Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mall Dad

A man wrestles with his mid-lfe issues while chaperoning his teen-aged daughters and their friend at the mall.

Back in the days when I had to wear a tie to work, I used to buy my preppie uniform at Abercrombie & Fitch. This venerable company offered comfortable, high-quality chinos and the best oxford shirts you could find anywhere. They were 100% cotton, tough, durable, and nicely cut. Really good stuff...

One day, back in the 90's, I stepped in there to replenish the wardrobe and was stunned to discover that they had been bought out or something, and had completely revamped their image and marketing strategy. The store was full of the teen-age grunge fashion that was in style at that time, and there were huge posters on the walls that looked like they were of questionable legality, considering the age of the models concerned. Suddenly, "Biff" was in the buff! "Buffy" was in the buff too. The L.L. Bean and Lake Wobegon image was gone, gone, gone... This was a curious thing to me. What had happened? I remember when movies like Animal House used to make fun of the notion of WASPs attempting sex. Now all of a sudden Mayflower-stock, Yankee sex was all the rage. It was like seeing "The Choate Squash Club and the Daughters of the American Revolution Gone Wild." I guess this merchandising switch turned out to be a profitable move for them, and saved them from Chapter 11. Shopping malls have never been the same since... By the way... If you feel hard-body-enough, and you've got your six-pack in order, you can apply to be an Abercrombie model here.

What the heck is it with men shaving off all their body hair anyway? Is that a metro thing? What's that all about? See, like with thumb rings on guys and tattoos on women, this shows how out of touch I am. There's nothing like a visit to a shopping mall, when you haven't been in a while, to bring it home to you how much older you've become and how your own generation's time has come and gone. I honestly can't really tell the difference, for example, between the music and the fashion of this decade, and those of the 90's. It all seems pretty much the same to me.

Ah, the mall... Welcome to the Universe of the 14-Year-Old Girl...

A lot of parents just drop their kids off at the mall and leave them there. That just seems incredibly lax and irresponsible to Anne and I, so one of us always accompanies them when they go, which isn't very often. My daughters actually prefer to go with me, because Anne rushes them and usually goes off on a rant about all the skin on display, how expensive everything is, how much she hates the crowds and the traffic, and how much she hates... well.. the mall. My daughters and their friends often feel bad about making me wait so long every place they go, but I don't mind because I'm sort of fascinated by the whole sociological aspect of it, and I tend to get caught up in my own reveries, hearkening back to the days when I actually felt comfortable browsing and shopping in a place like Urban Outfitters in Harvard Square. For a father chaperoning his kids, the most challenging aspect is to assume a stance in the entryway of a store like Aeropostale in a way that reassures the hired help that you are a "mall dad" and not some stalking "mall perv". Thankfully, I'm usually not alone. There's usually another foot-weary dad or two around with whom you can exchange the wry look or comment.

To my wife's point, it is amazing how much expensive and absolutely useless junk there is to be found for sale across the wide acreage of a mall, where hardly anything is a necessity. It's hard not to get caught up in it, though... Cruising through the paneled rooms full of piles of soft jeans and sweatshirts in Ruehl, I almost can see myself wanting to try to wear some of this stuff until I pass one of the full-length mirrors and see the guy with the gray hair staring back at me. NNYAAGHHH! My daughters laugh. They assure me with precise acumen that the age of 38 is about the limit that someone can get away with for wearing this stuff. It sort of feels like when someone call you "sir" for the first time.

Jeans, jeans everywhere, and the rest of everything else is downright fugly. Do you know, I haven't bought a pair of jeans for myself since I was married 15 years ago? That's right. When I got married I had a 31-inch waist. Anne's a really good cook, and I put on the "stomach of happiness" within a year, going up to a 33. I never bothered to replace my jeans, and I guess there was some ethos that I inherited that told me that now that I was a married grown-up, it was time to put away the blue jeans for good in favor of chinos, dockers, and boxer shorts. Now, I know that designer jeans have always been expensive, going back to the Calvin Klein era, but when my daughters point out to me that Sevens for All Mankind go for a couple of hundred dollars apiece, I'm thinking to myself, "What the ...?" Who in the world doesn't know now that these things are made overseas for pennies? Where in the world do they get the brass to ask for...? You know what I mean? Ah, whatever...

