Days Gone By: On Garbage, Ghost Malls and Jerry Seinfeld

A while back, Jerry Seinfeld had this masterful five minute bit about … stuff.  I think it might be the best bit of Seinfeld’s career, expressing his observational wit at its most mature.  The gist of it is this is that he’s become not a collector, but a thrower-outer, and fond of getting rid of the clutter of having old stuff. He notes there are several stages of stuff.  New stuff is treated like a trophy, placed central in the house, celebrated for its newness, the joy of getting a good deal on a new product.  Then it gets used, eventually ending up in a weigh station, the closet.  Then it gets demoted to the garage.  Then from garage to …. garbage.

I recently moved – which accounts for the length of time since my last entry at Fragile Dignity – and had to go through accounting for my stuff.  Stuff of various value from prized possessions to (almost) garbage to (full on) garbage, which forced some tough decisions.  Moving invariably takes a lot longer than you think it will, as becomes clear when years of stuff, and uncovered dirt and grime, are discovered, like geological layers of time lived-in, sloughed off layer by layer.  But it isn’t just stuff, but time, moments of the past recollected or let go.  A recollection of old fads and faded fetishes, begging the question – how much of me is wrapped up in the old, the comfortable?  And the paradoxical frustration of not being able to keep the old stuff new.  (And no, Apple, I want to keep my old phone and not be coerced into the new one with the new plugs and batteries and preloads and yadda yadda!)  So I myself prefer a Goldilocks method – not horder, not thrower-outer, but somewhere in the middle just right.  If there is some old rope that I can re-purpose that’s in good shape, I can darn well use it.  It’s sort of like the negotiations George has with Jerry to determine if an eclair resting nicely in the trash was still in the safe zone … “was it touching the other trash?”  “Was the doily still on?”


All of this combing through the old stuff and preserving it exists in some stark contrast with the hyper commercialized consumer culture of the perpetually new.  A hotel civilization, the clean mint-on-a-pillow world of shiny hair and white teeth.  A world beset by an insistence of the new by an omnipresent ad culture – new clothes, new smart phones, new phone services, new channels, new cologne, new cars.  New fads, flavors – chipotle, harissa, umami – recipes tell us how to stay “up” with a culture in progress, in step with cultural time prepped to inscribe its injunctions on our hungry senses.

 

I get the eerie feeling thinking about parts of the culture that don’t match up to the ads. Ads which present the image of clean cars driven on clean solitary roads. Ads in which the models are far more fit and attractive and wealthier than the rest of us, used as a carrot to lure us into the image of success and happiness.  … As I clear out some spilt … er, schmutz from my trunk.

 

It all makes for a strange juxtaposition in my imagination, suspended between cleaning, repairing, preserving, and the ad culture lure to the new, clean, and fresh.  It’s a lot like the new trend in photography, perhaps it’s a kind of decay fetish, showcasing the decay of retail spaces in America.   Retail Ruin Porn.  The ruined malls pierce the consumer cultural veil.  Where there was once children lining up to take a picture with Santa now has become a zombified postindustrial space.  Some economists are predicting that in five years, half of the 5,000 malls in America will become ghost malls.  Santa must find other places I guess.

 

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The collapse didn’t come all at once.  Like Seinfeld’s stages of becoming garbage, there were signs of ruin.  First the malls became icons of urban decay, particularly in areas whose ambitions of middle class affluence has long since evaporated.  The mall itself, once a universal hangout, and social hub, origin of those prized items of consumerism, it itself in the process of becoming garbage. In some areas this has been happening for a couple decades as once powerful retail giants like Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penny and Sears faded. The malls giving way to pimp and hoe shops – you know, the ones sporting faux Rastafarian, incense and weed culture items along with payday lenders, pawn shops, and discount stores.  Go to the mall, come back fronting a grill on your teeth.

 

But what was a creeping socioeconomic decay is now on the precipice of full out collapse.  Some call it the retail apocalypse as stores like Radio Shack, J.C. Penny, Sears, Kmart, Macy’s, J. Crew, Sports Authority, Payless, Forever 21 and others close stores and serve up thousands of layoffs. Other companies stocks are in multi-year lows with uncertain futures – Urban Outfitters, Ralph Lauren, American Eagle, Gap, Vitamin World, True Religion, Ann Taylor, Guess, Abercrombie and Fitch, The Limited, Staples, Family Christian, and Game Stop, among others.  That’s basically half of the occupants of every mall in America.  All these brands are getting sucked up by online retail giants like Amazon, which is having soaring profits and stock values making CEO Jeff Bezos’s worth sailing north of 113 billion dollars.  Meanwhile, like contestants on the bachelor, 20 finalist cities are courting Amazon to be the location of the second Amazon headquarters. You may think that the jobs that are lost in traditional retail are made up for in Amazon warehouses and UPS shipping.  True, some is made up here, but two jobs are lost for one created in this retail apocalypse, along with a revolution in automated trucking and travel, that is bound to lay off millions, restructuring not just retail but a part of social life that is increasingly being transformed online.  Given a bear cycle this economy is overdue for, this collapse may come much quicker.  The mall developers then would foreclose on their properties, unable to pay back their liens, rolling into a financial crisis already threatened by debts crises in home, school, credit and auto loans.

 

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It’s the ghost of this lost world from the living past that’s online, images of ghost malls, hollow empty spaces where wildlife finds habitation, the kudzu draping over the former big box stores.  The book and movie Gone Girl features a scene of this world – an abandoned bankrupt mall has become the improvised home to the homeless. The Dawn of the Dead highlighted the dead mall’s central hauntology as well.  A real mall’s collapse after a natural disaster has been likened to a horror movie set.  It’s something of a declinist fetish, the post-consumerism, post-industrial culture.  As a mirror of our society on the way to becoming garbage.  It’s what’s left when it’s occupants move away.  While capitalism has left and married itself to another place, the ghost mall remains the neglected ex-spouse, its old wedding outfit loved and worn once upon a time, now a relic left to the sands of time.  There’s something of a Tibetan sand mandala embodied in the mall.  It’s bright shining moment, its neon colors and disco music in another year whisked away, mere dust.  It had its purpose.  Now onto something else, returning to the flows of the unhuman world.

 

Seinfeld concludes his set that everything, absolutely everything, is on the way to being garbage.  In the end, he says, we ourselves are thrown away.  But rather than being haunted by this thought, it can be strangely liberating to witness the retirement of these commercial, industrial structures, calling to a realignment of perceptions and perhaps social change as material reality asserts itself, ghost malls re-wilded, parking lots succumbing to the plants which would grow in their cracks.

 

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Funny, you never see ads about guys fixing stuff they already have, cobbling together the resources to preserve, repair, and re-purpose – something Seinfeld didn’t have in mind.  You’ll never see an ad with a guy having to fix his car, or having to change a flat tire in the rain.  Or people mending clothes.  Or duct taping their broken windows.  Or people using boxes or trashcans in creative ways to make a home.  Or people creating their own spontaneous local economies, a secondary process underneath the golden veneer of consumer culture.  An Ebay and Craigslist economy.  An economy of thrift.  Sell.  Trade.  Barter.  Repair.  Refurbish.  Repurpose.  The homemade.  There is a soul, and a beauty of the small, as E.F. Schumacher told us years ago.  What would Seinfeld make of the junkyard – the scrapheaps of recycled and re-purposed cobbled together by the can-do DIY-er.  What if Seinfeld and his comedian friends made their way to coffee on refurbished bicycles?  What rhythm of life awaits there behind the veil, beyond garbage?

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