The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And Muzak filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga falls
from the song “My City was Gone” by The Pretenders
The kid is about sixteen years old—a light-skinned black boy on a hybrid bike, shirtless, big grin, hands in the air, legs pumping hard, zipping past me on the sidewalk. I watch him as he jets across the empty parking lot, envious of his obvious Joie de vie.
It is Saturday afternoon at The Avenue, and the place is nearly empty.
This is the new landscape of America during the worst global pandemic in a century. With consumer capitalism now in a coma, we are living in the eerie void of its absence, suddenly aware of its structures, its physicality, in unexpected ways. When the machine stops, we are no longer transfixed by its fluid movements, its seemingly magical complexity. Suddenly, we can see the gears and the rods and the wires. This is what I am thinking as I stare out across this unexpected expanse of hot black pavement with its orderly columns of parallel white lines like a giant circuit board stamped into the Earth.
I thought I was being clever to drive to The Avenue on a Saturday in the midst of Marietta's COVID-19 “emergency situation” lockdown. I had been cooped up in the house for weeks with my wife and daughter, and I needed some exercise and fresh air. There won’t be anyone at the mall, I thought. I can walk freely there. No one to breathe on me. No need to social distance.
I was mostly correct in my assessment. In fact, there are a handful of cars in the lot. I see a father and his tween daughter riding bikes together in the distance. A couple walks inside the Simply Mac store, which is the only retail establishment open for some reason. I see another couple sitting at the table in front of the closed Barnes & Noble store. Together, we are a tiny community of gawkers who come to wander in the ruins of the old world.
The first thing I notice after exiting my car is the music.
On a normal day of pre-pandemic weekend commerce, the music at The Avenue would be little more than sonic wallpaper tinkling in the background like elevator Muzak, barely audible over the din of voices and cars pulling in and out of parking spaces, but now for some inexplicable reason, it is piping out of the speakers—loud, uptempo pop songs that echo out into the empty parking lot, a concert without an audience.
I begin my walk. This is one of those outdoor malls where people walk along the fronts of the stores—Barnes & Noble, American Eagle Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, Famous Footwear, Loft. There are two restaurants open—one is Mediterranean, the other, a chicken joint—the kinds of eateries that have been able to pivot to takeout. The Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant is closed indefinitely, or so says the sign on the door. I see a woman open the door of the Mediterranean restaurant from inside with her elbow and then sort of stumble awkwardly into the sunlight holding a bag of takeout in one hand while she digs nervously in her pocket for her keys with the other. Within seconds, she is behind the wheel of her and driving away.
All of the other retail is closed—the nail salon, the natural body products store, Kay Jewelers, Yankee Candle. Each of these stores has become a high-end retail mausoleum for the kinds of things we used to fill our houses with.
The Avenue tries to create the impression of walking along a Main Street somewhere in America. There are trees lining the sidewalks—trees that appear to be growing out of clumps of mulch ringed by curbstone. They may as well be made of plastic for all the life they add to this place. Each tree is bedecked with strings of white lights that wind their way up the trunk and around the branches. There are benches too. They are steel, painted black, and well-wrought with seductively curved armrests. But I dare not sit down. I dare not touch any surface, because the virus might be lingering there—the virus that has invaded my dreams.
When I finally reach the end of the line of stores, I turn left and continue walking behind the mall buildings. The music stops abruptly as I turn the corner, but I can still hear the traffic on Dallas Highway behind me. There is a parking lot back here as well, a much narrower strip of pavement for workers to park their cars and for delivery trucks to unload their wares.
There is a tall wooden fence around the back edge of the mall—eight feet tall, with vertical slats painted a reddish-brown color. The fence blocks the view as well as access to what lies behind it, but I already know what is back there. In moments like these, I can almost hear the lawyers speaking in a conference call with the architects and the property owners. They are warning of the possibility of lawsuits filed by parents whose children stumble into a creek, or break a leg, or are rushed to the hospital with a snakebite. This is a lawyer’s fence.
When the fence ends and I can finally peek around the edges, I see that my instincts are correct. At the bottom of a steep downhill slope is a cement culvert with water tricking out into a small pond edged with lily pads. The pond is greenish and murky, exactly the kind of waterhole where I used to play when I was ten years old. I spent my childhood in the 1970s in places like this communing with tadpoles, and turtles, and bass, and sunfish, and killjoys, and groundhogs, and rabbits, and foxes. There were thousands of tadpoles this time of year, darting about in the spongy wetlands behind our housing development.
As if the eight-foot-high wooden barrier is not enough, the culvert and pond are surrounded by a cyclone fence as well—double protection. There is almost no chance that a modern ten-year-old boy could find his way inside of this space. He might, with a little ingenuity, climb down the hill and wriggle underneath the second fence—as I often did with the chain link fences in my town—but sadly, he would likely never make it beyond the seatbelt in his parent’s car.
Would he even be curious to try, I wonder. Now that I am an adult, I can see how these fences are symbolic of radical changes to the experience of childhood that have already occurred in American society. Throughout my life, I have watched childhood gradually move indoors where video games and screens dominate the imagination. Children seem to be spending much more time indoors and under the strict supervision of adults.
I have sometimes heard the word desert used as a metaphor for human civilization, and this word is especially apt for the backside of a mall. This is truly a liminal space, made for the quick unloading and loading of consumer goods. The exposed innards of commerce are hanging out for anyone to see—the electrical meters, the relay boxes, the dumpsters sitting at odd angles from the building, the gray tubes of sheathed wiring snaking vertically up the painted cement-block exterior wall. This is where the garbage is carried out at the end of the shift—no, dragged out in big bulging plastic bags. This is where workers go to smoke and talk on their breaks, or if they are alone, to scroll through their social media feed. This is a dead zone.
As I continue to walk, I notice another barrier, a curb, painted red. This curb stretches along the back edge of the pavement literally forming a barrier between the lifeless mall zone and the forest that lies behind it. Why red? This is a fire zone, a no parking zone—true—but there is a more sinister signification hiding in plain sight. Red is the color of danger. The message, the subtext, is clear: What lies beyond this point may be harmful.
As a boy, I never respected fences or private property and this anarchic tenancy has carried over into my adult life. I don’t know who owns this patch of forest behind the mall, and I don’t much care. I step over the curb and walk a little ways into the trees.
I stop at about thirty feet. Once inside the trees, the sounds of traffic, already muffled by the mall buildings, evaporates completely, and I am enveloped by the near silence of a forest. I hear the light pop of something falling nearby, an acorn or a tiny branch. I hear the sprightly tweet-tweet-chip-chip-chip-chip-chip call of a cardinal.
I hear something moving also, a mammalian sound. I grew up playing in wooded areas, so my ear is tuned to the size of animals as they move along the forest floor. This is definitely smaller than a man or a deer but larger than a chipmunk or a squirrel. A skunk perhaps. Or a bobcat.
Many people seem eager to get back to the business of America, with vigorous commerce and mall parking lots full of automobiles coming and going—back to dining out and buying Yankee candles and pumping carbon into the atmosphere as quickly as we can burn it. I am not. I want to come back here tomorrow and walk out further into the trees to look for bobcat tracks. And I will.