August 22, 2012

WTH? Athens

The Mall Rules!

Oh, you feckless Georgia Square Mall shoppers, eating at Sbarro and mistaking it for actual pizza, dousing yourselves with cologne-testers at Macy's and browsing at Wet Seal even though you know their clothes are a little too young for you. Not a care in the world as you while away an afternoon immersed in climate-controlled commerce. How many of you could guess that our local mall teeters on the brink of total anarchy, and that it is none other than you, blasé consumers, who have brought us there?

Thou Shalt Not

The fact is, our local mall has rules, lots of them. Twenty-four, to be exact. And judging by my recent visit on a Monday morning, we mall patrons are in flagrant violation of at least one of them at all times. 

I'm not innocent. Oh, no. I'll be the first to admit that I've broken rule number 5 (yelling, screaming… or otherwise communicating in a manner which creates noises of a sufficient volume to impinge on the hearing or peace of other mall patrons) nearly every time I've brought my infant to the mall. I also regularly violate rule number 12 (wearing clothing that... impinges on the sensitivities of others in the mall) whenever I show up wearing a knee-length denim skirt and gardening clogs with white ankle socks. And any time I'm around crowds of people anywhere I break mall rule number 3 (annoying others through… inappropriate staring). I'm not proud of it; I just can't help it.

I first discovered the rules of the mall when I was loitering (rule 8) in an alcove next to the Chinese massage kiosk, waiting for a group of boisterous teens (rule 3) to pass. The rules are displayed there on an official-looking blue sign, and are written in language you've come to expect from a bureaucratized society. The usual suspects are there: no gangs, no guns, no violence, no drugs. But what caught my attention and motivated me to write this column was the final rule. Rule number 24: no fishing, swimming or boating without prior written approval of shopping center management.

Really? Seriously? I guess I understand why we shouldn't shoot people or show our underwear at the mall, but fishing? Boating? This just seems beyond the pale, particularly since there are no lakes, ponds or fountains at the Georgia Square Mall. I realized I needed to go down there and ask some tough questions, so I changed out of my sexually explicit t-shirt (rule 12), strapped the baby in her car seat and was on my way.

A Lawless Bunch

Three guys walking abreast: heh, heh, heh.

I decided to question the mall's patrons about the rules first, and that's when I realized what a truly lawless bunch we all are. What's worse, we don't care. Take, for example, the three young men I accosted on their way to the big cookie store. I showed them the rules, and one of them seemed downright delighted to realize that they'd been breaking rule number 8 the whole time they'd been there.

"Hey!" he shouted, "We've been walking abreast! It says here we're not supposed to do that!" 

"A breast?" His friend with the tattoos and Jack Daniel's shirt perked up. "Where?" As his buddies punched each other in the shoulders and muttered "a breast, heh heh heh," over and over, the first young man shook his head with mock regret. "Man, I can't believe this. We broke the rules of the mall… ” The young men refused to give me their names but gleefully agreed to demonstrate their anti-social behavior while I took photographs.

Then there was Dominic Tracey Leamon. I came upon him sitting in the upstairs atrium with his feet propped up on the railing, reading his Kindle. "Excuse me," I said, pointing at his feet, "Are you aware that you are breaking mall rule number 19 (improper use of mall amenities)? What do you have to say for yourself? Are you some kind of terrorist?"

"No, no," said Mr. Leamon in a way that suggested this was not the first time he'd been asked that question, "I'm not a terrorist. I'm just waiting for my car to be fixed."

Mr. Leamon expressed surprise that the mall had so many rules, but refused to take responsibility for his part in flouting them.

"Look at that train down there.” He pointed at the kiddie train that makes a regular circuit of the mall. "I was just sitting here thinking, man, that train can go anywhere. No lane markings, no speed limits… seems kind of dangerous to me. I was like, 'Wow, what a free mall this is.' But I guess there are some rules after all."

"Rules which you are breaking," I reminded him.

"Yeah, I guess so." He considered the railing, appearing to struggle with his conscience. "I mean, look at this railing. It's ugly; the paint is peeling. They don't have the money to keep all this stuff up." He grew reflective. "I'm about to turn 40. I see these older people and these younger people, and I guess the mall is just trying to manage a bunch of diverse people. I guess they want to reassure the business owners that this'll be a safe, clean place to have a shop."

And what about his part in maintaining the tattered social contract that governs our behavior at the mall? "Well, I'm a cheater." He looked down, studying his hands. "I'm a white, thin, middle-class man. I'm sitting right out here in the middle of everything. I might as well be invisible to the rule enforcers."

"But we see you," I pointed at myself and my baby. "We've got our eyes on you." I snapped a photo of Mr. Leamon as a final warning and made my way to the mall's office.

Even the Manager

The mall's manager, Michael Carey, is an agreeable young man who wanted to reassure me that, despite the mayhem I'd just witnessed, the mall is a safe place. "We really don't have any problems at all," he said, smiling soothingly, "mainly because we've got the western police precinct office here. We also have our own security guards to keep shoppers safe." He declined to go into detail about individual incidents of rule-breaking at the mall, referring me instead to the company that owns the mall, CBL Properties. He explained that the rules I'd seen were standard, boilerplate ones that apply to all malls owned by CBL, not just the Georgia Square Mall.

"So, you don't regularly have problems with people showing up here wanting to fish, swim or boat without prior written permission from shopping center management?"

He laughed. "No. I think that rule existed for when malls had ponds and fountains. But they don't build malls with fountains any more."

Disappointed, I was halfway out the door with my stroller when a final question occurred to me. "Why do you think they don't build malls with fountains anymore?"

A shadow crossed Mr. Carey's face and his smile faltered for just a second. "Probably because of kids like me," he admitted. "In this very mall, actually, when there used to be a fountain in front of Macy's."

Just as I suspected. The rules are a thin scrim of respectability pasted over our collective, yowling mall id, and the lunatics are running the asylum. I looked at Mr. Carey, and I could see him as a teenager, pants wet from the knees down, buying himself an Orange Julius with a fistful of dripping change. Et tu, Mr. Carey? Et tu? If the mall's own management is not above reproach, what hope is there for any of us?

Now, I figure the only sane response to living in a world gone mad is to stop fighting and join in. Thus, instead of fretting about how many rules of the mall are being broken, I'm going to revel in breaking them along with everyone else. So, keep your eyes peeled for me the next time you visit Georgia Square. I'll be the one with the boom box (rule 5), the ferret (rule 18) and, of course, the fishing pole.