by Lauren Jonik
On any given Saturday afternoon in suburban Philadelphia in 1988, there was one place a rotating cast of friends and I could be found: the mall. My mom or dad (or my friends' parents) would drop us off at the entrance near Bavarian Pretzel and for the next four or five hours, we reveled in the freedom of being in a public place without adult supervision. I was 12. There was an illusion of safety because a) it was 1988 and b) the only creepy person we were likely to encounter was the weird guy who fished pennies out of the fountain with his hands when he thought no one was looking.
When I read a recent article about an old mall in Rhode Island being repurposed into micro-apartments, the tween in me momentarily squealed with delight (fortunately, she doesn't get to actually speak out loud — there would be too much to explain). And, while the thought of inhabiting a space that was once a Cinnabon is attractive, I quickly realized I shouldn't give up my current digs. (Unless of course, it smells like Cinnabon, then I might have to reconsider. That aroma was intoxicating.) Why? Because the mall I went to as a kid took all my damn money. I mean, I gave it to them willingly and got a plethora of goods in return, but still.
Luckily, my parents were smarter than I was and my dad made me save half of all of my babysitting money. "Think of it as paying taxes! You've gotta get used to it now. You're going to be doing it your whole life. Pay up," he would say, while holding out his open palm and wiggling his fingers. I'm not sure what sketchy math he was using to put me in a "tax bracket" where I would have to pay 50 percent of my earnings when I only made $2.50 per hour, but I'm sure there was supposed to be a life lesson in there somewhere. It was pretty cool to see my bank account grow over time and I felt like a million bucks when I got permission to take out $20 to buy an expensive sweater at the Deb Shop one Christmas. It was the only withdrawal I was allowed to make until I was well into my teens.
So, where did the rest of my hard-earned money go? Let's explore.
Wall to Wall Sound and Video might have had hair metal bands playing over the loud speaker, but I made a bee-line for the pop music cassettes — usually heading for the "G" and "T" sections. If Debbie Gibson or Tiffany had a new album out — or even a new cassingle of a song I already owned with a slightly different remix — it was going home with me. Occasionally, I had to scope out the "D" section too, because though earnest and obvious music lovers, the workers in the store sometimes lacked skills in alphabetizing. They would check on upcoming new releases for me in some big magical binder they harbored behind the counter, though, so I could overlook any organizational flaws.
Conveniently located right across from the record store was Thift Drug. My issues of Seventeen and Teen magazine told me that no girl was naturally attractive unless she covered herself in beauty products. Seemed like a totally healthy mindset to impart to an impressionable pre-teen. Enter my quest to attain perfect hair, skin, and nails. Also a totally healthy and achievable mindset for someone going through puberty. As I perused the shampoo aisle, I settled on Hälsa. They advertised bringing out your natural highlights using marigolds, chamomile, ginger root, or walnut leaves depending on your selection. I had mousy brown hair and wanted to be blonde. My mom (a blonde) vetoed that. Hälsa was there to make me blond(ish) and thus attractive to all men! (I hadn't figured out yet that simply becoming a teen with an ample chest would solve this problem all too well in a few years.) Hälsa even had an umlaut in their name, which made it sound European and exotic. That meant it had to work. But, which to pick — chamomile for light brown hair or marigold for blond? Did they mean your existing hair color or what you aspired to? I stood and stared at the shelf for a long while. That was OK, I had the time.
If Hälsa didn't work, I had a back-up plan: Sun-In. It wasn't hair dye, but it promised to lighten your hair as if you had spent hours at the beach by using only a hair-dryer. I was on board. I snuck it in the house in my Wall to Wall Sound and Video bag (good timing on the new albums, Debbie and Tiffany!). Alone in my room, I sprayed big chunks of my permed hair right in the front, flicked the switch on the hair dryer to high heat and waited for the magic to happen. It worked — I could see some blond. What they neglected to mention was that it also fries your hair and instead of spinning straw into gold, turns your hair into straw. Or, maybe they did mention something about not using nuclear heat. I didn't bother reading the instructions. I was a woman on a mission and didn't have time for that.
Onto the nails. I played the piano and had decent looking hands and nails. But anything could be improved with glitter. Wet-n-Wild nail polish had a whole line of products that sparkled. They were slightly more expensive than the plain versions, but I didn't care. I wanted lavender-pinkish nails that caught the light and nothing was going to stop me. Not even the massive headache I got after doing my nails in my poorly-ventilated bedroom with the door closed.
I fell in love with books in second grade when I borrowed a Nancy Drew mystery from a classmate. I never looked back. No trip to the mall was complete without stopping in Bookarama and Waldenbooks. With their light gray shelves, deep gray rug, and pleasant lighting, Waldenbooks felt like an oasis. I wasn't trying to buy anything to be someone else — and I wasn't wishing I was someone else, like a pop singer with a more exciting life. I scanned the books simply for pleasure. If I bought something (like a new Baby-Sitters Club book) or not, I usually left feeling happy and content. And, maybe a little hungry...
My parents fed my brother and me healthy, nourishing meals that only included junk food after a certain amount of annoying whining (namely mine). When I was set free upon the untamed landscape of this shopping center, all bets were off. I didn't have to plead with the person behind the counter at Baskin-Robbins, conveniently located across from Waldenbooks. I just had to order my pink bubble gum (yes, that was a real flavor) ice cream cone and toss a dollar and some change her way.
At the mall, I also discovered the wonder of other forbidden non-fruits. My friend Carolyn showed me where to get Sour Patch Kids — tangy, tart, sugar-coated gummy candies that tasted great, but irritated your tongue when you ate a whole bag or three at once. Or, so I've heard. My friend Amy and I discovered the addictive nature of Arby's curly fries and went from sharing one order to each getting our own. I felt genuine sadness when I had dipped the last one in the little paper cup of ketchup I'd gotten from the condiment area. If only my mom's baked potatoes tasted as good! Of course, my mom's baked potatoes didn't have a whole long list of ingredients, some unpronounceable.
If we were feeling really decadent, my friend Becki and I would order an ice cream sundae with thick, gooey hot fudge at Friendly's. That meant sitting down in a booth, ordering from a menu, calculating the tip, and paying the check. The sound of dishes being cleared at a nearby table echoed. The chatter of other patrons filled the space around me. Becki and I adapted our conversations and shared more deeply about our families, our hopes, our fears. I felt like an adult. Something beyond the taste of the dessert satisfied me. But, I still had to keep my eye on the time. My mom would be picking us up soon.
Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in Bustle, The Establishment, Role Reboot, Ravishly and 12th Street Journal. She always enjoys a good mystery show when not at work on her memoir. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik.