You hear a lot about shopping malls. You hear that they have no clocks, few windows, and bright artificial lights to blur the passage of time. You hear that malls are excessively material, representing, in their enticing displays of things, all that is bad about American culture. In this scenario the shopper, helpless in the face of pseudo-reality, seeing only a facade, spends herself into debt. Malls make honest workingmen unhappy with their lot. They corrupt the spirit.
But I've seen another side of shopping malls. I see it every time I visit one. Just for the record, I visit them often.
Once in front of Jordan Kitts, a franchise organ and piano store—sort of a McDonald's of the keyboard trade—I saw an old lady faced off against one of those massive play-by-color organs that the store puts out front with the keyboard facing the passers-by. She had her clear plastic shopping bag with the flowers painted on it slung from the crook of her left arm. The bag looked heavy, but she didn't think to set it down. She was oblivious to everything. She couldn't really play the organ, or any other keyboard instrument; nonetheless, she was picking out an old hymn, "How Great Thou Art," by the colors and by her own sense of how it ought to go. How many times had she sat in church and heard this hymn, wondering not about God's greatness, but about how it would be to play the organ? She was finding out.
I saw her from next door, where I was watching a shop window full of kittens chase each other around. The would-be organist was particularly bad at the black keys. She played the "Then sings my soul…" part of the refrain three times while I watched the kittens, and she missed the key for "soul" all three times, by what sounded like a half-tone.
But I noted all of this as part of the background. The grey-and-white kittens were the main event for me. My childhood cat was a grey-and-white, and in the right light, out of the corner of my eye, I can still think I see her coming into a room. The smile on my face as I watched the frolicking kittens that day was only partly due to the display before me.
For the old lady and me, made anonymous by our official designation, "shopper," the mall was a place to exercise our imaginations. I remembered my old friend, and the Docktor's Pet Center provided me with the occasion. The old lady tried out, not an organ, but being an organist—something, given her level of skill, her church would never let her do.
In fact, our actions would have been suspect in almost any other context. If I stopped and stared at a cat in my neighborhood, who knows what horrors the owner would imagine me hatching? And at church, the only other place that lady was likely to encounter an organ, her behavior would be considered indecorous, at best.
Neither of us bought anything. The old lady moved on after struggling to the end of the hymn. I shook myself out of memory and pursued the errand that had brought me to the mall in the first place.
Nasty materialism, which malls are supposed to be monuments to, did not seduce the would-be organist or the onetime cat owner. In fact, it was nasty materialism—presumably the motivating spirit behind the building of the shopping mall—that provided each of us with the opportunity for the kind of imaginative enrichment that one usually associates with mainstream, high-brow entertainment of the nonpopular sort—belletristic tomes, operas in foreign languages, "legitimate" theatre—that sort of stuff. Mere things, particularly things displayed for purchase and housed in anything as vulgar and phony as a shopping mall, are simply not supposed to do this.
But they did. There in that shopping mall, with what retailers call "traffic" streaming all around us, that lady and I could dream. Far from corrupting us, the mall enriched our spirits.
Pamela Regis teaches English at Western Maryland College.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Temple of the Spirit".