The Pessimist and the Ghost Box (2013)
The Pessimist and the Ghost Box
The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Gaston Bachelard
Hi. My name is Jessica Kleinerman, and today is Friday, November 29, 2013. I am sorry if you can’t see me very well. Although its only around 4pm it’s already getting dark outside. This is an outdoor mall, in case you are wondering where I am.
Today is the day after Thanksgiving, which is, as I suppose everyone knows in this country, the day commonly known as Black Friday. Needless to say, Black Friday in America is supposed to be the busiest shopping day of the year, a day when people typically die crushed in stores trying to get that LCD flatscreen or X-Box or Playstation 4.
But not here at Shopper’s Cottage in Forest Village Mall. As it turns out, there is not one single shopper in this entire mall right now. Yes, believe it or not. This must be the only completely empty mall in the history of Black Fridays. Let me move the camera around so you can see. See? No one. You can only see the dry leaves almost turning into dust, flying around in small circles. You may even hear the leaves if it wasn’t because of the Muzak playing.
The reason why this place is empty is partially because this also happens to be the last day of operations of this place. As of tomorrow, this will be officially a dead mall, Shopper’s Cottage where I work will cease to exist, my career in retail will come to an end, my unemployment will officially start, and I will have to figure out what to do next with my life. So I thought I would take this last hour to record this video to make a few important points, which I hope will partially serve as a strange farewell of sorts for anyone who in the past may have been a fan of Shopper’s Cottage or of this mall. But mainly I am doing this because I have an announcement to make.
You may think that it is absurd to get sentimental about Forest Village Mall, or about any mall in general. But the fact is one can get sentimental about anything, as I will later explain. I used to hang out as a teenager in this mall when it had opened, which was (I recently checked) April 13th of 1984. After graduating from high school I went to college to study English Lit with a minor in philosophy. I was always curious about philosophy. My girlfriends always thought I was the big thinker of the group, and everyone knew I was destined to be a leader of some sort. It’s not that I am incredibly intelligent, but that I mainly happen to be very good at retaining lots of information and explaining it to others. Before there were search engines, I was it. So please excuse me if all of the sudden I overwhelm you with unnecessary information— I have become better but still have to catch myself every now and then.
Where was I? Oh yes. So anyway, in college I became interested in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. I know this may be strange for a woman, given that he was perhaps one of the greatest misogynist thinkers ever. You may think I am a masochist. In retrospect I now think that perhaps that initial aspect of Schopenhauer attracted me, being as I have always been sort of a contrarian. It so happened that one day, after reading one of my papers; a professor of mine in college told me that I could be the next Simone de Beauvoir. He may have been joking, but I took the comment very seriously. I was flattered, and at some point thought it was his own way of trying to sleep with me, that is, making me think of him as Sartre or something like that. It may precisely have been this very expectation that because I am a woman I would become a feminist philosopher that made me turn to Schopenhauer. And then what is interesting is that I started writing a book about both of them (that is, Sartre and Schopenhauer). I have continued working on it ever since.
My initial plan was to take off a year or so to write and then apply to graduate school. I took the last bit of money that I had left from a loan and went to Paris, where I thought I would find some kind of inspiration. I had never been outside of the US before then, and actually that has been my only trip abroad so far. I lived there for nearly a year. It was of course wonderful, but I suffered from anxiety— not really knowing French was hard, not having much money was harder and not having a sense of how to go about writing my book and feeling kind of aimless was the hardest. So I traveled around and managed to get a job at a youth hostel in Nice, but at the end of the year it was clear I needed to get back to Plainsboro to regroup. I mean, I was broke so I had to come back home anyway.
So when I got back I thought I would get a temporary job to save a bit and then get ready to pursue my interests. I thought that in a familiar place I could also finish “my book” —I had somehow developed the idea that I could not start my career until I had at least published one book, that I needed to set the bar very high if I really wanted to succeed. This is when the opportunity to work in Shopper’s Cottage came about. Twenty-three years later, here I am still, in fact the last employee left in the store right now, with the job of turning off the lights for good.
