August 1997
By Nik Cohn

Not too big, not too fancy, the shopping mall in Parma, Ohio, is the center of civic life. It's the city's Main Street, a climate-controlled barometer of social stress. For decades, nothing at Parmatown mall seemed to change. Now the old order has been turned inside out.

Parmatown regulars include hipsters (Dan Wallon, 13, opposite) and homebodies.

Nancy and Peter Seelig, who spend every day at the mall together, asked to pose in their wedding duds.

The license plates in Ohio read THE HEART OF IT ALL. If that is true, then Parma, a few miles southwest of Cleveland, is close to the heart of that heart, the quintessence of middle-American suburbia. But what is the essence of Parma itself? The heart of the heart of the heart, as it were? That would be Parmatown, its mall.

"What d'you mean, 'Where's Main Street?' This is Main Street right here," an old man barks. It's just before seven on a raw and blustering spring morning, and the old man is waiting for the doors outside the food court to open. He waits here every morning, five days a week and sometimes Saturdays as well. He and his wife and perhaps 20 other early birds, all of them senior citizens, all outfitted in sneakers and tracksuits, stare avidly at the locked doors, as if staring would make them open sooner.

"This is the worst part, the waiting," the old man confides. He doesn't care to volunteer his name--the last time he told anyone who he was without a good reason, he claims, he woke up in Korea--but he betrays no shyness in other ways. "Did you remember to use the bathroom?" he asks his wife.
"You asked me five times already."
"That's because you never answered."
"A girl needs her secrets," the wife tells him coyly. Her tracksuit top is adorned with a spaniel brooch and a name tag reading FLUFF. "That's the pooch, not her," the old man explains carefully. Then the glass doors swing open, and the crowd surges forward. Jostling for position, the first wave hits the food court in stride. "Let 'em all go, what's the rush?" the old man mutters, setting his own, more grudging pace. 'We're going to get there soon enough."

A mall in early morning, when the stores are deserted, feels eerie. There's a sense of stillness that even the Muzak can't dispel. People tend to speak in undertones, oddly furtive, as if they were in church. While the mall walkers do their laps, the only sound that carries is the massed squeaking of rubber soles.

The Parmatown Walkers Club numbers about 700. Most of them favor a stiff-legged, bustling gait and keep their eyes set dead ahead, for this is serious business. With every 500 miles they rack up, they receive a certificate of achievement.

Their daily quotas filled, many linger around the food court for coffee and conversation. One, a weathered man named Anthony Putrino, sports a grizzled beard and long white hair beneath a woolen cap, and his fingers are clustered with rings. "I'm a member of the Parma Lapidary Club," he explains. "This here is a Mexican nickel ring, this is a turquoise, and these ones are polished peach pits. Well, they keep me out of mischief. Of course, I've had six heart bypasses, so there's not a lot of mischief that I can afford these days."

Putrino has walked in other malls, but this is his favorite. "It's the friendliest, the most relaxed, it doesn't give you an attitude," he says, and his fellow walkers seem to agree. At about 1.3 million square feet, with 175 stores, Parmatown is sizable, yet it doesn't intimidate. Other malls may be newer and flashier, like SouthPark Centre in nearby Strongsville, or more dramatic, like Tower City in downtown Cleveland, but there's a comforting familiarity here, a certain sense of community. "It's not too much of anything. Not too big and not too small, not too fancy and not too crummy. Just average," one woman says. "Kind of old-fashioned in a way, but I like that. Old-fashioned is good."

Al Marusak, gossiping with three friends, echoes the theme. "People around here, they're not too big on change. They're working people, nobody gave them nothing, and that's the way they like it. It's what they understand."

Marusak and his friends--Joe Mysliwiec, Melvin Neel, Benny F. Bonanno-used to work together for the city, laboring on the roads: "All weathers and all conditions, we did the job we got paid for. Played the Polish banjo every winter, the old snow shovel. The mayor in those days, John Petruska, we used to call him Uncle John. He was mayor for 20 years, and the way he operated, he'd drive around town all day, checking anything that moved. He knew if a bird fell off its tree."

