The ad said that they were building a dynamic city experience in the suburbs. There was already one condominium and soon there would be four, with a fitness pavilion, movie theatre, parking garage and all the other perks that come with suburban life. But what made this experience different was that the condos would be part of a "walking city," a 12-block, life-filled, vibrant urban center complete with shops, restaurants and parks. The best of both worlds: life and space, together at last. And so we took a drive north, to check out this new man-made "city," an experience without history, but seeking to make history.
As it turns out, our new version of "city" is in fact an outdoor shopping mall, an unabashed celebration of stuff. The "city" in the suburbs is a long white block, bordered by undeveloped lots and sparse greenery, dead zones neither green nor not-green. The "city" stretches over half a mile, filled with chain stores, chain restaurants, and strange man-made play areas for enjoying the great outdoors, or really, the non-air-conditioned spaces between shopping opportunities. If there were a way to shop on Mars, this would be it. This new "city" is about one thing: consuming. Spending money on things that we don't need, eating more than we can digest. And if all goes according to plan, disappearing into the vacuum that is the American culture.
Families wandered about, their eyes revealing a similar vacuity, all trying to enjoy family time in the middle of nowhere and nothing, and too much of everything. One couple sat on a bench in a little courtyard that had been designed to simulate a romantic spot, a place to enjoy the view of the garage or maybe just to take a break from the buying and eating. "Oh dear. What has happened to us?" I felt like howling, but instead played my part as a good American, strolling past the lovely scented candles and empty warehouse-sized lofts that will soon be filled up, the merchandise already on its way from stuff.com.
The Gap, Old Navy, H&M, Dick's, REI, Black and White, Bath and Body Works, the list goes on and on. We know the players; we know exactly what the stores will look like on the inside, what the employees will sound like when they greet us -- the whole milieu of the branded experience awaiting us. Manufactured authenticity. Scattered between the chain stores are the chain restaurants: testimonies to our cultural obsession with BIG. The Cheesecake Factory, Brio, and the other pseudo-international options, all gifting us with the now-familiar gigantic light beeper to let us know when our table is ready -- soon to be followed by the 10-pound menu, after which the overflowing troughs of food and bowls of beverages will appear, and into which the afternoon and we will also disappear, if we're lucky. Excess and emptiness, the perfect American submarine.
These sparkly spaces are designed to pump us up, make us feel more alive, and yet the lived experience is one of enervation and death. Nowhere do I feel the presence of my own mortality more intensely than in these strange, "happy" cities -- the very places where we are instructed to celebrate life and the great good fortune that it is to be alive and American. Nowhere is the finite more present than in the deletion of the finite.
Despite all the planning, nothing in these false cities actually "works." The streets are painted a white that is so fierce and bright as to make it impossible to keep your eyes open on a sunny day. The "play" area where the children are to frolic uses metal to connect its climbing apparatuses, which under the summer sun are too hot to touch. The air conditioning in the restaurants is so intense that it is nearly impossible to stay, and unless you have a heavy sweater, your hands become too frozen to use a fork. There is happy music playing in the streets, I suppose, to remind us that we are happy, but the effect is that it is in fact difficult to carry on a conversation.
The employees at the restaurant where we ate lunch seemed to be trying to behave like human beings despite their actually being something non-human, namely, customer service representatives. They spoke with an odd, corporate cheer, using similar phrases, as if brainwashing Kool-Aid were running through their veins. The hostess asked if we wanted to sit on the "patio" which, while technically outside (I think), felt more like an ante chamber in a crematorium than a "patio." Sitting on a simulated cul-de-sac (with no real cul or sac for that matter), with two seemingly Monsanto-hatched tree-like forms, the "patio" was devoid of any quality of outdoor-ness or sense of the natural. The indoor décor, on the other hand, was a pastiche of an Italian villa. A pale peach shimmering replica of our history (but luckily) without anything that might indeed be historical or (G-d forbid) old, as if the genuinely old might risk reminding us that we too will get old and eventually die (a truth that these cities seem to desperately want us to forget). Inside the restaurant however -- as if fierce truth were forcing its way through the false -- our table was surrounded by small flies, which gathered around our food and heads as we tried to eat. I couldn't help wondering if even the flies could smell the scent of death in the place, despite all the lifelike smiles of its customer service representatives!
At the end of the day, I was left wondering if wandering between stuff is really the best we humans can come up with in terms of ways to use our time, the precious few moments we get on the planet. So too, I was left with a case of melancholia, after such attempts to pummel me into a state of happiness (which ultimately would not take). I felt injected with a narcotic designed to convince me that if I just kept acquiring, my life would be wonderful and unending. Several days later I am still asking why we are so afraid of the real in real life -- why we choose to create a simulated, pre-fabricated version of life rather than experience the spontaneous, mysterious experience that life is? Is the threat of a menu, a conversation or an experience that we can't already know is that dangerous?
For now, I stare -- with a Munchian gape -- into the cheesecake display case, reverberating with the stuff of emptiness.