Death Stalks The Bayshore Mall

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This afternoon Eureka California’s Bayshore Mall is bathed in a hue of desperation and ennui that no amount of sunlight pouring through skylights can brighten. More than half the storefronts are vacant. Shoppers are scarce. Roof tiles are dangling. Employees are daydreaming. Sales are dwindling. With many corporate stores going bankrupt or leaving the mall several roadside venders peddling rugs and oversized tapestries featuring pot leaves, Bob Marley, and wolves howling at the moon have filled their vacancies. Some of these venders have vinyl banners to suffice as storefront signs, others didn’t bother. Once inside you can tell by the layout and color scheme that you’re in what used to be The Gap or Wilson’s Leather, which lends a post-apocalyptic tinge to this ziggurat of suburbia. The bleakness of this shopping center is not confined to the decaying architecture and gated stores. As I approached the entrance on the left side of the food court I  came upon a mouth with more vacancies than teeth gaping from behind a pulsating circle of condensation on the glass door. I hesitated for moment figuring the door was about to open from the inside. It didn’t. Above the circle sunken eyes were fixed on the far corner of the parking lot like a hungry fox at a rabbit hole. I opened the door putting myself face-to-face with the inert source of condensation and his fading neck tattoo. The heavy serif font read something like ‘Jezebel,’ though it was practically undecipherable due to years of sun exposure and someone’s shaky hand. “Where are they with my shit?” The pale vagrant mumbled, his eyes never straying from the parking lot. For a moment I contemplated a cunning reply, but for fear of the swift and unpredictable repercussions only a man in the throes of a rural methamphetamine haze could bring, I quickly stepped aside.

In the food court an employee at the Chinese Gourmet Express was twirling a toothpicked chunk of orange chicken between his fingers in an attempt to draw patrons. Two twaked out tweakers in tie-dye paced in a semi-circle engaged in a dispute as to where they should eat, Subway or Sbarro. A few Hot Topic shopping preteens on a quest to locate ‘hip’ strolled by on youth’s greatest snipe hunt. A pot-bellied middle-aged woman in high-water jeggings, thin legs, pointy head, her body resembling the Tweedles from Disney’s Alice and Wonderland, sat reading a copy of Eat, Pray, Love, which she must have brought with her since there’s no longer a bookstore in the mall. Her bounty from Burger King resting on a tray in front of her: a large fry, order of onion rings, four packets of ranch, a whopper, soda, large strawberry shake, and some other corrugated meat patty in a bun. At the table to her right a father sharing some orange chicken with his son cracked open a fortune cookie and read it out loud, “Life - it’s best not to get too comfortable.”

Unlike most mall cafeterias with their abundance of nationally recognized restaurant chains, half of Bayshore Mall’s six restaurants are locally owned.  With the desire to fulfill an addiction of my own, I gravitated towards Nona’s Ice Cream for a cup of coffee. While making my Americano owner Wendy Davis informed me that Gold Rush Coffee used to be in the mall but the café in Borders put them out of business. When Borders went bankrupt last year the mall was left without a coffee shop. Davis seized the opportunity and added an espresso machine to her ice cream shop. “It’s not a mall if you can’t get coffee.” She said, as she handed me my drink. “I don’t know about the future of the mall, and I don’t know what to think about Walmart opening. All I really want is for more stores to open.”  I nodded and wished her the best.

Past the food court the mall jots off in two directions like a stubby ‘T.’ As you stand in the center of the mall facing the former home of Old Navy, now filled with inflatable ‘bounce houses’ for children to flail upon, Kohl’s is the anchor store to the left (It was originally Mervyn’s, until the company went bankrupt in 2008). In fact, Clare’s, Wet Seal, Spencer’s Gifts, and RadioShack are the last remaining stores on the left half of the mall. The only signs of life on the walk up to Kohl’s was the jingle of janitors’ keys on hips and a gate being locked at the previous location of Payless Shoes.

With Gottschalk’s, JC Penny’s, and Border’s now closed – and Walmart still under construction – Sears and Bed, Bath, and Beyond are the surviving anchors to the right. Even Just a Buck has gone under. Between the defunct Borders and Gottschalks rests the busiest place in the mall, the playground. Parents of all dispositions come with the sole purpose of letting their children play on the slide and plastic playground amenities. As I walked past a teenage mother was chasing her three year old around the slide while a couple dads and a half dozen moms hunched across the surrounding benches.

I sucked down my coffee near Mrs. Field’s Cookies, which has survived as the only place for mid-mall snacking solely because of its proximity to the playground. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but feel a looming sense of uncertainty. Looking around, I’m not the only one having a brush with such a thought. It’s on several faces of shoppers passing through as though we’re all watching the tide go out after a tsunami warning.

When I was younger malls, with their stale air and blatant corporate grinding, used to leave me feeling displaced. Now memories of a packed mall on holidays and the once clean and controlled environment have done so. The Bayshore Mall was never the kind of  place to see people shopping at Tiffany’s or working this season’s Chanel pumps while carrying a toy poodle in a Gucci handbag. Nonetheless, it used to be a safe and predictable engine of consumerism, the tip of suburbia’s flame, burning hot, burning bright, vibrantly unaware of the destruction and limited fuel below. Now the tip of the flame is in the red and no one knows if it’s best to let it burn out.

In 1988, almost eighteen years after Joni Mitchell let us know, “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” one of the largest mall owners in the United States, General Growth Properties, opened the Bayshore Mall. Few people on either side of the political aisle accurately predicted the impact the mall would have on the community. Plagued by ‘the timber wars,’ an ongoing dispute between the clear-cutting timber industry in the south, and college environmentalists from the north, Humboldt County found a slab of modern America resting like a knot between its shoulder blades. Some saw it as a sign of the declining times, others a sign of hard work paying off. With the legitimate local economy uncertain (If you ask locals, most claim the largest market in Humboldt County is marijuana) many local retailers feared the mall would put them under. Several corporate shops such as Sears and JC Penny relocated from downtown and the old Eureka Mall to the gleaming new space. Unlike its predecessors the climate controlled Bayshore Mall boasted 25ft wide walkways, a food court bordered by lofty windows, as well as over 100 corporate shops. Although there were a few dissenters standing in protest, many adults hailed it as a hub of commerce, teenagers hailed it as the hub of cool. Jobs were brought into the depressed county. Even those who hated malls – or shopping for that matter – could find solace at The Sweet River Saloon where one could pad the frenzy of Holiday shopping at the full bar, take mom to Sunday brunches, or attend the often humorless Saturday night standup comedy. Fast-forward 24 years; the mall appears to be on its deathbed. The giant that was once feared, or hailed as source of employment, depending on how you look at it, is barely recognizable. And the Bayshore Mall isn’t an anomaly.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, only one new enclosed mall has been built in the US since 2006. In the last 10 years 300 malls between 1/2 and 1 million square feet have boarded up their doors, while every 72 hours a new mall opens somewhere in the world. There are many speculations depending on who you talk to or what you read as to why this is: The recession, increases in online shopping, poor corporate business models, a shift in consumer’s desires, a declining domestic manufacturing base and the success of bigger boxes such as Walmart, Target and Home Depot.  But in Humboldt County, where the unemployment rate for April of 2012 rests at 10.6%, 2.5% percent above the national rate, there’s a feeling that it’s all of these things as well as something more.

I walked back to the food court to fulfill my craving for bad Chinese food. While grasping at the last few bits of fried rice with my frayed chopsticks I spotted a vertically challenge man, perhaps forty something, looking a bit like the Cryptkeeper in an oversize shirt with electric blue skulls plastered all over it. He was walking towards the food court with his wife who was pushing a baby in a stroller. The woman was roughly three times the mass of this man leaving the geometry of baby making a perplexing conundrum worthy of the greatest Zen riddles. Despite her stature she had shiny yellow and pink concave jowls, perhaps colored by a reflection from her pink Tweety Bird t-shirt. Now, I’m not a doctor; however, jerky movements, dilated eyes, blank yet hostile expressions, Loony Tunes, all afflictions screamed to me of meth. As they got near the center of the food court the man sat down. The two chatted a bit and then the woman walked and stood with the stroller a few tables away. For a moment a sizzling girl proudly displaying her assets in denim short shorts distracted me. I couldn’t help but notice the white pockets peeking out from underneath the brim of her shorts. She swerved and bounced a bit as to avoid bumping into a security guard. As she passed he turned around and proudly tipped his Mountie hat, surly adding this moment to his spank bank.

I turned back to the Cryptkeeper just as a guy with a shaved head, baggy jeans and a white hoodie, slapped a wad of cash into his hand. Giving an upward nod he then walked towards the woman with the stroller. Reaching behind the baby she pulled something out into her fist and slapped it into the hand of the guy as he passed by. Though I have no idea how much money was just transferred, it’s safe to say that it was the largest transaction I’ve seen all day.

A few moments later another transaction took place with a different bloke. I instantly thought of the man with the neck tattoo I saw on the way in. I scanned the food court; he was nowhere to be found. He could be strolling somewhere in the 'Beyond' section of Bed, Bath and Beyond. Or perhaps he's in one of the unmarked rug shops buying a hookah.  Who knows. Wherever he is, he's surely long gone.