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Saint Francis Goes to the Mall - Reflections on a Suburban Journey

Saint Francis Goes to the Mall -
Reflections on a Suburban Journey
By Gene Sager

One fine Southern California summer Saturday, I did not set out for the beach. I was off to the shopping mall to buy a novelty cap for my uncle’s birthday. Only the mall has what he likes, my aunt tells me. “Not the strip mall but the real mall,” she says. Just as I was about to back out of the garage, a gentle voice came from behind the car, “Wait. I will go with you.” A monk stood in my driveway: Saint Francis of Assisi, one hand raised to stop me, a wry smile on his lips.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi is sometimes known as the patron saint of Nature and the environment. Occasionally, he joins writer Gene Sager in a quest to understand modern culture.
On the way to the mall, I nervously parroted what I had read about malls – that they are convenient, that they have everything one could want, and most interesting to me: that shopping malls have become the “third place” for North Americans. After our homes and work or school, we spend more time at the mall than anywhere else. For some – the “mall rats” – it is a place to socialize with friends. For others, it is a family place with something for everyone. So it is the new town square or the suburban “hangout.”

Since the vast parking lot was mostly full, I settled for a space a long walk from the main mall entrance, and Francis queried, “ How do you know where to park?”

“I don’t,” I admitted. The novelty store is somewhere in there, but I don’t know which entrance would be best.”

“We do exercise,” Francis said, but I had to confess it wasn’t so pleasant hoofing across the hard, hot pavement, passing only a few struggling trees stuck in the lot.

“Actually, some people here are mall walkers. They come just to exercise in the mall where it’s cool and the security is good.” I figured this was a point in favor of the mall. Francis looked pensive.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of the “directory,” so we headed off on a hit or miss journey through the mall. Francis asked about a group of noisy young girls, and I explained that these are the “mall chicks,” a type of teenybopper. They apparently travel in packs, giggling and talking on cell phones. They seek a “parent-free environment;” the mall is precisely not a family place for them. They love the freedom, the junk food, the clothes, and the cell phone accessories. This is budding consumerism, for these girls will be joining the largest block of consumers who spend big bucks at the mall – women between 22 and 55 years of age.

Francis stopped and gazed at the food court, calling it a “very hard place.” The seating area does look very much like my high school cafeteria: tile, linoleum, Formica, stainless steel, and plastic plants. I hastened to add, “There are several nice, slow food restaurants in the mall...uh...I’ve never eaten there.” Fearing that the monk was not impressed by the mall thus far, I was pleased to see that my favorite specialty store displayed a huge banner about their “Major Clearance.” This store has unusual furniture, bamboo screens, religious artifacts, and suchlike. Surely this place would restore the image of the mall for my critical companion.

Among a variety of Asianesque furnishings, I spied a set of three small tables I had admired on a previous visit to the mall. Standing 3 feet high and 11/2 feet square, oak with inlaid tops, they were what my friends would call “cool.” I called Francis over to admire my treasure: three stackable mother of pearl inlaid tables. I pulled two of them from under the top table, and Francis looked delighted, whispering “nested tables.” I had pleased a saint; I had won the day.

My satisfaction was short-lived when the salesperson piped up with pride, “The inlays are made from shells and ivory.” Francis winced. I told the clerk I thought that ivory was illegal. To make matters worse, the price tag on the tables read “Was $1,000, Now Only $500!” I distinctly recalled a previous sale price of $300 – $100 per table, for these very tables. I complained in vain to the young, inexperienced salesperson about this deceptive, consumerist trick. “Who needs them?” Francis muttered as we left the store.

   

We finally reached the novelty store where I hoped to find a cap with plastic eye balls attached to springs dangling from the front of a baseball style cap. I was in luck! This item, part of a series called “classic wackos,” was on sale. I received a $5.00 coupon for my next visit as well, for this is the call of the mall: “Come back for more; shopping is a form of entertainment.”

With my classic wacko under my arm, we again merged into the flow of shoppers, and Francis asked about the types of stores and activities the mall has to offer. “Incredible! I replied. “We have some big stores with big names like Sears and Saks, and we have a zillion small specialty stores, and the majority of stores stock mainly women’s apparel and shoes.” On a roll, I babbled on about newer malls which have movie theaters, skating rinks, and even rock climbing walls.

“Can I buy an apple here?” asked Francis. I didn’t think there were apples for sale at the mall. Most malls don’t include a big or even a small food market. Malls have plenty of fast food and cookies and candy stores, and it seems every mall has a Cinnabon store. I offered a refreshing thought: “I have some apples and some good Italian wine chilling at home. We can sit in the shade and relax.” Energized by this thought, we undertook the arduous journey back to the car, anxious to return to my oasis at home. As we left the mall, Francis said softly, “It is a concrete island in an asphalt sea.”

Never was an apple so tasty and a glass of wine so relaxing. We sat in the shade behind my home. “Now we talk about the mall,” said Francis. We agreed that the “convenience of the mall” is a myth; too many cars and too few entrances. Finding the store or product in this maze and then finding your car are challenges worth facing only if the mall redeems itself with some pleasures or benefits that outweigh them.

We decided the “something for everyone” mantra is a myth as well. Malls have a female focus and from thence the money rolls in. Maybe more techno stores, office supply centers, and bookstores would attract men, but such will hardly make the mall a “family place.” Men wind up waiting, and says Francis, there is no comfortable spot in the place. The mall may be our “third place” as is claimed, but it is not a suitable third place. A human-friendly third place mall would include comfortable coffee houses, benches throughout, and lounges where one can relax, read, use wifi, play games.... It would surely include a city park and play area adjacent to the mall buildings. As it is, most malls are not human-friendly.

Francis drained his glass and proclaimed that the mall is a temple of consumerism – a place where shopping is an activity unto itself, a kind of entertainment, where marketeers peddle unnecessary and impractical products. Francis said the telltale sign of consumerism is that despite the menagerie of unusual and interesting products for sale, malls usually do not include an accessible major food market and a traditional hardware store. A trip to the mall may yield, instead, some nested tables and a silly cap.

After a second glass of wine, I lapsed into my “It’s all good” mode. I stated that consumerism is really not so bad. It is not a sin like drugs or theft or murder. Consumerism, I mused, is an innocent pleasure. I pointed out to Saint Francis that the Catholic Church does not list it as a cardinal sin, much less a mortal sin. Francis raised his glass and toasted: “To consumerism,” he laughed.

Saint Francis agreed that mall consumerism is not cardinal and not mortal, but said it is distractive. Massively distractive. It fills our homes and garages, and our minds, with clutter. The mall and its products preoccupy us on a shallow level that does not become us – getting and having, not being and doing. The mall is an orgy of overproduction and overconsumption, sapping resources, polluting, and heating up the planet, and returning most of the products to the landfill. We deserve better. Mother Earth deserves better, he said.

We both fell silent. I stared at the tangerine trees for a while to unclutter my mind. When I turned back, Saint Francis was gone, leaving me with an apple, a glass of wine, and many myths dispelled.

Gene C. Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues.

Saint Francis has appeared in a number of other articles by Gene Sager about modern life, including this one about simplicity, this one about deep car culture, and this one about cell phones.

 

 

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