Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Visit to the Mount Berry Square Mall

Where Fake Plants, Apathetic Teenagers and Sega Still Reign Supreme...

You know, the significance of the shopping mall in the American consciousness is really starting to decline. At one point in my life, the local (and since I lived in the middle of freaking nowhere, “local” means a good twenty-something miles away) shopping mall wasn’t just my cultural Mecca, where you could see all the high school cretins wearing what they thought was cool and counterculture to the world, it was pretty much my only glimpse at a world outside of my backyard and grade school playground. It was only at the mall that I had access to obscure horror movies, and punk and metal CDs, and books that were actually halfway not crappy. To some, the aroma of the food court was a nauseating blend of fried dough and spilled Orange Julius, but to me? That was the scent of freedom...if by “freedom,” you really mean the “expansion of my options as a consumer,” which to an eleven year old circa the mid ‘90s, yeah, pretty much is unfettered freedom in all its majesty.

Kids today probably don’t have that same reverence for the shopping mall, that idolatrous temple of consumption that it is, that I did, for one very simple reason: unlike pre-pubescent me, they actually have the ABILITY to be exposed to stuff without begging their mom to trek three counties over for an afternoon. As long as you have Internet access, you pretty much have the world at your fingertips, and as such, the modern shopping mall is pretty much obsolete as a cultural watering hall. Sure, sure, I suppose it’s still a physical congregating place, where all of those teenagers that think they’re werewolves hang out by the pretzel stand and talk about how much ass they kick on Xbox Live, but darn it, it just isn’t the same experience.

In my day, going to the mall was pretty much your only chance to do a lot of stuff. If you wanted video games with high-end graphics, you’d better get your fill at the arcade, because after that, it was back to making do with the Game Boy. Wanted to scope out an unedited Slayer or NOFX CD? If you don’t snag that copy of “South of Heaven” now, buddy, you probably ain’t ever going to hear it. Hell, for me, that was the only time I got a chance to see girls that actually looked semi-attractive, for crying aloud. But as I said earlier, the mall is no longer the go-to place for all of these things to the modern generation of youngsters, and that makes me a little weepy, for a lot of different reasons.
A couple of weeks back, however, I had the opportunity to return to the mall that I considered the magical portal to the rest of civilization back in the fifth grade, marking the first time I stepped foot in the building since the W. Administration. Was that magical aura still there, and was there still some sense of cultural import to the place that, in my youth, was pretty much the only place of cultural import in my world?

Time to go shopping, why don’t we?

The name of the shopping mall is Mount Berry Square Mall, and I had the first of many, many epiphanies that afternoon when, after a good quarter-century of being on this planet, I just then realized that the place had a back entrance, which, wouldn’t you know it, was right next to the arcade. The walking time knowing that piece of information could have saved me fifteen years ago is positively incalculable.

Structurally, it was the same place I grew up loving; a lot of the common architecture was still there, and even some of the stores I used to visit were still in business. You have no idea how much it assured me when I ambled into Sears and saw that Foosball table placed in the exact same location it was when I was in middle school. No, seriously, you really don’t.

For those of you wondering if that much ballyhooed recession is happening or not, I can tell you that at least half of the store spaces in the mall were vacant, and in the mini shopping strip outside the mall, everything except a Toys R Us and some kooky regional diner were still in operation. Three years down the line, and every time I stare at an emptied Circuit City husk, I still get the willies.

I reckon there’s not too much to talk about regarding the stores. Outside of a Christian-themed coffee shop, the store selection was your rather humdrum collection of Hot Topics, Bath and Bodyworks and Victoria’s Secrets. But what the shopping mall lacked in shopping options, it more than made up for it with the atmospherics.

I’ve never really been a garden-y person, but there’s something about shopping mall fountains and shrubbery - especially here - that just makes me giddy and all Eco-crazy and what not. I really dug the natural lighting here, too, even though since I got there in the late evening, it was all pretty much for naught.

But hey, who needs silly things like sunshine when you have these giant-assed gumball machine displays?

Or how about these photo booths, which, apparently, are under 24 hour surveillance by some shadowy organization, per the warning sticker plastered inside the thing. And just how meta is a photo of a photo booth, eh?

Of course, not everything was the same as I remembered. Apparently catering to the crater-faced teenager demographic, I stumbled across this acne-treatment vending machine, which has to be one of the weirdest damn contraptions I’ve ever seen. And yes, I do know about all of that funky stuff you can pick up in Japan, in case you were wondering.

I guess I should have brought up the fact that the mall has a carousel in the middle of it, too. In fact, there’s a whole mini-carnival inside the mall, which includes a collection of sticker machines and a ton of anti-arcade games, like that one hurricane-simulating machine I’m sure you’ve encountered at one point or another in your day to day ventures.

As far as most ridiculous cash grab of the day went, it’s pretty hard to beat these machines that give you a standard paper shopping bag for the low, low price of fifty American cents. I’m guessing the one that spits out plastic sacks was broken that week.

Of course, the main attraction at any mall HAS to be the arcade. Arcades are getting increasingly rarer in the hallowed shopping centers of America, so the fact that Mount Berry Square even had a cave for arcade games was pretty damned surprising. As I waltzed past the food court - which had a plastic rock climbing wall smack dab in the middle of it - my heart skipped a beat. Could I be in store for a peek at retro game Valhalla as soon as I took that corner at Sbarro’s?

All in all, I’d have to say that the arcade here was one of the better “retro-cades” I’ve stumbled across as of late. Granted, it was nowhere near as bustling as it was during the Clinton years, but at this point, I suppose you can say the same thing about practically everything else in existence.

There were some pretty unusual selections on tap, including one of those Star Wars Arcade Trilogy cabinets from Sega (too bad it had a nasty brown stain going vertical-wise across the entire screen, though). Sadly, a good quarter of the machines were either out of order or messed up beyond play - as with the Mortal Kombat II cabinet with the broken cathode ray tube and the Daytona USA cabinet with a player one wheel that was, apparently, possessed by Satan himself.

I was absolutely flabbergasted to uncover what I thought was an old 1943 cabinet in the very back of the arcade. Upon closer inspection, however, the machine was actually this Jerry-rigged homemade unit consisting of an old CRT TV screen turned upside down and wedged into the coin-op cabinet while a hidden hard drive pumped MAME titles onto the screen, making this thing the most illegal thing that has ever been illegal. And on top of all that? The damn thing ate my two tokens, too.

After a good hour of gaming, I decided to call it a day and head out into the wild blue yonder. As a sociocultural experiment, I was somewhat reassured in knowing that, despite all of our modern luxuries, the shopping mall I grew up with is still a preferred haunt for aimless teenagers and community college kids that can’t get laid, even if the good ice cream stand went belly up a couple of World Cups ago.

So, is the neighborhood shopping mall still as important to the neighborhood in a modern sense?

Well, it certainly isn’t the premier locale for what’s new and diffusing throughout popular culture anymore, but I think it still has some life left in it.

After all: as long as presumably high consumers with lots of expendable dough crave themselves some Sega coin-ops and cheese-injected corn dogs, there will be a place for such hallowed grounds in the consciousness of oft-kilter America forever.


Me playing "X-Men: Children of the Atom!" 

Me playing "Virtual-On: Cyber Troopers!"

Me playing "The House of the Dead!" 

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