Thoughts in a Mall

night of living deadI am on my way to the mall. It’s at the moment I get stuck in mall traffic three miles away on the highway that it dawns on me that it may have been a mistake.

Before you say “Whoa, you went to the mall three days before Christmas?” followed by several deserved comments on my mental health and intelligence, let me just say I had no choice.

Every year I come home for Christmas, I feel the pressure to get my family members “something Czech.” But after eleven years, I am plum tapped out of ideas. I have brought home all of the Old Town prints, Charles Bridge coffee mugs, and Krteček dolls that my family can handle.

And so, this Christmas, I decide to do my shopping in the U.S.

I finally get to the mall and I park at the book store. I do this because it is one of my main destinations today and because I am certain there will be free spots. I am correct. And yet, the book store is filled with people and not all of them fill me with hope for the human race.

A middle-aged man in an “I love Hot Moms” T-shirt is multitasking by both scratching his ass (beneath shorts) and screaming an inappropriate conversation into a mobile phone. If it’s a hot mom on the line, she must be red with embarrassment. A woman on the phone asks and then re-asks the most patient person on Earth how to spell Glenn Beck’s name.

I walk through the bookstore and into the mall, and as I do, I actually shudder.

I love shopping for two things: books and food. I hate shopping for everything else. Hate. In the first place, I am not good at it. Even shopping for myself is a nightmare. Also, while I normally don’t consider myself a cheap person, shopping channels the Ebenezer Scrooge in me. I constantly look at price tags and saying “Bah!”

Shopping for my family is difficult. My family members are extraordinary gifters; they put a lot of thought into their gifts. Moreover, as much thought as they put into their gift ideas, they have never given me one idea of what I can get them. “No idea. Get me whatever you want.”

Adding to this everyday dislike of shopping is the fact that it’s three days before Christmas. So I am shopping and surrounded by thousands of strangers. And today the shops are teeming with people. Simply walking is difficult, crossing against the grain is like a game of Frogger. They are gawky and stand so close they could tell me what I had for breakfast. In what must be irony, it takes Christmas shopping to make me remember my distaste for large groups of my fellow man.

I am already irritated by the time I duck into a Bed, Bath & Beyond. I stand in the shop for thirty seconds before I locate the only other men in the shop. They are in the back of a long line. We exchange a look of commiserated angst before I make my escape. I have an epiphany. There is no greater bonding experience between strangers than the terror they feel in a shop during holiday shopping season.

While I am creeping towards an ethereal level of misery, walking around the mall is quite nostalgic. In our early teens, my friend Eddie and I used to come to the mall and walk around. We only had a few dollars, so actually shopping was totally out of the realm of possibility. The most we could manage was a pretzel at the food court or a chocolate chip cookie to munch as we looked at very pretty, very unattainable women and laughed at Spencer’s naughty gift selection. Through it all, we marveled at the world of fun experiences we were being left out of completely.

The nostalgia ends when I have to go into any shop.

It occurs to me that the mall isn’t so bad, it’s just that here Christmas is shoved down your gullet. Santa is there, as are elves, gingerbread houses, and snowmen. Shop workers have Santa hats on and the lights are enough to send one into an epileptic fit. It’s as though a Christmas bomb has exploded. One might expect to be handed a sign that says “Smile, asshole! It’s Christmas!” as they step inside.

By the time I arrive back at the bookstore, the place is jammed with people. The smell of desperation and the stank of Christmas cheer is palpable. I buy the few books I had in mind amid the crashing throngs. The cashier is nice, yet with that frazzled look that suggests that her blood is 60-73% coffee. I head out into the parking lot, which is filled.

The rain is coming down and I get into the truck and as I head away from the mall, I noticeably relax. Next year, it’s presents in Prague. Merry Christmas!

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