I’m 30 and I work at the Burbank mall. Which sounds like I’ve failed at life. Which is exactly what I want you to think. I say this without irony, because embracing the shopping mall is, for me, a silent protest against yuppiedom’s stranglehold on culture. The mall is my self-imposed exile, where I embrace all the things my more snobbish friends are allergic to. I’m not alone. We’re a legion of anti-intellectuals who now use L.A.’s forgotten enclosed malls to rebel against — and avert — the hipster gestapo’s Borglike assimilation of the city's youth. When I need to escape hipster hegemony, I prowl around the Burbank mall, sneaking in before the shops open to skate on the slick tiled floors and clear my head of any negative thoughts associated with hierarchical thinking and unbearable whiteness.
Personate note: My grandmother translated communist literature for the Soviet Union. My great-grandfather was assassinated for being a communist. My mother's first name is Zoya, after Soviet hero Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya. For those reasons, I believe, the mall's egalitarianism and brutalist architecture speak to my bastardized commie soul.
This is all true.
The Burbank mall is my private gym, my anti-foodie cafeteria, my low-budget amusement park and, as long as security can’t ID me, my DIY skate park, where senior citizens and kids are my audience. The environmental conditions inside shopping malls make them ideal for survival. It’s a lot like the airport in Copenhagen, where I was once stranded for 24 hours, and where it’s 70 degrees year-round (it can get cooler), Top 40 is always playing in the background, and there are lots of places to sit, get a massage, charge your iPhone and connect to free Wi-Fi. I do most of my writing at either Starbucks or the knockoff Starbucks inside the mall, which is located near a See’s Candies I’ve been manipulating into giving me infinite free samples for a decade. When I was in high school, I'd hit up Macy's for free cologne before going to cheesy house parties in the hills of La Crescenta. I probably owed Jean Paul Gaultier at least a grand by the time I graduated.
There’s also a micro-economy that has emerged inside the mall's forgotten confines. Kiosks that repair iPhone screens for half the cost of the Apple Store thrive, as do Burbank High hustlers slanging chocolate bars near the Hot Topic (the mall rat's fashion boutique). Some people call me a “mall-punk.” They're not wrong, but I'm also vaguely annoyed by how they use the term as a pejorative to mean bad taste. Even if I do have bad taste.
Useless fact: You can now buy a Dodgers-themed urn at the Forest Lawn kiosk on the second floor of the Burbank mall. It's located between a Verizon kiosk and a place to get your tongue pierced.
A new fixture in old malls is an army of Yelp-review solicitors lurking around. I recently was offered $10 to review an air-duct cleaning company. After that, I was offered a job because I told the guy I was a writer and willing to exchange cash for four-sentence reviews. Payola never sounded so easy.
At my core, I’m more a misanthrope who takes solace in the deadness of today's shopping mall experience. I spend, on average, about 30 hours a week at the mall. I know secret exits and hiding places, just in case there’s a mass shooting or earthquake, things I think about while shooting digital terrorists with a plastic gun at the mall arcade (the game, by the way, is called Target: Terror). I might have an undiagnosed antisocial personality disorder, but for now, I’ve escaped L.A. by taking refuge inside a cozy commercial wasteland. This lifestyle isn’t always accepted by my friends, one of whom now refers to me as a “basic bitch.” She's entitled to her opinion and, anyway, I don’t want her coming to the mall and finding out you can test-drive furry animals on wheels, score free chocolate year-round and, if you’re willing to scout the employees a bit, sneak into a screening at the AMC Theatres on the third floor. I did this for sport in high school.
To the hipster who grew up with a trust fund and suddenly decided to embrace poverty, I'm a glitch in the system. I wear Nike cross-trainers I bought at the mall for $100, while they wear vintage shoes and shame me for supporting a multinational corporation. I’m an mutant, in their uni-cultured minds, but to the single Mexican mom looking for socks at the Burbank mall, I’m as pervasive as the nostril-melting fumes flowing from Queen's Nails on the third floor. There’s actually a shoe repair shop next door with a deranged-looking shoemaker mannequin. At night, when the lights are low, all you can see is his white mustache and blunt hammer. I've always joked that he's my only friend with a non-ironic mustache.
