The vaguely educational, brightly lit toy store at the mall is gone and in its place is now a dark cave of weird. You know the kind of store I’m talking about: joke shot glasses, fake vomit, ass jokes, refrigerator magnets with ass jokes, and so forth, but also real weird stuff, for a community of people who shop here regularly.
We are out, touring the malls, for the older daughter to spend her birthday money. We have bought beaded Betsy Johnson sandals with a gold foot bed. It was a moment of shoe love. And now we are upstairs, where things are a little younger and cheaper.
When we walk by it the first time, I whisk them past with a nonchalant, “Not today,” and we go across the way to the luggage and bag store, but when we come out we see the classmate of the younger daughter’s and his family. This is a small enough town that you are forever running into people you know you know from somewhere else, but can’t place them. A woman in a medical uniform at the sandwich place. The woman with striking hair who turns up at events.
We are chatting with the family outside of the fake vomit shop. The older daughter is finally just unable to resist and implores me to go in. If it were Claire’s I would have let her go in alone. But it is not Claire’s.
The dad says, “They have some pretty … inappropriate stuff in there.”
“I know,” sigh, “I’ll be right back.”
She is off. I am beside her, kind of blocking her line of sight, saying no to the horns that you plunge into your ear to stretch them out, or the big grommets, a trend I don’t understand at all, because even as just objects they creep me out. The negative space of an earlobe where an earlobe is supposed to be is like that optical illusion where you hold a paper towel roll to one eye and place your hand alongside the cardboard tube and it looks like there’s a hole in your hand. I just think it’s a horrible thing to do.
But I’m undecided about this craze for tattoos. I went around Chicago this summer going what’s up with all the tattooed women? Like tattooed women in their 30s in Anthropolgie dresses and retro eyewear. I scrutinized them on the L and at the Pitchfork Music Festival and at the airport. Admiring some and clucking over others, like the young woman with “Love is my religion” emblazoned across her chest and other designs slapped like decals onto her thighs, all I could think was bad, bad decisions. For others, with black stencils rising out of the back of a shirt, or arms like colored sleeves, I gave points for decisiveness and artistry, for a tattoo that seemed to suit their affect. Shoulder poetry and any kinds of personal manifestos seem stupid. Get a rock with a word of inspiration on it. You can keep it in a bowl on your desk. When you get tired of it, bury it in the garden or throw it hard at a pigeon
The other customers in the cave are a family: a very short mom in a strapless dress that had flesh-colored panels at the side, maybe an ankle tattoo, and a little girl of about three, also in a dress, and husband in a big T-shirt and a cap, who was daring her about various bits of piercing jewelry. “If I ever do get my ears gauged,” she says, “I’m not gonna go bigger than a one.”
The older daughter is admiring the glass balls that adorn the bars you put through a pierced belly button. She wants to get a price and she is asking the guy at the counter. I am feeling all sorts of those conflicting split-judgementy mom thoughts: We shouldn’t be in here, it’s her birthday money, who am I to judge, okay just pick something not dangerous or semi-legal and let’s move on. Meanwhile, the other mom sees my deliberation and says “If she’s getting her belly button pierced…”
“Oh, no,” I say, like the uptight suburban mom that I have become, one eye on the daughter, “she’s not getting her belly button pierced.”
And if you’ve not gone shopping with the older daughter, the thing with her is that you have to be on your toes. So part of me is wishing I could find out the advice about navel piercing, or maybe it’s a recommendation for sensory-friendly piercing, because I bet that exists, and the other is wanting to wrap this up so that we can get out of there.
The next person I recognize that day is the guy who is working at the counter, either because the last time we entered a store like this, but in a different location in this mall, a couple of years ago, he worked there and I had the same feelings of surprise about the tweezed, arched eyebrows and the permed, side-parted hair, but also the three-day beard growth. Maybe he’s not a drag queen, but the bassist in a glam-rock band. Ann Taylor wouldn’t hire him and the big cookie place downstairs said they’d call, but they never did, and he went through the mall filling out applications and here’s where he ended up. And maybe this is not the old place moved but a new place and he was like, yeah, I know the inventory/the customers/the difference between a gag joke and act of bravery.
Everyone, he would point out, is a freak of one kind or another.
The first time we might have met him, the younger daughter had wanted to buy a Dwight Schrute bobble-head doll for her father for Christmas, and they didn’t have those, but the store people thought it was an excellent idea for a product. As with the man in the cape, I want to shake him down and ask questions about being (maybe) a cross-dresser who lives in Alabama and works at the mall and about the mainstreaming of piercings and ear-stretching practices and how come zombies resonate with people these days? And how are these things connected? He must have some theories by now.
Or maybe I saw him some place else.
Behind us, at the way back of the store, I notice a wall of inflatable penises. We need to get out of here before these are spotted and remarked upon. Loudly. And we do. We get a little packet of glass balls that are navel jewelry, which will become objects in the great universe of small objects that the older daughter collects, irregardless of their purpose.
Thanks for the miniature glass treasures. The beautiful man said I could keep them forever.
On Sunday, I remind my family that I am going to TEDx.
“Yes, I’m taking the dog. We are going to complain about the trucks.”
The tattooed ladies of our town are at TEDx. Smartphones, retro eyewear, tattoos: it’s like the triad of girl hipsterism. They don’t have quite the same, tattoo-baring necklines and bravado of their Chicago sisters, but there are the sleeveless dresses with the full-arm jobs, the tsunami foaming at the wrists. They say that they will always be happy to live in their 24-year-old skins, in the way that we lay down our irrevocable digital footprints, writing a mantra on one’s sternum rather than ruining your walls with pushpins and adhesive-backed cork tiles. At 13, I flipped through the racks of posters at the Postermat on Eighth Street, their aluminum frames chattering with sex jokes, drug jokes, cute animals, rock and roll greats. That’s awesome. I’m going to wear that forever. I will never outgrow myself.
TEDx is a celebration of weird and wonderful rather than a cave of weird. Electric car, drumming circle, model rocket, letterpress. One of the speakers is a sword swallower and at the end of a talk about overcoming fears and setting goals he swallows a sword. The idea is also that the sword is your fear and your story, the edge of it glinting as it disappears in the telling.
Picture by Diane Arbus, found via Bookman’s Log.