I’ve never seen the parking lot of NorthPark this empty on a Saturday. It’s May 2, one day after the governor began creaking open the door on our state, but I glide my car into that perennially bustling marketplace like a thief working the after-hour shift, even though it’s a sunny 1pm. Cars are clustering over by Nordstrom’s, which is closed like every department store, but it’s situated near a side entrance where people in face masks stream in and out. A small woman wearing a tuxedo and a blue face mask holds open the push-door for customers. (I’m going to stop mentioning the face masks, but everyone in this story is wearing one.) Right inside, there’s a table with a bottle of hand sanitizer, a police officer seated next to a blonde woman who looks like she runs marathons.
“Welcome to NorthPark,” she says.
If you grew up in Dallas, especially if you are a girl, this upscale mall is a ship of memories. The pond where the penguins used to roam, the corner of Dillard’s where you bought your prom dress, the Neiman-Marcus makeup counter where your mother splurged on a high-end makeover, because it was the late Nineties, and everyone was rich, even your scrappy family, the Lululemon store where you bought the yoga pants that made your ass look way better than your ass looks. Every one of those stores is shut down today. A slip of paper taped against the glass. Temporarily closed.
Today the grand mall looks like a luxury liner emptied of its passengers. Signs read: Please practice social distancing by standing six feet apart. I stand in the atrium, looking down one barren side, then the other. The glossy brown cement reflects the overhead lighting like moon spilling across the water.
I wander down the first row, but nothing is open. Next hallway, same. I stand outside the window display of a shuttered Victoria’s Secret, the headless mannequins wearing their lacy lingerie and fluttering silk kimonos, like beheaded queens of a decadent world who never saw the guillotine coming. The sign in the window says VERY SEXY.
Eighty percent of the stores are closed. I can’t suss out the rhythm or rhyme to the ones that opened. Ugg, Godiva, Design Within Reach. An overwhelming number lie in the high-end section of the mall. Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer, Dolce and Gabbana. Later a friend will suggest such stores are accustomed to social distancing, since so few people shop in them. I just assume some gamble was made in the higher-ups that shoppers busting out of quarantine were ready to drop serious dough.
I wouldn’t peg these shoppers as Tag Heuer types. They look like middle-income families, the easy cultural mix of races and ethnicities I’ve come to expect from NorthPark, one of the reasons I once dubbed it the Central Park of Dallas. We are a shopping town, bless our hearts. Once a publishing big-wig in London asked me what people in Dallas did on weekends when it got too hot, and my brain spun for a minute before I said, “We go to the mall. But it’s a really good mall!” So much of my ambivalence about this place was tucked into that sentence. Embarrassment, pride, humor, eff-you and your fancy British accent. For better or worse, NorthPark is where this city comes together. Or used to, at least.
I wander into a mid-range women’s clothing store. “Welcome to _______,” the greeter says. I’m not going to tell you the name of the store, because I didn’t identify myself as a journalist, and it would be a dick move to quote these women without such a proper warning, and the last thing I wanna do is make people who had to work during a pandemic regret their decision to be polite to a customer.
“So how does this work?” I ask the greeter, whose face mask had pretty fabric. “Can I try things on, or …?”
“Totally,” she says. She goes over protocol: An employee will stand outside the dressing rooms, sanitizing each item of clothing left behind. It worries me a bit, but I drape half a dozen items over one arm, and when I head back to the rooms, I find no one around but the woman spritzing dresses on hangers. This must be a strange time to come back to work, I tell her, and she says, “But it’s the new normal. We’ll adjust,” and I can’t decide whether her casual tone is depressing or comforting. We’re all fine vs. This is how it’s gonna be.
I try on a drapey gold dress that looked very pretty on the mannequin and looks absurd on me, because I am seven inches shorter than the mannequin. Decent question: What am I doing right now? Where do I think I’m going to wear this drapey golden dress? Who goes shopping during a pandemic? Except shopping has always been a kind of dreaming. It was a story you were telling yourself about a trip you were going to take, a meal you were going to have, a life you were going to live. One day.
