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.

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.