It was only in the '80s that Parma began to evolve. "New people started coming in, a different element. Now they've got public housing up on Chevy Boulevard." Marusak observes these shifts without obvious rancor. "The only thing I regret, you can't leave the keys in your car anymore," he says.

Parma is a city of 88,000, eighth largest in Ohio, and the vast majority are blue-collar Caucasians. They first moved out from Cleveland in the postwar boom years and then again in the '60s, when Parma became a bolt-hole for white flight. Its population was largely ethnic--Italian, Irish, German and, above all, Slavic and it flourished. The men found jobs at the GM plant, the women at Community General Hospital. They were a hardworking, God-fearing breed who lived in tract houses and bred large families, fiercely proud of themselves, their country and their town. "Parma in the '50s and '60s was a classic American crossroads, but with an Eastern European flavor," says Mark Stueve, a Cleveland bookseller who worked at Parmatown during those years. "It was 'Little Boxes,' the old Pete Seeger song, come to life."

For Disney World's 25th birthday, mall rats Mickey and Minnie worked the crowd in grueling half-hour shifts, kissing (and sometimes scaring) babies.

Ernie Szollosi (left) and Mike Pillar had to be dragged into a dance troupe by their wives, but they've learned : When you misstep, says Mike, "tell everybody else they've got it wrong".

Parmatown itself began in 1955 as a strip shopping center, then quickly expanded. "The parking lot looked out on open fields," says Stueve. "Meadows and woods, that's all there was--pure American pastoral."

Slow-moving and parochial, the city made an easy target for satire. Over the decades it has become, in Cleveland pop mythology, a synonym for doltishness. Local comedians from Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson to Drew Carey have used it as a running gag, skewering its fondness for pierogies, bowling alleys and pink flamingos on the lawn. But Parma, it seems, chooses not to take offense. "So they call us stupids, so what?" one of the mall walkers says. "There are worse things to be called."
Racists, for example.

Parma did not become an all-white enclave by accident. In the 1950s, when it was among the fastest-growing cities in the nation, tripling its population within 10 years, there was de facto segregation. In 1973 the justice Department sued the city over this, and seven years later a U.S. district court judge ordered it to clean house. But it was only last November that the city fully complied by setting up a fair-housing program with $1 million for renovation loans and mortgage incentives and, for the first time, giving preference to blacks.

Until the early '90s, according to a longtime employee at Dillard's in the mall, security was often notified whenever an African American entered the store. The interloper was then kept under close surveillance, his every move monitored. These days, though, the attention is less overt. Most black shoppers mingle without fuss, as do Asians and Hispanics. It's only if they're teenagers and they come in a crowd that alarm bells go off.

The mall is understandably keen to downplay tensions, in particular the impact of an incident that happened last year, when Mary Jo Pesho, 46, a mother of three, a church volunteer and nurse at the local hospital, was abducted from the mall's parking lot. Her partly naked body was found in Cleveland the following day, dead from a gunshot wound. No one has yet been arrested, and there are seemingly no leads in the case.

In many ways, the murder was a watershed. For a while, evening business in the mall fell off, and the old certainties have still not fully returned. 'Why did people come to Parma in the first place? Stability," says Dwayne White, a local businessman. "Steady work, their own homes, people of their own kind. And safety, number one. Feeling safe was everything." Now this sense of security has been, quite literally, shot away.

Nevertheless, Parma is diversifying. Dillard's employs black salesmen, and there is a black officer on the Parma police force. There is also a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple and a Philippine cultural center.