Useless fact: A clerk at the GameStop on the third-floor recently told me that Zombies Ate My Neighbors, a Super Nintendo co-op, is such a “mall-rat game.” It's basically ToeJam & Earl with zombies and a mall level.
The doors of the mall are rarely ever locked, which is comforting to know. I often go there at night to walk around with my Beats headphones and avoid humans who prefer Sunset Junction. When I was a teenager, we'd go to the mall at night and walk down the frozen escalators to feel like time had stopped just for us. The mall is still a time capsule in which everything I adore has been preserved, things like Macy’s and sporting goods retailers, which are as necessary as AOL dial-up, which is somehow still a part of American life. The mall is also a soothing reminder of adolescent rights of passage, such as stealing change from the now-defunct fountain at the Glendale Galleria or buying your first Nintendo from a toy store.
Malls today are also utilitarian. Every mall in L.A. is conveniently located near unpretentious modern needs like Starbucks, a coffee shop where I don’t have to converse with a barista about indie rock or Bukowski novels. You can pee at Starbucks without buying overpriced coffee, and they won’t shame you for it. You also don't need to memorize an ironic Wi-Fi password named after a Neil Young song as you do at Echo Park bookstores. At Starbucks, you can charge your phone while listening to a playlist that includes everything from Frank Sinatra Christmas songs to Charlie Parker. You don’t need to treat the Starbucks employee like a human being. They're avatars who produce my soy latte without the need to be smart about it. Starbucks is where I download music, upload my L.A. Weekly posts, edit images and update the various perverse Tumblr profiles I manage, all without the need for small talk. Starbucks is comforting, whereas snobbish coffeehouses like Casbah Café, which closed in December, just give me anxiety. I'll go to Europe when I want to be European. I'm not a tourist in my own city.
The Burbank mall, which opened in 1991, remains the only shopping mall in L.A. that’s not quite a zombie mall nor a castle of Kardashian excess, like the Glendale Galleria — which houses one of the first Apple stores, where I’ve sat with slime-punks and watched them make beats and design graphics on display iPads. A friend of mine in New York (a mall rat, of sorts) produced an entire album at an Apple store.
Definition: Oxford Dictionary defines a mall rat as “a young person who frequents shopping malls, usually for social purposes.” Urban Dictionary defines it as “a surly teenager who spends all of his or her time at the mall with friends.” Sadly, there's no mall rat emoji 🙁
I should report that there are two Apple Stores connected to the Galleria, one inside and one at the Americana across the street, less than 200 yards away. Burbank has similarly advantageous chains that surround it. There's the nearby Barnes & Noble, a chain bookstore that, to my mind, is superior to places such as Skylight Books in Silver Lake, where I always get the feeling that the clerk is quizzing me or shaming me for not being a local. It’s also much easier to steal books at B&N, guilt-free, because even the employees shop on Amazon. I’ve also made out with girls in between the the art books and philosophy section, something that you cannot do at the local bookstore where townies are constantly trying to befriend you. The Wi-Fi is great and the magazines are basically public property. B&N is my library; I take notes in overpriced books, hide them in places nobody will find them, and then return later to continue my research. I have a B&N membership, too, so I buy the books I vandalize.
If Instagram is any indication, America is getting tackier. Our biggest pop stars are relocated Southern Valley Girls like Miley Cyrus, who looks like a mall rat. The corny American sitcom is back en vogue with Fuller House. It's a good time to be a mall rat. For us, the McDonald's fries and manufactured air are still as much parts of the American dream as fake plastic trees and fluorescent lighting. We don't need Runyon Canyon or the California sun. There's even a Mallrats sequel in the works, which means the shopping mall might soon become another ironic exploit of bored trend-monkeys who'll gentrify it, deface it and turn it into the Broad with their stupid contemporary-art fetish. At least for now I know the Burbank mall won't shame me for being materialistic, or antisocial, or a bit of both.