People-watching. It’s a never-ending source of inspiration for fiction writers who might find themselves in need of some good source material. If, like us, you abide by the somewhat cliché notion that everyone’s got a story to tell, then what better place to peruse the wall-to-wall supply of living, breathing, fictional rough drafts than in a shopping center?
To really mine the creative ore of a good people-watching safari, we sent Redwoods Society editorial intern Cliff Gateflower to that grand-daddy shopping center of ’em all; the Mall of America (as well as the Waterpark of America–shame on you if you thought they were the same), in Bloomington, Minnesota. For 48 hours, our intern combed the wings of the commercial behemoth, socializing, observing, and in some cases provoking people in an attempt to distill some character development grist from real-life interactions.
The following is an excerpt:
Wednesday, 11:15 am; Waterpark of America, Bloomington, MN
Word spreads like a 5-megaton blast: They’ve located a turd in the wade pool! The laughter and excitement comes to an abrupt halt as parents flood in from all directions, scrambling to locate and pluck their kids from the waters as if there’s been a shark sighting. Once everyone is standing safely on the deck, the accusatory glances begin. There’s a malignant pride in the expressions of those mothers who, despite no conclusive or exonerating evidence whatsoever, have decided to rule out their own child as the source of the turd.
But that’s a parent’s love for you.
It’s been both convenient and lucrative for the Waterpark of America to keep getting lumped in with the Mall of America. In actuality, they’re something of crosstown rivals, or so a 2006 lawsuit filed on behalf of MoA executives against their WoA counterparts alleging trademark infringement would have you believe (for their part, the WoA filed a countersuit accusing the MoA of not just knowing about their plans to give their attraction a similarly sounding name, but actually encouraging them to spend the money promoting it as such).
From the top of the mall’s parking structure, you can see the waterpark’s aqua-colored water chutes snaking their way out of the side of the building a few blocks away; the dark shapes of riders moving through the flumes like boluses of food being passed through tracts of intestine. Given the lengths that the MoA has taken to make your visit to the megamall as convenient and all-encompassing as possible, it’s a bit of a letdown to learn the waterpark’s not located in the same building that houses, among so many other things: a movie theater, a deep-sea aquarium, 97 restaurants/cafes, 52 women’s apparel stores, 36 health and beauty shops, 26 shoe stores, 16 jewelry stores, 7 toy stores, a comedy lounge, five rotundas, a soundstage, and a police mini-station all of which radiate outward from a center court amusement park complete with high-velocity rides.
The woman in front of me ascends the stairway to where the tenth level slide begins. A large woman with calves like thick salami; the bottoms of her heels resemble glazed donuts and blanch white beneath her weight. It is not her first time to ride from this height and like so many of the other adults here, she has a tattoo; a one-time rose that has faded into a blue chalky smudge with time. Her presence offsets the symbolism; that of the sweet, eager souls of unborn children gathered around a heavenly tunnel that will deliver them to their births. She plops down onto the slide’s platform, damming with her haunches the water that is jetted in behind her. Dispensing smiles to no one in particular, she waits for the light above the flume to cycle from red to green, signaling the all clear that the previous rider has reached a safe point, allowing for the next rider in line to go. When it does, she grips the sides of the opening and with a soundless grimace, hurls her self forward down the tube. Pursued by a dam-break of water, she rounds the first turn and is gone.
Invent the rest: gushing out of the slide’s anus, our heroine collides with a young child who was too slow in exiting the slide’s receptacle pool. What follows is an ordeal that will send our character into a spiral of methadone addiction, mucophilia, and, ultimately, redemption.
Meanwhile, back in the wade pool, the college-age lifeguards, in keeping with the facility’s safety protocols for this particular situation—which had been presented in their training packets as a FAQ—are handling the incident like a miniature HAZMAT scene. Yellow tape that reads CAUTION and CUIDADO in alternating sequence is stretched around the perimeter of the wade pool. The water stops flowing through the medusa of waterspouts and tipsy barrels and soon this whole section of the park is rendered lifeless and inert, like how Pripyat must have looked in the first minutes of its evacuation.
