Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mother’s Day at the Mall

Staten Island is shaped like a human heart, the Staten Island Mall is shaped like a Klingon warship. In the busy center, where the battle bridge would be, are an array of kiosks, many primped for Mother’s Day. They sell bonsai trees, stuffed animals, handmade Ragamuffin Dolls, custom made piggy banks, ankle bracelets, old timey signs and exotic insects preserved in glass: lustrous blue butterflies, Morpho menelaus; black and teal ones, Papilio ulysses and splotched brown moths the size of dinner plates, Attacus edwardsii. There are also stick bugs, Sipyloidea meneptolemus. “It’s a very rare one,” the Asian proprietor tells me. “Not even the entomology book has it.”

This man resembles a bowling pin and has a squeaky voice, like bowling shoes on a well-oiled alley floor. “The female can regenerate 35 times without a male,” he tells me. A strange and exciting factoid. “How much?” I ask. “$110,” he says. A bit steep for an emaciated insect. Stick bugs are expensive, says the proprietor, because bringing them through customs entails paying a large fee. The way he says it suggests he didn’t bring them through customs at all, and I imagine the squeaky-voiced Asian in the scorching Sonoran with a terrarium filled with humungous stick bugs, alongside a cadre of drug mules and body traffickers. “Also the antennae,” he says. “It’s not easy to preserve the antennae after they die.”

When Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed through the narrow passage that separates Staten Island from Brooklyn in 1524 there were three tribes of Algonquin Indians living on the island; the Tappans, the Hackensacks, the Raritans. “We found a very pleasant situation among some steep hills,” wrote Verrazano. “The inhabitants not differing much from the others, being dressed out with the feathers of birds of various colors. They came towards us with evident delight, raising loud shouts of admiration, and showing us where we could most securely land with our boat.” But a strong wind rose, and Verrazano never landed.

Eighty-five years later another European did, Henry Hudson. “The people of the country came aboard of us, seeming very glad of our coming, and brought green tobacco, and gave us of it for knives and beads,” wrote first mate Robert Juet. “They go in deer skins loose, well dressed. They have yellow copper. They desire clothes, and are very civil. They have great store of maize or Indian wheat, whereof, they make good bread. The country is full of great and tall oaks…pleasant with grass and flowers…and very sweet smells came from them.” The stage seemed set for everything to go swimmingly. It didn’t, of course. On a sunny September Sunday, Hudson’s boat was visited by a pair of canoes. A skirmish broke out, and a man named John Coleman was shot through the throat with an arrow and killed.
A store called Pandora has a line out the door and I cue up behind a young family; mother, father, preteen daughter. A smiley saleswoman hands me a pamphlet featuring Safety Chains, Color Cords and Sterling Silver Zodiac Dangles. Behind me arrives a chatty plus-sized woman in a flowery halter top. “I already know what I want,” she tells the saleswoman, “I want the Best Friend.” I lose myself in a schizophrenic array of Sterling Silver Charms: giraffe, jack-o-lantern, chimp family, hedgehog, baby carriage, money bags, angel of hope, Viking, suitcase. “I wish they had a ten year olds’ day,” says the preteen. She’s wearing a shirt tie dyed with peace signs and also peace sign sandals. “It would be today.”

Concentrating on mall noises. A mechanical sound like gravity being defied, perhaps an elevator, zooming forever upwards. From a store called Against All Odds, pop music, and from a place unknown, The Cranberries—“All my life, is changing every day…In all my dreams, it’s never quite as it seems.” All around is the anonymous babble of shoppers, words arriving in sound packets spaced perfectly apart, such that nothing anyone is saying makes sense.

I begin to see words for what they are, invisible extensions of our being. Perched above our heads is a word halo, an ever-updated stock ticker-like stream. Then I imagine the inevitable next step, not our words above our heads but our thoughts. And they are searchable, like documents; send a search into a sea of people, receive an immediate return. I slump back on my backless bench and fret about the deep future. My main concern is, will there be poetry?

On July 16, 1640, Cornelis van Thienhoven, the Secretary of New Netherland, along with a hundred armed men, paid a visit to the Raritan tribe, who lived along a small stream. Van Thienhoven aimed to gain revenge for some pigs that had gone missing in the colony. He didn’t have orders to kill but his men were bent on pillaging. The secretary simply walked away. “When he had gone about a quarter of a league, the troop killed several of the savages and brought the brother of the chief as prisoner,” reads the journal entry of one early Staten Island colonist.

The following year the Indians retaliated, killing four colonists. Afterward, the real culprit responsible for killing the pigs came forward, a rogue Dutch Commander named William Kieft. He had stolen the hogs to feed his troops and blamed it on Indians. The incident became known as the Pig War. In 1643 came the Whiskey War, again begun by Kieft, who in a whiskey-fueled stupor, decided to “break the mouths of the Indians.” Some 80 of them were killed, the tiff nearly brought all of New Netherland to ruin.

