Thursday, September 25, 2008

A View From The Food Court

Barton Creek Square Mall
Saturday 9.13.08
3:30 pm

After working my way through the throng of hungry shoppers, frustrated families, and giggling teenagers, I finally bought a Chik-fil-a meal and wrestled my way to the much coveted and rare empty table in a spot facing Frullati Café & Bakery and Sarku Japan. Lunchtime is an all-day event at the mall.

The establishments in the food court are Villa Pizza, Frullati Café & Bakery, Sarku Japan, Flamer’s Burgers and Grill, Quizno’s Classic Subs, sideWOK café Chinese Cuisine, Charley’s Grilled Subs, Chik-fil-a, and Marble Slab Creamery. Of these, eight have red in their signs, five have green, three have yellow, and three have white.

Eleven preteens sit to my right. They are all similarly dressed in generic preppy style clothing. The girls sit on each other’s laps. After lunch, all but two clean up after themselves. When they leave, there is a crinkled bag of Chik-fil-a and the remnants of cheese and mayo splattered in a Charley’s Subs paper tray.

A single middle-aged African American man in a yellow t-shirt sits alone four tables away from me. He takes up only a corner of the table. Two men carrying Charley’s Subs join him. They do not appear to be acquainted with the first man. They wear large unstylish baggy t-shirts tucked into their jeans. One carries a messenger bag, and the other has a receding hairline.

A large middle-aged balding man with a mustache takes samples of chicken teriyaki while standing in line to buy the same teriyaki.

There is no sense of time in the food court. The sound of running water from the fountains in the food court attempts to lure shoppers toward its soothing sound, one of the few reminders of nature inside this large manmade space.

Frullati sample guy is about 6’1 or 6’2, with curly brown hair. He makes several trips throughout this hour back and forth from the counter, but also likes to wander around on occasion. He holds the plate out, sometimes suggestively in a shopper’s direction, but does not seem to directly offer the food to the customer. On the other hand, the samples man at Sarku Japan will directly approach shoppers with samples plate in one hand, while sticking a toothpick into a sample to offer with the other hand. This tactic is more engaging than Frulatti guy’s tactic, which seems to be looking at a walker-by and raising his eyebrows while holding out the plate to them.

Families generally find seats first while one person takes care of the food.

An Hispanic family in front of me prays before eating from Styrofoam to-go boxes from Sarku Japan (double meat special 99 cents). The little girl around 9-12 years old finishes praying in ten seconds and starts eating, but the parents take about 30 seconds. The boxes delineate a meal with the double meat special. A normal portioned meal is on a Styrofoam plate. The little girl is overweight.

It is extremely noisy in the food court, with indistinguishable noise everywhere. Eerie blue-purple lights emanate from the ceiling on certain areas where there is a faux terrace. This is disorienting when juxtaposed with some natural white skylight and the lines of incandescent string light bulbs that lead from one side of the “roof” to the outdoor terrace.

The leftovers of Chik-fil-a and Charley’s Subs are still left on the table where the preteens were sitting earlier. The janitor has not cleaned it up. An Asian woman in her late 40s sits down and eats her meal with no regard to the leftover food. She eats from a Styrofoam box that contains a sandwich and drinks a cup of Frulatti lemonade. She leaves. Afterwards, an Indian man in his 20s sits down with a slice of pizza that emits a distinctly strong garlic scent. He pushes the leftovers to one side, and then utilizes the newly created space to eat.

People in the Sarku line still take samples from Frullati samples guy.

The two people on my left are an older Hispanic man with a mustache and silver streaked hair with a young girl. Both have cell phones out and look around, bored, for close to 10 minutes. They have no food. Perhaps they are waiting for the food to come.

So many bright, disturbing colors. The neon signs are uncomfortable, irritating, and make you want to leave. Yet this is the prime spot for sitting, even though sitting further away means slightly more personal space and comfort.

Food comes for the Hispanic man and little girl on my left from who looks like the wife of the man. She carries only one Styrofoam box of Sarku double meat special for the three of them.

A janitor cleans around a man waiting at a table with drinks. The customer has to hold his drinks. He then cleans the floor around me but does not attempt to clean my table around me. A man a few tables away finishes eating, gets up, and wipes off his own table.

The Sarku line has now turned into a roadblock in the middle of the food court. Families and teenagers without parents seem drawn to choose Sarku. They do have an aggressive sampling technique.

Most people appear bored. They just sit and look aimlessly in the distance, mostly as they wait alone for the rest of their party, or afterwards, while in the presence of their party but after finishing the meal, while on a full stomach.

A table of kids with their grandmas, all with perms.

Neverending line at Sarku.

Cliques are not on macro level in the food court but rather within each table at the micro level. Each table contains a group of people that all look alike. To my left, there is a group of punk kids with similar black clothing and the same length hair, where the girls look like boys and the boys look like girls.

