04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Losing that Mall State of Mind

It's been a long time since I just browsed or window-shopped at my local Southern California mall. Years. So it was a somewhat novel experience this weekend simply to walk with my husband and a friend around the mall; it was a walk back in time to another era, an era was of mindless affluence and mindless consumption.

The recession hit us personally with layoffs at the end of 2007. We've recovered more or less (more like less) and we carefully watch money spent on shelter, food, clothing, cars, and the phone. Our friend, on the other hand, who was laid off the summer of 2008, has not found much beyond some occasional temporary work. He's run out of unemployment. He has one month of health insurance left on his COBRA. He's selling his CDs and DVDs on eBay and Amazon. And now he's homeless, about to drive this week to a possible part-time job in the Midwest. With those eyes the mall is a strange place. When you're down to little or no money, you realize that one can live without a silk ficus for the dining room, potpourri for anywhere, personalized stationery, jarred artichoke pasta sauce, and a Homer Simpson bobble-head.

There were people in the mall. There were people eating chicken wraps and teriyaki bowls. The Apple store had a crowd, with people trying out things on the big monitors. We went in and bought ear buds for my iPod because my son took mine (he's always losing his). The earphones have a remote and mic, which are features I never knew I wanted, but I'll figure out an application. That was the only thing we bought in the mall. People walked by the stores that sold perfume, jewelry, fancy lingerie, and upscale leather goods. The department stores, which seem to have fewer inventories than I remember, had a few people milling around or waiting at a cashier.

I thought about the Russian translator with whom I worked on a project this past year who had friends visit from Moscow. "Come see the Getty," he said to them. "Come see the Huntington and the Los Angeles Museum of Art." But, no. They only wanted to go to the mall. They stocked up on sweaters and shoes and toys. They brought in their own Russian cigarettes because American ones are too expensive, but they stocked up on everything else. I told this story to a family friend in New York, whose mother and my grandmother came from the same town in Russia. "Yes," she said. "I saw the same thing with my husband's cousin [many times removed] from Uzbekistan, who came to see us. We wanted to take her to the opera. We told her the history of the lions in front of the 42nd Street Library. All she wanted was to go to Rite-Aid or CVS pharmacy for cosmetics." I don't know. I've lost that mall state of mind. Maybe the mall can be visited like a museum. Maybe it is a relic of the culture of consumption.