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The International Writers Magazine: Stayvacationing

Everyday Strange
• Marina Jarrette
Journal open and pencil at the ready, I anxiously scoured the Valley Metro site for clear and understandable directions to Fiesta Mall. I’ll just go ahead and stop myself right here and say that this was mistake #1: clear and understandable directions using a public transportation system? Yeah. ‘Nuff said.

Fiesta Mall

I was ready to pull my hair out before the first map PDF was fully loaded. I truly might as well have been reading Sanskrit, the sharp tangled web of colored lines sprawling across the greater Valley area leaping from the page and strangling my senses until my eyeballs throbbed in protest.. “You’ll never figure out how to get there! Never! Muah ha ha haha!” taunts the sidebar with its so-called map key. 

It was two days before I even brought myself to look at the map again.

‘Strange’ was the component for this trip: ‘unfamiliar’ or ‘that which you normally resist.’ My first thought was “Well, I’m not resistant to anything!” Which is just adorable since the first thing I learned on this trip was that I was wrong. I had thought of the term ‘resistance’ as some formal decision: a strong and entirely intentional choice to not do something. But it’s actually more of a steady string of preferences that gradually form invisible walls around those things which, by priority, you care not to comprehend. Did I know I had a resistance to public transportation? No. But I did. Oh. I did. And after my 48-hour hiatus for mental health, the nifty “Trip Planner” application I discovered informed me that the quickest route would take nearly an hour; oh yes, there was definitely resistance.

And so, I set off on my academic travel writing journey wondering how I would spin an entire story on a ‘resistant’ trip to the mall (how strange could the mall really be, after-all? I guess Monte Reel wrote that story about visiting the mall in his hometown with fresh eyes, but was it too late to change location - completely ignorant to the fact that I was already experiencing something unfamiliar that I would normally resist doing. In retrospect, I could have written an entire piece on navigating the public transportation system. But alas, c’est la vie. 
I step out of class on a bright Friday afternoon, lowering my favorite “classy-black” sunglasses to make out my own scrawly shorthand in my journal:

  1. Jupiter orbit south to college + southern @ 2:40pm.

Easy enough. I’ve taken the orbit jupiter before, so I step confidently into the blue shuttle-bus when it arrives on my corner. A handful of blocks later I tug the gray wire to stop the bus. I am quite pleased with myself at how smoothly this is going so far. I consult my journal again as I walk to the nearest bus stop:

  1. 61 south to suprstn sprg TC @ 3:02pm. Stop: southern + stewart.

I’ve arrived at the bus stop and the blue sign above me confirms that the 61 south does indeed run by this stop. But wait... am I going east or west? Did I really not think of this? Where’s the other bus stop? I can’t see it from here... omg I can’t see it from here... what if I miss it?? I am going to miss my bus how typical. 

I walk/run across the street in a hot panic, compulsively checking my phone for the time. A quick call to a friend confirms that I am on the right side of the street now and I have five minutes to sit feeling like a fool on the surprisingly clean blue bus stop bench.

Bus A big, bright green and white bus pulls up hastily to the curb. A burst of cool AC welcomes me as the clear door folds open. “How old are you?” asks the driver as I pull out my wallet. I am honestly taken aback by this question, its relevance to my bus ride completely escaping me. My mind draws two equally stupid conclusions: I am in some sort of legal trouble OR this bus driver is hitting on me!

Feeling acutely aware of the pause I had taken to process, I answer honestly trying to hide my hesitancy with a glaze of casual chit-chat. The driver informs me that I am not eligible for the discounted rate. I rue my own stupidity and feel super cool holding the bus up as I shove in the last twenty-five cents of my fare in all pennies.