TUESDAY 9.16.08
7:30 PM

Walking to the food court, I see 2 little girls play near the American Eagle store. One is crawling on the floor between two large potted plants. Upon walking closer, I see that she has hidden two cups of Frullati smoothies behind them, creating a new and secret hiding place in the mall.

I return to my familiar area, the food court, but decide on a different spot so that I can check out other parts of the mall and the food area simultaneously. I am sitting at the food court’s outermost seating area (tables for two) on the balcony overlooking the area in front of JCPenny and directly in front of sideWOK café and Charley’s Subs.

The Frullati samples are now sitting on a deserted silver plate that rests as free-for-alls on the glass case containing various fruit and vegetables. This time, the sample of Southwestern Chicken Panini is cold.

Sarku Japan still has a man wearing a white smock and red chef’s hat physically handing samples to shoppers.

Most people, when ordering, tend to touch the counter in some way while waiting for the food to come, either by leaning on the counter with their legs or with their hands.

A man walks by as if he is in the hurry; his body is angled forward, and lines of distress are on his forehead. He wears an olive green tweed suit jacket with jeans and a brown belt. His hands are full holding bags from stores unlikely to suit his interests: Hollister, Victoria’s Secret, Pottery Barn.

One janitor sticks out from the rest tonight. Instead of wearing all black work shoes, as is part of the uniform, she has on silver sneakers. She has caked on makeup with penciled in eyebrows, and carries her walkie-talkie directly in the middle of her backside, clipped to the top of the pants. She chews gum as she familiarly walks through the tables as if she’s walked through them a thousand times. The maze of tables and scattered chairs are no obstacle as she navigates through shortcut paths she has formed through the furniture. There is no stopping or hesitation in her step and expression.

My view is obstructed in front by a digital projection of rolling advertisements in a curved glass box, so it is always a surprise to see who comes by. In a general sense, there seem to be mostly people walking either alone or in pairs tonight. If in pairs, it is more likely to be a couple than a girls’ or boys’ night out. Families tend to all use that red car stroller to seat their children. A group of three moms all have a red car stroller and walk down the halls in a pack. This many cartoon cars in the hallway contributes to the “rush hour” of the hallway just as much as real cars would.

The workers manning the kiosks look bored. There are four kiosks in this area seen from my vantage point above, selling custom stickers, mobile phone covers, jewelry, and shiny and colorful foil wind chimes. The custom sticker worker talks to another man in a brown sweater as both closely crouch over a laptop. The employee selling mobile phone covers is a male in mid-twenties, with shoulder length brown hair in a half up ponytail. He wears a yellow shirt and black headphones connected to a laptop. His fingers rapidly tap the table in front of him as he drums along to the beat with his eyes closed. The woman in the jewelry kiosk next to him sits and stares in the distance, also listening to an iPod while on a computer. The only kiosk with no attendant is the wind chime kiosk. There is no sign of human presence there with the exception of a few lights turned on and a half-deserted, half-finished Styrofoam cup of a dark soda.

The ceiling above the open area in front of JCPenny is scattered with large squares, most of which contain lighting fixtures. There are 33 total squares, with 17 squares containing three blue fluorescent bulbs. Of these, four contain a broken, flickering blue light. There is no recognizable pattern or structure to the way the lights or cubes are situated. Every 15 or 20 minutes the blue lights gradually get brighter and stronger, until they all eventually die out with a glittery, dazzling flicker. After a few minutes of semi-darkness, the lights flicker on again for the new cycle. This is all quite similar to the life cycle of a star.

The missing wine chime kiosk attendant is finally discovered: he is the man in the brown sweater visiting the custom sticker man. He occasionally walks back and forth through this area, but this time he stopped at his station to take a sip of the dark-colored soda before returning again to Custom Stickers. Two women are now at the stand as well. They all appear to be flirting. Every few minutes or so, the girl wearing black gives the other girl a hug, most likely in the same effort to bring attention to themselves. After awhile, the four of them gather around the computer to engage in watching YouTube videos. Meanwhile the Mobile Phone guy and Jewelry girl are flirting as well, holding hands and playfully hitting each other. The neglected wind chime kiosk is the only kiosk without a laptop.

A mall security guard steps onto the down escalator. He adjusts his hat, then belt. He then proceeds to widen his stance, points his feet outwards, and hooks his fingers behind his large belt buckle. The escalator is his runway; it gives him a moving stage to show what he does best.

The cook from Charley’s Subs gets too excited about making a grilled sandwich. While chopping up some beef for a cheesesteak, he makes a loud but brief commotion on the grill, and a woman somewhere in the food court loudly ‘shushes’ him.

Turning back towards the food court, the sickly bright neon colors are no less startling during a slow period than at rush hour.

I leave the mall through Nordstroms. The glossy glass entrance-exit chamber shoots the familiar blast of icy air at me from above, a final souvenir to take with me as I venture back outside into the warm summer heat.

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