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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

My grandmother, the mall rat

I remembered I'd written this in 2009, and it never got published. I am still pretty sad but doing better, and very grateful to hear from so many people whose lives she touched. We actually would have gone to the mall and told the people she knew there but we don't know their names! If you want to know why I ate at Shake Shack in Dubai, here's a clue.

My Grandmother, The Mall Rat
by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, the local malls were my refuge. Getting top billing was Garden State Plaza, which is now populated by the likes of Betsey Johnson and BCBG, but back then featured more garden-variety shops. Paramus Park and Riverside Square were second-tier, but still worthy of a visit if that was the only place we could get a ride to. The mall was an escape, a place to explore, whether that meant trying on clothes or surreptitiously ogling dirty books. An afternoon at the mall was the epitome of teenage freedom, and I must admit that when I moved to Berkeley, California for college, and after that, Manhattan for law school, I missed my malls (yes, Manhattan has a mall, but it’s just not the same).

These days, I don’t frequent malls too often, though when I do, such as a recent walk through LA’s The Beverly Center, I can feel the fond memories rushing back (though I don’t recall a Hunky Santa photo booth back home!). I always credited my love of malls to my fate growing up a suburban teen rather than the much cooler city kids, but I realized recently I may have developed my love of mall culture from my 86-year-old grandmother (it definitely skipped over my mom). She and her friends get the Danbury (Connecticut) Mall to open early at 7 a.m. so they can walk its three floors before the crowds rush in, my grandmother using her stylish red walker to stroll (and hand bags from). She knows every inch of it, tracking its changes with as much zeal as any marketer. It’s as familiar a setting as her neighbors’ houses, and she shows as much interest in what’s new at the mall as she does with what’s new at her temple. If I were describing a friend, I’d think that a sad commentary on their materialism, but for my grandmother, the mall is a social venue par excellence. I recently found myself in a McDonald’s, somewhere I rarely go, but not for the food. I was there to buy a gift card for my grandmother; she goes there almost every day, and swears by the yogurt parfait. In fact, it’s pretty tough to refuse one of the many leftover yogurt parfaits that fill her refrigerator. The last time I saw her, we, along with my mom and stepfather, went to McDonald’s for breakfast and my ordering a breakfast burrito made her so happy you’d have thought I was being bat mitzvahed all over again. A 79-year-old man even asked her to share his hash browns recently; who knew that fast food joints were elderly pickup spots? (For the record, she did not give him her number.) As I knew she would, she went to McDonald’s the next day and proudly used the card, as excited as if I’d given her something far more extravagant.

It’s not just McDonald’s my grandmother loves about her local; it’s everything. Unlike my teenage mall shopping, for my grandmother, the mall is less about spending money and more about being social. She greets the staff at the stalls, shops, McDonald’s, Häagen-Dazs and Sbarro as if they were old friends. They know her by name. Walking around with her there is like being with a celebrity. She comments on any new store openings as casually as she fills me in on the latest family news (if you want to know who’s in therapy, who’s pregnant, who just bought a house and what someone just ate for dinner, my grandmother’s the one to call). When I visited her one Black Friday, we strolled every inch of the mall, her with her stylish red walker. While I went to the Apple Store to check my email, she sat in her walker and waited patiently. She insisted I try the $1 vibrating chairs and she was right--they really do feel good! She goes to the same newsstand to get her daily newspapers (“I’d die without The New York Times to read”) and is up on all the latest sales. I recently got berated for not letting her know which style of underwear I wanted from Victoria’s Secret.

My grandmother’s always been cool. She once dyed my hair Manic Panic purple, has probably been to more of the latest movies than you have, and saw the Beatles in concert. She remembers my favorite bands and will cut out articles about them for me. I recently saw some old footage of us dancing around; I was around 8, she fifty years my senior. She looked so young and glam, but what’s remarkable about her is that she still exhibits those qualities. Yes, she’s older and can’t be as active as she’d like; the years are catching up to her, as are various health ailments, like asthma. That hasn’t stopped her from making the most of the mobility she does have; she’s hard to get a hold of, and I have to strategically plan my calls to her in the evenings because during the day she’s out and about.

I admit that I love to shop, though whether that comes from being a Jersey girl, my grandmother’s daughter, or simply my own inner materialism, I’m not sure. Yet my passion for malls has waned over the years; I’m much more likely to shop online or at a flea market. I like getting to know the people who make my favorite possessions, like Kirsten Goede, creator of jewelry business Objets d’Envy, where I’m a frequent customer. When I was in Chicago earlier this year, I got to chat with her in person about art and business, and that made me more inclined to purchase her crystal bracelets and necklaces.

For my grandmother, though, the mall is not a symbol of crass commercialism. It’s just as homegrown and friendly as my chat with Kirsten. Buying things isn’t incidental, but it’s about the transaction as much as the end result. She’ll get gifts for family members knowing she may have to return them, and not minding one bit; after all, she’ll be back at the mall anyway making her rounds soon enough. I don’t necessarily aspire to her level of mall-hopping, but I admire her joie de vivre. Too bad she’s going to miss the Hunky Santa at the Beverly Center. I bet she’d look smashing next to him.

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