The dress doesn’t work on me. I settled on two tank tops, and a long striped skirt an employee has assured me will work in every season.
In the checkout line, I stand six feet behind the customer in front of me, and after she heads out, the woman running the register swans around to the front to spray down the credit card machine and wipe it down. “This is really teaching me patience,” she says in a gentle voice, like maybe that is a good thing.
We were all so busy once. Such a rush! So important! Go go go. Had to send a text, had to check Twitter, had to find out if we were going viral. (Ha: Going viral.) Now Mother Nature had humbled us, five weeks spent in our rooms, and we’ve gotten nose to nose with the chaos of the universe.
“I wasn’t sure I should come in today,” I tell her. She is nice, that woman at the register. “I wasn’t sure if people working today would feel excited or exploited —”
“A little of both,” she says, as she folds a blouse into a gentle origami. “But honestly I’m glad to be around people.” And she likes this employer. They’re taking the necessary precautions. The unforgivable thing, she says, would be a business that pushed out employees and didn’t offer the right protection. She slides the bag across the counter, and I thank her, and she thanks me, and I’m on my way again.
There is one line in the mall. Fourteen people deep. Kids and young men and couples. My eyes eagerly dart to the store: Finish Line. I didn’t even know that store existed, and now it’s the most popular? I scan the window display to figure out what exciting things are afoot, but I only see rows of sneakers. I head inside another mid-range clothing store, where a woman with her hair swept back in a low ponytail explains I can touch the clothes and I can try them on but please keep my face mask on and leave anything I don’t want in the dressing room.
“Do you have to say that to every person who comes in?” I ask, and she sighs and says yes.
I buy a loose cashmere sweater that falls off my shoulder. Why I think I need this sweater in May, I couldn’t tell you, but the sweater looks good on me. That slouchy casual vibe.
“Not as many people out as I thought there’d be,” I say to the woman at the counter. She says Friday was busier, but maybe everyone got the shopping out of their system.
The food court is empty. White chairs lined up like a big party that never arrived. I take a picture of the chairs and notice how pretty the configuration in the fading daylight. The guy at Which Wich emerges from the back room, the only store in the row that’s open, and he startles me, and we get to talking.
“We opened special for you,” he says.
Is he flirting with me? While I’m in a face mask? I feel that needless rush of female gratification. I still got it.
I stand across from the AMC sign, the red neon illuminated, its reflection on the floor, despite the fact that AMC generated headlines as it looked at a possible bankruptcy filing, victim to the social-distancing age (and let’s be honest, victim of Netflix). I stand in the corridor where I bought so many tickets to so many escapes, worlds other than mine, and I snap a picture so I can remember this place, and I send the photo to my buddy Joe, who often came with me to the movies.
“It’s open??” he texts back, and I can’t tell if he means AMC, which is not, or NorthPark, which is. “I wish Alamo would open,” he writes back, and I tell him they will. Things will open again. Everyone’s just taking their time.
At the top of the escalator, a man in a mask and a white tux shirt stands with his blue gloved hands on the banister. I’m not sure what he’s doing, but I thank him anyway, and I glide down the magical moving staircase that was a fixture of life in a mall. In the atrium, I step underneath the enormous orange sculpture I have never understood. Like giant scissors, or a large protractor. The orange sculpture, like the silhouette of the person raising and lowering a hammer outside, was one those small reminders NorthPark was not like other malls. It is owned by the Nashers, who fill its hallways with modern art, and while the place is a 20th century ode to consumerism, with all its cliches and problems, it has also been a rather special piazza in a city that never had enough.
My buddy texts me again. “Get outta there,” he says.
“I’m out,” I say, because I’m walking toward the push-doors again, but I had to come today and say hello, or goodbye, whichever it turns out to be.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referenced an AMC bankruptcy filing. While there have been many stories about a possible filing, that hasn’t happened yet.