There’s no proof

For a new project I’m working on, I’ve been trying to dig up visual evidence of my memories of the Echelon Mall:

A vintage postcard of the Echelon Mall in front of Strawbridge & Clothier

A vintage postcard of the Echelon Mall in front of Strawbridge & Clothier

A place in which I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours trolling trying on silver hanging earrings, drinking bananaberry smoothies, and most of all, hunting for cute boys from neighboring towns.

My memories of the mall prior to adolescence are mostly of Strawbridge & Clothier, a Philadelphia-based department store that anchored the shopping mall when I was a child. My mind’s eye, when I think of those earlier days, is always at waist-level: watching and waiting by the Clinique counter for my mother to exchange lipsticks, watching and waiting next to the cash register while my mother returned an unopened pack of panty hose, watching and waiting inside a clothing rack with my brother until my mother finished browsing the winter coats.

Needless to say, as was the fate of many suburban malls, there is not much that remains of the Echelon Mall of my youth. From what I’ve heard, the Voorhees Town Center complex that exists on the property now is not a bad addition to the retail neighborhood, but it doesn’t serve as the community gathering place and youth social hub the mall was on Fridays and Saturdays when I was a kid and teen.

The Echelon Mall is gone.

It’s not only gone. It’s gone gone, and I’ll tell you why.

There are hardly any pictures.

I’ve searched the internet using a variety of search strings and there are only a handful of photographs to be found. One page of Google results identified the one above, another vintage postcard showing the same scene from a previous decade, a blurry shot of the “e” tower at the entrance on Laurel Road, and a sad-old-man version of the billboard that used to promote Halloween masks on sale at Spencer’s or the Easter Bunny’s impending arrival.

Why the dearth of photographs?

Well, it’s obvious when you think about it: No one had any need to take pictures inside the shopping mall. They were busy shopping. Or eating. Or looking at cute boys. It’s not that we weren’t taking selfies back then; we were. I have tons of photo strips of me and my friends, me and my siblings, me and my boyfriends. I have close-up, nostril gazing snapshots from camp, from the Jersey shore, from concerts. Narcissism wasn’t invented by Apple.

And yet, in almost a dozen saved photo albums and worn envelopes of doubles, there is no glimpse of the food court, nothing from Sam Goody’s, nothing from Woolworth’s or B. Dalton or Accessory Place, not even from outside General Cinema waiting by the street’s edge for my dad to pull up and take us home.

Maybe in a shoebox somewhere there is someone posing for a Polaroid with Santa in front of JC Penneys. And maybe in another there’s an out-of-focus 4 x 6 matte of a Girl Scouts crafts sale or a Gymnastics Academy performance.

I don’t have any of those pictures, though. I don’t have a single shot of the Echelon Mall.

I can’t tell you yet what it is I long for when I long for the Echelon Mall.  In its heyday, the place was a poor man’s Cherry Hill Mall which was a poor man’s King of Prussia. When I shake myself from my nostalgic slumber, I remember even how skanky it was when I was a teen, how sketchy. Guys with cigarettes outnumbered the skater dudes. And their girlfriends with sky high super-sprayed bangs were to be avoided at all costs. In fact, I don’t remember the bathrooms at the Echelon Mall. I think I was afraid of them and the older girls fixing their hair there or the rapists of the many Echelon Mall urban legends. Most likely, though, my bladder was just a lot stronger then than it is now.

I don’t know what it is I long for when I mourn the Echelon Mall. But I’m searching.

I think it has something to do with pictures. With my need for proof.

Witchful thinking

Even though I can’t situate them on a timeline, these are details I have assembled:

1. I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond after I read the Meg mystery books, but before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

2. Before any book, my parents rented for me Escape from Witch Mountain on betamax from the video rental store on Haddonfield-Berlin road.

3. I tried to check out a book once on witchcraft from the Camden County library, but there were none to borrow. No how-to, no expose, no empty slot on the shelf, no card inside a drawer marked Wa – Wi.

4. Once, I was a witch for Halloween. It was the year my parents threw me a Halloween party. This year may have been 1980. It was a popular year for the witch because Maddie Schwartz arrived wearing the same molded mask and plastic yellow trash-bag apron tied around her neck. For the record, when I picture the witch’s face mask, warts and all, it looks less like a woman and more like a man. This is, at least partly, due to a photograph of my father wearing my witch’s mask, and the girls at the party laughing.

5. In the same living room in which my mother set up a folding table to hold the cheese curls and the candy corn at the Halloween party, there was a love seat behind which I hid every year during the holiday broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. I crouched down behind the love seat as the Wicked Witch of the West screamed at me from atop an abandoned cabin in a forest.

6. I wanted, when I was a girl, to meet a real witch, but a nice one. Not so nice like Glenda, more like Samantha, nice, but naughty.

7. Once, I sat in the attic bedroom of my camp friend Hope and, for the first time, met another girl who also secretly wanted to be a witch, or more specifically, wanted to practice witchcraft.

8. The Craft came out a few years too late, but I still watched it.  A few years too late, Willow and Tara made implied love during the Buffy musical, but I still watched that, too.

