From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 2  June 1990

Twentieth Century Lite

The sugar-coated world of late suburbia

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The county of Johnson is situated in the northeastern corner of Kansas, just to the south of the confluence of the Kaw and the Missouri rivers. For many years it was the home of the Osage and Shawnee Indians, who traded pelts with the Europeans that began to appear in this region in the 1820s. These latter inhabitants established a trading post and settlement that would eventually grow into the metropolis of Kansas City. Ad Astra Per Aspera reads the Kansas state motto, and the development of the region did not come without significant struggle or suffering. A party of pioneers, traveling on the Santa Fe trail, were killed here by marauding Indians, and the Indians themselves were subsequently slaughtered, chased away, or converted by the Europeans. In the decade just before the Civil War the county of Johnson saw savage combat between pro-slavery settlers and abolitionists, both determined to conduct Kansas’ future along their own chosen course. Within thirty years the frantic boom that followed the war gave way to grinding debt and depression. The state’s population began to decline as the gold standard and the railroad monopolies made agriculture increasingly unprofitable, and the county’s residents turned to radical politics for a solution. Women agitated for the vote, Populists for economic reorganization. And Carrie Nation led fervent prohibitionists on hatchet-swinging campaigns through local saloons. In the twentieth century the City of Kansas, famous for the violent passions of its people, saw the rise of one of the nation’s most powerful political machines as well as some of its most stirring jazz performances.

But today this land of immoderation presents a different face to the world. Kansas City, the symbolic capital of the plain-spoken, drought-hardened people of the Midwest, is now the site of some of the nation’s most intensive suburbanization. Once the home of such earthy types as Sockless Jerry Simpson, Tom Pendergast, Count Basie, and Harry Truman, it now sprawls itself over hundreds of miles of Johnson County prairie, fleeing frantically to the south and west from its passionate, vigorous, strongly-worded past. And perhaps the most representative specimen of this once-vital town’s flight from the nastiness of life is “Aristocrat Forest,” an expansive subdevelopment a few miles to the south of the old pioneer graveyard and a full hour by car from the city’s decaying downtown. In the subdevelopments of the nineties, the suburbanite’s quest for the Bland seems to have been accomplished; his longing for detachment from past and place most completely realized. And a new, insular culture of sweetness and faiblesse oblige is articulated.

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“Aristocrat Forest” epitomizes the settlements of the new, improved, climate-controlled America that you recognize from TV. [*] Life has truly been lightened for modern suburban dwellers. Here all unpleasant realities give way to the obligatory false friendlines, the omnipresent cheery music, and the deeply-held conviction that all problems can be solved by a new purchase. This is consumerist America in its putrescent stage, where an airtight cultural hegemony has long since been achieved and life has become an interminable role-playing game with all the accessories; where candy people dressed like businessmen coexist nicely with candy people dressed like rock stars, or artists, or athletes. This is the therapeutic America, where cycling machines (and the appropriate bicycle costume) substitute for labor, “sin” is a dietary transgression, and living facilities come increasingly to resemble lifelong hospitals. This is the America dubbed “Cupcake Land” by Richard Rhodes, where “the Holy Grail . . . is pleasantness, well-scrubbed and bland,” and holidays are but an occasion for the exchange of greeting cards. Here in “Aristocrat Forest” Americans have paved over their agrarian past and obliterated their ancestors’ years in the factory so thoroughly that such disturbing echoes need never frighten them again. Except, of course, for those pleasant collective memories of their imaginary aristocratic forebears, who once hunted foxes and lived in garden-party splendour on the plains of Kansas or the landfills of New Jersey.

Yet suburbia is not a bad thing in itself. The impulse to live amidst grass and trees and clean air is entirely understandable. It is the way of life chosen by most Americans. But suburban life in the United States, circa 1990, is very different from its 1950s prototype. In the forty-four years since returning veterans crowded into Levittown, New York and made it an immediate symbol of the age, suburbia has generated its own distinct culture, best symbolized by the “Aristocrat Forest” on Kansas’ sun-flattened plains. The culture of late suburbia is defined, predictably enough, by the imperatives of consumerism and the remarkable insularity of suburban life. It is the cutrescent culture of a decaying order increasingly obsessed with “cuteness,” a saccharine inoffensiveness redolent of rotting honey. Suburbanites of the nineties are an infantilized people, reduced by the cultural engines of American capitalism to a perpetual childhood ignorant of responsibility or subtlety. Modern suburbanites are streamlined consumerists who have incorporated the facile liberation of the sixties into their world of malls and subdevelopments. They are a nation of postmodern consumers, detached from the world in ersatz hamlets and affecting an irony that goes hand-in-hand with faiblesse oblige. The cutrid and TV-worldly people of “Aristocrat Forest” scorn all but harmlessness and self-indulgence, which they assume to be the natural predilections of mankind. They are “organization men” to be sure, but with a brightly-colored facade of the kind of individualism that you can buy at any boutique in the shopping center. Hence the affected playground cynicism that substitutes for taste among the suburbanites of the nineties; a cynicism best exemplified by pop stars like Madonna and funny-page icons such as “Garfield” and “Marvin,” the eternally scheming baby [**]. And, since suburbanites dominate the U.S. numerically and financially the culture of suburbia continues to determine the mass culture of our country.

