Now that I live in the Allegheny Mountains, a day's drive from Philadelphia or Boston, and snow often falls for seven consecutive months, I know what I miss most about Los Angeles. It's not sun setting over the bluffs of Santa Monica Bay in a sequence of 82-degree days framed by palms and hibiscus, air magenta and citrus. What I miss most is the Beverly Center.
I watched the Beverly Center being built. There used to be a sort of permanent fair there, where children rode ponies in a field of mock straw. That was old Los Angeles, historic, in the era before shopping malls. In my childhood memory, this prototypal mall was a momentous event. It was built when Los Angeles still considered itself a strange, experimental, earthquake-prone bquasi-tropical place where most buildings, it seemed, didn't dare be taller than three stories. Los Angeles was a vast plain, a sequence of low plazas, of ma-and-pa groceries and restaurants, where we walked beneath untroubled acres of untarnished blue air.
Then something was subtly changing somewhere on the periphery. One day, it was simply there--colossal, multicolored and tiered. The Beverly Center. It was what I had imagined the Titanic would look like, risen from the ocean floor and installed and anchored at a random intersection with four levels of "underground" parking. Was this the future America we sixth graders had been so passionately envisioning?
Over the years, I would come to know the Beverly Center with a tender intimacy and fierce loyalty. I had my preferred parking areas, escalators, elevators. I would never consider shopping the Glendale or Sherman Oaks gallerias. I strolled the Beverly Center as one would a village. My hometown, the definitive mall against which I judge all others.
In rural southwest New York state, sport shopping and its strategies are not yet even concepts. Here, people don't realize that malls promise discovery and revelation--the beginning of the hunt, the tracking, the outwitting of global merchandising conspiracies. Now my closest mall is a two-hour drive. It's a transitory, featureless experience fueled only by the necessity to purchase particular items. Any mall will do. One shops near airports, or as a haphazard extension to any metropolitan visit.
On the other hand, the Beverly Center was an entirely volitional journey. I recognized certain stores, like mountain peaks or rivers on maps. Bullock's and the Broadway were my compass points. The mall offered a sense of uniformity and anonymity I found reassuring. It was like a bureaucratic embrace. The 20th century was actually happening, of course, but not to me personally.
The lighting, temperature and even the scents are controlled. The constant assault of bougainvillea, the lemon and orange trees, the ocean-- none of that matters. We enter a stylized version of reality. We understand this. It tells us what we already know. You can buy your way out of anything.
I remember the subtle seasons of the mall. Christmas smells of piano music and men's charcoal sweaters. It's a Christmas you feel with your fingers, lambswool and cashmere. Everything is black velvet and brass, tiny beaded evening bags and purses shaped like hearts.
The season of shopping-mall red is a magical, movie-theater-curtain red. It's a subliminal appeal to memory. It's a silk-ribbon red seen in early morning. It's a synergistic red--part suggestion, part manipulation. It's the definitive 8 a.m. of crumpled wrapping paper that you want to repeat forever. In the Beverly Center, it's always a morning to open your presents. In the mall, it's always a day for dress-up.
In summer, we escaped the blistering glare of consecutive three-digit-degree smog-alert days. In the caverns of the mall, it is perfectly cool and smooth. An afternoon for surrendering to the possibilities of white cotton and linen.
There is even the illusion of autumn--a sort of silver that's metallic and diluted like melted pewter. You can find it in the tiny enclosed movie theaters, your back safe near a wall, the images so small on the screen they can be absorbed. It is only a paint that looks like blood but isn't. Such visuals cannot harm you. In the tiny theaters of the mall, afternoons are always an elegant arrested autumn. A distillation, not of leaves precisely but representations of leaves, a stylized sequence of slow falling in colors of umber, russet, and slivers of gray. It is proof that alchemy exists.
This is a psychological expedition. It's not about purchasing Levi's and fur-lined gloves before the next blizzard. It's an emotional excursion. In memory, in the background, epic soundtrack music rises from the steel girders. It's themes from spectacular motion pictures. Something seems to be rising from sand, suggesting drums pushing out of concrete. If you purchase the right jacket, you can spend the day with Sean Connery or Peter O'Toole, as they were. It's a series of perfect stills. There are mirrors, and you look thin in all of them.