A young man with wind-blown surfer hair wades out with a pole net and fishes the turd from the surface. More than a few people have gathered like gawkers at a crime scene; their subconscious imploring them that to make it all real, to wholly believe and embrace the inconvenience that’s been wielded upon them, they need to actually see it; the turd. Once it’s been bagged and carried away, a male and female team are up next, carrying what looks like label-less bleach bottles. The liquids are poured into the water in generous amounts then circulated using extension poles. After some time, the water will be turned on again and allowed to circulate through the wade pool activity stations before the all clear can be given.
The waterpark’s engineers in their infinite wisdom had planned for such a contingency, for the wade pool’s supply of water has been compartmentalized from the waterslides and the Lazy River inner tube run. Thank God, for nothing can ruin a day more than wayward fecal contaminates.
Invent the rest: The turd was in fact a plastic turd replica, planted by an accomplice of surfer-boy who, during the pandemonium of the water evacuation, collected a total of $46 from unattended purses.
Thursday, 8:27 am, Mall of America third floor food court; Bloomington, MN
I’m concerned for this woman. The one who appears mildly ethnic and sits in a half-slump at the table, head pressed against the guardrail and staring down at the cavernous center court below. This is the hour when legions of geriatric mall walkers have converged. They glide through the mall dressed in their crisp khaki pants and gleaming white sneakers and to them she is invisible. Her clothes are twisted and disheveled; the same clothes from the night before. She wears heels with the straps undone, and her hair looks as if she’s just risen from a sleepless night of staring down an oblivion darkness. But there’s something more here; a quiet, personal devastation that exudes from her. And I’m concerned that I’m witnessing the prelude to a suicide attempt.
I’m seated five tables down, feeling guilty and pompous for having just enjoyed my tall, skinny, caramel macchiato while a storm churns quietly inside this woman.
When I approach her, it is with great delicacy. I explain that I’m an off-duty police officer (despite my intention to provide a comfortable social introductory icebreaker, there’s something unsettlingly Ted Bundy-ish about approaching a woman in obvious emotional distress and identifying one’s self as “an off-duty police officer”). and I ask her if she is okay. There is a deep, inconsolable hurt in her eyes, which for just an instant meet mine.
“I’m okay,” she answers sharply.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee? Something to eat?”
She waves me off like she’s shooing away a fly then pulls a phone out from her purse and thumbs in a text message. By the time I’m back at my own table, I can hear the scree-yawkk of her chair being dragged against the floor as she pushes herself away from the table. Clutching a large purse overflowing with visible articles of clothing, she wobbles away, disappearing down a darkened corridor in the direction of a gallery of shops that don’t open until 10.
Thursday, 1:20 pm, Mall of America; Bloomington, MN
It’s a mental exercise. An interpretative gymnastic…trying to guess the names of random people you see. You’re allowed to take into account manner and style of dress, as well as certain anthropological artifacts such as what stores they’ve shopped at, manner and amount of makeup application, hairstyles, and how personalized they’ve rendered the protective cases of their cell phones. It begs the question: does a given name destine a person’s future consumer choices?
Case Study 1:
White male, pudgy, late-40’s; advanced thinning-into-baldness sandy brown hair; a thin, brown, Hitler-length mustache; baggy cargo shorts, black t-shirt, and a pink, hamster face: Ken.
Case Study 2:
White male, mid-teens; ball-cap twisted fashionably askew; baggy, oversized athletic shorts with what could be two or more similar pairs of shorts worn beneath; lean, bird-like arms pouring out of a sleeveless LA Lakers jersey, and a pair of large white, untied sneakers that look as if they might slip off with the slightest amount of physical exertion:
An obvious member of the “-stin” class: Austin, Dustin, Justin, etc.
Case Study 3:
“Donna”: White female, mid-to-late 60’s; leathery complexion from years of prolonged, irresponsible sun exposure with possible basal cell carcinoma visible above her lip; “golf”-style clothing complete with visor; sandals; gold bracelet; toe ring. Still reminisces on youthful experiences each time she hears the Ritchie Valens song, “Donna”.