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Call of the Mall : Culture: For Valley teen-agers, hanging out at the major shopping centers is more than just a summertime escape. It’s a rite of passage.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Koesterer, pet shop manager and veteran mall observer, has seen the bad ones come and go like a hormonal tide of trouble--teasing the parrots, manhandling the kittens, leaving canine chaos in their baggy-jeaned wake.

At 17, he sounds old enough to be his own father.

“Kids these days,” he grimaces. “They’re a pain in the neck, always trying to prove some point. Little rug-rat rebels without a cause. You tell them not to do this or that and, like, two minutes later, they’re at it again. These days, every kid is a smart-aleck.”

It’s summertime in the Valley. And like those generations of listless teens who came before them, kids from Sherman Oaks to Sylmar have been loosed upon malls such as the Sherman Oaks Galleria for a three-month-long blast of air-conditioning and some even cooler social connections.

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Mostly, though, it’s a field day from parental supervision, a hipper playground than Disneyland, a Spanish-tiled and sky-lighted place where youngsters with rock-solid chips on their shoulders can act out, be kids, run wild like their leather-jacketed older brothers and sisters.

Because, look at it this way, when you’re not quite 16 and you’ve got no wheels, no job and a pockmarked ego in bad need of self-esteem, the mall is the most awesome place to hang.

All day long, after the family minivans have dropped them off with a stern parental caution to keep their noses clean, the boys can shout insults at strangers and mall security guards and touch things they’re not supposed to. They can smoke cigarettes in the parking lot outside, letting them hang off their lips with so much attitude.

They can slide along the slickened banisters, bolt up the down escalator, eat French fries until their hair turns greasy. With a wicked laugh, they can shove pennies down the quarter slots at the Time Out arcade.

If you’re a girl, you can go braless, wear funeral-black lipstick, and pop your gum a zillion times with no mother to scold you. You can laugh loudly at the blue-haired ladies and the men in badly stitched toupees, make fun of the hard-working women in their striped, Hotdog-on-a-Stick uniforms.

The Mall. For teen-agers, it’s one of suburban living’s rites of passage, like a Saturday afternoon at the beach and nights cruising Ventura Boulevard. But teens don’t just pass through this place, they don’t just buy their clothes here or blindly follow the latest fads.

They experience the mall as a growing pain, look back at it with a flush of embarrassment, regretting their antics there like they would a Prom Night pimple. For now, though, they’re lost in an often-raucous, in-your-face celebration of being invincibly young, rambunctious and very, very bad.

Teen-agers: The Wild Bunch.

“The mall is a great place to suck up some air-conditioning and run into somebody you know,” says Robyn Anderson as he feeds the ravenous video games at the Galleria.

“Summer gets old after awhile. You have to make up stuff to do or else you get bored. It’s, like, you almost want to go back to school.”

Anderson is wiry, a thin rail of a teen who may never again see such slenderness. And who can question his frustration?

After all, dressed in his Jurassic Park T-shirt, he rode his bike to the mall. Meanwhile, girls his age are looking clear over his shoulder at the guys with cars on the road and without retainers in their mouths.

So he spends his time at the video arcade, drowning his sorrows in Dr. Peppers and less-than-sympathetic video games with names like “The Punisher,” “Lethal Enforcer,” “Space Lords,” “Total Carnage,” and “Mortal Kombat.”

Nearby, two pint-sized brothers, aged 11 and 12, peer into the maw of a video screen. They’re never bored at the mall.

“There’s lots of stuff to do here,” says Elly Dembicer, elbowing his younger brother, Gavy. “We’re not exactly into looking at girls in bathing suits yet, so we like to come here instead.”

Like, kids say the Sherman Oaks Galleria isn’t the mall Mecca of the past. The mall at Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards has upgraded its image after playing scene to 1980s movies such as “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Mall publicity mavens say they’re more closely reading the scripts proposed for shooting there. And now that the original Valley Girl is married with children, the Sherman Oaks mall is turf to a new generation of youthful shopper.

Girls like Lisa Plaskow and her friend, Lewam Ghebremichael, two 13-year-olds who spend as many hours at the mall as some people who work there.

They see enough movies to become the Siskel and Ebert of the pubescent set and wander through The Gap and The Limited stores looking for happening bargains. But just because they live in The Valley, don’t assume they’re Valley Girls.

Because they don’t talk in singsong-y slang. They read books, play piano, discuss politics.

Lisa and Lewam have been friends since the first grade. They look forward to having boyfriends and to the day their braces come off--even more than getting their driver’s licenses.

Until then, they hit the mall to spend their allowances, an Odd Couple in their 13-year-old-going-on-25 fashions: Lisa is conservative with her skirt and T-shirt. Lewam wears baggy pants and a Bert and Ernie T-shirt.

“They’re better than Beavis and Butthead,” Lewam says, comparing the Sesame Street characters to the two depraved teen-age cartoon pals made famous by MTV. “They’re rude and obnoxious. Like lots of the boys at this mall.”

Lewam’s mother dropped them off at the mall for five hours of moviegoing--time to be free at last, trading parent pressure for peer pressure.

But even good girls have their bad days at the mall.

“We were in this store and a lady came up to us and ordered us to empty our purses,” Lisa says incredulously. “We weren’t doing anything. But sometimes, people assume you’re shoplifting just because you’re young.

“If you’re 13 and you travel in packs with a group of friends, they follow you around. They assume you’re up to no good.”

Indeed, this is the Age of Disrespect when nobody seems to take you seriously, a troubled period when people accuse you of yakking too much on the telephone or gazing too long into the mirror.

“Your parents go, ‘Teen-agers, huh!’ ” Lewam says. “And sometimes it gets worse when you come to the mall.”

So, the mall becomes a battleground. The kids, fresh from the home front, are saying “Hey, mister! Deal with me!”

Managers say their policing is necessary with such kiddies-run-amok scenes. Like, how many times can you say “Look Junior, you can’t bring that sticky Coke and pizza into the store.” Or “Hey pal, that mustard on your corn dog is staining the carpet, OK?”

Most kids don’t silently materialize at the mall like Chelsea Clinton the other day, with a badly dressed bevy of Secret Service agents in tow. They take it by storm, in packs or two by two, their faces faces set in the determined smirk of having a ripsnorting time--at any cost.

At the mall, when you deal with high-schoolers and their hard-earned allowances, you take the good with the bad.

“The good kids play their games, get their own change and don’t bother anyone,” says Natalie Herholdt, an employee at the Time Out arcade. “The bad ones slip pennies in the quarter slots just to screw up the games.

“They write their graffiti on everything that doesn’t move. And they try the oldest trick in the book, saying they lost their quarter in a game when they never had one in the first place.”

At a nearby toy store, Tonya Ramirez goes crazy each day answering the barrage of questions about today’s newfangled toys. Sheesh, there’s no shrewder shopper than a 10-year-old with a tightfisted 10-dollar bill.

Yes, the X-Men come in loads of different figures. No, you can’t put that motorized toy in your mouth and live to tell about it.

As if on cue, an 8-year-old boy and his sidekick pummel her with queries about a green, glue-like hunk of gum.

“How long does this take to rot?” he asks.

Ramirez’s face scrunches up.

“It depends on how long it sits,” she deadpans. “If you licked it today and then came back to it in a week, it would rot sure as shootin’. That answer your question?”

The boy slinks away. Ramirez smiles.

Chalk up one victory for the adults in the simmering summer-long war with the kiddies at your local mall.


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