IN THE PIONEER DAYS, when most people lived in the countryside, the trip to town for supplies was a major event. For a farmer and his family, miles from their nearest neighbor, town became the center of culture, the source of news and the place where people congregated. Today, almost no one lives on a farm, life in the suburbs is the common American experience, and the excitement of a trip to town has been replaced by that of a visit to the local shopping mall.
In recent years the mall has evolved from a mere shopping area to a center of culture catering to every possible need--from movie theaters and grocery stores to clothing and pet emporiums to dental and legal clinics. Gradually it has become the fashion for mobile suburban youths to hang out in the malls, perhaps much the same way their fathers lounged around the old corner drug store. And the biggest attraction of each modern mecca is the mall arcade, where a kid can lose himself for hours in the sense-numbing, noisy darkness, as long as his quarters hold out.
The vidiot syndrome, endemic to the atmosphere of a mall, reinforces the idea that here is the place to be. Rather than do anything constructive, or even active, the teenagers who gather at the mall-known as "mall rats"--seem to be choosing early a life of passivity and vapidity in an artificial environment.
The first generation of "mall rats" has grown up now, but some of them seem at times reluctant to leave the familiar comfort of the mall to enter adult society. For instance, the Washington Post recently ran a story that centered on one of the denizens of the bazaar in particular, one Douglas Funk, 21.
Funk spends all day and all evening hanging around the mall. The patriarch of the rat community, he boasts that he "has been her through about three generations of mall rats." Apparently pleasant though somewhat passive, he understands his situation, but can't muster up enough energy to do anything about it, saying, "I'm unemployed and I really don't have anything else to do or anywhere else to go, because of my lifestyle."
Funk leads his compatriots in apathy on their listless rounds through the mall, from arcade to pizza parlor to benches in the main thoroughfares of the mall. When they are bored, they watch television in one of the mall's appliance stores; when they are tired they rest on the couches in the furniture department at Montgomery Ward's oblivious to the shoppers inspecting their restingplaces.
Imagine a future society brought up entirely in malls. Children would be born, the aged would die, families would eat, sleep and play within the confines of the shopping center. Eventually they would mutate into small, pale, big-eyed creatures, skin oily from a constant diet of Pepsi and pizza, bodies nearly muscleless from lives of total languor, fingers useful that can only change television channels and insert quarters into video games.
The image is perhaps a trifle extreme, but for Punk, the archetype of the breed, ambition does not extend even onto the macadam of the mall's parking lot. Because he has a criminal record (for burglarizing stores in the mall, of course), he is pessimistic about hit future. "I probably couldn't get a job here now," he says wistfully. "Unless--" we imagine his dull eyes catching a tiny spark--"I go down to the other end, where they don't know me."
The meager dreams of Funk, and his fellow rats, might seen ludicrous, but they are not to be laughed at. Perhaps Funk is the progenitor of the next evolutionary stage of mankind--Home Mallus, a deevolved species whose horizons are no longer than the distance from Woolworth's to Orange Julius.