We played this game in our middle school computer lab called Missing. It was a game designed to warn kids that any self-expression on the internet will lead to being kidnapped by a pedophilic stranger, yanked by the roots of their frosted tips across state lines. You play as a detective who learns of a missing kid named Zack, who met a man online who claimed to run a magazine in California, only to be kidnapped, sex trafficked, and finally reunited with his father, who purchases the antivirus software the game was advertising in the first place. The lesson was clear: Never trust a writer from California.
“I write for a magazine,” I tell two teenage boys in Anchorage, Alaska, at the fifth-floor summit of a dying mall. “Can you talk to me about the food court for five minutes?”
A 15-year-old named Earl nods sagely, eating garlic fries and wearing a winter jacket with the tags on. “I’m a bit of a foodie myself,” he says.
Earl, buddy! You’re so dead.
As a kid, I entered the mall food court with more than just my mom and 10 clammy dollars. I went in with a framework for what it Meant. The TV shows I obsessed over would airdrop their characters at the mall dressed in clothing far more disposable than the Styrofoam containers full of prop food they ate out of: There, they’d exchange information, silently judge one another, fall in love, and plot out the rest of their fictional lives in a way that made me want the same. The feeling blended with the taste, whether it came in the form of rubbery mystery meat from Sarku Japan or whatever vegetable they decided to put on top of the cardboard dough at Sbarro that week. I wasn’t allowed to be a mall kid, and I coped in a move so adjacent to Disney adults it makes my nose bleed — I’m a mall adult.
The word is that the mall is dying: something about kids these days, something about online shopping, something about the food court’s legacy going the way of the three-camera sitcom and the middle class. In an effort that was part journalism, part exposure therapy, I put on my best “hello, fellow kids” regalia and lurked the food courts of Anchorage, Alaska; Tempe, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon, to find out what today’s mall teens had to say about it, if they even still existed at all. My question for teenagers and other youths across the West is simple: Is the mall food court still a cultural watering hole, or am I fucking old now?
It would be a simple process for the writer from California — look friendly, ask photographers to hang back, approach teenagers to ask them about the heavily processed meat they’re gossiping over. You know, like a pervert would do.
Anchorage is a politically divided town, so much so that the city’s Jewish Democratic mayor was forced out of office just two years ago amid a false pedophilia rumor. It’s fraught here, but there’s one thing everyone can agree on: It is really fucked up that the Nordstrom is gone. “Oh, that was a real hit to the community,” an Uber driver explains before getting back into “my kind of libertarianism” and what a Fred Meyer is and is not.
If you’re looking to bust the malls-are-dying theories, the 5th Avenue Mall in downtown Anchorage is a bad place to start. At its peak, the great glass-domed structure housed more than 100 stores, not including the penthouse food court, with today’s numbers dwindling into the 50s. On the Saturday shortly before Christmas that I visit, there’s an almost alarming amount of elbow room to navigate through the five-floor vertical complex, filled with nearly as many promises of stores that could be there than ones that really are.
Our photographer assistant, a leftist, misses Nordstrom, too. “That was a psychic loss for the community,” she tells me. “But it reflects the change that’s happened in Alaska from oil culture to… well, yeah, a very dwindling oil culture.”
That’s one thing that Alaskan teens have that their southern counterparts don’t: oil-fueled, state-issued disposable income. Most permanent residents of Alaska get an annual check, called the PFD, to those in the know; short for the Permanent Fund Dividend, the payment fluctuates from year to year depending on how much money the state brings in from investments originating with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline revenue. In 2022, the checks were more than $3,000 a head, leaving teenagers no choice but to spend it on the off-brand Rick and Morty merchandise that litters the mall floors below. So why is their mall visibly dying?
“Stores are closing down. They’re not making any money,” a 17-year-old named Josslynn tells me beside a full bag of outdoor gear and something from Pink obscured by pale tissue paper. She’s visiting from Wasilla for the day with her friends and grazing on something flesh-colored from Thai Garden. The food court here is, in a move I find baffling, placed at the top of the mall, a penthouse littered with ’90s-era neon signs announcing off-brand food stalls with menu-length titles: GRILLED 5th Avenue DELI SUBS; BURGERS / WINGS & THINGS / RIBS; Fruit <3 Land.