I take a seat amongst the other fifteen-to-thirty-somethings; we are a sea of iPod headphones, portable gaming devices, smart phones, purses, casual sneakers, purses, and socially relevant accessories, all gently twitching our feet to our respective singular energies. As I watch the buildings smoothly fly past the window ahead of me I feel a nervous catch in my throat and a simultaneous rush of adrenaline. ‘I’m fine. Know how to be alone. Not afraid to be alone with my thoughts.’ Yet I am only one street (roughly) from where I go to get groceries every month and I feel a million miles away. When I'd taken a travel writing trip with my friend Kevin (just four weeks before) I hadn’t felt anything like this, yet I hadn’t been to any of the places we visited that day either. Is this the real difference between traveling ‘insieme’ and traveling solo? That traveling with someone else is a crutch, providing you a comforting presence of ‘familiar’ no matter how unfamiliar your new surroundings are? Or is it not that we deny ourselves the “full” experience of new surroundings by traveling with someone but that we forego some of our personal experience for the experience of strengthening of a relationship?

I am surprised to find myself seeing both types of travel having a place in my future. I had always thought in the past that I wouldn’t want to travel alone to another country, that it would be too scary, too risky, too lonely etc. But sitting anxiously on the bus alone as I adjusted to my new surroundings had me craving more. I wanted the challenge of navigating the uncertainty and depending upon yourself: what will you do? How will you act? Where will you go? And if things go wrong..? It was frightening, yes, but more than anything it was invigorating. And suddenly, where I previously dared not imagine roaming unless arm-in-arm, I found myself strolling solo... through the charming, flower-lined, heaven- bright streets of Paris on a clear spring day... reading at ma table pour une.. maybe I’ll wander the Louvre later...

I am shaken from my daydreaming as the bus breaks suddenly and at least a third of the passengers begin their swift exit. This is not my planned stop, but I can also see what looks an awful lot like a mall in the distance past a sign announcing that we are in the “Fiesta District.” I hold fast to my planned route until the cool, robotic bus-intercom voice says “ Fiesta Mall.” I notice that the voice is programmed female, perhaps because people find that less demanding or threatening? I am not willing to risk walking an extra few blocks in the afternoon sun in order to ponder this some more so out I go, setting off down the street as the bus thunders on behind me.

Fiesta Mall: opened 1979 by the real estate division of Sears, renovated in 2000 to keep up with classy competitors popping up in surrounding areas; however, the surrounding demographic secured the mall’s spot as a blue collar establishment.

It is surprisingly calm as I approach the parking lot entrance. A light breeze blows, a few clouds dot the sky, a moderate amount of cars inch impatiently, perhaps, but not aggressively at an awkward three-way stop. Not quite the frenzy I expected. I skirt empty loading docks and abandoned trucks behind the iconic Sears realizing that I must be approaching the mall from behind, but as soon as I turn the corner the tell-tale signs of “ malldom” start popping up: a woman with messy hair and tired eyes charges out of a side door, wasting absolutely no time lighting up a cigarette, inhaling an iced coffee and exhaling her happy face in what is likely her first break in many hours

Two tanned, waxed and Polo-shirted men have separate/ simultaneous/ side-by-side cell-phone conversations at what they clearly don’t recognize (or care) is the top of their voices, gesturing brashly and looking pleased with themselves; a car crammed full of people lingers carelessly in the middle of the street, playfully teasing their friend who has just exited the vehicle for his next shift at work. After passing through a line of reflective double doors I am immediately bombarded by children’s crying, their charming chorus echoing grandly across wide, tiled floors and the stories-high glass-domed ceiling. I observe that the indoor play area is desert themed (very original, guys), not that it makes any difference to the kids OR the parents who are just there for ten minutes without sleeve-tugging.

As I move toward an undetermined destination my eyes start to take in about a dozen things at once: Aéropostale is having a 50%-off sale; a “Toy Story” themed shop is still toting a “ grand opening!” banner; Perfume Plus has it’s iron-chained gate half-way down as the operators have taken off for lunch (surprisingly European practice for an American mall); a line of coin-operated massage chairs, a red-blinking Coke machine, at least seven different jewelry establishments (three stands, four upscale stores), an over-staffed Verizon booth, shoes, graphic tees, knockoff handbags, cell phone covers, custom keys.... All typical mall adornments. Yet I have to say that I am not on edge, as I often feel when presented with constant advertising. The mall is very clean with plenty of natural light coming in, and there are varying sized groups of people roaming about but no crowds. The temperature is pleasant, the noise level tolerable and ooo, there’s Bath and Body Works! It smells so nice and that display is so pretty, I’ll just pop in and see what’s new.

