Kids in the Mall (2008)

Cartier be damned! The hell with Chanterelle!

What if all you really want is a pair of Claire's earrings and a Cinnabon? New York City may be a world-famous culinary and retail destination; it may boast boutiques and bistros of almost insufferable glamour—but is the town up to satisfying a craving for, say, a pair of skull anklets from Hot Topic or a personal Glamour Shots portrait? In short, how does the city's version of an authentic, suburban-style shopping mall hold up?

There was only one way to find out if our fantasy of mall-rat living in the city could be made real: We chewed (Nina) and spent (Corina) our way through three venues—the Manhattan Mall, the Staten Island Mall, and the Shops at Columbus Circle, better known as the Time Warner mall. Here is what we found:


Corina says: Most complaints about the Manhattan Mall come from people like me who have never really set foot in it. I had always thought of the place as the odd mall out, the how-did-you-get-here mall, the Sporty Spice of the mall world—an aberration that made no sense smack in the middle of Herald Square. It takes an actual trip here with Nina to realize its true beauty: It's the one place in Herald Square you can shop in peace and quiet. It's also more spacious than I'd imagined.

Our first stop is the tee shop Oasis, to view its wall of shirts bearing South Park characters, band names, and sage commentary ("Fuck Milk, Got Pot?"). Nina and I gawk at the expansive selection of Nirvana tees and remember when Kurt's pain was the exact same hurt we were feeling too. All in all is all we are, man. Alas, I have no badass five-finger-discount days in my past, no glory stories of bagging a monstrously ugly rhinestone key fob, but if I were that person, it would be open season at Venus, with its glittering racks of baubles. There's no better place to play hooky than at Brookstone, with its rows of massage chairs, where freeloaders—sorry, "potential customers"—steal naps. I skip over it this time and, with Nina's nudging, pay out $9 for five minutes in the Aqua Massage, a contraption set up in the middle of the mall that looks like a tanning bed but pummels you with water in a massaging motion. Outside, it's rush hour in Herald Square, which means that the 34th Street H&M is filled with women who'd cut me for stepping between them and the half-off sweaters. But inside the Manhattan Mall, I'm getting loved up by the sweet hands of Neptune.

Nina says: Gesturing with sticky fingers, Corina tells me she doesn't "taste the love." Apparently, what we are tearing apart like coyotes is, for her, only a passable Cinnabon. But then, Zappia's a connoisseur. She keeps reminiscing about the "mother of all Cinnabons," which she experienced in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, mall. The ambience here is pleasantly seedy. Manhattan Mall's food court is below street level and boasts zero windows. The Cinnabon stall is right next to the dentist's office, which seems about right. People ingest large quantities of the major mall food groups—sugar, salt, and fat—while staring at TV screens and colored light boxes of varying sizes, all mounted onto the back wall. I'm not sure what the original concept was, but the effect is like time travel—back to the '70s and into the future all at once. Instead of sticking with the safe standbys (Wendy's, McDonald's), we're going where only the boldest dare to go: Wok 'n' Roll. It turns out that the steam trays offer just what you'd expect—very sweet versions of all the Midwestern-style Chinese favorites. General Tso must have had one crazy-ass sweet tooth. In fact, maybe that's what the dentist is for after all. Or perhaps it's the Wafflo, an ice cream sandwich with waffles as the bread. In the end, old favorites are the winners. A little paper dish of Nathan's fries is as comforting as a giant cashmere poncho. Those wavy, fat little potatoes with their creamy insides and that adorable miniature fork just melt our hearts.


Corina says: Imagine a mall that seems to go on for miles, with room enough for an Old Navy, a Macy's, a Glamour Shots, a Claire's Boutique, and an Icing by Claire's Boutique. What castle to capitalism is this? Can dreams really come true? They sure can—in Staten Island.

Nina and I hit the mall classy-style, like we just got dropped off by Mom in a big shiny Suburban. First, a visit to Bebe, where every outfit transforms the wearer into a magical 90210 slut. (Top your microskirt with the matching Bebe suit jacket to show you mean business, and voilá—Melrose.) "Wow, you look like Donna Martin!" Nina gushes when I emerge in my beige corset and black satin skirt, beaming.

A trip to nearby Frederick's of Hollywood for a neck-to-stomach body chain could take this ensemble to a really special place, but we abandon the project so Nina can buy a dinosaur T-shirt at Delia's, a store that distinguishes itself by not dressing up young girls as eager baby hookers. We finish with trips to our respective guilty pleasures—Hot Topic for Nina and Yankee Candle (shut up) for me.

Nina says: Growing up in New York City, I developed a serious case of mall-rat envy. When Becky Conner stormed out of the house and headed for the mall, I longed to go with her. Here in Manhattan, we had no fry-filled venue for scoping out hotties. Instead, we had to pick a stoop and declare it the coolest stoop and hope to be seen loitering on it. It turns out the Staten Island Mall is what I was picturing all along. I even spot guys with long hair and acne and sullen girls wearing too much eyeliner. Why didn't someone tell me it was right there near my great-aunt's house?

Of course, my fantasy had more to do with playing hooky than actually eating anything. After all, only fat girls eat. But the options are not shabby on the other side of the Verrazano. Beneath a gleaming skylight, we venture to try the cheesesteak from South Philly Steak & Fries and a fish fillet from the mall-biquitous English-themed food chain Arthur Treacher's. All this tastes remarkably like, well, food. Not great food, perhaps, but completely edible. Then we push our luck with the baked ziti and a side of meatballs from That's Italian! The real gem is located outside the food court proper: Johnny Rockets, where we feast on a luscious cheeseburger and a wicked black-and-white milkshake.


Corina says: When a mall is too fancy to be called a mall, it becomes a "luxury shopping experience." This is the case with the Shops at Columbus Circle. Every major city or rich suburb seems to have at least one LSE (Houston, near my hometown, has several), full of items few can afford: $200 Thomas Pink dress shirts, $275 Cole Haan pumps (with Nike Air technology), $230 Alexander McQueen sunglasses. Nothing's even for sale at the Samsung Experience—its website calls it the "un-store," where browsers can just sample the latest technology. I do appreciate the opportunity to view the smaller, sleeker, superior cell phones only available to Koreans. It's all looking a little bleak price-wise . . . until I spot the Art of Shaving's ingrown-hair kit, for $65. "You use the [special lotion] to get rid of ingrown hairs you already have," the saleslady explains.

Nina says: If Corina weren't such a pussy, we might have attempted to convince our various superiors that the only equivalent of a food court at the Time Warner Center is Café Gray or Masa or, perhaps, Per Se. But we stick with the posh-enough $11 sandwiches at Bouchon Bakery (from Thomas Keller, the man behind Per Se). We even go with tap water rather than the $7 bottle of Perrier. Perhaps we suffer from low self-esteem. The other diners are probably ladies who lunch or ladies who lunch on expense accounts, but I like to think they're ladies who are in town for a whirlwind shopping spree with their wealthy, older, married lovers. I wonder if I should have blown out my hair, like everyone else.

But I forget all about this when the salmon rillettes arrive. An adorable mini—Mason jar comes sealed with a thick layer of clarified butter, under which is a decadent jumble of salmon—diced smoked as well as flaked fresh—and more butter. The dish is intensely salty and fatty, like so many of our mall experiences have been, but this time it's luxurious. The salmon alone is also over $18. Maybe it's time to embrace the mall rat within.


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