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Bad Tourists at the Mall

Earlier this summer, a group of Bad Subjects visited Sun Valley Mall in Concord, California, on the first of what we hope will be occasional 'field trips.'
Annalee Newitz, Steven Rubio and Ann Marie Caffrey

Issue #8, October 1993

Earlier this summer, a group of Bad Subjects visited Sun Valley Mall in Concord, California, on the first of what we hope will be occasional 'field trips.' The following pieces grew out of our experiences at the mall.


Annalee Newitz

I got my first credit card, an American Express, a few weeks before the mall trip with Bad Subjects. I was a little afraid to use the thing, so I decided I would buy something with my new credit card at the mall, among friends. What could be more appropriate? After all, the credit card was in many ways invented for the kind of shopping a mall invites: repeated impulse or luxury purchases. And let me confess up front that I have always loved shopping and buying things for myself, even when I couldn't afford them. Especially when I couldn't afford them. So my story of the mall trip is a story of pleasure, but also a story about denial — for I spent money I did not have, as usual, and I could only enjoy that while denying I was doing it.

I planned to buy some back-to-school clothes. In the 80s, my mother would take me out on back-to-school shopping sprees at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, CA with her credit card in hand. Before I understood 'credit' in its full sense, the mall was my oyster — my mother bought me bag after bag of clothes from The Gap, Nordstrom, The Limited-Express and Esprit. There were acid washed jeans, thick cotton slacks, baby doll t-shirt dresses, stirrup pants, Bass Wejuns, and billowy paisley rayon blouses. And the sweaters — damn, I miss those expensive mall-bought cardigans in every conceivable color. Unlike the vintage sweaters I have become accustomed to buying as an impoverished graduate student, those sweaters always came without any holes and missing buttons. And they always smelled nice, like objects that had never come into contact with human bodies. Big floppy black hats and soft leather boots were coming into style just when I left home and my parents' middle-class credit behind.

So you see it isn't just the buying of things that gives me pleasure, but the memory of what I have bought before. And, as my rapturous list of 80s youth fashions indicates, my desire to buy and remember buying all began with a mall and a woman who had a credit card. Truly, my idea of Utopia began at South Coast Plaza, where everything seemed to be free and there was plenty of it. And now I was returning, years later, to a different mall in a different place, a woman with a credit card and the memory of mall Utopia. But this time around it was my credit card, my insufficient salary and student loans paying off the balance. My pleasure was not entirely gone, but it was certainly more difficult to maintain. For one thing, the clothes were far too expensive to buy. I looked long and lovingly at a red and white plaid flannel dress — it would have been perfect with a white t-shirt and black docmartin boots. But it was $75.00, two weeks worth of groceries or several much-needed university press books.

So I knew I could not buy any new clothes. I would feel guilty and stupid doing it — and I couldn't summon up enough of my usually strong sense of the surreal to talk myself into making such an absurd move. In other words, I knew I would just have to look harder for an object I could purchase with a minimum of guilt and a maximum of denial. And this is how I did it.

I bought something I could write off on my taxes. I found a store that sold new movies on video, something I had never seen before. Because I study contemporary American film, this was certainly the place for me to make a guilt-free purchase: a store where I could buy something that would be sanctioned by my work. Not only I, but an entire institution, would be improved by my spending money. Now there's real denial for you — clean and simple, almost foolproof. I bought a video by one of the directors I will be discussing at great length in my dissertation, Frank Hennenlotter. It was his first film, Basket Case, which is about a young man who carries his deformed and psychic twin brother around with him in a giant wicker basket. His twin brother kills people, but the protagonist (who survives for two sequels) is in denial about it.

Using my credit card was really easy. I just handed it over to the young man at the cash register, who had me sign a slip of paper. Then the video was mine. I hugged it all the way back to the Bad Subjects designated meeting place near the glass elevator and dinosaur display. I had lost my credit card virginity.

