The New York Times published a story yesterday called "An Ode to Shopping Malls," about a 40-year-old filmmaker named Dan Bell who's documenting "the most depressed shopping malls in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond" in what he's titled the "Dead Mall Series." Bell's YouTube videos, the Times's Steven Kurutz writes, "offer an unsettling visual document of the retail apocalypse that changing consumer habits, e-commerce and economic disparity have wrought."
Contextualizing the mall boom of the 1980s and '90s, Kurutz writes, "At least one new shopping mall had been built in the United States every year since the 1950s, and 19 opened in 1990 alone. To capture the spirit of the time, Esquire dispatched a writer to the Chicago suburbs to follow two teenage boys on a typical Saturday night of mall cruising. Movies of the era, like The Blues Brothers (1980), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), True Stories (1986), Clueless (1995), Mallrats (1995) and Jackie Brown (1997), included key sequences set within these 'cathedrals of consumption,' a term coined by the sociologist George Ritzer to describe large indoor shopping spaces."
That paragraph stopped me dead in my tracks. What was that Esquire story? Alas, the Times hadn't provided a link. After some light googling returned no satisfactory results, I e-mailed Kurutz, who promptly replied and directed me to a PDF version someone had created as part of what appears to be an English course.
As it turns out, Esquire hadn't sent just any writer to that mall in the Chicago burbs. It had sent Bob Greene. Then in his mid-30s, Greene was writing a slice-of-life column for the magazine called American Beat. (The nationally syndicated columnist was still a couple decades from the revelations that would ultimately prompt his resignation from the Chicago Tribune.)
"Fifteen," which appeared in the August 1982 issue of Esquire, is quintessential Greene, the midwestern boy roving the country with a notebook in hand, willing to lend a sympathetic ear, interested in even the smallest of stories. The premise of the piece is simple: Greene roams Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg alongside Dave Gembutis and Dan Holmes, two aimless 15-year-olds (naturally) who're equal parts bored, hungry, and horny. In essence, model teenage boys. Dave and Dan eat junk food, zone out while watching a Cubs game on TV, and desperately try to meet girls without having the slightest idea how to start up a conversation. They express frustration at the Kafkaesque limbo of their lives: They're old enough to get a job and take a date to a school dance but not yet of age to drive themselves anywhere. "Dave's older sister, Kim, has dropped them off at the mall," Greene notes. "They will be taking the bus home."
As Dave and Dan traipse around Woodfield—from Herman's World of Sporting Goods to Video Forum to the Orange Bowl to J.C. Penny to Cookie Factory to some store called Passage to China—Greene ends up capturing a once-essential function of malls that goes beyond commerce: they were—they are—perfect spots for teens to kill time. "We were the last of the free-range kids, roaming around malls, not really buying anything, but just looking," Chicago author Gillian Flynn, who set some of her 2012 thriller Gone Girl in an abandoned mall, tells Kurutz. "To see all those big looming spaces so empty now—it's a childhood haunting."
Things don't look good for malls, even ones beyond Bell's filming territory in the mid-Atlantic region. "A report issued by Credit Suisse in June predicted that 20 to 25 percent of the more than 1,000 existing enclosed malls in America will close in the next five years," Kurutz writes. But Woodfield Mall is not yet dead. Thirty-five years after Esquire published "Fifteen," it remains an OK place to waste an afternoon.