By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
A trio of straggly-haired boys busts out of the exit by Macy's at Metrocenter and begins heading purposefully toward the Sleep America store on the outskirts of the mall parking lot.
"What up?" calls a fourth male, smoking a cigarette outside the exit doors. One of them makes a quick gesture, placing his thumb and forefinger up to his mouth and affecting a short inhaling sound, then points to Sleep America, which conveniently faces away from a spot by the Dumpsters that can only be seen by speeding cars on I-17.
"Dude!" corrects the leader of the procession, who only minutes ago whispered the news in the Cyberstation arcade that he has some top-grade weed to share, and has already picked up a third straggler. "Don't spread the peanut butter too thin!"
Mall designers like to talk about a certain "relaxed awareness" people feel when they walk into a mall. It's the reason store rents are actually lower by the entrances: As Underhill notes, there's a "decompression zone" people breeze through where they don't even see the shoe repair shops or nail salons placed there unless they come specifically looking for those services.
It's also the reason, Underhill says, that it's best to be the third jewelry store shoppers pass. It usually takes walking by two ring display windows to get men, especially, even thinking about jewelry.
That relaxed awareness works to the advantage of the resident mall hangers, who can virtually live in the malls without really being seen by the crowds walking by them -- although they can often be smelled.
"The smelly people often hide out around Cortez Park at night, on 35th Avenue and Dunlap," says a 21-year-old Metrocenter regular who goes by the name Jack. "Some of them have moved into 'the spot,' which is a section underneath the canal bridge adjacent to C-n-C" -- or Castles-n-Coasters, the amusement park just across the mall parking lot.
Despite best efforts by the police and the mall brass to curb the population, homeless teens continue to gravitate toward the malls -- particularly Metrocenter, which, until recently, served as a hub on all city bus routes.
"A lot of the young people at malls are like the transients downtown," says Sergeant Wamsley. "They don't have a place to go, but they need to eat. They need basic essentials of life: They need food, they need shelter, they need warmth. And they're gonna go where they can get it best. For a lot of them, that's at the mall."
By day, the so-called mall rats keep themselves amused and fed by bartering things -- mostly joints or speed that they score on the street -- for products and services in the stores where their friends work.
"Weed and methamphetamines are often quick tickets to just about anything you need here," says Jack. "I myself don't mess around with the speed, but I've collected my fair share of things bartering with a little extra weed here and there. A good portion of my wardrobe came from Hot Topic and Dillard's on weed trades."
The arcade and food court areas are where most of the bartering goes down, however. "There's little in the way of security measures protecting cheeseburgers and tokens," Jack explains with a laugh.
As for killing time, there's no better place to find free amusements than at the mall.
"We had one guy who would come in every day, pick up a manga book, and he would sit down and start reading it," says Les Shotwell, 24, who works behind the counter at Suncoast Motion Picture Company at Metrocenter. "And the guy stunk to high heaven. He would scrape together enough change to buy a soda, and then sit down with his soda and read the whole manga. Finally, I had to tell him, 'You got to go.'"
Shotwell says he sees a lot of the same people, sometimes whole families, who wander around the mall day after day. "Honestly, if they had beds here, some people would sleep in the mall," he says. "DMX, the rapper, came into the Sweet Factory one day, and the manager heard him say he likes Metrocenter because it reminds him of the ghetto."
Indeed, Metrocenter even has its own mini gang problem among the mall rats. "Juggalos," Jack says they call themselves. "This group of little punks that run around like a little white-boy gang that have absolutely no respect for others' property or boundaries. They're Insane Clown Posse fanatics, who've taken the ideals of their music way too far. They give the rest of the mall-hangers population a bad name because after a while, all the people who hang out there look the same. And are treated as such."
The Juggalos claim the other mall rats hate on 'em simply because the ICP fanatics have managed to organize themselves into a kind of family that those not "down with the Clowns" can be part of.
"It's a way of life," says Stephen, 24, who's been hanging out regularly at Metrocenter for more than seven years now. "A lot of the other mall rats wanna fit in with our crowd, but they don't know what it is."