Chapter 18 – The American Dream


On Day #43 of no frivolous shopping, to celebrate my belated birthday I dined at a chain restaurant at the mega-mall in my hometown. It’s an annual gathering with a group of old friends who endure the Cheesecake Factory because they know my idiosyncrasy: I want to splurge, but only on a low-carb dessert — and of course there’s a cheesecake for that.


In previous years I was always late to dinner. I’d arrive breathless, armed with apologies and plastic bags because I’d shop beforehand; I had to — I was at the mall. For a 6 pm dinner I’d come as early as 4 and hit either Nordstrom Rack or Saks Off 5th. To do both, I’d arrive by 3. If I added TJ Maxx  — and it made sense as all three stores were in close proximity — a 2 pm arrival gave me four hours of uninterrupted browsing. To do all three justice, that was the bare minimum.

Because there’s nothing more frustrating than having aisle after aisle of retail therapy available and not enough time to try on shoes and tops, sample perfumes and examine makeup colors, ogle home decor and stroke linens, towels and blankets, and hit every CLEARANCE section to buy those things you really don’t want or need… but come on, look at the price!


I have never been much of a drinker except for those years in college when alcohol was the social lubricant that made anything possible — and most actions regrettable; so I can’t say that I know the tug of the bottle or how a half glass of honey-colored liquid can soften the blows of a difficult day (except for the last full-time job I held). But I do know how shopping used to make me feel: like a child headed to Disneyworld.

This became clearer to me after I gave birth. My first daughter was just over 2 years old when my second one was born, so for a solid six-year stretch I rarely got out of the house without a baby or child in a stroller and a diaper bag loaded with toys and snacks slung over my shoulder.

Everyone tells you how having a baby will change your life. But nobody says outright, “Shopping? Fuhgedaboudit. Any pleasure you once derived will be wiped out by having kids in tow.”

I still remember the first time the older one entered kindergarten and the younger one went to morning preschool. Though Em was enrolled for four hours a day just twice a week, those eight hours of freedom meant I could go shopping. Alone. Just my purse over my shoulder, not a care in the world.


I remember what it was like to walk into that mall (before it morphed into a mega-mall) and ride the escalator up, up, up three flights, tipping my head back to gaze blissfully at the skylight overhead, soaking in the opportunity of the moment, surrounded by stores and racks and shelves and goods and services, sales associates and store managers, things to admire and things to buy and things to enhance my life and well-being.

I felt like Mary Tyler Moore conquering Minneapolis. I wanted to toss my hat into the air and twirl around. I was back in the stream of commerce, the flow of money and plastic exchanging hands, the pulse and beat of shoppers moving like ants through an anthill.

I felt joy. I’m not ashamed to say it. I felt ecstatic. And now, in retrospect, I can see I was a recovering addict who’d dried out not by choice but by circumstance, and now I was back and looking to score.


That was 20 years ago. My daughters have since grown, flown the nest, and I have all the time in the world to shop, yet I’ve self-imposed this restriction. And tonight, when I walked into the mall for dinner, not arriving early but getting there just 5 minutes before we were scheduled to meet, I felt that same sort of joy well up. And yet, I knew I wouldn’t be shopping, so where did that spring from?


For better or worse, the mall has become the town center in many of our communities. That’s where we cross paths with the widest swath of ages, stages, races, religions, backgrounds — people we might not otherwise encounter in our typical day-to-day routines. At the mall in my hometown, a number of entertainment venues means that it’s something of a tourist spot as well. In the parking lot I spot Canadian license plates; in the hallways I hear accents, languages I don’t understand, see faces not normally found in my neighborhood.

Inside the mall, on display in every storefront window is the American Dream. Carry the right handbag and all doors will open to you. Wear the right athletic footwear and you’ll command respect.


Even though I’m literally not buying into that these days, I can still feel the electric sizzle of economics at play in the mall. I can sense the hope that courses with each heartbeat: with enough dollars in your wallet, all will be well.

And I wonder about those recovering alcoholics I know. Can they sit in a bar and enjoy the camaraderie, the cheer, the company, and not yearn? Am I feeling joy at being inside the mall for all the reasons I’ve described above, or is this me sniffing the bottle and getting high off the slightest whiff?

By the time I left at 9:30 pm, all the stores were closed. The old me would have mourned the lost shopping opportunities. The me that’s writing this shakes her head. Tonight I barely dodged a spending bullet, aimed straight at my almost-cheating heart.

Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

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