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The Lonely Shopper

Midweek at the Outlet Mall

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On a Saturday afternoon the discount outlet mall in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is a modern souk, a throbbing marketplace teeming with uneasy juxtapositions. There are signs waiting to be read, a wealth of snap judgments that can be passed off as insights. The range of ethnic faces, the numerous languages being spoken, give the illusion of a futurist's Community of Tomorrow. Unencumbered young power-walking power shoppers. Grandmothers with arms full of branded totes. Even a family of Gypsies in flowing garb. I expected to round some corner and find myself in the Casbah itself. It didn't seem like Kenosha or Chicago or Milwaukee, but a community that doesn't exist anywhere except at the moment when you, other shoppers, and your money pass in the mall.

On the afternoon of the following Wednesday, same time of day, the mall is another world, another strain of surrealism. They've dropped the neutron bomb, there's a riot everyone wanted to get in on.

The place is all but deserted.

Even the sounds are different. It's possible to make out the hum of the air-conditioning units over the entrance doors. You can hear the lyrics of the piped-in music. Small talk echoes hugely down the corridors. The freshly waxed floors glisten.

Rental strollers are all lined up; on Saturday they were stuffed with kids leaning forward like explorers in the prow of a ship, hands braced on the rail. Today it's like a 24-hour grocery at three in the morning.

The handful of people in the mall are whiter, older. One man, thumb tucked in a western paperback, has leaned back for an early-afternoon snooze, arms folded into his cardigan. There's a "Sales Help Wanted: Apply Within" sign in a shop window, but no one's inside, customers or help.

Of nine people seated around the mall's food court, only one fails to offer a hello when a uniformed security woman enters. As I drift from one end of the mall to the other several times, I become an object of attention for bored store employees, the strange event rippling the surface.

Yet there is a current of commerce. In each store clerks work in pairs, not, it seems, for security reasons, but so they can go on errands. They wander from shop to shop, gossip, make plans for after work. The strangest energy in the mall is the flurry of teenage employees shuttling to and from the various food islands. In shop after shop they're taking money and orders or just returning, parceling out change and meals.

Young off-duty employees dump their bags at their feet and gossip over counters. It's like study hall, or the soda fountain after school. It all seems pretty wholesome. A tall storklike young man at one food island reads a fat science fiction paperback. A girl in a lamp shop is lost in a thin romance. The handful of clerks who aren't eating are virtually all a few pages into freshly cracked paperbacks.

At the mall's bookstore the clerk is of course reading. A pair of older women wearing aprons with the names of the shops where they work browse through Historical Fiction. "Yeah, we sell books during the week," the clerk tells me. "I sold some books today, and it was mostly people I know."

A security guard leans against a food counter, spooning soft frozen yogurt, staring off into space. A short, freckled girl has distracted the storklike boy from his book. As she talks, one finger nervously inches across the counter toward his. He puts the paperback down, placing his finger near hers. "Want a soda?" he asks.

There's no colorful bazaar today. Just a self-contained economic system, gossiping with itself.

For information on Kenosha, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

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