Let me tell you about my fantasy: I’m at my local mall, the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square, shopping with my mother circa 1997. We’re back in an era before the Westfield Shopping Center Empire took over suburbia, transforming every surface into an advertisement for Hannah Montana, High School Musical and other ABC Family fare.
As I browse the racks at Friends, rifling through their bell-bottomed polyester pants and frilly shirts, I secretly long for the days when I will be able to shop at Contempo Casual, Wet Seal or Rampage. I imagine myself with pierced ears and halter dresses, glitter jean pockets and tube tops. Until then, I’m stuck wearing my new Technicolor, dangling clip-on earrings from Claire’s, shuffling around the store in my Gap khakis and purple clogs.
From across the room I spot them: a pair of baby blue platform sneakers with white butterflies embroidered on either side. “They’ll be a perfect alternate to my black and white platform saddle shoes!” I claim, giving my mother my best puppy-dog, don’t-I-deserve-them eyes to mask my case of the gimme-gimmes. I like the shoes because the Spice Girls are really big on the scene; my best friend and I have just made up our own choreo for “Spice Up Your Life” the previous weekend at a sleepover (she’s Sporty, I’m Posh). My mother shifts the Gap Kids bags on her arms, causing the 11-year-old with the silver-banded braces and the overgrown frizzy bangs to squeal out a few more “please, please, pleaaaaase”s for good measure. “All right, since you got an Outstanding on your book report about ‘Where the Red Fern Grows,’˛” she says, much to my delight. Later that day, I stand in front of my bathroom mirror, really really really wanting to zigazig ahhh in my new platform kicks.
When I was growing up, my family would head to our local mall almost every Saturday without fail. My brother and dad always came directly from hockey practice, and I usually headed over with my mom and my sister after ballet class. We’d meet in the food court around noon and usually all end up in line at Panda Express. For years I ordered the same thing: half chow mein, half steamed rice, chicken and mushrooms, and orange chicken. Sometimes I’d pocket the change from the $20-bill my dad gave me. After finally nabbing a table from another San Fernando Valley nuclear family, we’d sit and discuss seeing a movie at the local Cineplex that afternoon. Usually the womenfolk would head over to Bloomingdale’s for a perusal of the sale rack, and my brother and dad would go to Tower Records or run some other errand.
Going to the mall on Saturdays was a family ritual, just like my Dad making Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes on Sundays. Later in high school, having quit ballet, I’d roll out of bed and drive myself to meet my earlier-to-rise family at the food court. Sometimes we’d all be coming from four different locations and would bring four different cars. We knew that the best parking is always at the bottom of the escalator bay on the second floor. Even now, when I go home for holidays, we usually end up at the recently Westfield-ified mall at least once. I usually opt for a California Crisp salad instead of the sauce-drenched Chinese food, but other than that not much else has changed with our family habits.
I still love going to the mall. When I’m nostalgic for home, I think of these Saturday mornings. It probably has something to do with being raised in Los Angeles and thereby being exposed to people who value the material and superficial over most other things. I certainly don’t mean to give off the impression that we went to the mall out of cultural deprivation — far from it. We go to the mall because it gives us the comfort of consistency.
I’ve been reflecting on how strange it is that my family loves the mall so much, but it makes sense considering how habit makes us feel grounded. Just like people make daily trips to Starbucks or the gym, my family makes weekly trips to the mall. Panda Express is certainly not the most delicious Chinese food in the world, but when I crave it, I’m craving time spent with my family on Saturday afternoons, the day of the week when everyone can finally relax, take a moment to breathe and take advantage of the sale racks at Macy’s.
Celeste Ballard is such a valley girl.