Dumpster diving at the mega mall

Spend some time in a mall, and you’re bound to see a recurring behavioral pattern among young males. They walk in a triangle formation, with two walking shoulder-to-shoulder in the back and the third about five feet in front. The man in front is the “alpha male” in this trio, and his two men are the “beta males,” lower-ranking males who can consort with the alpha male, but only as protection.
It is easy to spot the alpha male in groups of young men because he is the only one smiling. The beta males rarely smile. Instead, they scan the crowd, looking for any rival alpha males or rival females in whom the alpha male may take an interest.
I love to watch people. Some think it’s rude, like eavesdropping or staring. I prefer to think of it as a kind of amateur anthropology in which I study the culture I live in rather than a foreign or ancient culture. The above is just one observation I’ve made in my extensive studies.
Anyone who gets to know me soon discovers my affinity for people watching. My roommate even got me “The People Watcher’s Field Guide,” by R.S. Bean, for Christmas.
The book categorizes types of people to watch for, like a bird-watching guide categorizes species of birds. My favorite is the Matching Lovebirds species.
“This breed pairs off and grows to resemble its mate more and more every year. They eventually become perfect cloned images of each other until one day they both suffer simultaneous mid-life nervous break-downs and split up never to see each other again,” according to the guide.
People watching for me is more than a hobby, however. For a writer, people watching can be a great source for material, much like an artist or photographer finds inspiration in visually beautiful scenes. The settings I choose, however, aren’t considered the most inspiring by many of my artist and writer friends.
I like malls. That’s where I set up my canvas.
I choose malls because they have become the epitome of Midwestern culture. In this part of the country, cities are judged by the quality and size of their malls. Many times I’ve heard people judge my hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota, as having a nice mall.
What do I find so inspiring about this part of our culture? The more I understand about it, the better I write about it.
Some believe appealing to the lowest common denominator means compromising your art. However, artists also run the risk of making their creations too inaccessible.
Sometimes, a work of art or piece of writing is intended to be accessible only to fellow artists or intellectuals. Doing that, however, is like preaching to the choir.
What’s the point of expressing your beliefs if only a handful of people, most of whom share those beliefs, can understand them? Why not make art that speaks to a larger audience? It is not a compromise, rather a desire to communicate, to reach more and more people with your message.
Not everyone disagrees with me. One friend stays in touch with the lowest common denominator by watching infomercials. His reasoning: When archeologists study ancient cultures, they learn the most by going through their garbage.
Infomercials are the garbage of our culture. The more one studies infomercials, the better one understands our culture.
For me, malls are another example of the garbage of our culture, which is why I’m happy to live in the Twin Cities, which has the largest landfill in the country, the Mall of America.
Sit on one of the benches of the first floor, and you’ll see a cross section of America walk by you every hour or so. Every type of person is there, from the shaved-headed, nose-ringed teen holding a Gap shopping bag, to the middle-aged housewife with a middle-school offspring, both wearing matching pink sweaters with a big-headed, blue-eyed kitten.
As Monet gazed upon the beauty of flowers, I watch groups of belt-buckled urban cowboys march into Victoria’s Secret. Occasionally, you’ll see someone with combat boots, black hair and a black duster jacket walking among the technicolor masses.
He has no shopping bag, has no beta males flanking his sides. He walks at a different pace and stride from the hurried shoppers all around, with hands stuffed in his pockets.
Now that’s art.