Different decade, different stuff, but the same kind of young faces I remember from long ago, only they are often jaded faces now. Electronics and flesh everywhere. Ubiquitous cell-phone conversations and texting. Now, everyone who has read this blog for a while knows by now that I am hardly what you would call a prude, but between Victoria's Secret, Abercorombie, and all of their imitators, I do get kind of frosted. Big business has pushed so much skin at kids in their relentless marketing campaigns, that even pubsecent kids have become non-plussed and unfazed by it. They hardly even take notice. Even my daughters, who are more sheltered than most of their peers, consider it a bore and a joke. Big business has not only taken all that is holy and sacred out of sex, but they have managed to take a lot of the excitement and fun out of it too, which is a damned shame. I feel sorry for young people nowadays. If flesh and everything else to with sex has become so commonplace and banal, where is mystery and erotic charge supposed to come from other than hormones?

In spite of all that, materialistic consumerism is the real challenge. A lot of my kid's friends have their own credit cards, charge cards, and seemingly unlimited funds for their shopping. We try to limit ours to what they've earned with their own babysitting jobs (and some small "under $20" loans from dad). It has made them more discerning, I have to say. I'm amazed at some of the deals the've managed to find. It's fascinating to see what the effect is of having to reach inside of their own pockets instead of somebody else's. Like mine. :-)

Anyhow, if you happened to be at Hollister a couple of weeks ago, and saw the middle-aged guy waiting in the over-stuffed chair, squinting in the dark without his reading glasses while he was frantically trying to find something familiar to read about in a copy of SPIN magazine, that was me...

Actually, I did find something familiar! I read that Morrissey was going back on tour in the US. Back in the 80's I was a fan of Stephen Morrissey, avowed-celibate and front-man for the band The Smiths. Morrissey and I were born a day apart. I always got a laugh out of him with his dry, droll sense of humor. Great lyricist. He was the King of Angst, and I was always a fan of the music, even if I couldn't personally identify with the story of the artistic son of first generation Irish immigrants, struggling not to disappoint his parents with his same-sex attraction, because their ideal picture of manhood would be a midfielder for Manchester United FC with no trace of fey ways. Even though I couldn't personally identify, it was a story I've seen played out in my ethnic group many, many times.

Anyway, here's a live version of The Smiths playing a song off of their Meat is Murder album, Barbarism Begins at Home. Nice guitar work by Johnny Marr, and this tune has a great bass line played by Andy Rourke. Too bad there's no Chess King in the mall anymore in which to buy parachute pants...

Unruly boys
Who will not grow up
Must be taken in hand
Unruly girls
Who will not settle down
They must be taken in hand

A crack on the head
Is what you get for not asking
And a crack on the head
Is what you get for asking


crystal said...

I like Morrissey - a vegetarian and animal rights supporter.

My stepfather never went with us to the amll .... you'ra a good dad :-) We were doomed clothes-wise because my mom sewed us almost everything. We used to buy our jeans at the army-navy surplus store. My favorites are the one that don't have a zipper but button down the fly.

Garpu the Fork said...

I'm 5 years younger than you, and I'm suddenly feeling REALLY old.

We'd always hang out in the mall, but we were at least early high school age. Most of my friends--being geeks--would hang in book stores and comic shops, though. Clothes? Naw. X-Men! Elfquest! Dragonlance! (I still have a guilty soft spot for Dragonlance novels, especially when I'm flying.)

We never had credit cards. Wait, scratch that. I had a couple store credit cards, but I was supporting myself from 15 on. (I had a job and some benefits from my dad's social security.) Always paid it off when the bill came.

Funny how when you have to support yourself your perspective on life with Christmas/birthday money. I got bitched out by my in-laws because I paid bills and went grocery shopping with mine from them one year. The Hoopy Frood never had to save his--he could pretty much buy whatever he wanted with it.

It's good that you're teaching your kids responsibility without making them paranoid about money. I can't ever make big purchases without worrying, even if i have the money budgeted.

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

I have been feeling quite mid-life-ish myself lately. I have been 50 for six months now. But yesterday when I saw an ad on TV for 50+ insurance... I suddenly realised... they were talking about me! It hardly seems possible.....

Liam said...

The mall... Horrors...

Of course I don't have teenage girls (yet), and Filius IPAO isn't in to malls that much, and they're hard to find in Manhattan, and he, like Garpu, is happy if we can just find a comic book or video game store.

I know what you mean about other kids' parents. It's hard to tell your child he can't watch/buy what all the other kids are permitted by their absentee parents.

I still wear jeans, but then again, I'm still in school. And when I'm finished, I'll be in academia. I'll never grow up! Never!

jason said...
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jason said...
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Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

I didn't know you were a Morrissey fan. :-)

When I was a kid, my mom used to sew patches on the knees when they ripped, and a couple of years later she ironed them on. Now, it's better to have them ripped at the knees, right?

My favorites are the one that don't have a zipper but button down the fly.

I had a girlfriend who had a pair that buttoned down the hip... I remember that.


You're in your thirties, aren't you? I hope you didn't take me for 38 when I wrote that. Bump that up by a decade. When I was 38, three of my kids were still yet to be born. :-)

Yes, Newbury Comics and graphic novels? I remember 'Crying Freeman'... The rest of the names escape me right now.

Supporting yourself since you were 15? Wow. That's quite a tough road to travel, but I'm glad that you feel you've come out the better for it.

Hi Kiwi,

Ha. The big 5-0, eh? I'm not far behind you... If you were here in the US, you'd be getting sent your retirement cards and magazines... Do they do that down under?

Keep up the traveling! Nice blogs.


Isn't that something. You live in Manhattan, with no malls around, and everything in the malls shouts "NEW YORK NEW YORK NEW YORK!" Ironic.

Yes, you get a dispensation for being an academic. Keep wearing those jeans and stay young.

Garpu the Fork said...

Why'd I think you were 38? Read for content, I guess.

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

No... the marketing isn't as hyped up here so I am glad to say I haven't had a single retirement magazine!
I feel able to justify my travel now by saying I am a "grey nomad" - not that I am actually grey yet I might add! People 50+ are the new gold here for travel agents apparently- lots of 50 somethings, whose children are grown, are popping off to Europe - sometimes to see their children over there.

cowboyangel said...


Great post! Very enjoyable. And educational. As La Reina and I don't have children, we miss so much of what's actually happening in the 1-18 age group. We deal with them some at the university, which makes us feel incredibly old.

Funny, I hate malls with a passion now and after two years on Long Island still haven't been to one out here yet. I refused to go at Christmas, so La Reina had to go by herself.

But when I was growing up, I loved malls and spent so much time in them. My friends and I were kind of lower middle class kids with no money, so we'd take the bus all the way across town to the big mall and just hang out all day. There was a cinema near by, and sometimes we'd pay for one ticket and just watch the movie over and over - when they still let you do that sort of thing. We were young guys, so we weren't into clothes. We liked Spencer's - remember that one? All the weird gifts and black-light posters and such. And the record stores, of course. And even the book stores. Later, we kind of cruised for members of the opposite sex, but we were still pretty frightened of them and everything was very innocent. Even if we didn't want it to be.

Oh man, mom ironing patches on the blue jeans. Yeah. And that did change as I got into high school. Then I started tearing them up some on purpose.

I can't believe kids have credit cards. I didn't get my first credit card until I over 40! But then I'm a freak.

Still, I find the whole pre-teen and adolescent economy really disturbing. Companies taking advantage of kids who don't know any better to milk them out someone's money. Parents who give them money and credit cards and anything they want - for what reason? I don't even know? So they don't have to listen to them whine? I can't even imagine it. My mother was so strict with me in that regard. She definitely did not spoil me or try to win my friendship by giving me money and gifts. I guess because we didn't have much disposable income. But it was also how she had been raised. Yet I was so happy as a kid and have so much respect for her now.

Still, when I got my first job at 15, I went straight to the record store with my first pay check and bought all the Beatles albums I didn't own yet. That was the teen-age me with a bit of money!

Jeff said...

Hi Kiwi,

That's great that you are gearing up for an overseas trip! It's going to be quite a while before our nest is empty enough for that. I envy you. How does the exchange rate look for you in Europe? Our dollar is getting hammered over there.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Yeah, I remember the mall rat days too. Same exact mall... We'd be in a group, looking at the girls walking past us in a group. They'd see us looking at them... And laugh. We were so smooth.

Spencer's Gifts! You know what? Spencer's is about the last store left in the mall from the old days. They were pushing the limit back then with their naughty bachelor party gifts. You wouldn't believe what they sell in there now. Well, maybe you would. It's the kind of stuff people needed to order out of mail order catalogues from Van Nuys, CA back in the old days.

Conspicuous consumption is one of the most challenging things about living in this town. Years ago, the people with "old-money" didn't feel a need to make a show out of their wealth. It was considered tacky and gauche. Now, with the "new money", some parents feel like they have to lavish money on their kids or something, to make up for the lack of attention that they pay to them.

I was a late convert to the credit card too. I hate them. It just got too difficult to do certain things without one, after a while, like renting a car in another city.