Separating the Old Men From an Old Boy

T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

The Laguna Hills Mall is my favorite one in Orange County because it's got the right combination of stores, shoppers and atmosphere to create a truly democratic experience.

It can't rival the opulence of Crystal Court, or the setting of Fashion Island, or the on-the-make energy of MainPlace, or the drowsy but bargain-heavy The City of Orange. But a truly democratic mall cannot be singularly defined. It has a thousand components but no true center. It contains everything that is good about us and a great deal that isn't.

I went to Laguna Hills Mall the other day to check in on the Old Men and check out the annual sale at the Pendleton store. To get there you go out El Toro Road.

Now, the El Toro-Laguna Hills-Lake Forest zone is not what you would call a "master-planned" area. In fact, it was not "planned" at all. It is jubilant chaos, pure suburbia run amok, the kind of place that would give an Irvine Co. executive a complete mental breakdown.

The road itself is proof that a straight line can become almost impossible to drive if you channel enough cars onto it, then add a thousand traffic signals, two thousand turn lanes and three thousand stores alongside it. It is one of the few Orange County roads that actually knows no rush hour: El Toro Road is a congested nightmare 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Thus, a perfect entryway to a truly democratic mall.

Once you get into the parking lot, though, one of the bennies of chaos becomes immediately available: stops signs you can pretty much run at will. I don't know how they did it, but the non-planners of the Laguna Hills Mall managed to create a rather large parking lot filled with four-way intersections at which no one has a clear right of way or even--and this is the amazing part--any clear vision of the cars coming from other directions. The stop signs are sprinkled throughout the lot in loose groups of four--one there, vaguely ahead of you; one trailing out to your left but far behind you; one on your right so close you can read the label on the driver's eyeglasses. The only way to prudently negotiate the lot is to just put your car in first and kind of rumble on through with one foot hovering over the brake, scanning the complex horizon for signs of incoming danger.

I found a place to park and started toward the mall. Laguna Hills Mall is not one of those places that makes you walk for hours before you get inside. It is a humble mall in this sense. There is nothing of interest to stun you as you walk toward an entrance. No greenery. No art. No architecture. No promise of anything inside other than the giddy pleasure of consuming. The grounds of this mall are as interesting and sparse as the contents label on a can of corn, thus, no room for the false, the pretentious, the misleading.

I went inside and headed directly for the Pal's vacuum store, hoping to find one of the salesmen in action. Yes, I've seen it a million times, the way he holds the bowling ball in midair with the suction from his Eureka, the way he snorts up a mountain of pennies with his Hoover, the way he removes from the demo carpet a collection of marbles with his Regina. No luck, however; he was not in a demonstrative mood. He just stood in the entryway with an Orange Julius tilted to his face and a slow-day glaze over his eyes. When I asked him if he was going to do the bowling ball deal soon, he looked at me and said, "No."

It didn't matter. Nothing could dampen my spirits as I stood mid-mall and beheld the booths running lengthwise down the main drag. A snooty mall, a mall with an overblown sense of importance, will rarely offer booths along the walkways. These booths suggest the crowded bazaars of, say, Tashkent much too literally for the comfort of "upscale" Orange County retailers. But an anything-goes democracy like the Laguna Hills Mall has plenty of them.

I pondered the "put a snapshot of your kid on a coffee mug" booth, the booth that offers nothing but cheap watches, the "Optical Art" booth in which you stare at frames filled with narrow lines until your eyes actually cross and you see something really dazzling like a house cat.

Minimally interested in owning a black leather jacket, I went into a clothing store and announced my intentions to the salesgirl.

"Try this one," she said.

It fit pretty well and didn't look half bad, but there was one smallish problem. "It's brown," I said.

"No, it's black," she replied.

"It's brown."

"That's just the light in here."

"Ah."

I told her I'd think about it and she said she could save me 10% if I bought it right now. It was just the kind of hard-sell hucksterism I value, and I was happy that she was willing to deal. But the jacket was brown (I swear) and even minus the 10% it was no steal. I bought a pair of jeans I didn't need because I felt bad that the girl would lie just to sell a jacket or, worse, was actually colorblind.

Anyway, the lure of the Pendleton store was growing stronger by the second. But for just a moment I had to sit down and look at the Old Men.

As documented in this column before, I like old men and would like to become one someday not too soon. The Old Men at the Laguna Hills Mall are one of the reasons. It is impossible to find in either gender, in any age group, a batch of people with more integrity than the Old Men at the Laguna Hills Mall. This is likely because Leisure World is so close by, though I suspect that old men everywhere are very much alike.

I took a seat and waited. It took a while, but finally one sat down on the bench next to mine. The benches are angled so you can view another sitter without being obvious, so I studied him at leisure. Five feet 10, 160 pounds was my guess. His head was a handsome, intelligent-seeming oval perfectly delineated by his thin, white, oiled hair. He was cleanshaven and pale--a healthy, deliberate pale.

"Afternoon," I said.

He nodded.

He was wearing an olive and gray flannel shirt, buttoned at the collar and well pressed. Over this was a button-up woolen vest in complementary gray. His pants were the same olive as his shirt, checked with black in a tight herringbone pattern. The pants were neatly cuffed. Like most of the Old Men of the Laguna Hills Mall, he wore dress shoes. He had a soft gray jacket folded over his arm.

"Shopping today?" I asked.

He turned his face to me, and I looked into his very clear blue eyes. "Just came for the walk," he answered.

"I'm going to the Pendleton store," I noted.

Of course, the reason I was going to the Pendleton store was to try to get some clothes like the Old Men wear. I bought a cardigan sweater, two short-sleeved knit shirts and a red wool cap.

When I got home and tried them on they didn't really look very good. In fact they hung kind of funny and made me look not like a steadfast stylish Old Man, but a dope with a red cap. The obvious dawned on me--you have to really be an old man to pull off that kind of dress and not look like you just walked out of a thrift store.

I wondered how, in that great mercantile democracy, I could have managed to buy just the wrong clothes. I didn't have wisdom, experience or understanding enough to wear them. Then I figured it didn't matter--with some luck I might grow into them.

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