Friday, October 19, 2018

Part VIII: The Way Mike Worked -- Saga of a Dying Mall

It's no news that suburban malls are dying. Young people avoid their manufactured atmospheres. Families may go into the multiplex to see a movie but venture no further. Elders, me included, walk circuits of the mall when the snow flies and the wind blows. Heart attack rehab, not shopping, is our goal.

In 1977-78, I worked part-time in a dying Florida mall, a trendsetter when it came to obsolescence. I clerked at a Paperback Booksmith Bookstore. Remember when all malls had bookstores? You had PB, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Books A Million, Borders, Barnes & Noble. Our store, owned by a friend of a friend, was located strategically inside the mall's main entrance. Surrounding us were a women's clothing store, a cut-rate department store, a diner, an ice cream emporium, and a shoe store. If you ventured further, you could find the triplex movie theater that still showed first-run films but also midnight shows for stoners, Rocky Horror and Clockwork Orange among them. A karate studio was the lone store along one of the mall's corridors. It could be kind of spooky there at night, although the sensi, a U.S. Marine black belt, never seemed worried.

We all knew each other. How could we not? We were passengers on a sinking ship. Some nights were totally dead. Bored employees wandered the stores, trading gossip and making small bets on which place would close next. Matches happened. I dated one of the staff at the women's clothing store. Two college kids on our staff became an item. Customers sometimes interrupted them as they canoodled behind the counter.

My boss, Dave, was still smarting from his divorce but dated one of the part-time waitresses at the diner. His wife had come out as a lesbian and had moved with her lover to the other end of the state. They shared custody of their two kids. The duo had opened the bookstore in the early 1970s, when the future seemed bright for them and the Sunshine Mall.

We all knew books. I'd say that's a rarity now. It might be true at some of the Barnes & Noble stores still standing. It's usually the indies that have knowledgeable owners who hire knowledgeable staff. At our mall store, we sold a lot of best-sellers, romances, and mysteries. Magazines too. Not much demand for Tolstoy or Proust. My job was to man the register, gather up titles to be shipped back, stock the shelves with new books, and watch out for shoplifters. We stocked some skin mags, but the most-stolen were biker mags such as Easy Rider. The Daytona Beach area obviously was bigger on vroom-vroom than pulchritude.

When we returned paperbacks, we ripped off the covers and mailed them to save postage. We chucked the books. Sometimes I found one I liked and took it home. This was OK as long as I didn't try to sell it. I saved money that way but some bookstore somewhere was missing a five-bucks sale for a Conroy or an Irving. I took some to my family. There was always one of my siblings draped over a couch, reading. Mom and Dad were both big readers. None of them seemed to care that the covers were missing.

I lived with Carl, an old high school acquaintance. He was a mechanic at Ice Cold Auto Air, a very important place in steamy Florida. He fixed auto ACs at work, would roll back your odometer on the side. He offered several times to do mine but I doubted if anything would help my rusty Ford Torino. Carl was what you would call a player today. He dated lots of different women. A good-looking guy with a smooth southern accent, he could talk the talk and dance the dance, which was helpful in the dawn of the disco area. Carl blasted southern rock in his truck cassette player but, well, the chicks were digging KC and the Sunshine Band and the BeeGees and so was he. I sometimes accompanied Carl, figuring I could engage some of the women that gravitated to him like planets circling the sun. I was OK looking, but not much of a dancer and a better writer than conversationalist. I also discovered I could be an opportunist, if given half a chance.

I tired of working two jobs for peanuts and decided to move to a city where opportunities abounded. Choices were Denver, my birthplace and a city where I had family connections, and Atlanta, kind of a shining city of the South for young people. Like most Americans, I thought that the next big thing was just over the horizon. After being under-employed for a year, I was ready for a challenge.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1977, Carl and I hosted a party featuring five bushels of Apalachicola oysters and several kegs. It was a full house. One of Carl's coworkers fell into the half-barrel oyster fire; neither he or the oysters sustained permanent damage. One of our two toilets backed up. Cars overflowed our yard and onto our neighbor's driveway. W hen he came to complain, we invited our middle-aged neighbor to join us in beer-swilling. He graciously declined.

I met my future wife Chris when she arrived with Cathy, one of Carl's women friends. She thought she was a special friend until she discovered that Carl had many other special friends. Cathy tried to pull Chris out of the door and away from the party. But Chris and I had already developed a special friendship that would continue through four decades, all the way into the present. Turns out, she also was planning a move to New Jersey, where she  had lots of relatives, or Atlanta, where she had no relatives but ventured there often with friends. If we had made a Venn Diagram of our choices, ATL would have been the place we had in common. That would be the logical place to go.

So we moved to Denver.

Next: Rocky Mountain High

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