Mixing It Up at the Miller Hill Mall

 By John Ramos  


"True Freedom"
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It ended in minutes. Wearing my battle colors and two hand-lettered signs around my neck. I strode out of the fog and into the Miller Hill Mall. The sign on my chest, yellow with black lettering, asked, "Who Sews Your Clothes?" The sign on my back, decorated with two attractive fashion models clipped from the April issue of Vanity Fair (the "Hollywood 2000" edition, with "470 Star-Studded Pages!"), answered the questions: "Taiwan, Pakistan, India, Honduras, Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Thailand, China, Korea, Kenya, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam." Lovely music tinkled in the air. Palm trees raised their fronds to the skylights. Old men on white benches looked at me and said nothing.

I moved down the hall toward Younker's, where I had obtained many of the names on my list by checking clothing tags. A display in the central courtyard proudly announced the mall's promise "to maintain a clean, cheerful shopping environment" while "tak[ing] an active part in the betterment of our community." A $20,000 pontoon boat lay on the tiles like a beached whale. I turned left, past the Piercing Pagoda, then right. A helicopter on a string buzzed in frantic circles at the entrance to Coachhouse Gifts. Passersby looked at me, said nothing. I aimed for the food court—even warriors had to eat—but before I got close, the security guard came out and intercepted me. He told me to remove my signs or leave the building. If I chose not to do so, I would be arrested.

"But why?" I asked.

"We don't allow advertising in the mall."

I glanced around, taking in the flash and glitter of the stores, the beautiful smiling supermodels with heads the size of barn doors gazing out at me from behind piles of merchandise. "But—"

". . . the wrong kind of advertising," clarified the guard.

Leading me to the exit, he tried to explain his position. The mall was private property, you see, and what if they allowed just anyone to come in and say just anything? The next thing you knew, there'd be pot-smokers and revolutionaries and rabble-rousers screaming, "I hate blacks!" and other such nonsense.

I tried again. "I'm not creating a disturbance. I'm walking around with signs that are completely accurate in what they say. It's freedom of expression."

The guard, who undoubtedly spent most of his day assisting lost children and directing old ladies to the restroom, shook his head. He didn't like to play games, and he seemed disappointed that I couldn't accept the obvious. "America isn't free," he said, and he showed me the door.


I was guilty, of course. I was on "private property," and the owners of the property did not approve of my presence. When I consider how much time and money they spend persuading me to come to their property (billboards, junk mail, and giddy full-page newspaper ads shout for my attention daily), their disapproval when I take them up on the offer seems a bit hypocritical, but it is perfectly legal nonetheless. If the owners took a dislike to brunettes, or to people wearing blue, those poor unfortunates could be ejected as well. I was guilty—legally, socially, maybe even (who knows?) morally—and I accept that, but the real question here is not one of guilt or innocence. The real question here is Why?

Why are the business owners so afraid of free expression? Why do the rules governing personal behavior in the mall's so-called "Common Area" include such stipulations as "4. Hand written signage is forbidden"? Why such regal language—"forbidden"—as if by entering the doors of a mall we cross beneath the portcullis of a monarchy? Why are only hand-written signs forbidden? [Do they symbolize dangerous individualism?] Why, when I applied for permission to walk around with my signs for one hour, was I told that I would have to obtain $1 million in liability insurance before my request was considered? Why, in Rule 10, do the owners find it necessary to say, "If the Management shall deem the use of the 'Common Area' objectionable, at its sole discretion, it may, without any notice whatsoever, terminate the rights of the User to use the 'Common Area'"? Why this imperious talk of terminating rights? Why do these powerful people, these owners of vast commercial acreages, these important contributors to the local and global communities, these respected pillars of society—why do these heroes and leaders and eminent notables feel so threatened by some guy in red flannel strolling around with a sign? Are they—and I really hate to ask this of anyone—cowards?

