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Fool Court Press

Shopping mall food courts have morphed into multicultural town halls for bored-again Californians

By Christina Waters

ONCE UPON A TIME there were free-standing, individual stores where people went to buy stuff they needed and wanted. These stores were owned by human beings who usually also worked in those stores.

Stores were located along main streets of towns and cities, interspersed here and there with diners, coffee shops and restaurants. After a hard morning of shopping, one store at a time, customers would stop at their favorite lunch counter for a burger and a Coke. Then, if their checking accounts allowed (credit cards didn't yet exist in this dewy land), they'd do it all over again.

But that was long ago in an America that feels far, far away compared to the Web-driven, instant-access, I want it all and I want it now reality of the Year of the Apocalypse, 2002. Cities now have become armed camps, homes lack one or more parent and attempting to navigate a sidewalk amounts to an act of personal courage.

Hence individual stores have formed a critical mass designed to induce common sense melt-down and provide the illusion of consumer safety. Bunched together into multistory labyrinths, these shopping gulags are strategically equipped with furniture and restrooms, and are snugly enclosed in a weather-proof containment field. Pandering to emotional needs long since abdicated by church, school and home, today's shopping mall is not only a shrine to glitzy greed, it is a destination unto itself.

Everything necessary to support life--except perhaps a discreet place for a quick sexual encounter (and no doubt that is already in the works)--is now available at the shopping mall. Today's mall is well-lit and equipped with security guards. It offers shelter from cold, wind, fire and flood, and a public place where (at least before 9/11) you could count on being safe from sudden attacks. And in the case of the teenagers who lack cooking technology, the mall offers a veritable Disneyland of food possibilities. Which brings me to the real subject of this quasi rant: the food court.

Belly Up to the Bar

If you are over 25, you are familiar with the smorgasbord. Essentially the concept involves spreading a huge table with almost anything theoretically edible--shrimp, fruit, muffins, pies, jello salads, roast beef, salami, lasagna, cheesecake, brownies, ham. You take my meaning. These huge spreads of food were available to gluttons willing to pay a fixed price, in exchange for which they were allowed to pile plate after plate high with as much of these rich and varied foods as they could eat.

Well, dig it--the shopping mall has gone one better on the old smorgy pig-out: the food court. Instead of a single table dotted with dishes, the food court is a giant space--part cafeteria, part day-care center, part detention hall--embraced by glowing neon food stations.

Every ethnicity is represented in today's trendy food court--think Ellis Island with fast food catering -- from Mongolian to Mexican, Japanese to German, with carbohydrates in every form commanding the lion's share of the action. Carbohydrates, hell. Dough. Dough twisted into pretzels, dough as in sourdough, dough inflated by yeast and drowned in frosting, dough studded with chocolate chips, dough wrapped around teriyaki-glazed unidentifiable nitrates, dough encrusting bits of generic seafood, dough twisted into knots and deep fried. Then fried again.

Essentially the law of the food court, done California-style, is that there must be maximum variety and ethnic diversity--this is a politically correct approach to mass feeding in which each may choose according to her whims. There's a certain go-to-hell recklessness that takes over even the most Presbyterian shopper when confronted with this staggering landscape of possibilities. Hmmm--a baguette with brie and a 36-ounce smoothie? Or a stir-fry of beef, tofu and garlic chile oil? Do I want an industrial-sized cinnamon roll to chase that quarter-pounder with fries? Or should I simply dial 911 right off the bat and save myself the cost of that hefty boy pizza with pepperoni?

Where's the Beef?

To be fair, there is a lot to like at the better food courts. Freshly baked pizzas with recognizable toppings, sparkling sushi made to order, better-than-decent salsa for that shrimp quesadilla grilled while you watch--this isn't bad. So what's your beef, Christina?

Take a deep breath and step back. Stop thinking with your blood sugar for a minute and just observe. What we have here is a giant, artificially lit room, screaming with neon and ringed by grill stations, surrounding a fleet of tables and chairs. Row after row of identical tables and chairs. Notice the resemblance to stockyards? To state penitentiaries?

Families, seniors, coveys of clerical workers, young felons-in-training, lovers, drop-outs, giggling preteens and, most of all, huge groups of the young and the restless making eyes at each other over their cell phones: we're looking at a giant holding pen for human cattle who haven't a clue as to their next move. Everyone's vamping for time on this Platinum Mastercard ship of fools. Something is horribly wrong here.

Oh, I don't have a problem with the idea of being able to choose from lots of different flavor and seasoning possibilities. Sounds like fun. Only no one is really choosing, and no one is really tasting. The sense of post-MTV desperation, of going nowhere en masse, is disturbing. Life being played out in group consciousness--we are Borg trapped on a multicultural desert island and we require mass diversion. We sit next to strangers as in a prison refectory and eat food from so many corners of the world that all the ingredients have merged into a gigantic gastronomic goo. The generic night is being held off by the illusion of such variety, such abundant choices, but it is only an all-you-can-eat fantasy.

Metaphysical baby-sitting, food court- style, involves pacifying retirees and occupying entire middle school soccer teams. No one is shopping in the shopping mall. They are simply taking up space and filling up time. Listlessly they chew something cooked by strangers in nobody's kitchen. In the land of the food court the light's on, but nobody's home.

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From the November 20-27, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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