The Wise Pretend

It was raining in December when it should have been snowing. I’d been standing on a corner next to three or four people who were waiting for the bus. I didn’t know what I was waiting for. Across the street stood that most contemptibly generic, mundane creation, the strip mall, its loud signs glowing in the rain.

I hate strip malls. Once when I was young, I found, in the entry bathroom, a sentence penciled in small letters on the wallpaper next to the toilet bowl. It had been scrawled in a moment of uncontainable spite by one of my little sisters about another. It proclaimed: “Claire is so dumb I puked.” All grown-ups, if they are honest, have at least one thing they distaste in the same way: strongly, stupidly, and — for the most part — secretly. I hate strip malls the same way: they are so dumb, I puke.

A voice at my elbow said, “Boring!” and I turned, surprised that anyone should have voiced my thought so succinctly. “Boring!” I repeated, out loud. “Has anyone ever pronounced a more thorough damnation on a building, a place of commerce, than boring. True enough! I die every time I look at that strip mall.”

The man himself was not exactly a wealth of intrigue, either: older, but not old; short; heavy-set; in jeans and an old bomber jacket, a moustache on a round face under a plain black winter cap. He said nothing in return; he only gave a noncommittal shrug under his vapid, ho-hum smile. It irritated me that he could be so perceptive of my secret vendetta and at the same time give every appearance of not caring one way or the other. “Good lord, man!” I burst out, “So do you enjoy ugliness? Do you suppose that we are talking about the weather?”

“I thought we were,” he said.

“Well, I am talking about that great fat ugly pancake of a strip mall in the middle of that great fat ugly parking lot over there,” I continued. The dam had burst, and if this man had never before considered how ugly a strip mall is (such people exist, you know), he was going to hear the whole case from me right now. “Do you know what a strip mall is? A strip mall is like a crust, except it has no nutritional value. It is bland like the core of an apple, but it is a seedless apple; it has not even the natural annoyance of having seeds. No, I’ll tell you: a strip mall is the gum you find in the crevice between all the norms of human society. No one person or institution designed it. In fact no one ever set out to design a strip mall. They seek to set up shops, and end up with strip malls. Like anything excreted by committee, it is as unintentional as a bus accident. Hold the busiest, noisiest city in your hand, toss it up in the air, and blow on it, and you will see strip malls flying away like flakes and settling on the dirt nearby. That’s a strip mall for you: a husk — a chaff. But we make our bread with it, and call it progress because it’s never been done before. The communists denied God with their lips, but at least they loved gloom and grandeur: at least they never produced anything that could make a sunny day less sunny and make a wild, gloomy day less wild and less gloomy. But yes,” I concluded, “put it all in a word with as much boiled-down blandness as is produced by the thing itself, and I could hardly do better than boring.

The man continued smiling, but raised his eyebrows as he looked across the street. “I suppose that’s all true; but all I was going to say was, my little girl seems to think it’s boring too: she likes to pretend there’s a volcano there instead.” Then the bus came and he left. ‘

I blew out a long breath as it drove off, partly to admit defeat, and partly to repel the exhaust from the bus. I suppose there’s a difference between childlike and childish, but what is it? Immature spite and immature architecture both pose the same devilish and subtle threat, the threat of dragging everything around them into idiocy. Of all the reactions one might have to things that are intensely stupid, there are better ones than puking.