But I think my urge to call this 'losing my virginity' is just one more way to deny what actually happened to me; I did not lose something which would never come back. Denial is a fairly predictable process — whatever it is that you repress to get your pleasure always comes back to haunt you. Credit card denial works like that: first you buy something for 'free,' then your monthly statement comes with an itemized list which tells you exactly what you'll have to pay for your pleasure. Furthermore, I had to tell myself I was buying the video for my work, and that too would come back to rob me of my contentment. I have to write my dissertation as soon as possible if I ever want to get a job and pay off all my student loans. Now I own one more thing that reminds me of what I'll lose if I don't start working harder tomorrow.


Steven Rubio

I've had the pleasure of writing three essays for Bad Subjects in the short life of the journal, all of which share a common theme: the simultaneous experiencing and critiquing of a favorite aspect of popular culture. Whether it be Murphy Brown, the Internet, or X-Ray Spex, I began with something I enjoyed and asked myself, what is happening here behind the veils of my enjoyment? How can I better understand that which I love?

Recently, Bad Subjects went to the mall, Sun Valley Mall in Concord, the mall of my youth. We went as a group to simultaneously experience and critique mall culture. Toes might be stepped on, fun might be spoiled, but it was all in the name of furthering our understanding of an important aspect of popular culture.

Except I don't like malls. I don't go to malls. I get nervous in malls. To paraphrase the Gang of Four, in malls I feel like a tourist.

What do we call it when one appropriates the culture of others, from a supposedly privileged position, for the purpose of gaining personal or collective reward? Some might call it 'tourism,' but I look at my online Webster's and read that imperialism is 'the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation esp. by direct territorial acquisitions or BY GAINING INDIRECT CONTROL over the political or economic life of other areas.'

We ate at a restaurant called the Red Robin. It was an obnoxious joint featuring an odd bird mascot who seemed to exist to entertain both children (the bird made the rounds of the restaurant, shaking hands with youngsters) and adults (there was a bar attached to the restaurant, and at one point the bird climbed atop the bar and began a plainly sexual 'dance'). At one point, the bird came and sat at an empty chair at our table, touching Annalee, shaking hands with Carlos, and gesturing at the rest of us in bird-mime.

It is safe to say we were unsettled by this bird invasion. I found myself hating this bird, who suddenly represented all that I detested about malls: people acting in an artificial manner in an artificial environment to no apparent purpose beyond dropping a dollar or ten in a series of artificial commercial establishments.

But ... I knew I hated malls before I went on the 'field trip.' This was no close reading of Murphy Brown, no cogent analysis of a favorite text. This was an arrogant deconstruction of the pleasures of others, an attempt at indirectly controlling the cultural life of others via critical method. It was cultural imperialism, and it was unfortunate, for the result was that I found myself contemptuous of some poor sucker in a bird suit making minimum wage, demeaning themselves just so I could include them in my mall experience, just so I could have something to write about for Bad Subjects.

Sometime later, a friend invited my wife and I to a performance by her daughter, a young woman we have known since her birth, and with whom we have something of a parental relationship. The daughter had recently gotten a job as a topless dancer at Centerfolds, a new, 'high-class' food, dance and sex joint in San Francisco, and her mother, having been invited to check out the show by her daughter, hoped we could come along to ease whatever discomfort might arise from seeing one of your children dancing nude in front of visiting businessmen.

When the daughter heard that I was invited, she asked if I wouldn't mind staying home, as she would be a bit embarrassed to perform her show in front of what amounted to a father figure. Fully understanding, I opted out for the evening; my wife reported later that the various 'Centerfold Go-Go Girls' pay $25 for the chance to dance on the Centerfolds stage, and any money the dancers can get from the patrons is theirs to keep. Besides the main stage, there is a 'VIP' area where a patron can have a private dance session with a favorite performer; this is where the real money is made. (It should be noted that great precautions are taken to ensure that nothing happens beyond dancing, even in the VIP areas.)

Hearing my wife describe the act at Centerfolds, I couldn't help but remember the Red Robin mascot. That bird was annoying, performing bizarre routines for the restaurant patrons; it was also anonymous, the worker toiling beneath a bird costume that covered all identifiable features. It was safe to attack this bird in print, because the human inside the bird could be ignored. But when my friend's daughter performed her routines for the crowd at Centerfolds, dressed only in a thong, she was anything but anonymous to those in the audience who knew her. She could assume a level of anonymity with the usual patrons of the club, perhaps, but such anonymity would have been shattered by my appearance in the crowd. The relationship between performer and audience would have been personalized; therefore, it would have been uncomfortable.

