Working at the Mall

My third job out of college was for a major long distance carrier. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of “long distance,” back in the Dark Ages, if you wanted to call a person who lived far away from you, you had to use a “long distance carrier” to place the call. This was a company you chose based on how recently they had sent you a check to bribe you to switch to their service. The “big three” were Sprint, MCI and AT&T. The truth is that initially they all just bought capacity from AT&T, which owned the fiber optic network long distance calls were carried on, before eventually laying their own cable, but never mind that. In any event, I worked for one of these three (not really important which one).


Let's face it--they were pretty much interchangeable

I worked there for almost exactly one year before getting laid off, much to my delirious joy. The woman I worked for was a control freak and a helicopter boss. In that one year I had met six people that I’d gotten to know well enough to converse with, and they were the people in my department, the girl who sat across from me, and the girl who sat next to me. There are two reasons for this. First is that my helicopter boss handled all the communication with our internal customers. I remember sitting in one meeting to hear about a project we were going to be working on. One. And my boss did all the talking. All other projects I worked on came through her, and my output was returned to the customer through the same channel. The second reason is the people themselves. People at this company were just unfriendly. I would cross paths with them in the kitchen, and they would studiously avoid eye contact, and respond with only the most cursory of nods to any words of greeting extended to them. It was weird.

Our offices were in a high rise building that was connected to a mall. My cube looked out on the top deck of the parking garage. To get to the parking garage, I had to walk through the food court of the mall. It was actually a fairly convenient location—the lunch options were diverse, since we had access to the food court, and more than once I got up from my desk and ran down to pick up a birthday card or present on a short break.

Since I was there for almost exactly 365 days, I was able to observe two phenomenon that have stayed with me to this day.  The first is Christmas at the mall.

Many are the outraged tirades I’ve seen on Facebook about “starting Christmas too early.” Nordstrom famously—and, in my opinion, smugly—puts up signs after Halloween every year declaring that you won’t find any Christmas decorations in their stores until the day after Thanksgiving. La di fucking da. Isn’t the absence of those decorations enough to make it clear that they’re not rushing Christmas? But no, they have to put up signs patting themselves on the back for making sure Thanksgiving doesn’t get stomped on by Christmas being rolled out too early. Like Thanksgiving has feelings and gives a shit.

Since I was at this company in the early 90s, and stores hadn’t quite gotten to the point that they were putting out Christmas decorations the day after Halloween, Christmas sort of crept in to the mall next to my office. The first thing we noticed was that the muzak had some Christmas songs in the mix when we walked through the food court. Then we’d see the big decorations that the mall owned and put out every year. Santa’s chair was set up, and a sign told us when we’d be able to come see Santa in a few weeks. The stores started to decorate. By Thanksgiving, the mall was in full on Yuletide mode.

But the most prominent memory for me is the parking deck. Remember it was the view from my cube. I started this job in August or September (I forget the exact date), and for the first couple of months of my employment, I could look out on the deck and there might be three or four cars up there. Some days it was completely empty and remained that way.

But starting in late November, an interesting thing happened. More and more cars started parking up there. This mall isn’t far from the Pentagon and the offices that surround it, so lots of people would come over to the mall on their lunch hour to do their holiday shopping. By mid-December, looking down on the deck around lunchtime, it was almost half full. Then the amount of time during which the upper deck was somewhat full began to lengthen—there would be a good number of cars there from 10 or 10:30 until about 3 p.m., with almost all the spaces being taken during lunch. The week before Christmas, from about 9:30 a.m. until the time I left the office, the top deck was almost completely solid with cars. (We had reserved parking in another part of the garage, so I didn’t have to fight people for spaces, fortunately.) What I find interesting about this is that if the top deck was solid with cars, it meant that the four levels beneath it were too. That’s a lot of people, when you think about it.

Then the holidays passed, and winter changed to spring, and another interesting thing happened.

Washington, D.C. is a popular spring break destination. Schools from all over the country send groups of kids to D.C. to take in the history, tour the museums, and learn about our country’s early years. They also, apparently, make sure they get a chance to check out important landmarks like Banana Republic and The Gap, presumably so they can see how the D.C. locations of those stores differ from the ones they have in Raleigh or Cleveland or Omaha. (Spoiler: they don’t.)

Look it's Short Hills Mall! Or is it King of Prussia? Or possibly the Mall of America. Because THEY ALL LOOK THE FUCKING SAME.
Busloads of kids would be dropped off at the mall, where they would swarm through it, eating Auntie Annie’s pretzels and drinking Slushees and checking out chain stores that were exactly the same as the ones they had at home. I’ve never understood this. People travel thousands of miles so they can go try on the same tan chinos they could buy at a store ten minutes from their own homes. I could see if they went to Georgetown, or Old Town Alexandria. While those areas do have a few places that are nationally prominent, they have a lot of small boutique type stores with interesting and diverse merchandise. But these kids were salivating to get to Ann Taylor and The Limited so they could look at the same earrings and bangle bracelets that were for sale at every Ann Taylor on planet earth.

So I spent probably six weeks watching these kids exclaim with excitement when they discovered that this mall had all the same stores their mall had. Wasn’t that cool? Ohmuhgod, they totally have Eddie Bauer here too! Squee! Then the spring break season ended, and the crowds reduced back down to more normal levels, or at least were comprised of more adults than teenagers.

About three months after that, the director of my department called me into her office and informed me that they would have to let me go, that the amount of work the department was being asked to do didn’t justify my position, and they were eliminating it. Her manner clearly indicated that she was delivering what she thought would be bad news, and cause me great distress. The truth was I had to restrain myself to keep from kissing her full on the mouth. This was the best news I’d gotten in months. No more would I have to try to pry a pleasantry out of some surly office drone while I was microwaving a Lean Cuisine. Never again would I be given work to do in such a way that it felt more like homework than a professional contribution to an organization. And I can’t say I felt much in the way of regret when the rise of cell phones pretty much drove this particular long distance carrier out of existence. About the only thing I’ve ever missed was getting to see the parking lot at Christmas, and the throngs of kids in the spring. They were the most interesting parts of the whole job.


Sarah (est. 1975) said...

So what? I shouldn't be listening to the Harry Connick Jr. Christmas album in my car right now is what you're saying?

Tracy said...

I would never say that. I keep my Christmas music on rotation in my playlist all year long and am mocked for it MERCILESSLY. As you will see on FB, I start counting down to Christmas pretty early on. I can even tell you (because it's an appointment in my phone) that on September 15th, we have ONE HUNDRED DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS. The more Christmas the better, in my book!

Opticynicism said...

That's the most wonderful time of the year . . . that I plan my travel routes so that I don't come anywhere close to a mall. Childhood trauma.

I'm one of those kids from Raleigh, and our biggest mall (at the time) was ingeniously built on a swamp. During the pre-Christmas swarm one year, one of the parking decks collapsed.

I Christmas shop on Amazon. It will never collapse on my head.

Tracy said...

I do a lot of my shopping on Amazon too. These days I seldom go near a mall. Not because I fear any part of it will collapse on my head, but because I can get everything (including uranium and frozen baby eels--not that those things are on my Christmas list, but you know)from Amazon with free second day shipping. Why would I go to the mall??