The culture of cutrescence is in turn determined partially by the physical facts of suburban life, and its detachment from the community, the past, and productive labor. Out there in the garden communities people are removed, culturally and politically as well as geographically, from the life of the cities which they surround. “Flight” is an appropriate metaphor for the phenomenon of suburban growth, for it is a fleeing from the complexity and responsibility of community existence. To be sure, suburban promoters talk a lot about the bogus “communities” they are planning complete with quaint English names but no organic unity at all. Needless to say, there are no proles in the new suburbia. And, as friendly Kansas City corporations make their long-anticipated removals from downtown to the suburbs, the need for commuting disappears and the final links with the city “with workers, with the non-white, with the poor; the open-air market, the streetcar, the tenement, the skyscraper” all this vanishes. The people of “Aristocrat Forest” staff the nearby malls and the brand new offices of “Leawood Corporate Manor,” a scant five minutes to the north. Their children attend nationally recognized schools, where they will never be tainted by contact with the offspring of black or working-class families. And these schools are public, since the geographical divide between the Kansas suburbs and Kansas City (which is in Missouri) makes infiltration impossible. This sort of alienation is actually a subject of boasting for suburban promoters, who invariably push their pre-planned homesites’ isolation from traffic and convenience to highways. The symbol of this estrangement is the cul-de-sac, the street that goes nowhere, utilized extensively so that serene “Cupcake” families might not be disturbed by unpredictable outside influences other than television. Leawood, Kansas, the jewel in KC’s suburban diadem, has taken this strategy of detachment to a brilliant but inevitable conclusion: although it stretches for 72 blocks along the Missouri border, only 24 streets penetrate the suburb from this direction, and most of these end quickly in cul-de-sacs. Leawood’s blatant ploy to discourage visitors from the poorer neighborhoods to the east has earned it the moniker “Baffleburb” from some literate Kansas City residents. [***]

Detached from the life of the community, the new suburbia is quite naturally detached as well from real productive activity, typifying the shifting of American culture in general from a producing to a consuming orientation. Residents of the new suburbia buy on credit and discard on whim. They work not at farm or factory but at desks in minute corporate departments. They are the “Organization Men” of William H. Whyte’s landmark study, only much farther removed from the productive livelihoods of their forebears and much less important in the jobs they do. They are the corporate vassals of Richard Rhodes’ “Cupcake Land,” performing ever more insignificant tasks under ever more pompous corporate titles. And the wisdom of their most important economic duty, Buying Lots of Things, can never seriously be questioned.

The oversized houses, the comically Anglophilic names, the grandiose iron porticos at the subdevelopment’s gate…

The new suburbanites are, finally, alienated from both history and geography. The make-believe world of “Aristocrat Forest” obliterates the past by completely ignoring the nation’s ethnic, working class, or agrarian roots. There are no references to Indians at all in the place and street names of the newer Kansas City suburbs (as there were, constantly, in the old): the developers have systematically omitted local history altogether. The names developers have chosen in their place are utterly bland and homogeneous, equally applicable to a collection of cheap grandiose houses in Long Island as well as Kansas or Utah. The choice of the new suburbia is for a spurious English genealogy, expressed for them by subdevelopment promoters with German or Irish or Scandinavian names, denying America’s ethnic or tumultuous past. The placid ways of the English middle-class, they imply, have persisted tenaciously out in the ground now transformed into “Aristocrat Forest,” and have been bestowed magically upon a handful of loyal junior executives. These modern suburbanites, ethnically and financially heterogeneous, have nonetheless accepted as part of their creed of faiblesse oblige—along with their gray poly/flannel suits—the age-old Anglophilia of the nation’s “best” families. Hence it is to places like “Bristol Place,” “Cambridge Pointe” (whose emblem depicts the famous old Cambridge lighthouse), and “Buckingham Estates” that the city’s predominantly German population flee. A “Plutostadt,” while conveying the right messages of fabulous wealth, would almost certainly fail to arouse interest. (But the French may soon have their day in the hearts of the upwardly-mobile: a brand new Johnson County subdevelopment is called “Charlemagne Manor.”)

