When I was twelve and thirteen I spent nearly every weekend I can remember at the mall. It was me and my friend Gregg. One of our mothers would drop us off and then we would be free to wander through the many wonders of this American institution.
The mall was jumping at this time. Other malls were sprouting up around the area, like mushrooms out of dung, to compete with each other in an increasing effort to spread a banal, myopic vision throughout American society – once and for all.
Well the Nanuet Mall wasn’t going down without a fight. It tripled in size, gutting the Burger King that I used to eat at with my father when I was a child, and putting in a food court where The Whopper had to share space with the Big Mac and the best Pizza hut had to offer, among many others.
Macy’s grabbed a wing of the mall where there was only previously Sears and Neiman Marcus at opposite ends. Hordes of new specialty stores drove out the antiquated shops left over from the seventies to delight the masses with their specialty focuses.
This was all a big candy dream for Gregg and I. Running the gauntlet of the thriving mall provided us with hours of entertainment. At first it was enough to explore all the stores and indulge in our Gun’s N’ Rose’s obsession, buying all their merchandise we could with the five dollars that our mothers gave us, hoping to save a little bit for a soda but often giving in to buy just one more poster of Slash in that glorious rock-star pose with legs spread wide, Les Paul slung low and Mad Hatter top hat pulled down low over his eyes with kinky black hair spilling out from underneath.
Later the gaudy lights of the mall and all its wares failed to provide us with that dynamic spark for our young teenage minds and we needed to find other things to get our kicks. We used to like to pick up things in the stores and rearrange the shelves as much as possible and see how long and how many things we could mess up before we were chased out.
We used to spit off the top level on to people by the fountain and then run out the exit door and spend divine minutes in heart-stopping tension wondering if we hit anybody and if they were coming for us.
But out of all the little thrills we used to chase it was the dare that provided the most excitement. I have to admit Gregg got the glory more often than me as he was the more daring between us. His crowning achievement was an atrocity committed against the good people of Sears. I got him some napkins from Burger King (I was still faithful to their flame-broiled goodness) and we went to the bedroom section of Sears.
Gregg got under one of the beds, as I tried to look casual strolling around looking at bedding, and took a dump. I remember seeing his head come out from under the bed and I signaled that it was all clear and he scurried out and we tried to contain ourselves until we got outside and let loose a flurry of high-fives amidst our laughter.
But this was still not enough. Our hormones were beginning to call to us from the nether regions of our souls, confusing us as to why we were following particular girls around and looking at parts of their bodies that we had seemingly never seen before.
We found a way to vent all this confused energy in stealing condoms. CVS should have us on its most wanted list as we surely beat the pharmacy giant out of thousands of dollars worth of prophylatics. Two way mirrors were no match for us as we denuded the store of Ramsey, Shiek and Trojans by the dozens every weekend.
One time my parents were to pick us up in the afternoon. We were to meet by the fountain which was across from CVS. It was our most daring mission yet:
Forty-packs of Trojans.
I knocked a box off the shelve and while pretending to tie my shoe I casually slipped it inside my jacket. I got up and walked out without incident. My father and sister saw me and got up from by the fountain (where surely some hooligans were getting ready to hock a loogy on them from above) and started walking over to me.
The rest of my memory here exists in slow motion and I remember turning around after seeing a look of shock on my fathers face and seeing Gregg being stopped by some burly security guard and get pulled back in. My Mom was just coming over, having been previously enraptured by the new Ann Taylor store, and she waited with me and my sister as my Dad went in to handle the mess.
The car ride home was somewhere between awkward and unbearable. I claimed to have not stolen anything as the forty-pack of latex goodies seemed to burn against my ribs. Gregg got dropped off at home and my father told his mother about the incident and I didn’t see Gregg for a few weeks after that.
Soon we were in High School and we had more sophisticated means of destruction at our disposal.
We attacked drugs and alcohol the way only an American kid can: With total abandon in seeking to find the essence of what our society has turned into a delicious taboo. We chased these drug cocktails with women, those who we could get, and dreaming, in dark rooms alone, of those who we could not.
Now Gregg is in Oregon and I am here. He lives in Eugene and is a cook. His favorite thing in the world is a bong-hit. He also likes his dog Ozzy and the Grateful Dead. I write him letters and though I know he likes receiving them I haven’t gotten anything back. I’m not offended though.
I can imagine what five million bong-hits will do to your literary capacities. I’m asked a lot why I live here by travelers passing through and by family and friends in New York, where I grew up and where the epicenter of my old life is.
I have given answers about the cheap beer, beautiful women, interesting architecture, community of colorful expatriates and when I am feeling really loquacious a speech about the growing market place and chance for opportunity here in Eastern Europe or a diatribe deriding the cultural miasma of America that my mall childhood demonstrates and from which I have fled.
But really I get a feeling of tension when these questions come up and a feeling of falseness when I answer them. Where should I be? Where should I go to now? These are questions that are right around the corner from the previous one.
Thinking back on childhood, the moments of awkwardness, the painful time of becoming and never being; thinking about all the expectations placed on a child in suburbia with an upper-middle class rearing (“What do you want to be Jeremy?”), I like the fact that those faces and questions have a buffer zone of thousands of miles and here I stand alone without them.
The anonymity of my arrival and my existence is something that separates me from memory and I am my own person here and not a composite of what friends and family know me as.
So I think the answer to why I am here in Prague is the same one as why Gregg is in Eugene, Oregon: Because it is far away from home.