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The Mall Patrol : Every Payday Marines Land at Carlsbad Center

Times Staff Writer

It was Friday night and Lance Cpl. Robert Murry was cruising the Plaza Camino Real in Carlsbad, just one in a legion of Camp Pendleton Marines who invade the mall each payday.

He was on the prowl, watching the girls go by, dressed to kill in case he scouted anything up. And that’s when the mall prowler met his match.

Murry spotted his future wife at a bus stop, standing there all alone.

She fired first. “She asked me about my designer glasses,” recalled the 21-year-old Detroit native. “We talked. And I found out that she wasn’t with anybody. She was just there trying to kill time, just like I was doing.”

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They were married a year later. Murry knows he was lucky. Few of his friends can even find dates at the mall, let alone a wife. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Weekend Invasions

On any weekend, scores of Marines converge on the Plaza Camino Real. Whether it’s a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon, they are there--shopping, meandering, assembling, acting out; in effect, malling.

They’re married Marines with children, looking for a few good sales. Or raw recruits like Murry, the boys with brush cuts who brave the bumpy, monotonous bus ride from the base to take in a movie and try to escape the Corps, if just for a while.

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For many Marines, the 20-year-old mall provides a respite from the often icy stares of downtown Oceanside, or the easy credit come-ons hawked by the merchants on Hill Street, just outside the Pendleton gates.

At Camp Pendleton, Plaza Camino Real is known as the Marine Corps Mall.

“It’s the meeting place, the one spot other than the beach where Marines can go to escape the atmosphere of the base,” Murry said.

“It’s the closest mall to the base, so everybody goes there. Especially right after paydays, you can’t walk 5 feet without seeing someone you know.”

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‘A Slice of Home’

Even the Camp Pendleton command staff has recognized the appeal of the mall, conveniently located near the south end of the base along California 78.

“Many of these Marines are middle-class kids--they practically grew up hanging around malls,” said Lt. Col. John Shotwell, a base spokesman. “Most of these places are built alike. So, for them, perhaps it’s like a little slice of home.”

Many of the mall’s 139 shops--especially clothing, jewelry and electronics stores--offer special Marine discounts as a way to stake their claim on part of Camp Pendleton’s $30-million monthly payroll.

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Some stores even hire Marines as part-time employees to attract military customers.

But not every mall merchant readily salutes the weekly parade of young recruits. Some view Marines as credit risks who could be dispatched overseas at a moment’s notice, leaving them to foot the bill.

And next month, when Plaza Camino Real finishes a multimillion-dollar face lift aimed at attracting more upscale shoppers, some Marines wonder whether their mall will feel a little less like home.

‘Unfriendly Stares’

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“You get some pretty unfriendly stares from people as it is, looks that say, ‘Oh God, there goes another Marine,’ “said Lance Cpl. Steve Smithson. “Who knows what will happen now?”

The renovations, say Plaza Camino Real managers, aren’t intended as a declaration of war against Marines.

“We’re looking to attract more upscale North County clientele that might now be shopping somewhere else,” said JoAnn McDonald, an assistant marketing director.

“The Marines are still an important customer to us. We have no problem whatsoever being a household name at Camp Pendleton.”

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Indeed, the mall’s new look may make it even more attractive as a Marine hangout.

“I couldn’t see something like that intimidating them,” Shotwell said. “The only way to drive them away would be to raise prices.”

Some vendors nonetheless are not enamored of the Marine presence.

“They all use such foul language, it’s absolutely disgusting,” said Stacey Bouey, an assistant manager at Oak Tree, a trendy men’s clothing store. “I guess that’s essential to the Marine existence--eating, sleeping and cursing.”

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The Oak Tree is one store reconsidering its policy of accepting checks from military customers.

Burned on Bad Checks

“We’ve been burned so much in the past,” Bouey said. “These guys write checks and then go overseas without leaving a dime in their account. I’m getting sick of it.”

Loitering is another Marine habit that has irked some shop owners. In at least one El Camino Real bookstore, men’s magazines such as Playboy are displayed with cellophane covers.

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“A lot of these guys hang out in the stores, talking with the sales girls, that’s why some merchants don’t like them,” said Laurie Fincher, a district supervisor of DJ’s men’s store.

“If you’re a shopper and you see a bunch of Marines hanging out inside a store, rapping to the girls, you’re probably not going to think it’s a professional atmosphere.

“A lot of military guys have told me that some store owners just don’t want them around. But not us, we like them.”

DJ’s offers military customers a 15% discount. Inside the store, a large sign advertises that policy. “While you serve our country, we’re glad to serve you,” it reads. “What better way to join forces?”

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Other stores also encourage Marine browsers.

“Our business sometimes doubles on weekends after military paydays,” said Elizabeth Fisher, manager of the Chess King clothing store.

“Without the military, we wouldn’t be in business. Not to be nice to the military is just pretty stupid in this mall.”

Most Are Polite

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Not all customers are put off by the sight of young Marines on the make.

“Being a mother, if my son were in the service, I’d be glad there was a place like this for him to come and have a little fun,” said Norma Haynes of Oceanside.

“I’ve told my husband this a thousand times, these young boys don’t bother me a bit. Most are as polite a group as you’ll ever find.”

On most weekends, shoppers like Haynes are joined by an army of young men with short haircuts and smiles who crowd into the clothing and stereo shops, and queue up to use the telephone.

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Several Marines at the mall lamented their reputation.

“It’s getting so that nobody wants to do business with Marines anymore. Merchants have this idea that we’re all hard-drinking, tear-up-the-town partyers,” said Lance Cpl. Dave Snyder of Buffalo, N.Y., devouring a fast-food burger and fries at a mall restaurant.

“Well, I say there’s bad apples everywhere. Unfortunately, some of them have Marine haircuts.”

On one recent weeknight, Lance Cpl. Rick Ince fiddled with an electric organ at a mall department store as three salesmen walked past without a word.

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“Salesmen just take a different attitude towards Marines. I mean, I’ve been waiting for someone for half an hour,” said the 21-year-old. “This is a pretty expensive organ. So they take one look at me and say, ‘This guy’s a Marine. No way can he afford that.’

“I know some Marines cause trouble. But I don’t. I’m married. I’ve got a 6-month-old son. My wife’s upstairs buying clothes for him right now. But they don’t see that. They just see some low-brow Marine with an Alice Cooper T-shirt.”

What bothers Lance Cpl. Jim Trulock is the breach of privacy his Marine status creates.

“All the salesmen have to do is find out you’re a lance corporal and they know it all, that you clear about $300 every two weeks. And then he starts suggesting what you can afford.

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“It sort of bugs you. Ever hear a salesman ask a civilian how much money he makes a year?”

Mark Williams, a former Camp Pendleton Marine, said he spent more weekends than he’d care to remember cruising the mall. Now he works there as a custodian.

“A lot of these guys are lonely, they’re looking for a woman to help them spend their paycheck,” said the 26-year-old. “If they’re not lucky on Friday night, they’ll come back on Sunday and try again.”

Williams said, “Look around you. You know how you can tell a Marine? It’s not the brush cut or the tattoos. It’s something else. It’s pride.”

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