Everyone who knew me when I was the top the class student at West Plainsboro High School and from the faculty of philosophy in my college seems genuinely shocked to know that I am a store manager at Shopper’s Cottage. I suppose I am the most perplexed of all. I admit at first it was embarrassing to be a store clerk and keep meeting my high school friend’s moms who would come here to shop for their housewares and would do a double check when they saw me restocking the aisles. Then they would come to me with their poorly hidden shock, disguised by supportive comments that actually would come through as condescending. Ultimately they would not be able to help themselves and would start talking highly about their respective daughters, saying things like “Sarah is in Princeton graduating with honors” or “Cynthia has become a famous ophthalmologist in New York”. To their credit, they all were thrown into this very strange situation of running into one of their daughters’ classmate observing them make their choices of lingerie and other personal items. The most paradoxical thing of all is that I actually felt bad for them, thinking about how they would feel pity for me while having such limited insight about their own condition, living vicariously through their daughters. The only thing they all could think about was redeeming the coupons they had found on the Sunday paper, even if it meant they would have to come buy their third bread making machine or foot massage portable spa.
But all that is completely irrelevant. What I want do here is to explain why I have always been interested in mall theory.
Part of it is easy to explain, mainly it’s an intellectual interest in the way malls are structured, the reason they exist, and their socioeconomic aspects. Like the way an anthropologist would become interested in a tribe in the Amazon, I became interested in the shoppers of this mall. But the other reason I came to work here, which I never talked about, and quite honestly I have been always a bit embarrassed about, is because I always felt something somewhat spiritual about these places. Maybe it is connected to those early high school years, which is when malls first appeared. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up and have been aging with malls. When malls first emerged they were so exciting: their glass arcades, their illuminated signs. Even the smells of popcorn, or of flavored coffee —those smells that today we may find nauseating—were attractive, different. The colorful designs of the carpets in the indoor sections felt special. There was a beauty and a sense of safety in them, the sense that we were living in our own version of a city without the urban inconveniences. There was the hanging out with boys as well of course. And the fact that there was nothing else to do in town.
Maybe I should have studied anthropology or sociology to learn to be more emotionally detached from my object of study. I thought philosophy would give me that, but instead what it gave me was very complicated logical rationales for getting irrationally obsessed about something. What I should have perhaps studied was theology, but I couldn’t fathom imagine what other theology students would have said about my interest in malls. My theology of 80s commercial architecture would have probably sounded more embarrassing than the most ludicrous religion. Nonetheless, had I more of a theological training I could perhaps be able to argue that monastic life is not so different from life in a mall. We are people who gather here pretty much every day — shoppers and employees aside— engaging in rituals that are about attaining inner happiness. But I don’t mean to say that old cliché that buying is a new religion: its more complicated than that. See, I never believed that malls were about buying, as much as I am aware that was what kept them going. Instead, their true essence was about breathing the atmosphere of the shopping center and perhaps regain something that we instinctively thought we had lost. This is why these places had such evocative names like Shoppers Cottage, Old Country Mall, Forest Village and so forth. Very pastoral themes if you think about it; taking us back to the simplicity of country life. The romantic German writer Schiller, who influenced Shopenhauer, wrote about that. It is about this aspiration for seclusion. I will explain.
The only thing that I owe from my Sartre-like professor, aside from my eventual discovery that I was more interested in women than men, was the realization that I felt freer in places that were highly controlled and sealed to the world, in the same way than a child feels happy inside a small makeshift hut. And so I felt free at Forest Village.
And now that malls seem to be on their way out, their demise fits with my entering into that age where I am not young enough to make any kind of plan for my life, but not old enough to give up on any plan. I often feel like this mall, already designed and built but with not many possibilities to restructure. Whether you are a human or a building, no paint job can do such transformative miracles.