Tensions remained high through the rest of the decade and into the next. In 1655, the Indians attacked a colonial village, burning homes and barns. More than a dozen colonists were killed, and 51 were taken prisoner, held for a ransom of 1,400 guilders. The incident was part of a larger skirmish that engulfed all of New Amsterdam and began when a squaw on Manhattan Island was shot for stealing a peach. This was the Peach War.

I enter Macy’s and am handed a Flowerbomb. “Need help with a lady’s fragrance?” a middle-aged woman asks me. “I can see distance, only thing it doesn’t make color sharper,” one clerk tells another. “You know the greens pop a little more, the blacks pop a little more.” There are shirts with alligator logos and shirts with American flags and shirts with the trademark Rolling Stones slobbering tongue decorated with flags of the world and poisonous looking thorns. A Marc Ecko shirt has a robot dressed as an astronaut with a cassette heart and nuts and bolts for arms. Its left eye is the pyramid from the $1 bill, math equations circle its head like bees. A white clerk leans over a make-up counter, spraying two black men with perfume, one is in a wheelchair.

Amongst a line of kiosks that run down the middle of the mall like a spine are pots with flowers that look like they are made of gum. “It’s soap,” a man who looks Israeli tells me. “Every one has a different smell, you put it in the office or in the bathroom .” Can you use the soap afterwards, I ask. “No,” he says, wearily. “It’s more for decoration.”

“Would you like some tea?” a clerk in all black, like a karate suit, asks me. “It’s good for antioxidants, it’s good for detoxing, it’s also good for your skin.” I’m actually quite thirsty. He hands me a plastic sample cup. It’s very sweet, with a terrible aftertaste, like soap, in fact. “We do add some sugar,” says the karate man, giving me a brochure with an image of a temple and misty mountains. In the foreground, straw hat-wearing peasants hand-paddle tiny canoes. “Nothing short of an aromatic masterpiece,” reads the description for a $15 tea called Body + Mind. “This triple tea blends the Buddhist legendary Monkey Picked Oolong, jasmine pearls green tea and white Silver Needle.”

In the food court, skylights rain sunlight, creating the feel of a cathedral and illuminating an elderly couple—liver spots, white hair, blank stares—eating a Burger King lunch. Beside them is a Jewish family in yarmulkes, eating ice cream. On top they ladle strawberries and whipped cream from a giant tub they must have brought from home. At Master Wok I get a slippery heap of lo mein and vegetable fried rice, served on an oval-shaped Styrofoam plate. I douse my meal with that impossibly bright-yellow spicy mustard. Through the skylights, which are protected by grates, are wispy cirrus clouds, working their way through a cerulean sky. An old janitor in latex gloves and a pinstriped blue cap sweeps up. I suddenly think of my grandfather, who came through Ellis Island, lived in immigrant New Jersey and the last time I saw him, in a hotel room outside Boston just after we had changed his underwear and put him to bed, looked blotched and frail, like E.T.

The Chinese has left me feeling miserable, to detox I wash my face in the mall bathroom, which is down a long corridor on the second floor, near the exit and just beside security headquarters—behind paned glass windows men in white shirts and black hats shuffle about, looking ridiculous, acting serious. In the bathroom, a madman urinates and an antiquated vending machine sells ibuprofen, Calvin Klein cologne and chewable toothbrushes, sour drops and ice drops. Another machine tells you your exact weight for a quarter. Once out I call my mother to wish her happy Mother’s Day. She is at a party with some relatives. “It feels wonderful,” she says, when I ask her how she feels about the idea of Mother’s Day. “I love my kids.” A female janitor whose dark blue uniform says Elaine brooms up a crinkled straw sleeve.

In February 1765 came the Stamp Act, and a few months later, the Quartering Act; rioting erupted in the colonies and private militias formed, such as the Liberty Boys. In Manhattan, they erected liberty poles, which served as flagstaffs to hang anti-British banners, or soft conical caps. In January 1770, British soldiers sawed one down, leading to the Battle of Golden Hill, one of the most violent altercations in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. Several British soldiers were wounded and one New Yorker was fatally stabbed.

Staten Island remained a Tory stronghold, led by wealthy land owners like Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Billopp and his father-in-law, Judge Benjamin Seaman. Other islanders were too busy farming or fishing to worry about rebelling. The British used Staten Island as a staging ground, from which to wage war on Manhattan and New Jersey; some 30,000 redcoats, “armed to the teeth”, occupied the island. “This host soon gobbled up everything upon the Island that was edible, then killed all the horses that they could buy or steal and barreled them for future use,” wrote the historian Henry G. Steinmeyer. “They roared and rambled drunkenly all over the Island and behaved like an army of satyrs in the rampage.”

The British were no longer so welcome and the island plunged into war. As tough as the fighting was, the weather was tougher. The winter of 1779-1780 was known as the hard winter. “By January 14, the Kills were completely frozen over,” wrote another historian, Charles Leng. “Taking advantage of this circumstance Lord Stirling crossed with 2,500 men in a gallant attempt to surprise the British at the Watering Place…The night was exceedingly cold, the snow was waist deep, and the suffering of the troops was intense.”

Outside is hot. Someone is pumping disco music from a pickup truck and a plus-sized woman in a zebra top slugs across the parking lot, like a lost beast. A neon yellow gnat lands on me and later a grasshopper. Across my stomach, a swiftly moving spider. I decide to walk the mall’s perimeter.

Cooks from Master Wok huff cigarettes alongside fleshy white women who look like hairdressers. A kid with a Burger King birthday crown. Two women stuff a Cuisinart into the trunk of a Nisan. The air smells strongly of Auntie Annes Pretzels. A wheelchaired woman waits for her ride. A woman with four giant Macy’s bags, slouched in the shade, applying makeup. A shaggy-haired worker devours a lunch plate with bare hands. In an H&M window, black manikins model bikinis.

On the sidewalk, gum stains look like howling faces, swimming sperm, leeches and thick-skinned oranges. Taken together they resemble a starfield. I’m reminded of a Hubble shot I once saw in National Geographic. Astronomers had zoomed in on a particularly empty patch of sky and revealed it to actually be thick with little swirls. Each one was an entire galaxy, brimming with stars. Even the universe has hidden universes.

Across a still mall parking lot, emanating heat and dotted with shade trees like an African savannah, are a handful of RV’s and a scatter of seagulls, pecking about dried up puddles. Clouds are like white blips painted on a ceiling. The entire world seems as if it is painted on the inside of a bubble. A car with an engorged muffler purrs by on some outer ring mall road, sounds like a small plane taking off. Beyond is a pile of salt for a winter that never came and beyond that a sequence of bright green hills that look like Indian mounds but actually cloak a bygone landfill, half a century’s worth of trash from the seething city across the bay. This dump was once the largest manmade structure on earth, and a plane takes off above it, over the lackluster condos and a furniture store. Malls are done, I think, and wonder what's next. 

British soldiers on Staten Island were the last to leave America. On November 25, 1783, some of the final ships sailed through the Narrows. “We were very boisterous in our demonstrations of joy,” wrote one eye-witness. “We shouted, we clapped our hands, we waved our hats, we sprang into the air, and some few, who had brought muskets with them, fired a feu-de-joie.” It was too much for the Brits, already headed home with tails between their legs, one British seventy-four fired a cannon ball at the jeering colonists. It missed, but not by much. A few were actually sad to see the redcoats go. “For some of the females had lovers, and some husbands on board of them, who were leaving them behind, never, probably, to see them again.”

The Revolutionary War left the island in shambles. Towns had been torched, fields scorched, livestock eaten and the entire island’s forests leveled to make firewood for British soldiers. Like the Algonquin Indians before them, getting rid of the Brits took time. Transportation home had to be found for troops, as well as loyalists wishing to return to Britain. “But the land was freed,” wrote Steinmeyer. “The armies had departed, and the pleasant sunshine fell upon bodies that, despite deprivations, were still sound and sturdy. The country would grow; their children would grow with it, each generation a little better than the one which had gone before.”
At a beautification kiosk, a guido type with arms like bread loaves gets his eyebrows plucked as his girlfriend stands idly at his side, curling her hair, clutching a Starbucks. And in a Brookstone’s nearby, a Caucasian father and son in Giant’s gear sit in complicated leather chairs, listening to Jay-Z: “Jockin Jockin Jockin Jay Jockin Jay Jockin jockin Jay-Z…Fifty thousand feet in the air and I'm still on my mobile, Fuck talking bout the recession the shit's depressin.”

Back on the backless bench. It’s vibrating at an incredible rate, a jarring feeling one gets used to in New York, the feeling of the subway hurtling beneath you, shaking the city’s very foundation. But there are no subways on Staten Island, which leaves me thinking I’m not on Staten Island at all, but a massive starship. The earth has been destroyed and the entire mall is zooming through space. Rather than be anesthetized and set to sleep in cryochambers for the journey to whatever distant cosmos is our destination, we have been given dollars and told to shop.

5:31 p.m., the mall is beginning to button down for the night. The line at Pandora has died, the food court is clearing and some shops have started to drop their metal shutters. In a stretch of mall I’ve never been before an advertisement for The Lorax, and beyond that a kiosk of futuristic flowers. There are plants but no pots, leaves but no dirt, green but no black. “Air Plants,” says a sign. “They don’t need any dirt and they don’t need any sun,” says a groovy woman with an elegant bob of white hair and a summery dress. “They grow on dust.”

She shuffles about, tidying up her plants for the night, what would appear to be dusting. “They also multiply,” she says. “They make babies, sort of like hens and chickens.” Could it be possible, I ask her, that in future all plants will look like these ones, that sun and soil will be things of the past, that the years ahead will hold only dust? She continues tidying her soilless plants and ponders this a minute.

“It’s possible,” she says. “I suppose anything is possible.”

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