I feel betrayed, in a way. I'm only trying to be friendly. A quick stroll around my own apartment reveals how thoroughly I have welcomed business into my home. Its signs and symbols are everywhere: Frito Lay's, Rubbermaid, Hyundai, Time, Dole Bananas, IBM, Casio, Asics, At&T, Sony, Harper's, Holiday, Folger's, Black Label, Leinenkugel's, Purex, Barbasol, Suave, Vaseline, Sorel, Palmolive, Del Monte, "Think Different," Absolut, Aiwa, Wrangler, US West, Kodak, Kenmore, and on and on and on and on and on. Not only do I welcome these signs and symbols into my home, but I think about them, and I sometimes express my opinions in strong terms to people who disagree with me, arguing that this thing is "better" than that thing, or that something else is "worse." Discussion is healthy, and I am grateful to have a house full of objects to discuss. But when I try to reciprocate—when I try to repay my friends in the business for their benevolence and generosity by bringing my signs and symbols to their home, for the purposes of generating even more healthy discussion—I find myself shunned, and cruelly rejected, and heaved out on my ear. This saddens me enormously, and I cannot help but wonder—Why?

It would be one thing if I were screaming obscenities and defecating in the flower pots and giving the finger to shoppers. Incoherent rage might be constructed as some sort of public threat, and might understandably draw a forcible response. But I have no rage. I am supremely calm. I ask a question—"Who Sews Your Clothes?"—and I answer it. There is no judgment inherent in this exchange. It is simply the truth, much as if I had asked the question, "What Is My Name?" and answered, "My Name Is John." Surely the titans of business, in their wisdom and sagacity, are not opposed to hearing the truth! What else would they want to hear? Lies? Surely not. So, why, then? Why can't I walk around the mall with the truth?

At least the Management, in the regulations governing the "Common Area," is honest enough to put the words "Common Area" in quotes. It is a literary wink, tipping us off that though they are saying the words. They do not really mean them. A true common area is a place that is shared by everyone. The "Common Area" of the mall, by contrast, is shared only by those who agree to follow a rigid system of arbitrary decrees handed down by "Management"—a title, incidentally, which the regulations capitalize throughout, much as another honorific is capitalized in the phrase, "O Your Holy Royal Highness, please grant us this worthless beggar leave to kiss thy ring." The users of the "Common Area," in the end enjoy only one freedom (if it can be called that): the freedom to shop. For this single pathetic privilege, everything else is abandoned at the door.

The situation might be less dangerous if it were out in the open—if we had to sign loyalty oaths or get finger-printed to get in—but, for the most part, it's a secret. You have no freedom in the mall, but no one will tell you that unless you try to behave freely. And not many think of trying, because the mall feels free. An array of events and activities are available—senior citizen Mall Walks, teen fashion shows, Monopoly tournaments, and pictures with Santa for example—which create an illusion of fun and freedom which is very difficult to pry back and look behind. Who would want to? Who would criticize a senior citizen Mall Walk? Nobody, that's who. It's so wholesome and healthy an activity that it's beyond criticism. It exists apart from criticism, and it is exactly this image of squeaky-clean untouchability that Management, by permitting such events to take place, seeks to hijack as its own.

I doubt that any Manager would deny this. They call it "good community relations," and it is certainly that. But—as those who try to be free quickly discover—it is also dishonest, a smiling mask hiding a lunatic face, a quart of perfume on a file of shit, a lie—but such a beautiful lie, such a comforting lie, a lie which promises so much, and which makes us feel so happy, and so safe, that we do not fuss, and we do not question. And little by little, day by day, our resistance is gently massaged away, until finally, as strains of music fill our ears and fronds of palm sigh gently in the breeze, the lie devours the world, and we close our eyes, and forget who we are, and drift softly, eternally, to sleep.


Published in the Northland Reader, 4/13/2000.


Copyright © 2007 The Cheerleader. All rights reserved.