When I was a teenager —sorry if I said this already — all one could do at the time was to come to this mall. We would go to the movies and eat at Shakey’s and such. Shakey’s was a pizzeria by the way- I don’t know if the chain still exists. It was great, with cool orange seats. This Shakey’s closed sometime in the early 90s, but every now and then when I am walking around somewhere and I grasp a vague smell of brick oven pizza it all comes back to me. It was our space, the only place where no one would bother us. It was also the place where I first had sex, in one of its bathrooms. There was a boy I liked at the time and he often would hang around with his friends around here. I always had this vgue expectation to find him there, and I do remember one Christmas season when we all ate together and wound up going to the movies. There was also Roy, who I dated for a while, mainly out of boredom. We used to hang out here as well. I never felt the same way about Roy. Like most of those people, he has vanished, and I am not those kinds of persons who search for her classmates online.
But I am not here really to talk about myself or my ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends which I am pretty sure would not be the least interesting to you. I am here to share with you my theory of malls. I suppose you may think it comes a little late, as in, didn’t this theory make sense when malls were the main thing and not now when they are on their way out, giving way to big box stores? Well, probably, but I do think there is something about malls in our subconscious that we still need to figure out. Especially for all of us here at Shopper’s Cottage, and by all of us I mean those of you who I saw coming to shop practically every week for two decades, I believe we need some closure. We need to understand what all these experiences we shared were about. You may think that going shopping is something mindless or superficial, but you would be surprised to know how full of meaning it can be, as I shall explain.
There was a period early on when I kind of wanted to shape the life of the mall. I started offering a free philosophy class for the people working in the stores here and also offered free lectures on Plato and Stoic philosophy to the shoppers. The class actually worked for a while. A girl who worked in that fake jewelry store Sparkles would usually come, and also a guy who worked at the sports store. But the classes were short lived—my students eventually left to work elsewhere. I was an idealist undoubtedly. Yet the experience made me realize that I had it all wrong: it was not about shaping the place to how you wanted it to be, but to find your interests and the depth of your essence in the place where you were.
As I already said, it is a cliché that shopping is a religion, so I am not going to go there. But I do believe that stores provide some kind of spiritual experience that can be fulfilling to many. I am going to read from that paper I first wrote which I think describes what I am talking about. Where is it? Now I can’t find it. Oh yes, here. Here we go:
Malls have a dimension of metaphysical pleasure that has an unknowable quality. I can’t prove, nor could I perhaps know, if the inventors of the mall were aware about this construction of metaphysical addiction that they provoked with their architecture. But whether they intended it or not, the founding fathers (or mothers, perhaps) of the mall envisioned something similar to the medieval market, the renaissance fair, the small village where one leisurely spends the day doing a range of activities, where we are meant not just to shop but to socialize, to love, to share life experiences. Schopenhauer said that men can do what they want but they can’t will what they want. That idea applies very well to this malls, where desire is constructed in a way what we feel we are in control of it. He wrote, “The world is my representation”. The mall, in its ability to make us feel it belongs to all of us, becomes our world, and as such, our representation.
So what does that mean for all of us at Forest Village? Or at any given mall, for that matter? For many years, as you may imagine, in fact all the years I have worked here, I have tried to answer that question. If a mall is designed to be anything we want it to be, does it matter if in fact the mall doesn’t have much of a cultural value or architectural interest? Most malls, and most definitely this one in the least, have redeeming aesthetic qualities. I guess what I want to say is that we have gone full-circle, from the public areas of this mall feeling modern to it feeling ridiculously outdated to now, when it starts to feel cool again. But over the years, I have come to appreciate the Patrick Nagel posters reproductions that have been hanging there since the mall opened, you know those with these very stylized black and white women — as well as those mural-scale reproductions of Georgia O’Keefe. The other day I found a few of those stashed away in some closet. I do often get surprised of how I have gotten so used to those hues, that light pink, fluorescent purple and yellow and dark blue, although now they are so faded that I may be more used to the faded versions of those colors. But then again, those pinks and greens of the original posters were already kind of faded-looking in the original, weren’t they? I am not sure.
When I started working here it was the golden era of this mall, hands down. For those of you who are not familiar with how malls work, you always need some big anchor store, like JC Penney or Macy’s or something like that. We got JC Penney, which gave us lots of traffic, and we had the movie theater complex, which was hugely popular.
