By ED GRIFFIN-NOLAN
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that shopping Malls in New York would not be allowed to open until they cleaned up their air supply, I immediately thought of Che Guevara. I’m sure you did as well. Che, the Argentinian Doc who fought in Fidel Castro’s guerrilla war to overthrow a Cuban dictator, didn’t coin the phrase, “el hombre nuevo” (the new man), but he gave it a certain sexy (and sexist) twist that turned the heads of utopian thinkers and idealistic young people around the world half a century ago.
The “new man,” Che told the Woodstock generation, would be a selfless, introspective, socially conscious citizen dedicated to the socialist principles that Fidel preached, the ideals that Che fought for in Cuba and Angola, and in Bolivia, where it got him killed. The revolution, Guevara believed, would not only transform our social structures but our very essence as people, redirecting our motivations and our passions, from service to self to promoting the common good.
Around the same time, less idealistic American capitalists were creating a new man and a new woman, shaped not by a revolution or an ideology, but by an enormous enclosure and a slapdash collection of cash registers, plate glass windows, food courts, boutiques, arcades, parking lots, and stale air – the Shopping Mall.
Since the 1950s, the essence of what it is to be American has been to shop. Not too long ago, when shopping involved procuring necessities, it was called going to market. It was done as infrequently as possible and with the minimum expenditure permitted by law. For most people in the United States of today, shopping has become a pastime, a hobby, entertainment, and an addiction.
Shopping in lieu of living is a soulless pursuit. Like most addictions, it produces no fulfillment, only a greater hollowness that begs for repetition of the experience, in hopes that the next exhausting trip to the big box that holds all the big box stores will give us a lasting jolt. Failure is as predictable as indebtedness.
Onondaga County in Central New York is a beautiful piece of land dotted with lakes and drumlins and parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and picturesque neighborhoods. It is home to a city with sports arenas, libraries, museums, theaters, a world class zoo, and more. Yet the No. 1 reason that people visit our county is to shop at the Mall. Buses cross the border from Canada to buy our wares. We are a city on a lake but most of us never visit the lake; we’re too busy finding a place to park near the Best Buy.
And then, in a flash, the Coronavirus caused us to quit our Mall habit cold turkey. Many of us turned to online purchases to fill the void. A good number of us, however, found this unfulfilling. We turned to other pursuits. Reading. Conversing. Learning a language. Picking up an instrument. Taking children on hikes. Riding bicycles. Making masks. Supporting the front-line workers. Saving money. Protesting racism. Painting our houses. Living.
The virus and the Governor may have conspired to remind us that we were not just born to shop. Those stale air facilities known as Malls have sucked up the days and the lives of too many people over these many decades. I wonder, now that Cuomo is allowing many Malls to re-open, if maybe we will just be over that phase. Maybe we will have found that we have evolved, moved on to other pursuits. Maybe that next pair of shoes or earrings will have lost some of its appeal in a world that confronted death at close quarters.
Sixty percent of people polled recently say they are still too worried to go to a Mall. I would say that’s a healthy fear. The Governor’s demand that Mall owners remove the virus from their air supply is a fantasy –- I hope he knows that. There is no technology yet proven to remove the threat of breathing in the virus in an indoor space that recirculates the air we breathe.
I am secretly hoping that instead of chasing the virus from the air conditioning vents, the virus may have chased from our psyches the notion that only by constant consumption can we live fulfilled lives. Maybe Che, like Oscar Wilde before him, was on to something with that sexist notion of a “New Man.” But the joke is on Che -– it won’t be a socialist revolution that led to his “hombre nuevo.”
It was a tiny bug that made us look at the world and our lives in a new way.
Years ago, Ed Griffin-Nolan managed a restaurant and a toy store in a shopping mall. More recently (in 2005), he was arrested at Carousel Center, now Destiny USA, for suggesting to two police officers that they stop beating up a young Latino. Ed lives, writes, runs and sails near Syracuse, NY. He wrote this essay a week before Gov. Cuomo decided to allow malls outside of New York City to open. Ed’s book, “Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore,” is forthcoming from Rootstock Publishing.