Bath and Body Three stores later I am completely aware that the system has won. However, it’s not the Bath and Body Works bag in my hand that suddenly bothers me. I realize somewhere in the midst of tallying how many meals I could skip in order to buy a new blouse that I had come to the mall in search of experiencing the unfamiliar, and so far I had proven only that I could efficiently block out the unfamiliar to zone in on my preferences. I was having a nice time but I decided I would challenge myself to seek out something I would normally avoid in malls. And that’s when I caught a whiff of the food court.

Ah, the food court. The most recognizable icon of mall culture beside the escalator. A gathering of the most popular fast food restaurants and the completely random “ experimental” establishments that the sensible mall-dwellers know to avoid. I now knew my target. I was going to find the strangest sounding food in the food court; I would eat from ‘that place’ I would normally avoid out of fear of a prolonged stomach ache. It took me a while to actually find the food court as it was quite unusually housed on the second floor, but once I got there I was lucky (in this case) to find that the Fiesta Mall food court had more random names than brand names. There was a sad looking corn dog place complete with three containers of unidentified blue, green, and pink iced liquid... an independently run Chinese buffet, the entrees scribbled on pieces of paper taped to the counter... and then I saw it: Los Hijos de Sushi Mexican-style. 

As it turns out from some light Facebook research later, Los Hijos de Sushi is known for its hotdogs and listed under ‘seafood’ by the mall - this is hardly relevant at this point in my story, but it tickles me to think that I ate sushi from a seafood mall establishment known for its hotdogs. But I digress. Mall sushi! No, no, I’m sorry: Mexican-style mall sushi. I certainly contemplated the absurdity of that phrase as I purchased the cheapest roll available (fried vegetarian half-roll for $2.99) and waited uncomfortably for my food to be constructed. I sit at an impressively clean table, the employees behind the counter watching me wait as if they can’t believe a real customer is there. I wondered with all my journal recording and picture taking whether they thought I was a food critic or health inspector. But no matter, the silver counter bell is dinged for my “order-up” and I collect what is actually a decent looking tray of food. 

Sushi gone

My half roll is cut into six bite-size pieces and surrounded by raw shredded carrots, a white and pink speckled slab of something I definitely don’t recognize, and four small plastic condiment containers of which I recognize only one (chives). I boldly open every container and spoon on a bit of the sauces to my first piece of sushi. 'So far so good' moves into 'yummy' and I get more confident, putting a bit of everything on every bite until I polish off the last piece. 

I am happily surprised by the success of my food endeavor and only the tiniest bit nervous as I realize that the real test started now that I had ingested the food: I am praying I don’t get sick. Here’s hoping. I scribble in my journal, realizing with a glance at my phone that I will miss my return bus if I don’t start moving. As I gather my things I sniffle a little and the warm, satisfying tingle on my lips makes me suspect of wasabi. I wonder which mound of condiment was the wasabi. Would I have eaten it had I known it was wasabi or would I have been too scared?

I am in an extraordinarily good mood as I dash back through the swirl of stores. I am waiting for the moment my trip will turn sour, but it doesn’t happen. I make my bus, I don’t get sick later, and I still like the new scent I bought at Bath and Body Works once I get it home. It was a great afternoon. 

As I looked back upon my trip on the bus ride home I realized that it wasn’t the presence of strange things that had made my afternoon exciting but that I’d made a choice to widen my scope enough to experience them. It’s so easy to go through life with tunnel vision; we are preferential creatures and we take comfort in our classification of the world around us. But trying new and strange things reminds you that you are alive- that you are capable of anything you set your mind to- and that is power. 

bus fare: $4.00
new scent: $5.00
mall sushi: $3.00
rediscovering your adventurous spirit: priceless.
Find Fiesta Mall Logo

© Marina Jarrette May 2013

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