SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Stephanie Stapf is a junior at Garden Grove High School, where she is a reporter for Argolog, the student newspaper. Her story won first place in the feature category of The Times Orange County's high school journalism mail-in competition

The hustle-bustle of frantic shoppers, the not-quite-harmonious blend of whining children and warped Muzak, the mixed aroma of nearly every food in existence, the smooth price tag between a buyer's fingers, and the taste of bargains so real that you could actually believe you have swallowed the deal of the week.

Where is this mystical place? Nearly every city in Orange County has one of these refuges for chronic shoppers and trendy teen-agers. This oasis is none other than The Mall.

For years, shopping malls have proven to be the ultimate shopping source, hangout and getaway location for the troubled soul. I'm not talking about those tacky outdoor collections of odds-and-ends stores on the street corner, but rather, places that offer indoor solace.

Though indoor and outdoor malls often have the same stores, they don't have the same feeling. There's a warmth and closeness in enclosed shopping centers. However, the same effect can be achieved by putting a roof over a strip of outdoor stores and adding a food court.

Shopping at malls is comforting. Depressed? Skip therapy, and head for the mall. There's pleasure in knowing that you're surrounded by people just like you who are also trying to buy happiness with worldly possessions.

To cure my recent bout with the blues, I bustled over to the local mall.

Window-shopping is always a favorite pastime for those absent of cash, so browsing was in order. On busy days, every store resembles the New York subway during rush hour, and only the strong survive the jungle of sales racks, pesky store clerks and rude bargain-hunters.

I think the phrase "May I help you?" issued from the same salesperson six times within a half-hour is the most tiresome part of the entire mall experience. However, as I watch two grown women about to draw blood over the last skirt on a sale rack, I realize that maybe my day is going pretty good after all.

By now, the tantalizing smells of the irresistible mall food have traveled throughout the building and overcome my resolve to save my money. I trek over to the food court as my mind identifies each smell with a particular memory. "Mmmm! Mini corn dogs from A&W--shopping; with Cindy. Oooh! Peanut butter cookies from Mrs. Field's--Christmas shopping with Steve."

I decide to go to Hot Dog on a Stick. As I stand in line, I reflect upon how sad it would be to have to wear those stupid outfits. It must be a mandate from the company that one must look goofy while wiping tables and serving Slushies. Ordering my corn dog, I decide that mall workers are, indeed, true pioneers in fashion humiliation.

Even more fascinating than the shopping bargains and food at the mall are the people who migrate there. Lunch is a good time to sit back and do a little people-watching.

There are the families, friends and loners. Upon catching bits and pieces of conversation, one can determine relationships and background, but those don't answer every question. What is that man, staring oddly at his Robinson's bag, thinking about? Why are those two women laughing so hysterically?

I leave the mall this day feeling much happier. Sure, I'm out $4 for food and have missed my favorite TV shows, but I'm ready to take on the world again. Besides, where else can one be serenaded by the Muzak version of "Like a Virgin" played on the flute?

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