It's a constant vanilla-scented, softly lit early afternoon. The sun does not glare. It is tamed. And there is always reason to buy perfume. Bottles and vials with French and Greek words on them, so much scent you feel it like a powder or a gas in your lungs. Perfumes with pseudo-scientific names like Antigen or Oncogene. Who cares what it means? It sounds like the millennium. And between the epic soundtracks, beyond the Styrofoam snowflakes, the red-steel Valentine's Day hearts, the Mother's Day pastel garlands fashioned from some material that will outlive you and your descendants, Frank Sinatra is singing "Strangers in the Night" and "New York, New York."
In Los Angeles, we understand that malls are, at their core, about love. How we can design ourselves to lure and keep it, how we can demonstrate our affection by what we purchase and bestow. In my memory, the stores flaunt names with dangerous implications like Conflagration, Eternal Longing, Blazing Ardor and Absolute Vice. This is a hallucination with elevators. It's the perpetual instant of consumer passion.
At such junctures, I felt I was finally learning how to dream in English. It's a neon language, completely visual. Everything is a sensual shorthand, done in intoxicated ambers, consummated in a kind of exhausted trance, vertical, while riding an escalator, carrying shopping bags embossed with a designer's initials. From behind Styrofoam snowflakes or Mother's Day bouquets in acrylic, everything is jittery, punctuated by neon and a scent like ice cream that says, "Buy me."
I remember with longing the sudden inspiration of Sale Days. This was a special season of the mall, unique unto itself, like a celestial aberration--an eclipse, perhaps--or a typhoon. Sale Days often occurred randomly, like acts of nature. On such mornings, on half-off Saturdays, I approached the mall slowly. History became manageable. I understood that grace is as possible as cataclysm. On Sale Days, anything can happen.
I entered the enormous edifice, the mouth of the millennium, and I, too, was hungry for discovery. Something about the nature of man would be revealed. It's always the day of the aftermath. But we have also retained our capacity for the festive. Sale Days offer the possibility of rebirth. It's a sort of face-lift without the pain of surgery. We can start over and we can do it at half price.
I would begin in the housewares department of the Broadway or Bullock's, and I was ready. I was stealthy between crystal, the fluted goblets, the wine glasses with gold around the rims and diamond patterns down the sides--how they looked encrusted with jewels. I deciphered this bold assertion. It can be coronation day in your living room every day. Do you have the money?
I evaluated candlestick holders and votive sets shaped like stars and fans and blossoms. Would I feel the burden of so much illumination? If I purchased a set and then goblets, wouldn't the real world prove a disappointment? How could I ever maintain this level of gala? Could I sustain this commitment to elegance, even if everything went right? The marriage, the children, the global forces, the subterranean impulses of governments and the human heart? Was it too much responsibility?
In the silver section, it's a permanent celebration in sterling. There is nothing I can ever do with crackers and cheese and cantaloupe slices to answer this tray with silver villages mounted on the edges. Could I ever eat enough for this? Could I ever be creative enough with a knife?
It's 70% off on silver frames with satin finish, silver frames with nouveau lilies, with silver doves and roses and bells and twining grapevines. I buy three. I am saying, yes, our lives are worthy. Our 19-inch trout from the Snake River is worthy. Our tent in the Anza-Borrego. Us, formal for the Oscars, once. And our daughter, then, now and always, her piano recital, her horseback ride, her Rollerblades.
Somewhere, Frank Sinatra is singing "Strangers in the Night." I breathe in vanilla. The air is a stalled yellow. It might be May or December, midafternoon or night. The malls are constructed from materials that will last 100,000 years. In the corridors, there are sounds combined from tribal drums, mariachis, string quartets and synthesizers. There are fabrics from Nepal, Borneo and Peru. There are items that imply smugglers and illicit barges across combat zones. One thinks of warlords and concubines.
It is this adventure I miss. It's not the trophies themselves, the tangible victory of the hunt or even the way intelligence and sensibility can be distilled into a 5-by-7-inch object. It is rather that the malls of Los Angeles are the bazaar at the millennium, the new Constantinople and Alexandria. In my apple orchard in the Allegheny Mountains, I remember that the mythic trading cities were ports--ocean, sea and river. And I say yes, I'm from Los Angeles. You should see the Beverly Center. It was the first great port of the Space Age.