Which leads one to ask, what happens to the relationship between a cultural artifact worthy of a BadSubjectian response, and the Bad Subject doing the responding, if we stop for only a moment and consider the human being hiding beneath the costume that identifies that human as an artifact?


Ann Marie Caffrey

I'm here 10 minutes and I have a headache. Is the air real at Sunvalley Mall, or a chemical collage of fabric preservative, new-product-smell, and perfume samples? And I'm convinced the in-store paging system's 'bong...bong' is really random alien-to earth communication attempts. This air passes through my nostrils but I don't recognize any odor. The muscles under my eyes and around my mouth soften to a mute expression. I blend into the unassuming saunter of the crowd. 'Easy listening' music guides us without any particular direction.

Give me something significant and real!

I find clarity just a few yards away. He stands 6'7' and weighs in at 235 pounds. Clyde Brewer is a Sunvalley Security Guard. He walks his north-end beat alone, with somber composure. And if a tree could walk, it would move like Brewer. A tree has nothing to prove. You can't deny it's there. The authority of its presence envelops you, quietly. Though a reminder of the undeniable power of the law, Brewer carries a discreet compassion for those that linger in the mall. Beneath the gold seal of California on his security badge beats the sober heart of a police academy graduate.

The Napa Valley College Police Academy recognized 33 students as post certified police officers in training on January 20, 1992. Brewer ranked 4th academically in the 90.71st percentile, and received the Top Athlete and Highest Manipulative Skills Score awards. Just what did he manipulate? 'Your body and brain working as one, and that's pretty much everything a cop does. That's using your baton, your gun, driving. Questioning people, interviewing people, handling little kids that are lost...putting it to work,' Brewer says. Before deciding to enter the police academy Brewer took criminal justice classes and worked as a security guard at Solano Mall, Fairfield, CA and The Tampa Center, Tampa , FLA. 'You're exactly the same thing as a cop except you don't carry a gun, and you don't go to people's houses, you go to little stores.'

According to Brewer, 90% of Sunvalley patrons are shopping, and only 10% are kids hanging out. And for those youths, 'mall rats', and an occasional homeless adult, the little stores make up a home they go to when they're lonely. And all their friends live there. Meet the family. Varied ethnic groups, ranging from 10 to 32-years-old, Sunvalley Mall hosts 'badge groupies,' wanna-be-gangs, real gang members, the homeless and normal, or says Brewer, 'Brady Bunch kids'. The youngest members of the mall family to cross Brewer's path are the 'Badge Groupies,' occassionally 12 or 13-year-old girls who, caught by his All-American good looks try thinking up romantic ways to ask, 'Um, where's the bathroom?' This can be embarrassing, 'I try to end those situations real fast,' Brewer says.

Sunvalley Mall Security Guards identify 'disorderly or disruptive conduct of any nature.' Number four of the mall's Standards of Conduct lists: 'use of obscene or insulting language, gestures; to run, yell, fight throw any object, litter or play radios.'

'We don't have a juvenile problem at the Sunvalley Mall as much as I've seen at other malls because we enforce the loitering law (647FF Penal Code) and we enforce (the) trespassing law (602 PC),' Brewer says. If you get called on any of these behaviors, you can still stay at the mall with your friends if you pass the Attitude Test. 'We explain to them that we're going to kick them out, but that we want to allow them to continue to shop without starting trouble, or without fighting or screaming or whatever they were doing wrong. We try to give them one or two chances'

'One thing most security guards don't do that will help you a lot is to let the person win the verbal battle. If I have a problem with somebody I never raise my voice until the very end, and that's because I have to scream because they're in a fight. I always talk really quietly. That way they have to talk quietly to hear what I'm saying to them.'

