Last night, against my inner protests, I donned my finest battlements and went to Heritage Mall for Target's post-feast, pre-Black Friday, where groggy shoppers flail at bargains. I wasn't looking for anything, just bored, desperate and old.

Every year the packed-out car-park reminds me of its late-'80s prime, when the mall experience was still a novelty and its artery swarmed with life. That wasn't entirely the case this year. Popping through the main entrance, I saw only pockets of civilization milling from one storefront to the next -- hardly the electricity of yore, when banks of kiosks formed orderly lines and everyone you knew ruled the food court, bags sagged fashionably at their feet.

Yet there's something timeless about Christmas here: vibrant, warm, inviting, strains of holiday pop glistening o'er commerce. One strolls and ponders consumerist glories: that leather jacket at The Closet, Aerosmith's "Pump" on cassette at Camelot, loafers at the Emporium, socks at Sears, offensive T-shirts at Family Ties, cards at Hallmark -- all sloshed down with fattening fare from Hot Dog on a Stick.

Target was a red wall then, covered in a "Coming Soon" banner, I think. But tonight it's a closed shutter; one can hear the muttering within. There's no spillover into the mall, hence, little life. To enter the building proper, you'd have to abandon Target for the bitter outside, hang a quick right on foot, then another. It may as well be Annapurna, so why not just stagger back to your car and go home? The adventurous sort, I brave the chill and carve a path to the heart.

The Target is full but short on bloodshed. We've become so accustomed to these sales that we wander aisles in sad resignation, noble soldiers marching into minefields because, well, we gotta. We are a defeated people, slaves to our nature.

Absent are the bedazzled lieutenants barking successes to comrades by smartphone, each devoted to uncovering that one $40 60-inch flatscreen from piles of self-replenishing Adeles. But maybe they only come for Black Friday, dismissing predecessors as insults to combat-shopping. Instead, I'm engulfed in cart-jams and standstills, and the mood is surprisingly genial. A boy with a skateboard passes me and compliments my beard. "Wish I could grow facial hair like that," he sighs, and one day, maybe he will. I pluck a $10 copy of "Justified's" final season and call the evening a success. A uniformed conductor whisks me through a well-greased line and I am out.

But not for long. I slink back into the mall, grab an old-man water, find a spot in the deserted mood-lit food court. Under the pleas of a faux Darlene Love ("They're singing 'Deck the Halls' / But it's not like Christmas at all ... "), I write this note and quietly watch the ghosts of Christmas past.

Cory Frye is a news editor at the Albany Democrat-Herald. All he wants for Christmas is a Dr. Pepper and a toasted grilled-cheese.

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