9. When I still lived in New Jersey, I interviewed a witch for a local newspaper called Patch.com. She called herself a Wiccan and though I may have even asked her at the time, “Why Wiccan and not witch?” I could not explain to you now the difference. I met her at the store she owned in Montclair called Mystic Spirit. At the end of the interview, asthmatic from the incense, I left both longing to be and thankful I was not a Wiccan.

10. There is not one how-to book of spells in my collection, even though once I bought a how-to book of spells from Urban Outfitters and gave it to my friend Susan for her birthday. It might have been Karin I gave the book to. It was someone, a woman who was my friend when I lived in New York, a woman who was my friend with a birthday in June.

Is it witchcraft when you a fold a piece of paper, and then fold it again, and then write numbers on the folds and wishes beneath them?

Is it witchcraft when you settle in at night and chant for health and wealth and love and ease?

Is it witchcraft when you listen to prayers sung in harmony in the hopes you will be transported out and above your self so you may have a better view of your life? A better understanding of what it is to be you?

I watch a clip on YouTube. Tia is still beautiful and Tony is still creepy, and I still, in a way, want to be a witch. And I still in a way, am frightened by the possibility I already am one.

“Come to think of it,” says Tony to his sister Tia before he begins to play the harmonica that will make the marionettes dance. “You can do a lot of things I can’t. Like working locks, and the way you can talk to me without moving your mouth.

Maybe it’s because you’re a girl.”

Maybe.

Nostalgia sounds like …

“There’s an echo in the wind

Makes me wonder where I’ve been”

 

The closest appliance to a time travel machine I’ve ever owned arrived in my mailbox today.

walkman

I sold my yellow Sony edition at a yard sale over a decade ago. This one is a gift from a friend who knows how desperate I’ve been for a portal back.

I popped in some AA batteries I had on hand (thank GOD) and chose a tape from the black vinyl portable cassette holder; a mixed tape whose destruction wouldn’t crush me if the Walkman accidentally ate it. SIDE B was a mix I copied in high school from my friend Rachel, kicked off by I Don’t Like Mondays, a song I used to blast in my car on the way to senior year of high school (not just on Mondays). SIDE A was the soundtrack to St. Elmo’s Fire.

I pulled out the cassette tape from its plastic case and popped it in the Walkman without much care.

I pressed play.

WHOOSH.

I wasn’t planning on going anywhere. I didn’t pack or leave a note. I just wanted to make sure the thing worked.

“All the years I’ve left behind

Faded pictures in my mind …”

WHOOSH.

I didn’t think I was going anywhere just yet, so I was pretty surprised to find myself in Thurston Hall at GWU in 1993; pretty surprised to see myself lying on a twin bed watching St. Elmo’s Fire on my white combination 18 inch TV/VHS player with Dayle and Erin and Stacia and Linnea. I know the power of music, and yet I was surprised that a collection of music I presumed held no emotional attachment over me, could suddenly sweep me back.

“So, we can be young and innocent
When nothing mattered but the moment we were in
Let’s shut our eyes and pretend
And maybe once again we can be young and innocent”

WHOOSH

I really didn’t think I was going anywhere yet.  Truth is, I wasn’t really thinking.

In that moment, I was just crying.

Tears of astonishment. Tears of gratitude.

To be swept away. To be 19 again. For Just A Moment.

This poem comes in pencil only

This guy popped out of nowhere after 30 or so years just when I needed him most.

pencial sharpener antique 1980s

He looks like a dapper old cat, but what you can’t see … what he’s hiding behind his back … is his secret weapon.

And exactly what I need right now.

A pencil sharpener.

It’s hard to explain exactly why I found him where I did (inside a personalized pink plastic container holding personalized pink hair ribbons), but I’m not one to question serendipity (okay, I am.)

It just so happens that I’ve been desperate for a good pencil sharpener lately.

If I had my choice, I’d get a vintage one from a 1950s midwestern schoolhouse and hammer it into my kitchen wall — BANG BANG BANG — but those guys seem to be going for big bucks on ebay and anyway I need mine to be the travelin’ type.

And this dandy cat looks ripe for travelin’, don’t you think?

He needs to fit in my handbag, the one holding a heavy spiral bound notebook with a hard cover decorated in mandalas.

I’m writing more by hand these days, you see.  Not because I want to. (Frankly, I prefer the feel of a circa 2005 keyboard against my rapidly tap tap tapping fingers. I also covet the ability to quickly delete the last thought I just had. See? I just deleted a thought you will never know.)

But because  I’ve accidentally become a poet: a compulsive stringer together of words. And poets (potentially the most compulsive artists of all) need at their side a means to satisfy their urges.

A computer won’t do. One needs to get down words with haste.

A smartphone won’t either. My thumbs are too thick, too clumsy. “Bogus” accidentally becomes “booger.”

If only I had a secretary by my side. … the cat would surely do if only he was alive.

“Please, kind sir, take down this line,” I might say to the cat if only he could lift his  hand away from his orange man purse and take dictation. “No, strike that! Change compulsive to inveterate.”