Across the food court, I spot two middle schoolers on a date. You know, like a pervert would. Charles and Olivia are being supervised by Olivia’s mom, who tries to balance an impossible present-but-not-too-present while calling Charles’s mother to make sure it’s okay to talk to me. The preteens have been together for a few years now and give each other looks when Mom’s head is turned. Charles puts his hand on hers as she muscles through some Teflon food court noodles; she speaks softly, but he seems to catch every word. He prefers the Dimond Center Mall, about six miles south, because “they have more hockey stuff.” She likes Bath and Body Works and has a recurring dream where she’s in the food court and the whole bottom half of the building collapses.
Nearby, an Alaska Native family — Michael, Dmitri, Michael Jr., and Arlene — have opted for chicken-fried rice and steak from another generic stall called Chopsticks. They’re visiting from the remote community of Point Hope, a whaling village where big failing malls are nowhere to be found and taking up the mantle of the family business has taken precedence for generations. They’ve been in the area for a few weeks, Michael Sr. explains, while they wait for the climate change-induced storms — which include 60 mph winds — to clear enough for their home to become livable again.
“I’ve been playing this on the Playstation for two days,” 21-year-old Dmitri tells me, pulling two covert copies of different Call of Duty discs out of his hoodie. This is the one GameStop trip they make a year, and he wasn’t as thrilled with last year’s haul. When the weather improves, they’ll return to Point Hope to resume their work as whalers, fishermen, and water plant employees. Today, it’s still a climate vacation.
Earl tells me that the food court is still a safe haven for teenagers while his friend quietly eats his fries, and tells me his favorite memory from the fifth floor of the dying dome. It’s one where he, the foodie, is a hero — the last time he was here with his family, the alarm began to blare and the whole place had to be evacuated. “But we’re at the top, see?” he says, gesturing to the spiraling escalators that lead down to the ground floor, complete with the Once in a Blue Moose gift shop. Earl loves to explain things to me. “And the escalators weren’t working that day, and you’re not supposed to—”
“Use the elevators, yeah.”
“But then I realized,” Earl says, not noticing his friend just finished his lunch entirely. In one minute, he will be furious. “Then I realized that the escalator is just stairs, and we walked all the way down.”
Earl, buddy, best of luck.
A few weeks later, I take the Greyhound seven hours from Los Angeles to Tempe, Arizona, on a red-eye, something only the most elite of bus takers are even aware exists. I will never stop riding the Greyhound because occasionally it goes like this: high ceilings, huge warm seats, only one person doing coke.
My nagging fear that stepping into the packed Arizona Mills mall practically begs for a metric ton of COVID-19 viral load will be confirmed a few days later with a positive test — but I don’t know that yet, so for now, I’m having a great time. Tempe is pleasantly buzzing just a few days shy of Christmas, plastered in Avatar posters as I pass the already sold-out Legoland across from the aquarium. It would be a reasonable response to be repelled by the sheer volume of cursed objects here, lining a one-floor labyrinth so vast you could forget you ever saw a store called EXTREME LIFESTYLE that consists exclusively of Marvel character cutouts and cosplaying swords by the time you pass it again a mall mile later. As a connoisseur of garbage, I feel right at home.
A short list of perfect things: a Minions bucket hat on a mannequin with the eyes scratched out, three toy claw machines shaped like VW vans driven by oversize stuffed hamsters, an abandoned bungee-jumping station with all the cords removed, Heath Ledger’s Joker poorly screenprinted on every conceivable surface, and a full Rainforest Cafe where I enjoy one of the wettest sandwiches of my life. The teenage shoppers of Arizona don’t appear to be buying this stuff, electing instead to pull the bait and switch of looking at it, watching their friends look at it, and giving the vendor just enough hope that they might have bought it to stay in business. The salespeople never seem to notice that the teens are laughing at the Minions hat, not with it, but that never stopped me from forking over my hard-earned minimum-wage money at the same age.
