closes Kwan’s Jewelry to be with her mother full time. Around the same Eric marries Sheila. I never saw Nancy again after that.

And here we go!  My  first transaction of the day is complete. A harried businessman purchases brown loafers at Thom McAn. In town for a “high-risk insurance convention,” he’s forgotten to pack the right shoes for tomorrow’s business casual brunch. Five seconds later, the second transaction: a young mother, her two year-old strapped in a stroller, buys a card from Hallmark for her grandfather’s 85th birthday.

At 10:15 I’m already bursting with buying, selling, eating, walking.  Mornings like this makes living through the endlessly quiet nights worth it.

Lunchtime rolls around and here’s something interesting, different at least. A small boy –  no more than four – grabs a handful of crushed red chili pepper from a bowl sitting out at Mama Fortuna’s. “I love Fruity Pebbles!” he says before shoving two handfuls of pepper into his mouth. A finger snap later, clumps of moist, decomposing pepper spills out of this same mouth, followed by a piercing cry. Taking the boy into his arms, the father whispers frenzied condolences into his son’s ear. Peace is finally brokered not by the father, but by Agnus Rothmore, septuagenarian vice president of the Pittsburgh Prowlers, who buys the boy an extra large Orange Julius.

Unlike the weekday post-lunch lull, Saturdays remain steadily busy. (Autumn Saturdays were extra busy. The Steelers play tomorrow — they lose to the Cincinnati Bengals, 41-10 — and Friday night was high school football.) Some shoppers I’m seeing for the first time, but many I already know. I remember where they park, what stores they frequent and their favorite food court spots. You might think everyone pretty much does the same thing when they visit me, but from my purview, you are all wonderfully unique. Thank you for that.

It’s now 6:15PM and the Artabus family- mother, son, daughter and grandmother for today – pull into the parking lot outside of JC Penney.  As usual, Marie, the mother, finds a space close to the entrance. But this evening, no one’s celebrating.

“It’s stupid. I’m not going again. Dad doesn’t go,” says 12 year-old Justin, unbuckling his seatbelt with a righteous indignation.

“When you’re 18, you can do what you want to do. Until then, you’re going to Mass.”

I’ve heard this argument at least a dozen times. The family’s just attended the 5pm service at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, a neighbor of mine.

“I don’t understand why we can’t just leave right after communion?” Justin says, hopping out of the Volvo.

“Because Mass isn’t over.” Marie gets this out right before Justin slams his door in overly dramatic fashion.

“But we get there late all the time–”

“As long as it’s before they finish reading the gospel, you’re fine.”

I won’t detail the back and forth between mother and son that lasted until the conversation found its way to the true question at hand: “It’s only three dollars. I really want to read it!”

The book is a mass market paperback copy of Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon. The dilemma for Marie: Say yes and the anti-church talk ends, but further cements Justin’s belief  that he will get what he wants if he just keeps on begging. Say no and Justin will just keep on begging and begging and begging.

“Bring me the change,” she says, handing him five dollars.

“Ok.” There will be no change. The book’s actual retail price is $4.95.

One argument done, another reaching its crescendo: “Mom, tell her I don’t have to. You promised you would!”

This is Allison, Justin’s younger sister by two years.  She’s currently refusing to take two plastic grocery bags filled with trash out of her grandmother Kittie’s hands.

“Allison, there’ll be nothing from Contempo if you don’t take the bags.”

Marie’s threat works. Allison huffs, but takes the trash from her grandmother.

While most people would leave me carrying bags, Kittie was one of the few who’d arrive with them. She’d throw them away here in order to save money on her garbage collection bill. Luckily, Big Mike never caught on to this, nor did I really mind as Kittie often exited holding plenty bags as well.

The Artabus family enters JC Penny and huddles. Destinations are discussed, plans are hatched and it’s decided that everyone will rendevous at my fountain at 8:30. (Between you and me, the fountain was my best feature.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t heartbroken when they gave me a facelift in 1994 and it became just a regular court with store kiosks. But the fountain is a story for another post…)

Old enough to go off on his own,  Justin travels almost my entire length to get to Waldenbooks. He hands his Preferred Reader Card (10% Off all purchases!) to Rosetta McKenzie behind the counter. Glancing at the book before ringing it up, she tells him, “It’s a-typical King. Hard core fantasy. I don’t think it’s his best. You sure you don’t want to read Misery or It? ”

What Justin hasn’t told anyone is that he’s far less interested in dragons and knights than he is in the book’s lone early sex scene. Two weekends ago while playing Dragon’s Lair at Happy Time, Nathan Jamison bragged about reading his father’s copy and wouldn’t shut up about the hot sex scene. I imagine this is why, after buying the novel, Justin forgoes stopping anywhere else – he almost always visited Circus World and Ye Olde Cutlery to look at swords  – and arrives to the fountain at 8:20. He starts reading immediately.  Fifteen minutes later, Allison plops down holding a hulking meteorite of cinnabon.

“They’re in the makeup section. They just need a few more minutes,” Allison says about their mother and grandmother in between chews.

Justin’s heard this story too many times before to even bother responding.  If there was a movie rental ready to watch at home, he might have complained, but right now his eyes don’t leave the book. Allison, meanwhile, seems happy to devour her cinnabon and sit by her big brother without him teasing her.

At 8:45 Allison licks refuse icing off her fingers while, for the fourth time in as many minutes, Justin re-reads the marriage night sex scene between old King Roland and his new, innocent teenage bride, Princess Sasha….

When, on that occasion, she observed his flaccid penis, she asked with great interest: “What’s that, Husband?”… But he saw her then exactly as she was – a very young girl who knew even less about the baby-making act than he did – and observed her mouth was kind, and began to love her, as everyone in Delain would grow to love her.

“It is King’s Iron,” he said.

“It doesn’t look like iron,” said Sasha, doubtfully.

“It is before the forge,” he said.

“Ah!” said she. “And where is the forge?”

“If you will trust me,” sad he, getting into bed with her, “I will show you, for you have brought it from the Western Barony with you but did not know it.”

“What does “flaccid” mean?” Justin asks in a voice that barely breaks through the fountain’s rushing water.

“I don’t know. Why?” Allison brightens at this chance to respond to something her brother says that doesn’t have to do with name calling.

“Nevermind.” Next weekend, at yet another Happy Time birthday party, Justin will tell Nathan Jamison that he too had now read the sex scene and it sucked due to its lack of real sex. Despite this, Justin still turns slightly away from his sister to hide his erection.

Allison looks toward Kaufmann’s. Her mother and grandmother have moved to a different makeup counter.  With them so focused on shopping and her brother happily engaged in his book, not for the first time do I think that she must get lonely sometimes.

9PM.   Marie and Kittie finally join Justin and Allison at the fountain. They state the very obvious, “It’s time to head home.” Arms branching out with various bags, mother and grandmother insist that their extreme tardiness was due to being stuck in a long line. They don’t realize that Justin and Allison have watched them shopping the entire time – line free.

For a Saturday evening, it’s been slow at Happy Time. “Top loaded,” Leyland  told the employees he let off fifteen minutes ago. “Sometimes the people just don’t show up at night. Can’t explain it. It is just what it is.”

But he can’t just close, can he? No one wants to risk being written up in Bertha. So he stays open.

A woman enters at 9:20 with her small son.  Leyland politely tells her that it’s closing time. The women becomes insistent. “I came all the way from East Liberty so Andre could hear that band.”

Leyland smiles at the undersized boy, hiding behind his mother’s full-sized legs. He bends down to look in his eyes, “Are you a fan of the Happy Time Band?”

The boy nods, a hesitant smile sneaking on his face. Leyland rises and looks to the mother, “Ok. One more performance.”

Leyland enters the control booth to start the show.When he returns to the theater, the child sits alone in the front row. The opening instrumental of “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” gears up and the band rises from its trashcans. Leyland watches the boy sway along to the song’s ebullient opening chords.

Yet the mother is now nowhere to be found. Leyland searches through the fleet of arcade games, bouncy ball room, laser tag maze, jungle gym and back into the entrance. There he finally sees her, walking toward my exit with a tall, husky man wearing a ragged Pitt Panthers sweater. Before Leyland can say anything, she catches his stare and calls out, “Be back in a half hour or so.”

Instead of insisting that she  return  to Happy Time to retrieve her son, Leyland simply nods and heads back into the theater.

“Though it’s cold and lonely in the deep dark night

I can see paradise by the dashboard light

Paradise by the dashboard light”

The Happy Time Band is rocking out and the boy is practically bouncing out of his chair. The music has fully possessed him. Seeing this child’s unadulterated joy puts a smile on Leyland’s own face. This is why he risked so much to build Happy Time.

Leyland sings along and sways as the music crescendos. It’s closing time, after all. And the gates must now come down.

Follow Ryan Dixon on Twitter @ryanbdixon

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