Within Parmatown, which used to be exclusively a family mall, there's now a Victoria's Secret, a Frederick's of Hollywood and Hot Topic, a quasipunk emporium that advertises guides to Basic Body Piercing. The three anchor stores--Kaufmann's, Dullard's and JC Penney--are still resolutely bland, but Saturday Matinee, a video store, offers racks full of Japanese animation and blaxploitation flicks; Camelot Music sells CDs by the Queers; while Spencer Gifts peddles Fart Machines, Fanny Floss and They've Fallen And They Can't Get Up bras. "You know what I don't understand?" asks Dwayne White, gazing at this altered world. "Everything...”

On this morning, however, nothing much seems new. Even when the mall walkers have polished off their last Dunkin' Donuts and Cinnabons, and dispersed, the prevailing mood is sleepy and slow. The wind may be whipping and howling outdoors, but in Parmatown there's barely a breath of life.

Architecturally, the mall makes no sense. From its origins as a shopping strip, it has grown up haphazardly, expanding and remodeling as it went along, so that now it seems to have no overall shape. Nor does it have much sense of style. The recent trend in mall design is toward Las Vegas fantasias, but this is Parma, no place for folderol. There are no indoor amusement parks or nightclubs as in Bloomington, Minnesota's Mall of America, no art deco extravaganzas as in San Diego's Horton Plaza. "Looking for the cutting edge? Look someplace else," says Ed Cole, a vice president of RMS, the company that co-owns Parmatown. "What they do here, they sell stuff."

The Parma Entertainers are no run-of-the-mall songsters. "Our 300-pound tenor dances the Sugar Plum Fairy in a large tutu," notes director Carol Lange (right).

Business starts off slowly. Stores open at 10, but there is no scramble to buy. A few hard-core shopaholics cruise the walkways; security guards lounge in the food court; mall executives make their rounds. "Good deal, good deal," Joe Carrino, Parmatown's general manager, keeps saying. He is a dapper man with a flashy pompadour, who has worked in the mall since leaving school, and as he tours his territory--a nod here, a frown there, a brisk wave over yonder-he seems like a commander inspecting his troops, pumping up morale. "You have to keep on it," he says. "The mall never sleeps."

To Carrino, Parmatown and its city are indivisible. "Main Street? That's true enough, yes, but it's a community center as well. The activities we help sponsor, the festivals we help put on, they're as much a part of what we do here as the merchandise."
What activities? The Parmatown Walkers Club, of course, and then there are the Kool Kats and the City Stompers, a senior citizen dancing group, and health talks (this week: nutrition) and martial arts demonstrations and home shows and March of Dimes recruitment drives, not to mention a scheduled Drew Carey lookalike contest. "Believe me, it's a riot at times," Carrino says with a small sigh, and he's off on his rounds again.

His unceasing busyness makes the lull he leaves in his wake seem even flatter. Outside the Disney Store, a housekeeper, uniformed in a green jacket and black bow tie, trundles a cart full of cleaning supplies and can't mask a yawn. "It's the air in here, it doesn't move," she says. Not that she's complaining. "My work is my life," she asserts.

Her name is Teresa Papanek, and she's beautiful. Elaborately made up, even though she's been here since before dawn, she has a face of extraordinary mobility; every flicker of thought and feeling registers. 'Well, I like to try and look my best. I might be old in years, but that doesn't mean I have no pride, " she says. She has been working at Parmatown for 13 years; before that, she lived in Pennsylvania. "But I never married, no, I didn't have a sweetheart. I was too particular, I was always too busy working. Well, I didn't think I was good enough."

That perfectionism shows in her cleaning and in her habit of walking to work each day, regardless of weather. 'Well, what would happen if the bus broke down?" she demands. "I'm a Virgo, we're all that way, we can't help it. If we touch a thing, it has to be correctly." That's why she gets distressed when faced with sloppiness and loutishness. "If people get in my way or they spoil my work, I just give them a look. Actions speak louder than words, they say, but do you want to know the truth? They don't really see me. As a rule, people don't. Nobody sees."

Precariously coiffed beauty students Nashalaine Jones (left) and Loretta Moore live in Cleveland but come to Parmatown to shop.

Noon brings an influx of energy. The food court fills, the dead air stirs with chatter. Within minutes, almost every chair is taken. "You want to meet somebody in Parma, this is the spot," says a large man in an orange jumpsuit, eating fish and chips. "You get business people, the salespeople, the people from city hall, the married ladies, the secretaries. And the cuisine ranges equally widely. "You've got Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Italian, American, just take your pick." By this he means Dragon City and Flaming Gyros, Taco Bell, Antonio's Pizza and Burger King. 'We have it all right here," the man proclaims.

At the other end of the mall, the Kool Kats and the City Stompers are giving a dance demonstration. The Kats are eight spry ladies, perkily attired in black slacks and white blouses with kelly green shawls, while the Stompers feature men in matador hats. Many of the performers are in their seventies, but they work their routines with spirit: mambos and two-steps and polkas, line dances, the Charleston. Clusters of balloons hover over the stage, swaying with the pounding of feet. "Let's be bad and burst them all," suggests a mischievous Stomper. "They'll blame the teenagers anyhow."

Teenage suspects are hard to find, however; sales staff aside, there isn't a young face to be seen. Unaccompanied kids are banned during school hours, and when a single pair of lovers appear, they seem out of place, like film extras who've wandered onto the wrong set.

His name is Matt Vella, hers is Sarah Oliveri. He sports a ring through his lower lip, she has a ring and stud in her nose; both are fashion plates. Holding hands on a bench, they slouch in poses of stylized cool.

What do they think of Parma? "Dead," says Sarah. She has aqua nails, mauve lips, and her cropped hair is dyed an orange-yellow. Tight black pants are set off by a studded belt; her T-shirt is also black. "That's my mood," she explains, her face a picture of bleakness. 'When other people smile, I cry."

What is she doing in Parmatown? She works in Gadzooks, an alternateen boutique. And how did she get here? "I grew up in California, then my mother was put in jail for grand theft. She needed money for cocaine, but everything went wrong. So I went to live with my father in New York State. Me and my two sisters and my brother, but we hated it there. We hated my father: He raped my oldest sister and got her pregnant. Then my mother got out of jail and came for us. She threw us in a van and started driving back to California, only she stopped for one night in Cleveland to see some relatives. Then she went to a bar and met this man, and the man became her boyfriend, so she stayed here, and so did I. That was two years ago. I'm 16 now, but I don't live with my mother anymore. I can't stand her boyfriend. My father? He's in jail himself now. For what he did to my sister, he can rot in hell. I'm living with some friends, they're cool, but I'm closest to my brother. I really love him, he'd never hurt me. My brother's the only one I can trust."

She tells this story matter-of-factly. "Shit happens," Sarah says. "I can't see myself as a victim."

Donna Goodwin (left) and Teresa Papanek, a 13-year Parmatown veteran, face cleaning up after hundreds of Mouseketeers, karate experts and shopaholics.

After days of hard labor, Vanessa Wakut (right) bags the perfect outfit: green mini, green midriff, green heels. "She's 16," sighs mother Brenda Lovell.

"Look at me, I'm beautiful!" the riot girl screams. "I'm the bomb, look at me, look at me!" The slow afternoon is sliding into evening; outside the doors to the food court, a group of teenagers have gathered and are straining to get attention. White and black, boys and girls, they shriek at one another, swap insults and air punches. "I'm the baddest," one boy claims. "No, I am," squeals another. A litter of month-old puppies would be more threatening, but their clamor achieves the desired effect. Passing grown-ups stare. "You should be home,"one man shouts. "You should be dead”, the riot girl shouts back.

The adults seem deeply upset. Even this play-school level of taunting is enough to stir real anger and, behind the anger, fear. One bystander comments loudly: "You know what I think when I see these kids? What happened to my world?”

The kids in question are ecstatic to hear this, but they are quickly rousted by security. Stung by experience, Parmatown adheres to a strict code of conduct: Juvenile groups of four (4) or more will be dispersed; Loud and boisterous behavior will not be permitted; even Seating benches are to be used for shopping breaks not to exceed 15 minutes.

Is this pettiness or necessary caution? Views differ according to age and taste in body piercing, but in the aftermath of Mary Jo Pesho's murder there is no room for compromise. "We're taking the mall back, no matter what," says Joe Carrino.

The level of policing has roughly doubled since the killing, and there are now 52 officers on the payroll. A few years before the abduction, however, local police had walked out in a wage dispute, leaving mostly officers from other precincts with limited arrest powers. Mall management denies that security was inadequate. But others disagree, and Parmatown is now being sued by Mary Jo Pesho's family.

Whatever the rights and wrongs in that case, the law's presence is now formidable, even on this quiet weekday night. Chevy Blazers patrol the parking lot; uniforms are everywhere.

The hard line appears to be working. Once the group outside the food court has been sent packing, the remainder of the evening passes calmly. Families sprawl beneath the sheltering palms near Corn Dogs and More; adolescent lovers giggle and kiss at Dairy Queen; and up and down the concourses, shoppers move with that narcoleptic shuttle peculiar to malls.

The long day ends at nine. Stores shut their doors, the last customers head for the parking lot. Observing the diaspora, one of the security guards yawns. "A nothing night," he says. "Just the way I like them."

Saturday is another story. Well before lunch, a densely packed army of parents and their children pack the mall, waiting in line to meet Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Winnie the Pooh.

An even bigger jamboree had been planned, part of a nationwide tour celebrating 25 years of Disney World. But rain has washed away the outdoor extravaganza. There will be no Mary Poppins, no Quasimodo or Cruella DeVil. Yet the crowd does not seem deflated. Though they must wait for hours, cramped, hungry and overheated, to gain a few moments' audience with their rodent or carnivore of choice, their mood seems exultant. "These are the biggest stars that ever came to Parma," one proud father explains.

Most of the kids seem less enthralled, but they are not really the point. The true object of the exercise is for the parents to take photographs. For one instant, as their children pose with the cartoon characters and the cameras flash, the whole family is touched by reflected celebrity.

One small girl has come costumed as Minnie Mouse. As she is led forward to meet the original, she mimics Minnie's every move, waving and curtsying with perfect timing, her eyes never leaving her mother's camera. When her picture is also taken by LIFE, the girl doesn't miss a beat. "This is a dream come true," she intones.

Even after the Disney characters have packed up and left, the mood remains festive. As evening comes on, and a storm batters the walls outside, the mall seems like sanctuary.

Outside Hot Topic, 13-year-old Dan Wallon appears with a gang of girls. He wears black eye makeup, black lipstick and full polysexual drag-military boots and ripped jeans, a bondage bracelet, a coffin necklace, a Misfits T-shirt, sparkle jewelry, and thigh hose worn as elbow-length fishnet gloves. "It isn't easy being me," he confesses.

Upstairs in Dillard's, at the Tommy Hilfiger display, which often attracts young blacks, there is no sign of rampage, just a couple of browsers. i wouldn't call myself an activist, says one. "I'm a dentist, actually."

On a bench in center court, an old man watches youths passing by, eye-balling their baggy shorts and signifying struts. "Let me tell you," he says, "I wish I still had what they have."

A man in a GOD LOVES YOU T-shirt, staring at the display in Frederick's of Hollywood, says: "Behold the road to damnation."

And then there's Mike Kamel from Lebanon, who works at Flaming Gyros. Off-duty tonight, he joins the crush outside Wilson's leather shop, where two models are posed in the window, pretending to be mannequins. Mike does everything he can think of to disrupt them, pulling faces, jumping up and down, screeching like a hyena, but they never twitch, and in the end he gives up. The passing crowds pick him up; he's borne along on the tide. "Crazy, crazy people," says Mike. "This is America, right?"

If Shaun Filley (left) and Mike Lemieux ever run a mall, there will be no mainstream stores, just record shops "that don't do major labels." The arcades can stay.