I truly believe that this is the best that America has to offer that anyone has access to — the ugliest and loudest things in the world that you can look at for free, can make fun of or enjoy or both, and I fully intend to enjoy it just as hard as the 7-year-old riding the off-brand Lightning McQueen electric ride they’ve bothered to label “SMILE CAR.” I was born in the shithole, I live in the shithole, I die in the shithole.
I meet up with our photographer in the food court of the one-floor behemoth, spottable from a long stretch away by the massive classic carousel that stands in front of it. The Food Hall is another chef’s kiss of a local-and-national mix, with standbys like Fatburger and Charleys alongside Soul Food Corner and Pangaea Dinosaur Grill (that’s dinosaur-themed Mexican and Greek food, thank you very much). Teenagers Maria and Taehee don’t think they have strong opinions on the goods here before discovering a mutual hatred of the Sbarro to their right. Both international students, they bonded at school and — in a mall rat fashion most believe have died off entirely — there’s not much else for two soft-spoken teens in Tempe to do.
Maria regards her flaccid $7 slice, sighs a little too dramatically, and both girls start laughing, checking each other’s eyes to make sure the other is a little uncomfortable, too. The synthetic floor fills with a mix of the last bastion of teenage mall rats, mother-daughter pairings playing hooky, and millennials revisiting their salad days on a trip home from wherever they live that isn’t here anymore.
This is the composition of a group of guys in their mid-20s I find going feral on a spread of so-so food from Pangaea, all Dino Burgers and Mexican street food that exceeds the sodium one should eat in a fiscal quarter. They were friends in middle school and later college roommates — two joined the Marines, one is someone’s nephew, and their leader is Jacob, the Loud One speaking on behalf of the boys.
“We’re gonna see the new Avatar,” Jacob says, grinning through a mouthful of Philly cheesesteak. I ask them what made them jump for mall food.
“It was either this or Asian food,” one of the Marines says, gesturing to the other crew cut, “but he’s been in Japan so it’s not gonna be as good. Kind of a wasted meal for him.” They don’t get to see each other often, they tell me. A food court meal and a blockbuster might be all they get for the year.
“I took my gun to get fixed at an armory near here,” Jacob tells me before offering some Dino Fries. Something registers in the pit of my stomach that I recognize — a boy offered you something at the mall, you’d better take it or what will they say about you at school on Monday? I lowered my mask a few minutes ago to match their energy and am probably spewing COVID.
Around the time the trailers before Avatar wrap, two girls agree to talk to me after a brief scuffle with a third, who flees the scene with her boyfriend with some annoyance at 16-year-olds Daniela and Angelina unwilling to watch her jacket for her. They’ve just finished paleta from La Michoacana, one of their favorites for the number of fruit and veggie toppings available in step with Mexican tradition. They’ve been regulars at Arizona Mills for around four years, they tell me, but struggled to think of any positive memories that stuck out about the place.
“There was, like, the shooting,” Daniela says, and cracks a smile when my eyes widen.
“When was that?”
The girls think about it for a moment. “Probably, like, two months ago. Our friend was there.”
I try to think about what I would have done at 16 in the same position, just before the time when mass shootings in the United States became an epidemic and consistently, everywhere, even now. There was a shooting at my high school my senior year that the neighborhood played down because it was “technically an after school shooting,” and only the athletic kids saw what happened anyway. Daniela and Angelina take a deep breath, done with the subject and the conversation.
“How do you feel being here now?” I ask.
Angelina looks to a nearby Paul Blart, one of the many I encountered during this piece who don’t seem particularly aware of their surroundings.
“I mean, they have more security,” she says. “So that’s something.” I watch them carefully arrange their bodies for the photographer, pulling this in, pushing this out, they’re doing great, don’t worry.
The Washington Square mall on a Sunday afternoon brings me to the brink of a panic attack almost immediately when my friend’s car is nearly rear-ended in front of a JCPenney. A woman connects her hip with mine — did I just get pushed? — as we jostle to look at the mall directory. I wonder if the remaining mall patrons back in Anchorage would believe me if I told them that malls like this still exist. If you close your eyes, feel other patrons’ frantically shopping body parts connect with your meatbag body, and forget that Doja Cat isn’t playing, it could be 1998 — this is a mall, one so crowded and full of life that it’s giving me intense anxiety. You people lived like this?