This tripartite detachment has produced a culture of cutrescence that is distinguished most strikingly from earlier modes by the desperate, screaming insistence upon the fantastic wealth possessed by the residents that confronts one at every gently winding turn. The oversized houses, the comically Anglophilic names, the grandiose iron porticos at the subdevelopment’s gate, each demonstrate the vast inflation of suburban pretensions that has accompanied the triumph of detachment since those humbler (and often home-made) suburbs were erected by GIs returning from World War II. In other years Kansas Citians were content to live in simple “Prairie Village”: conspicuous consumption, nineties style, though, means that a modern “homebuyer” needs an “estate,” a “farm,” a “manor,” or even a “grand chateau elegant” to assuage his class insecurity. Announcements for new subdevelopments invariably trumpet the “elegance” and the “luxury,” of the “exclusive” or “prestigious homesites” up for sale.

But no matter how the new suburbanites may slaver over Anglo usages, prestige and exclusion are qualities derived strictly from bank accounts, not anything ethereal like heritage or breeding or taste. So baldly mercenary is the pitch to sell “prestige” to the highest bidder that many subdivisions openly classify themselves “upper bracket,” presumably open only to those who make the IRS’s super-classy list of the most prosperous plutocrats. This insistent boasting often takes embarrassingly ludicrous forms, as with “Aristocrat Forest” or “Charlemagne Manor.” Suburbanites of the nineties, though, are notoriously insecure about their purchased “prestige,” and they demand that the outward emblems of priciness (and, hence, elegance) be displayed on all their property. These are the people who leave labels on the outside of garments or, better yet, buy clothes that carry unmistakable signs of “classiness.” Their shirts often sport a tiny man on a horse; their sturdy plastic luggage is spattered with “MCM” or “Y St L”; their shoes have loud corporate logos stamped into the leather; their plaid scarves proudly announce their descent from the ancient clan of Burberry; their sunglasses, briefcases, ties, sweatshirts, and trousers are covered with words—words signifying only “I paid too much for these goods; they are indeed the ones depicted in the sophisticated advertisement you saw; I am a prestigious person by association.” The subdevelopments in which these people make their house are, quite naturally, announced in much the same manner, their preposterous puffery well-displayed on elaborate brick or stone or wrought-iron edifices near their points of entry. This sort of crass trumpeting is entirely appropriate though. For the hundreds of thousands of dollars a wide-eyed “executive” pays for a “home” in “Aristocrat Forest,” he should surely expect an unmistakable public declaration of his newly-purchased status. Most Kansas Citians would not think him an “Aristocrat” otherwise, as the “home” he now occupies declares only his foolishness and bad taste.

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Stucco, Tudor, Queen Anne, Spanish, Colonial, and French Provincial are liberally intermixed in the homes of the “Aristocrats,” often with three styles represented per home. So senselessly eclectic is the “Forest” that one suspects the entire project of being an ironic architect’s PoMo prank. The only consistent element is the absurd parody of grandeur that characterizes every single “home”: pointless but enormous columns, plywood turrets, concrete statuary, decorative cupolas. The builders greedily aspire to occupy whole lots. But for all these banal outward emblems of old wealth, each “home” in “Aristocrat Forest” conforms to one of four designs from which the buyer must choose. In each one the ample garage is the most prominent feature; a trait which Paul Fussell ascribes to prole roots but which more likely indicates a lifetime of sedulous attention to TV dramas, where cars and garages are important status implements. And the buildings themselves are rarely anything sturdier than simple board-and-bat construction. Like the shoddy clothing covered with declarations of “prestige” that the new suburbanites wear so faithfully, their “estates” and “chateaux” are slapped together hastily, according to a pre-set plan, of sheetrock and plywood. We fear for the flimsy manor “homes” of “Aristocrat Forest” when they confront their first Kansas tornado.

Nonetheless, it is to these architectural incarnations of all that is mindlessly, tastelessly acquisitive that Americans flock to live out the third cultural principle of suburbia: the myth of total, seamless tranquility which has increasingly come to characterize the culture of the American middle class since the unpleasant days of World War II. Late suburbanites regard the world as spectators, receiving images of it through electronic mediation, and taking an interest only when they discover new “lifestyles” which they can adopt from the people down below. “Lifestyle” is perhaps the most telling cutrescent buzz-word, an indicator of late suburbia’s distance from the world where “lifestyle” could mean things like race, class, religion, or occupation. For the people under the sway of today’s cutrescent lifestyle, however, a “lifestyle” is a consumer decision one makes, parallel to choosing a brand of soda pop or a make of car. For the late suburbanites the struggles of the rest of us are a more-or-less interesting TV show to be watched from the placid, hermetic universe of the air-conditioned manor home on the distant cul-de-sac.

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And what deity presides within this universe? The spirit of cuteness, before whom all discontent melts away and reality is reduced to the shining polite office complex and neighboring mall, the carefully tended lawn, the luv between fellow upper-bracketers. This Assgeist is represented physically by the omnipresent teddy bear, the household god of suburbia, [****] the very incarnation of cutrescence; who, with feeble arms outstretched, winsome face contorted with fun, and pudgy body as often as not fitted into some “serious” human garment, stands ready to coo the anxious “Aristocrat” back to tranquility. The teddy is a child’s toy no longer: suburbanites own them for life, and have even been known to dress up their infants like the bear. The teddy bear is us, suburbanites believe, and their peculiar teddy-dressing rituals—like their use of the word “lifestyle”—illustrate their cutrescent vision of productive life.

The spirit of cuteness will tolerate no suggestion of dissatisfaction, let alone tyranny, oppression, death, or disorder. These things are to be sugar-coated, forgotten, or ignored by the culture of cutrescence. When late suburbanites are vexed by lifestyle unfulfillment they turn to the “support group,” the teddy bear writ large, since they couldn’t imagine expressing dissatisfaction unless dozens of others were present to sympathize. When suburbanites voice a rare political opinion it is informed by the politics of politesse (“that just isn’t nice”) or sympathy for cute creatures like seals, bunnies, and starving children. “Hands Across America” brought considerable celebration to “Aristocrat Forest,” along with plenty of self-congratulations for active suburban consciences. Holidays are torn from whatever their mythical, Dionysian roots happen to be and become an occasion for exchanging reassuring messages of cuteness’ omniscience. And the language of late suburbia is, like greeting cards, larded with whimsical, cutrescent usages. Subdivision monikers are sometimes intentionally misspelled, giving them a playful quality that distances them from the sometimes unpleasant aspects of land ownership. It is difficult to imagine an earthquake destroying a neighborhood—however flimsily constructed—called “Peppermill” or “Sugarland Estates.” Suburban children are given names like Krystyn and Pyper and pass a ready-sweetened childhood consuming such products as Quisp, Froot Loops, and Trix before moving on to the mock-threatening stage of Ratt and Motley Crue. When older they inhabit such agreeable places as “Wyncroft” or “Stoneybrooke.” Sometimes these words of whimsy are even interchangeable, especially when they conform to the Anglophilic principle. In one possible scenario, Britnie Woods, of Brittany Woods, Illinois, becomes a follower of heavy metal band Britny Fox.

Cutrescence, nineties style, is a stripped-down, postmodern ethos that has dutifully encompassed and fetishized rebellion.

But for all their shortcomings, the ersatz communities that surround the nation’s cities do possess a feature that other modern polises lack: they are organized around thriving, well-designed centers. And within the walls of the local shopping center (or centre, if Anglo worship runs high), the ethereal teddy bear reigns supreme. The mall is a totalizing consumerist institution, a hermetic marketing cosmos where the outside world enters only in the guise of the cute or the ironic. Here all the pseudo-needs of suburban life can be met without leaving the weightless world of well-tended lawns. Suburbanites flock to their malls not only to buy, but to exercise, to vote, to drink, to be entertained, and of course to socialize under the aegis of the benevolent shopping authorities; in short to perform all those acts that once would have forced them into the larger world. Certain clever physicians have even begun to move their practices into the malls. The culture of cutrescence is articulated most comprehensively in the shopping center, as this is the physical area most directly under the control of the leading organs of consumerism. Here cutrescence can be observed in its purest, most sophisticated form.

Cutrescence, nineties style, is a stripped-down, postmodern ethos that has dutifully encompassed and fetishized rebellion, as it has been told to do by advertiser and DJ alike. “Old-time values” are an eternal straw-man allowing them to congratulate themselves for their progressiveness and rebelliousness and ensuring a bottomless market for new goods. The simulated rebellion found among the suburbanites of the nineties is mainly a matter of clothing and attitudes towards consuming, and it does not prevent them from flocking to places like “Brittany Yesteryear” or voting Republican. Above all else this perpetual revolution of style must be perfectly unthreatening, working itself out entirely within the dialectic of mall boutiques and MTV. In cultural terms it means the cutrification of the bohemian pastimes of the sixties. Rock n’ Roll means “wholesome fun” in suburbia, and “Aristocrat Forest” parents as well as children can groove to the thoroughly pasteurized images of Madonna or the New Kids On the Block. They sense, somehow, that the fuel of rock n’ roll is essential for the advertising machinery that powers the nation, and they dutifully spend several hours per day watching favorite stars. Parent and child, they pass hours in the local mall to procure the latest in distinctive clothing, just like all their neighbors do.

The cutrification of rebellion combined with suburbia’s detachment from the world spells Postmodernity, and postmodernism very naturally characterizes the Weltanschauung of this nation of blanded spectators. In suburbia all things besides the Bland are ironic and cute — they are The Other — and few phenomena are close enough to be taken seriously. PoMo is naturally put to its most creative and appropriate use out in the new suburbia, by mall designers and decorators. Suburban kids live in a fantasy land of retro styles, borrowing from other people’s “lifestyles” as their fancy dictates. The suburban intellectual looks back and down on the preceding decades of struggle, which he perceives as leading directly to the well-planned heights that he now occupies. From this background come the nation’s elite: the artists and admen and theorists and publishers who are constitutionally unable to take seriously any experience that does not fit the logic of consumerist cutrescence.

Forty years ago Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the United States was born in the country and has moved to the city.” And in its dotage it has passed on to suburbia. In places like “Aristocrat Forest” America has moved back to its imaginary ancestral home to die, blithely leaving the control of the nation to professional caretakers. Here in the new suburbia our botched civilization lives out its sunny downhill days amid all the twisted trappings of Anglo-American culture as perceived by a people formed in front of the TV set. In the late suburbias of the nineties like those surrounding Kansas City, the gigantic farce of American social and material longings is played to its bland, banal conclusion, and the nation’s future is defined accordingly. As banks fail, debts mount, and crime and poverty skyrocket, America’s privileged class seals off the approaches to its climate-controlled playland where such nasty things are never permitted to filter through. In response to these problems the world’s wealthiest society is inventing a culture of practiced faiblesse, unabashed showiness, and simulated rebellion. Its would-be leaders are doing all they can to continue undisturbed in the rococo pseudo-opulence to which they are accustomed, unanimously choosing ignorance over involvement. And if they have their way, the teddy bear will soon be a more apt national symbol than Liberty ever was.

teddies

*“Aristocrat Forest” is a pseudonym. We were too afraid of offending someone to use its real name.

** Mark Trail, on the other hand, is the hero of an older, more idealistic suburbia.

***There is an undeniable resemblance between the labyrinthine wanderings of Leawood’s streets and the jargon-riddled acrobatics of the institutional avant-garde.

**** In some areas “Hello Kitty” divides authority with the bear in the suburban pantheon.


Stream of Spite

Tiny Tomahawk Creek flows through northeastern Johnson County, where it once irrigated corn and cabbage. Today it traces a jagged line across some of the fastest-growing suburbs in the nation. There are twenty small earth dams on it now, creating twenty polite ponds, replete with plastic lillies and all the rustic accoutrements (waterwheels and falls in particular) appropriate to an eighteenth century Quaker village in the Rocky Mountains. There is scarcely any water left when Tomahawk Creek flows into the Missouri.

There is a fairly good-sized pond at Manchester Meadows, where they captured some real swans and clipped their wings, so they couldn’t leave. But the fertilizer from nearby lawns washed down into the village pond, turning the plastic lillies orange and making the swans lose all their feathers in the very first summer. Next year they’re switching to mallards.

Jaymestowne has a large pond, too, built on a hillside and dyed a deep blue. Stucco buildings right up to the edge. Scenic, but vulnerable. Some youthful pranksters realized this and managed to destroy the dike with a lawnmower, tinting the entire project a beautiful robin’s egg color but flooding the basements and first floors of “Jaymestowne Manor” Units 5, 15, and 32. Jaymestowne Homes, Inc., wasn’t adequately insured and in the end everyone was evicted and the buildings razed.

Innocuous Tomahawk Creek was also the site of the decade’s worst industro-suburban misunderstanding. Unicorn Arms, a charming treeless development constructed in two months in 1985, allowed for a “Corporate Park” within its city limits to provide tax revenue. Unicorn city parents expected, of course, only a few tasteful office complexes and maybe a warehouse with nice lawns, but the corporations that moved in thought differently. On August 14, 1987, Moxoplast, Inc. gave Unicorn Arms a taste of industrial savagery at its plutocratic best. Discovering that the petite Kansas village had almost no laws restricting the dumping of noxious chemicals, Moxoplast poured a foul-smelling phosphorescent pink fluid into the gurgling waters of the Tomahawk. The developments downstream from Unicorn suffered the most as Tomahawk Creek developed a thick creamy pink foam topping that killed lawns and pets for miles. The stench made the out-of-doors uninhabitable and put quite a strain on nearby air-conditioners. Moxoplast’s abuse of Unicorn Arms’ nostrils (and innocence) only ceased when the “Olde Towne Council” began work on a new “gaol.”

Rivulets the size of Tomahawk Creek do not flood ordinarily, and in the age of suburbanization springtime sees the creek at its dryest as nearby homeowners pump thousands of gallons of water onto their lawns. Fall, on the other hand, ends the season of the swimming pool and the creek is suddenly swollen with the chlorinated waters of backyard pleasure ponds. In “The Villas of Nottingham-by-the-Brooke,” where Tomahawk Creek is called “Pleasant Brooke,” these seasonal floods are intensified by a lining of concrete that was applied to the brooke’s banks in 1979 to hasten its flow. Last labor day tragedy came to “The Villas of Nottingham-by-the-Brooke” when two children, idly frolicking in the concrete canyon behind their homes, were swept away by a flash flood resulting from the simultaneous draining of five nearby swimming pools.


Fragments

“We’re a brash new generation buying all new products.” —New Coventry Mall Motto.

An afternoon of furtive joy in unwrapping packages. What heights of anticipation in rending the crisp cellophane! What rapture in struggling with the vacuum-sealed paks! What bliss in removing pins and cardboard from the garment fragrant with new! And afterwards, the proud mound of refuse to be separated from the pile of products and placed properly in its receptacle.

“Teddy bears for adults. The billion dollar stuffed-animal industry is targeting adults, many of whom are in need of a cuddly friend.” —Chicago Tribune, April 5, 1990, p. 1.

“Imagine driving home at night and passing by your own private lake illuminated by a lighthouse. Imagine coming home to your very own custom home built by one of the Northland’s finest builders. Imagine dropping by your private pool or racquetball court and a chit-chat with your neighbors.” —advertisement for Charleston Harbor subdevelopment, New Neighborhoods of Greater Kansas City, December 1989.

“A jogging trail encircles the neighborhood and is accessible from each lifestyle area, with Hawthorne Lake providing a serene perspective for the home owners . . . Tomahawk Creek Parkway is the only through street in Hawthorne and the homes are built on cul-de-sacs to curtail traffic. The four lifestyle areas are separated by wrought iron and masonry walls to further insure privacy.” —advertisement for Hawthorne subdevelopment, New Neighborhoods, September 1988

“A Lifestyle So Fine, The Builder Lives Here Himself” —slogan for Windsor Manor subdevelopment

“I would go out with you Suzi . . .” Jaisyn said earnestly, gesticulating smoothly enough but struggling with himself for words. “It’s just that your tits aren’t big enough.”

Shifting her eyes to the floor, the girl walked silently away, leaving Jaisyn staring at a poster advertising Levi’s 501 jeans. After a moment he produced a pair of sunglasses and placed them on his face. Maybe in the 1920s or 1970s a girl in Suzi’s position would have had a chance. But this was 1990, and Jaisyn knew what girls were supposed to look like. He himself matched the male figure in the Levi’s ad in every discernible particular: jeans, shoes, shirt, glasses, haircut.

“See that Olde Pizza Shoppe?” the older boy demanded. “That used to be a shoe store. Before that they sold organs and stuff there. When you’ve been around this mall a few years, you learn that nothing ever stays the same.”

Jaisyn didn’t need to be told about mall memories. He had a few indelible ones himself. This wing in particular had always made him uncomfortable. As a small child, he had been brought to a doctor’s office here: the pediatrician, a little harried at the prospect of dealing with dozens of temperamental children, had afflicted the lad’s young arm with painful injections. The office had long since been converted into a fashionable clothing store, but Jaisyn retained a certain instinctual dread for this corner of the complex.

 

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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