The mall is private property, giving the guards the right to 'evict' volatile persons of any age. If a kid doesn't understand this, and tries to look cool by telling off the guard on duty, he's failed the Attitude Test. 'Whatever they're gonna do to me, they're going to do to some other group of kids that isn't in their group I have to realize that whatever they say to me is gonna cause a fight with another group. If it's going to cause a fight then we evict them.' Brewer estimates Sunvalley evicts one person a day. Each eviction requires a written report from the guard involved. And gang members aren't the ones evicted.

Contrary to public opinion, real gangs don't start trouble at the mall. Brewer says: 'If you're in a real gang, you have nothing to prove. When they walk into the mall you can tell they (are part of) a real gang. They're polite, they walk right by you. They're just there to look at the women, or they have women with them. They're just there to let people observe their power.'

A tattoo shared by the members of the gang will prove their 'association' with each other and the people around them. They range in age from 14-28 years old and share the same brown, red or blue bandanna pressed crisp and neat, hanging out of their pockets.

The 9 to 21-year-old `wanna-be-gang' kids model popular gang images they've heard about and seen on TV. They fabricate their attitude. Kids trying to be like gangs typically don't come from gang-related cities, such as Vallejo or Richmond. They tend to be kids from calm suburbs trying to act tough, hoping to intimidate other kids in the mall who aren't `down with the group'.

'They don't actually want to fight; nobody in this whole world likes to fight, cause it scares everybody, no matter how much bigger you are than the person. They're hoping that the other group is gonna walk off scared with their heads down, and then they can say `yeah man, we scared them' and that's where they get their high,' Brewer says.

Kids just want to fit in with their friends. You might fit into the crowd, but you won't fit into your pants. The security guard fashion assessment says `The Plumber Look' is hot this Fall. You know, the plumber bends over to reach for a monkey wrench and his pants ride down. Their pants would fall down if they weren't held up by suspenders. A way-baggy shirt keeps the floppy look in balance. It's the normal 'Brady Bunch' kids that get picked on for fitting their clothes too well.

There are others that linger in Sunvalley Mall who purposely keep a low profile. Homeless come to conduct conventional mall business, and some come to search for a meal in a trash can. Brewer remembers the call from security dispatch. A '51/50', someone mentally volatile was reported at the Bank of America. A homeless man thought his old bank account was at the mall branch, but wasn't sure. Brewer found the man lucid, just misunderstood and confused. He seemed to know his social security number. It was his appearance that was arresting. The man in his thirties was missing an eye. The absence of one gave his functional eye a crazed look, and the vacant eye socket was neglected and infected.

Mall procedure may meet security guidelines, but often falls short satisfying human needs. That's when Brewer applies personal compassion that can't be taught in a Police Academy classroom. The man's last name was Stoops. Brewer remembers buying the 32-year-old former mechanic lunch at a mall Chinese restaurant. If he let Stoops walk around on his own, the next store he walked past would have called security, alarmed by his infected eye and crazed stare.

'I was amazed just watching him eat. He ate more than I ever could, without taking a single breath, without even taking a drink of water, ' Brewer says. He talked with Stoops for 1 1/2 hours. 'He liked rock music. He knew the name of the musician for just every single rock song that came on the radio. So I knew he wasn't crazy, and I knew he wasn't stupid,' Brewer says.

Sometimes you see someone more startling than Stoops. Jason dresses like many 25-year-olds: casual shorts, sneakers, rumpled hair. But Jason wears a bra. Under a nondescript T-shirt there is something hidden but very clearly there. He's told the ladies at the information booth he does it for attention. 'He avoids security like the plague so I make it a point to say 'hi' to him, and I wave at him every time he goes by. Just like the transient people. I just don't like them to be scared.'

Brewer is paid and trained to make people feel secure. At the end of a year at Sunvalley Mall, his best calls are responses to his own compassion.

Annalee Newitz is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, writing her dissertation on monsters in American popular culture. She is also senior editor for Bad Subjects.

Ann Marie Caffrey is a freelance writer and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Steven Rubio is an SF Giants fan and graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley. He is also head of Bad Subjects Online Services. He can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1993 by Annalee Newitz, Steven Rubio and Ann Marie Caffrey. All rights reserved.