APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH: Recently, a plague of spring allergy symptoms drove us indoors--safely out of harm's way from the bazillions of overwrought stamens and pistils, those yellow, lewdly dripping sex organs of the Cretaceous--and deep into our town's biggest, cleanest and most perfect mall, for our usual lunch-hour powerwalk.

We've been to the mall many times, of course. But always, it seems, on an errand of some urgency--socks for the kids, a new outfit for a wedding, those desperate, in-and-out blitzkriegs on that awful day before Xmas.

It'd been a decade since we'd been there merely to noodle about, to go with the flow. To peruse the big picture, as it were. Perhaps it's because we've gotten older--much older--since those teenage days when we hung around just to annoy the Barney Fife security guards, or to piss away most of our coins at the video arcade, but visiting the mall today seems as profound a cultural experience as, say, anything one is likely to find amid the many and varied channels of that other modern miracle, cable TV.

Strolling leisurely and with unfocused minds through the sparse midday muddle of shoppers, we first noticed all the merchandise looks reassuringly similar. The same cheery clothing and cubic zirconia jewelry brightening the window displays. The same fast-food and chocolate-chip cookie joints dotted about this vast, perfectly air-conditioned indoor empire.

And, happily, it could have been any mall, from Poughkepsie to Point Loma. America's malls are so perfect and well-kept these days that it's almost as if they're intended to reflect some, perhaps neo-classical, ideal we can't quite put a finger on.

We began to think fondly of this place as one of Mankind's carefully tended little gardens of commerce, hurriedly honed over the last century to promote our increasingly important meditations on consumption. (Aauuummmmm...Makes the allergy symptoms feel better, don't ya know.) The mall is a breathtakingly artificial environment, with roots in the original Disneyland, and undoubtedly a precursor to the glorious virtual realities of the fabled 21st century. A comfy, sanitized nest of our own collective design.

In earlier, much poorer times, the cocooning was, of necessity, nearly all imaginary. A stroll through the antique mega-malls of Europe, otherwise known as museums, reveals stupefying quantities of religious art and iconographic spiritual merchandise that once upon a time promised meaning and comfort in a dark and terrible world.

But, oddly, the world shrank. It just deflated like a defective balloon on a bright, new display of cubic zirconia. The darkness gave way to cheery mood lighting. And we could finally buy things--lots of pretty, colorful things. This merchandise, too, purports to bring us some semblance of meaning and comfort--if we will but surrender and believe the advertising--in an otherwise bland and boring world.

They say toys often hint at our future. Many of our great inventions first appeared as toys--fireworks; the steam engine; the gyroscope; laser weapons; Plop-o, the projectile-vomiting hand puppet...they all first appeared in our midst as toys. And as we ambled through the giant mall's one and only toy store--a more imaginative competitor went out of business right after Xmas--we were struck by the rough similarities between the toys on the shelves and the general merchandise in the mall at large: bright, extremely colorful, and inexpensively made.

Is this our future? All surface, little substance? A clever idea or two knocked off quickly, designed to self-destruct just as quickly, so we can go on to the next under-$100 bauble? Hey, nothing the matter with that!

We sat down at a table with, oddly enough, an old, coffee-stained New York Times open and folded to a story about Alan Hale, co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet. He was quoted as saying young people shouldn't seek careers in science--too little opportunity, you see.

Ah, Alan, we thought, this sour-grapes attitude will get you nowhere. Now if you could just narrow your horizons long enough to blast that ancient comet to bits and package them in plastic bubbles at the mall for under $100 each, why then you'd be getting with the cozy little program here on good old planet earth.... TW

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