The food court here, dubbed the SUMMIT FOOD COLLECTION, is another blend of regional specifics and heavy hitters — for every Panda Express, there is a Greekway; for every Sbarro, a Braganza Tea. It is packed with last-minute shoppers, most of whom have the same manic energy as the professional wrestler trapped in a petite teenage girl’s body who hip-checked me on the way up. I almost forget that this is probably how it should be going — I am the one being weird here, after all.
My first group is another perfect teen girl herd, carefully dressed in clothes that have become cool again since I wore them in the fifth grade. They’re Panda Express girlies, orange chicken and chow mein girlies, not hungry enough to finish the hamburger from an overpriced stand called Stripes girlies, high-metabolism mall girls that drive from 45 minutes into the city to walk around a place worth walking around.
Their names sound indistinguishable — Aubrey, Maddie, Avery — and they are making every effort to be an identical unit the way teenage girls effortlessly can. One remembers her cousin peeing in her grandmother’s lap in the parking lot of this mall, too afraid to tell her loved one what she really needed. They like Lululemon and PacSun and Cotton On; they don’t like Hot Topic or Gap. They check in with their eyes to make sure these are the right answers. I don’t know how to tell them it was the peeing in grandma’s lap that was interesting, but they’ll figure it out themselves sometime in the next decade.
The food court is so impossibly full of people who don’t want to talk about the food court that there is no line under 20 minutes there, and so after an interview with two teenage boys wielding gallon-size orange sodas who have little to offer outside of a “haha what?” I retreat to the lower floor to see if there are signs of intelligent life at the food stalls that disrupt the main drag between the Michael Kors and overpriced candles.
By the time I get to the front of the line at Wetzel’s Pretzels, they’re out of hot dogs — one last skin-prickling disrespect, a halfway-decent hot dog being the only thing standing between me and a full-blown panic attack. I look across from the pretzel stall and see the robbers of my happiness, two women in their 60s with their fists wrapped around the meat I need.
“Hey, did you get those just now?” I ask them — yes, just now. I nod and take a bite of my pretzel. “Well, can I talk to you for a second?”
There are no two worthier mouths wrapped around a hot dog than Valerie and Lynette. They grew up in California together, moved to Oregon after getting married, and the sisters are now loudly waiting for their relatives who are visiting from out of town to finish browsing “because they don’t have nice malls like us.”
Lynette used to work at a department store at the mall when they were teenagers in California during the 1960s, but she can’t quite remember the name of the department store. Big, it was big. I look at the teenager on their phone at Kay Jewelers and wonder if they could conceive of not remembering where they’re standing at this moment a half century from now. What do the sisters like to eat here?
“Oh, lord,” Lynette says, cracking a rare smile. Before I have a chance to ask, Valerie bursts with the answer.
“Cheesecake Factory,” she says. “I’ve tried 67 different menu items. It’s taken me six years, but I’ve got a list going. But I’m not keeping track of the drinks, and I don’t like cheesecake.”
Her sister rolls her eyes, but she’s laughing. Every menu item from the Cheesecake Factory? Valerie confirms before I can even ask, explaining that the waitress at the Washington Square mall Cheesecake Factory gifted her a menu to put little x’s beside the dishes she’s tried already — her current rankings place the Thai chicken in top position and the meatloaf at the bottom “because my meatloaf was way better than their meatloaf.” At this rate, she’ll be done sometime in the next 25 years, provided the mall and the world that surrounds it make it that long.
Lynette gives her sister a familiar look. It’s the same look that a group of girls in Anchorage gave one another when asked about Thai food, the same look that the girls in Tempe gave one another when they decided that they’re going to feel safe at the mall anyway. It’s the kind of look you can exchange only after at least three arguments and 60 hours spent staring at one another under fluorescent lighting before walking in circles to watch one another more.
I, the writer from California, start laughing with them — you know, like a pervert would.
Jamie Loftus’s first book, Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, comes out in May 2023.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein