Big Time Mallin'

There's light pop music piped in through the ceiling speakers at Paradise Valley Mall, but Donny Lang never really hears it.

"This particular mall has no music -- or it's so quiet and the ceiling's so high that I can never hear it," says Lang, 25, a part-time musician and full-time retail clerk.

"All I ever hear is the weird sound of the mall itself. All the strange little clicks, clacks and industrial sounds, mixed in with echoed voices. It's like the soundtrack to a David Lynch movie. The background music in Eraserhead sounds kind of like what we hear every day in the mall."

Lang, who works behind the sales counter at Ritz Camera on the far east end of the sprawling, W-shaped shopping mecca, actually kind of likes the peculiar ambient music of the mall. A second-generation Brian Wilson fan who leads his own psychedelic surf-rock band and counts the Beach Boys' druggy Smiley Smile album as one of his favorites, Lang has a keen ear for odd sounds.

"I don't hear it so much inside the store," he says in a slow, sleepy drawl. "From the back of the store, behind the counter, it's just this distant, vague, reverberated noise."

Nevertheless, it gets to him. As do the lack of windows, the sky-mocking high ceilings and the general hermetically sealed-in feeling that typifies the average mall.

"I always look outside, down the end of the mall by Luby's, where I can see the doors from inside my store," he says wistfully. "And sometimes I can tell if it's overcast, and I'll think, 'What's it like outside? Is it cold? Is it going to rain?'"

More than a hundred million people pass through the Valley's biggest malls each year, according to Westcor, which now owns seven of them (including PV Mall). A lot of those visitors actually spend money: According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, Phoenix-area malls raked in an average of $27 per square foot in September alone. That's more than a million dollars a day for a mall the size of Chandler Fashion Center.

For Lang, it's a mystery why anybody comes to the mall.

"It's all these pseudo-specialty stores that really don't sell anything you can't get somewhere else," he says. "I think to some people it's kind of like a street fair, like towns had in the old days. But it's a pseudo-version of that, too."

Certainly, there's a movie-set Disneyland vibe to malls that extends way beyond the requisite Disney Store -- which, of course, is a big hidden part of the appeal. William Kowinski, in his 1985 pop culture classic The Malling of America, noted the multiple layers of psychological soothing that make the common mall such an inexplicably pleasant place -- from the combined smells in the food court to "the way it looked and felt inside, the way it glowed."

Kowinski described that glow as "the aura of something that's been perfected," much like prime-time network TV. "The mall is television's delivery system," he wrote, drawing a parallel between the perfected blandness of both worlds. "What television proposes, the mall disposes."

Like watching too much TV, though, watching too much mall can cause some serious brain drain.

"You can literally feel your IQ dropping around here," says Jason Kron, 20, a shaggy-haired kid with an impish Dana Carvey grin who's already on his third job at PV Mall.

Kron works at Gloria Jean's Coffees, just a few shops away from Luby's cafeteria, which means his area is always swarming with seniors.

"It's like an ant problem -- they just keep busting out all over the place," he says. "All day long, it's, 'Wait a minute. Don't rush me.'"

Another musician (every other clerk in the mall has a band, it seems), Kron currently attends Paradise Valley Community College. To keep from going bonkers, he likes to fantasize that the circling seniors are pirates, or that one of them will turn out to be a lonely billionaire who names the amiable smart aleck his heir for providing years of coffee service with a sardonic smile.

"What I don't get are the young people, around [my] age, that I always see walking repeatedly around," Kron adds. "You wonder what their story is. Are they lonely? Did they come here to get hit on?"

Maybe, like Lang and Kron, who've become friends because of the proximity of their stores, they just work at the mall. On workdays, even when Lang gets his 30-minute lunch break, he often feels like he's got a long bungee cord tied to his ankle that only reaches as far as the food court.

"Right now, I'm okay, 'cause I'm not working today," he says on a recent Thursday, sitting at the PV Mall food court. "But when you're working in the mall, you feel tethered to your store. Even if you're walking around on your break, you feel chained."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern