Life among the mall rats
At South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California, Chanel meets Sears meets Escada meets Casual Corner, and 50,000 people come every day to enjoy the clash of consumer culture. Charles Gandee goes shopping.
July 1993
Editor: Phyllis Posnick
Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark

Boyz N the Hood, OPPOSITE: Hip‑hop hotshots Ryan Chaffin (left) and Jason Grams are among the more flamboyant fixtures at South Coast Plaza, the third‑largest "retail shopping complex" in the United States, where they hang out every day after school, smoking cigarettes, trying to pick up girls, and in general making their colorful sixteen‑year‑old presences known.

Every morning now brought its regular duties; ‑shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the Pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at every body and speaking to no one.

In her posthumously published 1818 novel Northanger Abbey, gimlet‑eyed Jane Austen follows seventeen‑year‑old Catherine Morland as she makes her way through the minefield of manners and mores that riddled Bath, England, a resort, of sorts, on the River Avon, where polite society flocked throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, ostensibly to take the curative mineral waters, in reality to see and be seen, to flaunt their clothes and good breeding, to advance their social standing ‑and, with any luck, to meet their marital matches.

As a fashionable mecca for the genteel, the socially ambitious, and assorted hangers‑on, Bath functioned as an insular and protected world unto itself, a minisociety that reflected the larger society, an edited microcosm of unruly London. It was that rare bird of a place that somehow managed to be simultaneously authentic and artificial, and in its heyday, according to one historian, "the generals, the statesmen, the writers, the aristocracy, the squires, the artists, the bourgeoisie, the professions, the trades, the parasites, and the criminals ‑all came when they could to this lovely town, which, with dignified tact, set all in their proper element and was their chosen setting."

Bath was policed, and its standards set, by one Richard "Beau" Nash, a classic English dandy, who fancied himself (and functioned as) the city's social director and chief of protocol, a position for which he was well qualified, possessing, as it was said he did, "the happy secret of uniting the vulgar and the great." Bath's Nash‑written code of proper conduct and etiquette included such items as "That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at the ball, as being past, or not yet come to perfection." ' Ironic that in the Age of Reason such things passed for reasonable. But they did.

I was reminded of Nash and Bath and Austen and Northanger Ab­bey and Catherine Morland not long ago when I spent three days in another simultaneously authentic and artificial microcosm, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California. Like Bath, South Coast Plaza functions as an insular and protected world unto itself, a minisociety that reflects the larger society, an edited microcosm of unruly and ungainly Los Angeles, 45 miles north on the San Diego Freeway.

Sprawled across 96 acres of Pacific‑hugging Orange County, the country's third‑largest shopping mall boasts 14,500 parking spaces (5,200 of them covered), 2.75 million square feet of climate‑controlled space, eight "anchor" department stores, 255 "specialty" shops, 35 restaurants (including the West Coast satellite of Planet Hollywood), three cinemas (one specializing in film noir) with ten screens, one ecologically correct recirculating fountain lined with pennies and the occasional nickel, and one ye olde‑fashioned carousel, where more mothers than fathers stand in line to buy their children 75‑cent tickets to ride from a young girl dressed in pink Bermudas, white knee socks, a white shirt with a pink pretied bow tie, and a slightly soiled pink apron.

For the past 25 years, the burden of upholding certain standards of image and behavior at South Coast Plaza has been shouldered by one Werner Escher, an ebullient man whose official title is director of domestic and international markets. He is, you may have deduced, South Coast Plaza's answer to Richard "Beau" Nash. For instance: "If you're doing a story about 'malls,’ sniffed Escher‑sartorially resplendent in a striped suit, a striped shirt, and a striped 'tie –“I don't want any part of it. South Coast Plaza is not a 'mall.' It's a 'retail shopping complex.'” Escher is adamant about maintaining the semantic distinction ‑with ever‑growing irritation he corrected me each time I slipped and used the offending word‑ because to him, as well as to others, malls have a dubious, down‑market reputation. The mall is where Al (Peg's loser husband in Fox's Married ... with Children) works selling shoes; the mall is where Roseanne takes Becky shopping for a $79.95 party dress the family can't afford; the mall is where Bette Midler and Woody Allen air their dirty domestic laundry in Paul Mazursky's 1991 Scenes from a Mall. CHARIVARI: NEVER COMING TO A MALL NEAR YOU, read the T‑shirts and billboards of the 1991 ad campaign for the cutting‑edge Manhattan clothier. ("We are not mallish," explained Jon Weiser, one of Charivari's owners, who then likened the "cookie cutter" stores that are 'mallish' to the 'Stepford wives.") In other words, mall bashing, our elite‑crazed culture tells us, is acceptable‑although as with all bashing, mall bashing has a tendency to say appreciably more about the basher than the bashed.

No matter.

Last year an estimated eighteen million people paraded through South Coast Plaza's lite-music‑filled corridors, which are currently patrolled by a uniformed security force of 75, which is 25 more than a year ago ‑which is to say before the verdict in the first Rodney King trial. On average, these eighteen million people spend approximately $2 million a day, which means, since the mall is closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, an annual cash and credit‑card inflow of some $724 million.

Among the many feathers in South Coast Plaza's cap is the designation officially bestowed upon it by the California Board of Tourism. Along with Disneyland, Yosemite National Park, and the San Diego Zoo, South Coast Plaza is one of the state of California's 20 official "fun spots." This is an oft‑repeated point of pride to public‑relations‑minded Werner Escher, who said, over cappuccino at Caffé Pasquini (where a sign reads, FOR MUSIC PUCCINI, FOR ART BERNINI, FOR ESPRESSO PASQUINI), that he hoped I would make a note of the "fun spot" point, as well as explain what it effectively means‑that South Coast Plaza is a "travel destination." Done.

Certainly it is a travel destination for sixteen‑year‑old Jason Grams, who has headed to the mall each day, every day, for what now approaches two years, "to smoke cigarettes, to talk to my friends who work here, and to pick up girls,” who tend to giggle and blush and, every now and then, after a bit of smooth talking, scribble down their telephone numbers so Jason can call them later to make a date to "rave,” a form of dancing ‑done to “techno, hip‑hop, house" music‑ that doesn't actually require a partner. A high‑profile regular ‑a "mall rat” ‑conspicuous not only by his perpetual presence but by his appearance, Jason is devoted to South Coast Plaza. And understandably so. It is the stage on which he performs the time‑honored ritual of showing off. A part for which he dresses with no less impeccable care than, say, Anne Bass, Georgette Mosbacher, Blame Trump, or, for that matter, Jane Austen's fictive Catherine Morland, for whom he effectively serves as a kind of hip‑hop soul mate.

Jamie Kolak poses inside Everything but Water.

218V-071-007 Jerry W. Burch and Lisa Hicks enjoy a shopping break.

Bat boy Jake McIntyre shows off his cape with flight attendant Judy Hicks.

Lindsay Turner steps out for a stroll with her father, Joe.

Window‑shoppers Tina Aibritton (left) and Connie Hutchinson.

Double‑daters Eric M. Engquist and Crystal Wyrick (left) with Claudia Silva and Joshua Spitz.

At Charles Jourdan, Nabil Hodali gives advice to Maria Leggio (left), Theresa Turner (standing), and Rome Sano.

Janine Harris (left) and Vanessa Estes take a seat.

Russian émigré Victoria Kraine stands in front of her favorite store.

Despite the long hours Jason logs at the mall, however, he doesn't do all that much shopping. Because in his estimation South Coast's stores are "overpriced," and because "the mall has a lot of stuff that everybody else wears because everybody goes to the mall. " For Jason, personal style is a priority. It's important, very important, to be "different," "unique. " He realizes his goal by wearing gargantuan clothes‑parka‑size shirts, which he layers, and big‑doesn't‑begin‑to‑describe‑them jeans that hang precariously from his hips. In accordance with the prevailing style of the rappers on MTV, Jason arranges his jeans so that a good four inches of his underwear are displayed when he raises his arms, which he frequently does to tend to his hair. Between his legs, tethered to the excess yardage of the cinched‑tight canvas army belt, dangles a baseball cap‑like some sort of provocative Freudian pendulum ‑which he seldom wears because it would hide his hair, a particular source of pride. "I do my own hair," says Jason, noting that it took him 35 minutes to achieve the color with a product called Manic Panic Fire (which gives a remarkable hue, somewhere between Kool-Aid magenta and Lucy orange) and three and a half hours to weave the tiny Bo Derek‑style braids fixed with multicolored mini rubber bands he bought at Hoffman Beauty International. Reaction at home? "My mom's a psychologist‑she doesn't try to squelch my individuality. She likes me to do whatever makes me happy." And what makes Jason happy is “kickin” at the mall, usually in the company of his "down" buddy and fellow "homey" (short for homeboy), sixteen‑year‑old Ryan Chaffin, who save for the bordering‑on‑conventional brown hair hiding under a knit hat with a decal of a marijuana leaf on the front‑"I strongly believe that marijuana should be legalized"‑is stylistically indistinguishable from Jason. Relative to Jason, however, Ryan is a low‑key kind of guy who modestly confesses, for example, that he personally tends to do better with "tribal chicks" than with "surfer women." And who admits that when he grows up he has a second career choice already lined up, a contingency plan: "If I can't be a fireman, I'll be a writer."

The impeccably tailored trio, of Gary Morrill (left), Matt Blanchard, and Bryan D. Elliott strike the Polo pose at Ralph Lauren.

What modest contributions Jason makes to the coffers of South Coast Plaza are usually at the various purveyors of fast food deployed throughout the mall: “I usually eat at Del Taco because the owner of Carl's Jr. is anti‑abortion, and I feel real strongly about my political beliefs, so I don't eat at Carl's Jr. ‑unless I can get it for free.” Although Jason has been known to patronize the video arcade at Sears, he describes it as "kind of a bummer” because “I usually spend too much money in the arcade.” He makes his money in the summer, selling hamburgers, hot dogs, and nachos at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa: "It's pretty disgusting, but I make a lot of tips."

I ask if the main purpose of his extraordinary hair and clothes is to draw attention to himself, and Jason allows that it is: "I'm sort of a ham, I guess. On Sat­urdays and Sundays there's mega‑people here, the mall is totally crowded. There's all kind of chicks, everybody's looking at me.” Having said that, however, Jason hastens to add that he does not attribute his much‑vaunted success with the girls to his flair for fashion. "My face helps me pick up girls," he says cockily, attributing what he regards as his exotic good looks to his mixed blood: "I'm half black, a quarter German, one‑eighth Polish, one‑eighth Irish.... My dad's black, my mom's white. " Perhaps concerned that I might think he was all style and no substance, Jason then adds that he is "highly intelligent," that he skipped the third grade, that he scored "670 math, 650 verbal” on his SATs (which places him in the eighty‑fourth and ninety‑seventh percentiles, respectively), and that this school year he attended both Monte Vista High School and Orange Coast College.

So why does this self‑described "smart and good‑looking” guy hang out at the mall each day, every day? "Lack of anything better to do, usually."

There appear, walking through the mall, to be a lot of people in the same situation ‑strolling along with telling time‑to‑kill ease, window‑shopping, browsing, munching on Mrs. Field's chocolate‑chip cookies, taking it easy on one of the countless benches, and, of course, showing off.

Although the overall impression South Coast gives is perhaps best characterized as "white and polite," in fact, anyone can come to the mall, providing she or he wears a shirt (yes, tank tops are fine), and shoes (yes, flip‑flops are fine). And anyone does. Well, almost anyone.

The allure is understandable.

The young, cool duo of chino seller Emily Noh (left) and surfer/stock boy Dan Schartoff represent the more relaxed multicultural style of J. Crew.

It never rains or gets too hot or too cold or too dark at South Coast Plaza. There's virtually no litter, no panhandling, and not a single ghetto blaster pierces the kept‑at‑precisely‑73‑degrees air. There are a sufficient number of public restrooms, and they are clean. And unless you decide to pop for the $4 and leave your car at one of the three "valet" stations ‑where you can have it "hand washed" for $10, "detailed" for $99‑ parking is free.

You can eat, drink, and be merry in the mall. You can ride up the escalators and down the glass‑enclosed elevators as many times as you like. You can stay as long as you want. No purchase required.

You can come alone or you can come with friends. You can bring the kids, or you can leave the kids at home.

If you get lost, there are ten YOU ARE HERE‑style information kiosks to set you on your way again. There's even a concierge, offering gift certificates, package check, reservation services for dinner and theater, baby strollers, wheelchairs, and taxi and limo arrangements.

And then, of course, there's that reassuring security force of 75.

Although the violent extremes of inner‑city sidewalks ‑"urban vitality," to some‑ are not to be found at the mall, there are occasional hints of a larger agenda. But you'll have to settle for subtle, oblique hints. In lieu of chanting and dancing saffron‑robed Hare Krishnas, for example, the mall features two women with big cotton‑candy‑like hair holding down a card table in the name of Ross Perot. If you're interested, they'll give you literature. If you're not, they'll continue chatting. And in the three days I was there, I did see one homeless man ‑docile, disheveled, and disoriented‑ wandering quietly toward an exit, a sort of reality check, a surreal reminder of the big bad world outside.

What all this means is that the mall is the kind of place where you can walk up to a stranger and with only the most cursory introduction stick a camera or a tape recorder in her or his face and start taking pictures and asking questions.

You can march right up to Michael Okruhlica and Jacob Telep, for example, a pair of muscle‑bound marines admiring a $544.95 reproduction samurai sword at Plaza Cutlery, and ask them what they're up to: "on leave."

You can walk into Piccolo Cucina, where Russian émigré Victoria Kraine is holding hands with a friend at a corner table, and ask if, after lunch, she'd mind posing for a portrait outside Chanel, which, you couldn't help but notice from the interlocking C's all over her clothes and accessories, appears to be her favorite store.

You can waylay Dan Schartoff, a 20‑year-old stock boy, sipping a Coke during his lunch break from J. Crew, and ask him how much he makes per hour: "$7.73." How long it took him to grow his dreadlocks: "three years." And how often he surfs: "every day." (Later, it seems worth noting, Dan waylaid me, saying that he enjoyed having his picture taken so much that if I knew of any modeling opportunities, he'd appreciate hearing about them.)

You can poll 23‑year‑old Korean‑American Emily Noh, who works "out front" at J. Crew, and who joined Dan in the photograph, and get her opinion on the best thing about working at South Coast Plaza: "all the fashion"; on the worst thing about working at South Coast Plaza: "Christmas, because employees have to park far away and be shuttled around on buses."

You can pull up a bench alongside stylist Michael Nelson, of the mall's José Eber hair salon, interrupting his break, and ask how old he is: "29"; how much a haircut costs: "$60 for women, $45 for men"; how much a typical tip is: "$10"; what kind of car he drives: "a black 1986 BMW 325 four‑door"; what kind of clothes he wears: "Armani"; if he lives in an apartment or a house: "an apartment"; what he had for dinner last night: "sushi"; what he had for breakfast this morning: "a bagel"; and whether his two‑tone Cartier wristwatch was a gift: "!t was not a gift; I bought it myself."

You can stop Tina Peralta as she pushes her stroller‑bound twins (Jaqlynn and Laurynn) through the Carousel Court and ask her how often and why she comes to the mall: "Twice a week.... it keeps the kids busy, it amuses them, instead of just being in the house all the time." And when the new baby is due: "October."

You can stride across the wall‑to‑wall sisal flooring at Polo/Ralph Lauren and corner menswear salesman Gary Morrill, a cleaner-than‑clean‑cut blue‑eyed blond who bears an uncanny resemblance not only to the guy your mother hoped you'd marry but to Matt Blanchard and Bryan Elliott, two fellow Polo/Ralph Lauren menswear salesmen, and ask him to describe himself: "Traditional, conservative, upbeat, fun, exciting.... That's what the Polo image is, and that's what we try to portray."

And then there are the people you notice out of the corner of your eye: the Johnny Cash‑inspired 50‑something guy in black Levi's, black patent leather boots, black leather jacket, and tinted glasses; the elderly woman in the sad‑funny straw hat pushing her ancient mother in a wheelchair; the Asian woman with her child on a bright yellow leash; the retired man in a Hawaiian shirt, powder blue pants, and Hush Puppies, with a Sony Handycam; the animated Japanese guide and the six Japanese men on a South Coast Plaza tour; the three deaf people walking along signing; the four yuppie guys, all with mustaches, perfect hair, and dark suits with white shirts and suspenders; the big‑eyed little boy dressed in a Batman cape; and the freckle‑faced little girl dressed in a sailor suit, as stiff and expressionless as a Madame Alexander doll, holding a giant bouquet of helium balloons that she occasionally sells -for $3.50, $4.50, and $5 each.

The spectrum is wide at South Coast Plaza.

Not surprisingly, a comparably wide range of commercial contenders compete for the various passersby's dollars: from Sears to Saks, from Thom McAn to Charles Jourdan, from Esprit to Escada. Although the democratic spirit precludes the kind of intimidating snobbery found, say, along Rodeo Drive, South Coast shopkeepers, nonetheless, go to great lengths to announce their status and commercial culture.

If, for example, the four cowskin‑covered columns marching across Howard & Phil's Western Wear send out one message "Howdy!"‑the Fort Knox‑like gray‑granite monolith with the bulletproof aquarium‑ size display windows that is Tiffany & Company sends out quite another. And just as the pristine window of the pristine Boehm Porcelain & Bronze Gallery alerts you to the fact that the 36‑inch American bald eagle ‑entitled From Sea to Shining Sea‑ perched there is, as they say, a big‑ticket item ($14,500), the not‑so‑pristine window of the not‑so‑pristine Contempo Casuals suggests that it's safe to enter, even if you happen to be dangerously close to the outer limit of your MasterCard credit line: ALL WHITE SHIRTS $19.99, ALL BELL‑BOTTOM PANTS $25, ALL CROCHETED DRESSES $39. At South Coast Plaza it doesn't take a semiotician to read the signs.

On the one hand, there's the prim and polite hunter green bay window of the jolly‑ol'‑England‑style Laura Ashley store. On the other hand, there's the hip‑happening, sociopolitically correct message blared out at 1.a. Eyeworks, where temporary "art" installations are a mainstay ‑such as the rainbow of multicolored condoms that store manager Heather Adams unfurled, stuffed with eyeglasses, then hung in the window.

Although for many South Coasters it seems to be enough to wander through this modern maze of mostly upscale goods ‑as if there were some vicarious thrill in being surrounded by such extraordinary abundance, as if being in the presence of riches were richness itself‑ there are those, happily, who come to buy. Which isn't necessarily as easy as you might think.

Let's say you're in the market for a woman's white terry‑cloth bathrobe. At South Coast Plaza there are eighteen stores that sell 29 variously priced women's white terry‑cloth bathrobes: Lane Bryant ($12.99), the Broadway ($19.99), Robinsons‑May number one ($20, $34.99), Sears ($29.99), Bullock's ($32, $38, $48, $58), Victoria's Secret number one ($35, $39.99), Nordstrom ($39, $44.95, $125, $375), Robinsons‑May number two ($39.99), Victoria's Secret number two ($39.99), Laura Ashley ($49), Saks ($65, $88, $118, $124), Giorgio Beverly Hills ($75), Polo Country Store ($125), A/X Armani Exchange ($165), Gucci ($175), Polo/Ralph Lauren ($185), Hermes ($500), and Escada ($560).

A fan of Giorgio Armani? South Coast Plaza is nothing less than a dream come true. You can deck yourself out in the Italian designer's label not only at a big A/X Armani Exchange and a bigger Emporio Armani, but at Saks, Bullock's, Nordstrom, Barneys New York, Alex Sebastian, and Alex Sport. Still hungry for still more Armani? There's Emporio Armani Express, the designer's first restaurant, where a plate of pasta runs from $7 to $10.

Or let's say you're in the market for a little reading material ‑in particular, oh, how 'bout Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: Brentano's ($2.95), Scribner ($2.95, $3.50, $15), Rizzoli ($3.95, $15), B. Dalton ($2.95).

Even if you had all the money in the world, one life isn't long enough to buy everything displayed so tantalizingly at South Coast Plaza. But then buying everything isn't really the point.

To be engulfed in excess, to be enveloped by virtually all of the material temptations our consumer culture taunts us with, is to be transported to a kind of ideal world, where everything is shiny and new and clean and perfect and promising, where reality is replaced by whatever fantasy you might fancy. At least for a time.

As Jane Austen had Mrs. Morland write to her daughter Catherine: "Your head runs too much upon Bath; but there is a time for every thing ‑a time for balls and plays, and a time for work. You have had a long run of amusement, and now you must try to be useful."