The point is that I decided, following Schopenhauer, that since I can’t fully control the will of the world and thus the course of my life, but because the world is nothing else than my own representation of it, I would just make this mall my Montparnasse, my Saint Sulpice, my Versailles. Let me tell you, however, that it is not an easy task to arrive to this reflection. I don’t pretend to believe that a place like this can have the depth of historical importance of those places. But simply inasmuch as it has to do with my own experience, our individual experiences; it doesn’t really make much of a difference where you live. This mall is far more real to me than all those places I saw in France; that world was actually scary to me. It was that fear of unknowing that made it difficult to connect to it in a meaningful way. This is why, I think, tourists hide behind their cell phones and cameras whenever they visit places; they can’t really grasp the reality of those places and that creates anxiety. In that regard, unless you are prepared to truly move to a place for a long time, the incidental tourist rarely grasps anything meaningful of the places they visit. It may be more useful to sit down and read a whole book about that place. It’s about developing an emotional investment with a place.
Which reminds me to get back to what I was saying about getting sentimental about the ending of a mall. What I actually wanted to say was: clearly if I had been born and raised in Paris and had lived there all my life I would perhaps get sentimental about Notre Dame or Montparnasse or whatever. But the fact is that I was born and raised in Edison, New Jersey, my family moved around here in Plainsboro, and we never left. Perhaps by definition and upbringing, I may be chronically incapable to fully and deeply connect with anything of serious cultural value, ever. I don’t say it to inspire sympathy —it just seems to me a fact. And I am pretty certain that there are millions of people like me, people who have the same colorless background looking for something to get attached to. And when that is the case, like a baby duck, you end up becoming attached to whatever was in front of you at that moment. In my case it was this environment I am in. And once that attachment has been created, it can never be replaced.
Which is what has triggered my conclusions in regard to malls. One of my plans at this point is to start a business venture consisting in finding investors to purchase a dead mall. But the twist would be — it would not be revitalized. In the end, I am very much aware that the mall era is over. No. What I would do is to keep the dead mall exactly as it is now, like a frozen installation or a museum, where people can come and pay admission and see what these places were like. We would hire historical re-enactors to dress as 1980s shoppers and employees. If it works for colonial Williamsburg, why not in Forest Village?
I got the idea from reading about North Korea, where tourists who experience well-choreographed tours of Pyongyang are taken to department stores that are completely empty of customers, that exist only to keep appearances. Have you ever seen those pictures of Department Store 1 and Department Store 2 in Pyongyang? They are unbelievable. All objects perfectly arranged, in perfect color coordination. All available and at the same time completely inaccessible. In those stores a whole group of well-dressed shopper-actors walk around, looking at the items in awe and admiration, but of course no one seems to buy anything.
We need a frozen mall here, not to pretend that it exists, but on the contrary, to emphasize its disappearance. By doing so, we would have transcended the original goal of the mall, which was of course predicated on materialistic and financial gain, and instead embrace its spiritual qualities, turning it into a blank slate where we can project our memories and desires, where we can generate emotional attachments as we do with paintings at a museum.
It is now five o’clock— time for me to turn off this thing, and enact the final ritual of closing this store for good. But first one final word.
I am aware that the project I have just described is a difficult thing to accomplish, but I believe that a place like Forest Village would be an ideal candidate for this experiment. And in this country we can always find someone who would pay for an unusual idea. I can see the day where instead of seeing millions of people tripping over each other to buy flat screens on Black Friday, may come in procession to dead malls, to admire their faded walls, to look at the frozen merchandise with prices that are so low that are laughable to us know, and with models and fashions that would be inconceivable to wear now. That would be the ultimate democratic space, equally accessible and inaccessible to us all. I hope in the not too distant future, after I publish my book and hopefully before they tear down this complex, I am able to come back with the resources to put my plan into action. At which point I will make another video for all of you, with a detailed tour of this dead mall which, I will guarantee you, will feel more at that point like a museum, like a church —not the one that encourages shopping, but the one that inspires introspection, a search of the self, a quiet journey that can make even the person with the blandest suburban biography like me achieve the deepest and most glorious spiritual connection with the world, allowing us to find beauty in everything, even in this Muzak that has served as the background of my life, which by now I can’t seem to live without.