Big Time Mallin'

Living, loving and loathing in the mini-cities of the Valley's malls

According to Paco Underhill, the kiosks are the last remnants of independent retail in the corporate-dominated malls -- and also the one place where suburbanites can actually get some multicultural education.

Arizona Mills in Tempe, in particular, is packed with kiosks dedicated to different ethnic specialties, from Bethlehem-imported olivewood carvings in front of Virgin Megastore to miniature tuxedos for Hispanic baptisms near the Rainforest Cafe.

On one crowded Saturday, a procession of young Mexican boys marches through Arizona Mills wearing matching long black jackets with white-banded black hats, looking for a set of 15 specially decorated candles for the evening's quinceañera.

Chances are, they find it at a kiosk, crammed between the Mr. Squeeze pillows, Ancient Egypt knickknacks and Gourmet Gumballs.

Fast Times at DR Market-plizz-ace

A quartet of punky-looking teens sits shivering around the planter in front of the Panda Express at Desert Ridge Marketplace in north Phoenix, two of them smoking cigarettes through bandannas pulled up over their mouths and noses, bandit-style.

"We do this to make fun of the straight-edge people," explains 15-year-old Lane Glass, laughing. "They wear bandannas to show they don't do any substances. So we just poke a hole through 'em and smoke."

"Don't take a picture of us doing that, though," cautions Robin Luna, an 18-year-old dropout proudly wearing stolen bowling shoes. "'Cause they have no sense of humor, and they'll probably beat us up."

A few yards away, huddling by the dancing fountains in the east courtyard of the unenclosed mall, an entirely different-looking group of high schoolers jokes around with one another and compares notes on which stores have the coolest clothes.

"Industrial's all right," says a sharply dressed Hispanic boy. "Anchor Blue."

"We're just the normals," says a girl with shoulder-length blond hair, who differentiates her group as the kids who actually shop. "We have money."

While the various cliques appear to have little in common, they all meet up, without fail, every Friday night between the Panda Express and the Islands at Desert Ridge Marketplace -- or "Market-plizz-ace," as they've attempted to Snoop-ify the most white-bread of place names -- to hang out at the mall.

"Almost every weekend, I come home and I'm like, 'That's the last time I'm going there,'" says Jesse Williamson, 17, looking preppy in a collared dress shirt poking up from under an earth-toned sweater. "And then Friday rolls around again, and everybody's like, 'So, what are you gonna do?' 'Oh, go to Desert Ridge!'"

They know hanging out at the mall is lame. "My mom says she used to do the exact same thing," says one girl, signifying the ultimate in lameness.

And yet, just by assembling en masse every Friday night, the kids turn it into their own suburban playground, pressing their faces up against the Panda Express windows to crack up their buddies inside, commandeering a table at Islands to share a single basket of fries among seven giggly girls.

The few adults walking briskly through the crowd avert their eyes like doomed humans plopped on some alternate version of the Planet of the Apes. This is Teen Central on Friday nights; only Chandler Fashion Center comes close to matching the scene. "And I live in Chandler," notes one 17-year-old boy with an unusually generous gas allowance, "and I always come here."

Lately, the DR scene has been attracting an even younger set of middle-schoolers, who dress up like the older kids but sit around looking much less confident and comfortable between the Hot Topic and Hollister stores.

"You get all these, like, 8-year-olds now walking around with their thongs showing," Williamson grumbles to Drew Brockhoff, in a spiked Mohawk and strategically ripped jean jacket.

"Eww!" chimes in friend Maggie Baldovin, a diminutive 17-year-old girl with a completely shaved scalp. "If I left the house looking like that when I was a little kid, my mom would have slapped me so hard!"

"It's like a big high school with the different social groups," says Lauren Cain, another DR regular, who notes that as the Friday nights progress, the various circular seating areas scattered around the outdoor mall begin to resemble the school lunchroom tables, with all the usual cliques -- populars, punkers, nerds, thugs -- claiming their usual territories.

The big difference is, there are no teachers around this campus -- or parents, typically, even if mom is just a few hundred yards away killing time in the Barnes & Noble coffee shop.

Hormones rage more freely than at school or home, too. Two 16-year-old girls claim they once spied the hunky guy who works at Tower getting a certain sexual favor behind the counter from one of their 10th-grade classmates. Families strolling the grounds often have to navigate their strollers past heavy-petting make-out sessions going on around the planters in front of the Learning Express and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

Still, even the kids who have the most adventurous times here consider their world a poor substitute for the more adult action that's going on at the mall's Scorch Bar and Rock Bottom Brewery, where the only signs of life can be heard after security chases the under-21-year-olds out at 10 o'clock.

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