Not to be the miserable old grandpa a-wavin’ my cane at the youths from my lawn chair telling them to get a job, but what do teenagers do these days? Seriously: What do they do? I don’t mean during the pandemic, an aberrant time during which none of us are doing much of anything; I mean when places are open and activities are available. Do they still mill about awkwardly at the Jewish Community Center ice cream social, failing to work up the nerve to talk to each other? Is the smoking of dreadful brick weed still in vogue, or has vaping shit from Med Men obviated the practice?
There’s one thing they aren’t doing, and that’s going to the goddamn mall. What a shame that is! As Eddie Kim wrote four short years ago, malls have been experiencing an ongoing mass extinction event since the 2010s, maybe earlier. The reasons for this slow, painful death are manifold. The economy has been in the shitter since 2008. Amazon has everything that the mall has, but cheaper. Big department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom, which have historically served as “anchors” for shopping malls and require massive amounts of money to staff and stock, have been in decline. And because those anchors are in decline, so are all the little shitty barnacle stores that cling to the anchors; after all, one needs to enter a mall through a Macy’s in order to meander over to the Wet Seal or Abercrombie & Fitch next door.
But insiders (by which I mean veteran mall rats like myself) know that shopping wasn’t the point of the shopping mall. Critics long railed against malls for being cultureless sites of naked consumerism, but for those of us who enjoyed them, the mall felt more like the agora of Athens than it did a mere place to buy shit. The drive to spend money was in the air all around you, but there were limited ways to dodge it. You could sneak into the movie theater and be entertained. You could visit a Brookstone or Sharper Image and enrich yourself by experiencing oddities. You and your friends could lounge in one of the mall’s many open plazas among flora and water in the form of potted plants and fountains. And perhaps most importantly, you could eat.
And goddamn, could you eat! Other places had food that was better tasting, or cheaper, or more nutritious. But I think it’s fair to say that no place ever had more tempting food than a shopping mall. What on earth were they doing to the fries at the Great Steak Escape to make them smell and taste like that? Why was pizza at a mall Sbarro sublime when the same pizza from an airport Sbarro was all gelatinous cheese and Styrofoam crust? I could never afford much from the mall as a teenager, even when I began working there. The pricey food was often out of my reach. But I could pretty much always afford a Mrs. Fields cookie, which was all I needed anyway — nutritionally, emotionally, spiritually.
The Mrs. Fields experience wasn’t just that of eating a pretty good chocolate chip cookie. It was a complex seduction. The smell of the place could lure you in from a thousand yards away, a warm and intimate, grandma’s-kitchen-type smell. In this regard, it was similar to competitors like Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s. In fact, it wasn’t unlike Abercrombie & Fitch, with that inimitable perfume of theirs that always managed to infect the whole floor. These places were luring you in, siren-like, with smells that served as promises. They all but whispered all this can be yours in your ear.
Also like Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s: The smell was always, always better than the taste. Nothing else would have been possible. No matter how great those cookies (or cinnamon rolls, or pretzels, or whatever) tasted, nothing could have ever matched those bakery-in-heaven smells.
Unlike Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s, though, Mrs. Fields had an ace in the hole that could tempt me like nothing else in this world: the cookie cakes. My God, those cookie cakes! They were essentially just chocolate chip cookies the size of pizzas with messages piped on top in frosting, but from their position in the cookie stand’s glass case they called my name, sang to me, promised me glory beyond my wildest dreams. Sadly, though, I was never permitted to order one when I visited the mall with my mother; they were too expensive for even a birthday splurge.
All I could do was gaze and drool. The whole booth was an exercise in longing. I visited Mrs. Fields full of appetites that could never have been sated with a thousand cookie cakes. My usual order was two chocolate chip cookies, which I’d devour one right after the other with wolfish intensity. The cookies were delicious, but I never felt satisfied because I could not have felt satisfied. I didn’t actually want cookies when I visited Mrs. Fields, or even cookie cakes. What I wanted was impossible: to infuse my blood with the smell, to live inside the oven, to take my place within the glass cookie display, sandwiched between trays of triple chocolate and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, warm and melting and reclining on a tray of my own.
The whole mall was like that, really. It was a site seemingly custom-built for the purpose of not quite satisfying our desires. How could it have been anything else? Despite the socialist inclinations of Victor Gruen, the man widely credited with inventing the shopping mall, a mall functions like a site of stunted consumerism for those of us who can’t throw our money around in the place. While it is possible to hang out at the mall for free and even to have a good time doing so, the experience is likely to leave you feeling thwarted and hungry — surrounded by so many things, bringing none home. And if you do choose to buy things, they won’t come cheap. You’ll feel thwarted by that, too. At every turn around the mall’s wide terrazzo corners: dissatisfaction, of one sort or another, dueling for your attention.
Like many franchises that we associate with the mall, Mrs. Fields has survived in a diminished, depressing form. Its website contains numerous dead-end pages that haven’t been deleted or fixed; the email addresses that appear on it all bounce back. You can order one of those exquisite cookie cakes from the website if you want to, but the sensory thrill of them is gone. Looking at pictures of cookie cakes on the Mrs. Fields online catalog is simply not the same as smelling a Mrs. Fields kiosk from the food court. The cakes are still fiendishly expensive, but the appeal is much harder to nail down from a distance.
My nostalgia for Mrs. Fields is ersatz in its way. Mrs. Fields the brand was sold to an investment firm in the early 1990s, so my memories of the treats come pre-tainted with the poison of investment capital. I have no idea what the “real” Mrs. Fields cookies tasted like pre-sale, pre-franchising, when they were just the treats Debbi Fields was selling from a stand in Palo Alto. But even accounting for that, it’s hard to guess who thought the prepackaged impostors that you can buy at CVS were a good idea. There is not one good thing about those cookies, and I’m being as kind as I can honestly be. The mall kiosk Mrs. Fields cookies were warm, inviting, perfectly crisp around the edges while still being gloriously soft in the middle. The individually wrapped cookies that you buy bags of from CVS taste like the platonic ideal of stale, shitty cookies. The magic isn’t only gone, it’s impossible to remember.
It’s a bummer, but there’s something appropriate about it. All that longing and desire that Mrs. Fields cookies represented was never designed to survive outside a place like a shopping mall. The mall was, itself, a monument to longing and desire. So was adolescence. Together, the three could mix up a potent cocktail that can’t be replicated anywhere else, under any other circumstances.
I can’t quite place the taste of a really good Mrs. Fields cookie anymore, and maybe it’s better that way. Now they can more perfectly serve as memories of longing for something really, really badly.