Monday, November 24, 2008

On Reading The Call of The Mall in the Heartland, After Obama's Election

It was 8:30 pm local time, only 5:30 my time, and I was nowhere near hungry--but I had to eat, and I thought I would get out and see what there was to see.

A nice waiter seated me in the only local restaurant for miles, and I asked for a glass of red wine and opened my book, the Call of the Mall. Paco Underhill, the author, is discussing the mall parking lot. "Out on the edges of nowhere, these stores" (Farm and Fleets, who sell everything a rural person might need, from jeans to harnesses for your donkey) "sit in the middle of endless parking lots. Rural land is still cheap."

Here I am, in the middle of all that rural land, staying in the middle of a strip mall exactly like thousands of others. My hotel is two parking lots away from the restaurant, a boon for me, since I don't like driving the automatic Pontiac sedan the rental car company has given me--I have about as much control over it as riding an elephant. (If the elephant goes where I want him to go, awesome. If not, how the hell am I going to stop him?)

Of course, I chose my hotel because the website said it was near "shopping", and the website was correct. I'm by a huge--and well-kept-up--mall that has completely empty parking lots, four weekends before Christmas, at 8:00 pm. It's possibly the economy, although I don't think so--Chattanooga is a relatively booming town full of new business prospects. Mainly it's the overwhelming SPACE of the area. Anyone who is going to shop at this mall, on this night, would have to drive 45 minutes away from their house--at least--and 45 minutes back. That's a late night after going to work all day. Of course, on weekends, I assume this mall will be packed.

Inside the restaurant I sat quietly with my book and made small talk with my waiter, who confirmed that on weekends this restaurant--right by the mall--is packed to the gills. Still, this restaurant is huge, enough to swallow five or six Seattle restaurants in terms of square footage alone, and it has at least three serving staff that I can see, plus two managers on duty. In Seattle, that would be a lot of labor cost to wait on six tables, but here, of course, the servers only make $2.13 an hour. It's amazing to me how so much land makes everything so cheap. The food is cheaper, the gas is cheaper, the labor is cheaper. I don't know why a surplus of land makes this so. Supply and demand, maybe?

Let me say right now that I absolutely love the Heartland, and I can't seem to shake it. Maybe it's the surplus of land? The flatness that implies that there's enough space for me to do whatever I want? Whatever reason, I'm happier when I'm here, and no more so than tonight, three weeks to the day, practically, after our historic election. The racism that I was so concerned would ruin Obama's chance at the presidency doesn't seem to exist here in Tennessee. Out of six or seven tables, at least three contain African Americans, and two of those three are mixed. Ahead of me, a pair of married ladies--one white, one black--giggles over wine, obviously having a girls night out. To their right, a black couple eats dinner, and to my immediate right is the most interesting table: a good looking blond guy is eating with three very good-looking mixed-race girls, and enjoying himself immensely. With his tan and his long-limbed biceps, I at first think he's whiter than Joe America, but then hearing his speech pattern, I begin to guess that he's part Hispanic, a guess that's confirmed when he breaks into Spanish a few times. His audience appears to follow along just fine. It's then that I notice that's he's pretty darn tan, for a Northern American blond. Everyone at his table has similar combinations of sharply North American faces with dark skin, or naturally blond hair with classic African American texture.

They're all stunning, of course. If I sound a little obsessive about how different races combine to create beauty, it's partly because I'm a little jealous--I'll always look classically Scandanavian. No exotic mixes for me. Huge blue eyes, yes, but that's about all I got. I wonder what these girls would want to be called. All of them are obviously black, in some fraction, but they may prefer not to be called any label at all. Informal readings among my black friends has been inconclusive. My friend Charles and I were talking about Obama's race the other day, and I referred to our President-Elect as black. Charles--a black man--snorted.

"He's half and half," he said, rather witheringly. I pointed out that Aaron McGruder, the arguably crazy cartoonist behind the Boondocks--would consider Obama to be black, no ifs, ands, or buts. Charles knew who I was talking about, rolled his eyes, drew in a little on himself, and then he said the most provocative thing I've heard recently:

"That's slave mentality," he said, and then he moved on to something else.

I was officially speechless. I couldn't think of anything worthwhile to say. I was blown-away-impressed that he'd refer to such an evil mark on America's past so casually, especially one that was built on race--HIS race--and then move on with the conversation. He didn't take that lead to become Angry Black Man--he just said his piece and moved on to the Seahawks. At the same time, of course, he was factually correct. The practice of counting anyone who had as little as a sixteenth or more African heritage as "black" DO come from slave times, and if Charles disagreed with the practice, I'd make a note of it. While a woman's struggle for equality is much more subtle and much less violent--we may have gotten the vote later but we were never treated as group property--I'm still sensitive to a minority group's struggle for equal rights. Let me not stand in the way.

Back to a more superficial level, the blond guy enjoying himself while he entertained the table full of hot mixed-race girls cheers me no end. He was putting on a show for them, and they enjoyed it, and he did, too. Good, old-fashioned flirting still has its place in this day and age. As I paid my tab, it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a boy.

We were talking about Michele Obama. "Have you ever dated a black girl?" I said.

"No," he answered.

I thought for a second. "Do you find black girls attractive?"

"Yes," he said, without hesitation. "I don't like the ghetto stereotype--the girl with the huge ass and the hair-did and the gold nails an inch long, much like how I don't like, say, Emo girls. But I do find black girls hot. Naomi Campbell I especially like."


I mulled this over while paying my check. It was 10:40 local time, and it was time for me to be in bed.


Kalvan said...

"Farm and Fleets" reminds me of a store located in the true Heartland (not down there in the south where you are visiting), Mills Fleet Farm. Now this is truly a rural store. You can buy anything imaginable here, from farm equipment to iPods, from clothes to guns. Imagine a Walmart joined at the hip to Home Depot. This last Saturday I went to one of these stores for the first time and it was quite the experience. It's kind of scary being in one place where you can buy almost anything. I had to hold tight to my wallet for fear that my credit cards would leap out in a spending frenzy.

Of course, up here in the real Heartland, you won't see such diverse mix of humanity. Out where the Fleet Farms roam, it's whiter than the snow that will soon be falling. Huddled here in Minneapolis, there is much diversity, but it is only an island in the Heartland sea.

T-town Girl said...

Good Lord you cover a lot in this post. I can't even begin to properly comment on all of it but if you ever want to have a real conversation abut the cost and value of rural vs. urban living . . . you know where to find me.