Secrets Of A Teenage Mall Rat

I looked back over the oodles of posts I’ve published and realized I need to lighten it up a bit. If not for you, dear readers, then for me. On that note…

I’m from a smallish city in Eastern Iowa that to this day only has two malls (I know, the horror), one of which was less than a mile from the house I lived in for almost twenty years. Westdale Mall was built in 1979 when I was ten, and from the first day it opened, you couldn’t get me to leave.


My neighborhood friends and I would walk to the mall as soon as it opened on Saturday and stay the entire day. Repeat on Sunday.

When I was sixteen, I got my first job in the mall. By that time I was spending more time at Westdale than in school (telling?). I logged the biggest share of my childhood/young adulthood sashaying through Westdale’s halls, slurping pina colada Orange Juliuses and looking for boys.

Can't tell you the number of times I climbed these stairs. Photo courtesy of Sheila Stuelke Stevens.

Can’t tell you the number of times I climbed these stairs. Photo courtesy of Sheila Stuelke Stevens.

Boys, Toys, Power Tools and Popcorn (part 1)

Looking for boys was always the highest order. And as any teenage girl knows, you do not do anything that might make you look like an idiot in front of them (although that never prevented me from doing so).

When I was twelve, my mother drove me to the mall to run an errand. She pulled up to the curb in front of the east entrance and parked the car.

“Run into Musicland and buy the new Jane Fonda workout record for me,” she said. “Here’s a twenty, but I want the change. I’ll wait here.”

I headed into the mall, turned the corner at Osco Drug and walked past the few stores into Musicland. I wandered around the store looking for the record. When I found it, I headed to the register. And as if by some cruel twist of humiliation fate, four of the most popular freshman boys in my school walked in.

Heeding the teenage girl code, I knew there was no way I could walk up to the register with the Jane Fonda workout record under my arm. If they saw me buying that album, they’d think I was fat or totally lame or both.

So I did what any other teenage girl with an impatient, out-of-shape mom waiting for her in the car would do—I put it back in the rack and walked out of the store…and was rewarded with a head nod and “Hey” from Jason*.

Totally worth it.

Until I got to the exit and saw my mom sitting there looking at herself in the rearview, picking something out of her teeth. One problem fixed, another one created.

Liars-ville, just outside these doors. Photo courtesy of Sheila Stuelke Stevens.

Liars-ville, just outside these doors. Photo courtesy of Sheila Stuelke Stevens.

I walked to the car. When she saw me, empty handed, she dropped her jaw then tossed her hands up in the air in the “what gives” gesture.

“Where’s the record?” she asked as I climbed in the car.

“Oh, they were sold out.”

“What? I just called them to make sure they had it. Those sunuva bitches. We drive all the way over here…” (never mind it was a mile).

“It’s alright. You can get it later.”

“I don’t want it later. I want it now, goddamnit.”

We pulled in the driveway and I ran up the steps of our split-level directly into my room. I heard my mom still cursing under her breath as she shut the front door.

It took exactly four minutes and forty-two seconds before the guilt set in. I had this self-flagellation thing down so well I should have been Catholic. Eighteen seconds later I walked out of my room, crying, and into the kitchen where my mom was fixing dinner.

“What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”

“I lied!”

“About what?”

“They had the album but there were these boys there and I didn’t want to buy it because I didn’t want them to see me buying it and think I was fat or lame or both and I’m really sorry please don’t be mad at me are you going to tell dad?”

To which she laughed in my face.

We went back to the mall the next day and I ran in and bought the record for her. The guys weren’t there (thank the teenage girl gods).

(The record is for sale on eBay in case you’re interested.)


Boys, Toys, Power Tools and Popcorn (part 2)

My first job in the mall was at Montgomery Wards in the toy/hardware department—that’s not a misspelling. They were in a single department. Whoever had to do the hiring for that area must have wanted to cut their hands off with a hack saw and stuff a Cabbage Patch doll head down their throat.

“So, do you have any experience with toys…and small power tools?”

What I did have experience with was glomming onto the cute boys, and there were two who worked there just waiting to be glommed onto.

Ken* was tall and lean, with brown hair in the style of Justin Bieber, when the Bieb was just a spermatozoon swimming around in his daddy’s man parts. Ken was a poet, but all that meant to me at the time was he could put some flowery words together.

Dave*, on the other hand, couldn’t put two words together, flowery or not, but he worked as a male stripper in his “real” job (yeah, he was moonlighting at MW’s). What came out of his mouth wasn’t all that important to me.

I dated both of them at different times, but neither of them worked out.

Ken and I would sit in his car in the dark parking lot after work with me waiting for him to either speak dirty, er, sweet nothings in my ear or kiss me. He kissed me once, but it was so dry and flat I didn’t want anything to do with his mouth anymore, no matter what came out of it.

With Dave, I couldn’t follow half of what came out of his mouth because he made no sense (I know, cliché, but true). I didn’t get a kiss or a chance to see him naked. I thought about checking him out at his “real” job one night, but didn’t think I’d be able to work with him the next day if he’d shaken his boy parts in my face and I’d slipped a single or two in his G-string.

Boys, Toys, Power Tools and Popcorn (part 3)

My second job at Westdale was at the Karmelkorn store. I met two very important boys when I worked there. Oh, and I learned to make caramel corn in a big copper kettle with an oar from a toddler-sized boat. Totally useless life skill, unless you’re in a flood with a copper kettle and a small oar. This girl’d be floating!

The first boy was Ben*. He went to the same school as the three other girls I worked with. I fell for him the first time I saw him: dark, messy hair, blue eyes, cute tush, broad shoulders, especially for a sixteen-year-old boy.

And then he spoke.

His voice was so high I kept looking behind him for the ventriloquist—there was no way that squeak came out of him. It almost ruined it for me.

The first time he sauntered up to the stall, he pointed at the plastic bottle of toffee-colored, corn syrup-like stuff sitting on the counter.

“What’s that taste like?”

“Here. Put your finger out.” I squeezed out a small drop and watched him put his finger in his mouth (oh my…).

Then I watched him spit a half cup of toffee-colored saliva on the linoleum floor in front of the stall.

“What is that?”

“Stuff we use to make the caramel corn.”

“It tastes like s@#t.”


“Why’d ya give it to me then?”

“Cuz I wanted to.”

And there began our courtship.

The second guy I met working at Karmelkorn was a bit more mysterious. The girls and I named him Fred. He would call the store at least once a night—and then proceed to breathe like an asthmatic.

It was funny when two or more of us were working. On those nights, he’d call multiple times and we’d take turns answering. We’d hear the “bring, bring” of the rotary dial phone and run to the back of the store, shoving each other to get to it first. We’d stand with the phone between our heads and listen to his wheezing, giggling like a bunch of, well, teenage girls.

Every once in a while, he’d switch up the pace or spittle level of his wheezing. Sometimes we’d keep him on the phone to see if he would say something. He never did, but that didn’t stop the more precocious of us from egging him on, asking him what he was doing and to what body part.

What Fred probably looks like. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc

What Fred probably looks like. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc

It was all fun and games until the nights I had to close the store myself. Then his calls creeped me out. But I couldn’t not answer the phone—it could be our boss checking up on me. Or my parents reminding me to bring home some of the golden caramel crack.

The creepiness factor increased to an almost unbearable level when I would remember Michelle Martinko. She was the girl a few years older than us who had been murdered six years before in the mall parking lot after shopping for a winter coat. Those nights I sprinted from the back door to my car hoping I wasn’t next.

One unusually stressful night I managed to burn a batch corn and forgot it was my turn to make the turtle candies. The end of the night came and I scrambled to get the place cleaned up so I could get out of there.

Then the phone rang.

I stomped to the back room and yanked the phone out of its cradle.


“Huhhhhhhh, huhhhhhhhh, huh, huh, huh, huhhhhhhh.”

“Jesus Fred, will you just get it over with already! I’m busy.”


I hung up the phone.

And that was the end of Fred.

And now it’s the end of Westdale. It’s been on the downhill for a long time, no thanks to the Coral Ridge Mall that opened in 1998 in a smaller town twenty minutes south. Today, seventy percent of Westdale’s inline stores are vacant, and within the next few weeks demolition will begin on its torso, leaving only two appendages remaining (Younkers and JC Penney).

The good news: Investors and developers purchased the mall in early 2013, and have major renovations planned. The sketches for the revamped, improved space are beautiful. It will be more than a mall—it will be a destination. I’m happy my old haunt will find new life…and hopefully new teenagers to saunter down its halls.

But nothing can compare to my Westdale. The one where boys, toys, power tools and popcorn dominated my life. I’ll walk its halls, slurping pina colada Orange Juliuses and looking for boys in my mind forever.

*Names, except mine, have been changed to protect me from embarrassment.

Find more info about and photos from Sheila Stuelke Stevens.

So what place defines your youth? Where did you spend your every waking moment growing up? What hijinks did you get up to there?

14 thoughts on “Secrets Of A Teenage Mall Rat

  1. Loved your post Kelly! But don’t worry, your city is not that small. I mean holly mother of god you have TWO malls? We have half of one where I live. Well it’s supposed to be a mall, but half of the shops are closed. We have to travel an hour and a half and brave the traffic in Raleigh if we want to do some real shopping.

  2. Okay, generation gap. When one of my stepsons began hanging out in the South Plains Mall in Lubbock but in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I wondered what was wrong with him. Hang around a bunch of stores? That made no sense to me at all. Of course, I’m the guy whose shopping consists of entering a store, looking around, and then leaving if I don’t immediately see what I came for.

    My main hangout in my teen years was the golf course of our country club. I’m sure I didn’t play golf every day I wasn’t in school, but I probably came close to it. My junior and senior years in high school, I began spending a good bit of time in bowling alleys, too.

    If I’d been a little less shy around girls, I probably would have tried to figure out where they hung out, but I became tongue-tied whenever I was around them. I dated very little in high school and college because of this shyness. I’ve always felt like I cheated myself out of good times because of it.

    1. I’ll tell you David, most of the time I was at the mall, when I wasn’t working, it wasn’t to shop—it was to check out the boys! And if I remember correctly, they weren’t there for the shopping either. 😉

      Your hangouts seem a lot more productive and healthy than mine though—I’m sure you came home having managed to get a few golf balls into the cup and knock down a bunch of bowling pins. I rarely came home with a boyfriend, which, in hindsight, is probably a good thing.

  3. “…but it was so dry and flat I didn’t want anything to do with his mouth anymore, no matter what came out of it.” One of my new favorite lines. Well done. 😉

    I wasn’t much of a mall girl myself growing up, because I didn’t stay in one place long enough to be much of an anything girl honestly. We moved more than I changed underwear in my early years, so I was always just trying to catch up.

    I did get fired from my first ice-cream job – which was my first job, which was also my first time getting fired – by the smarmy, leering Italian who ran the place. He said I flirted too much with the boys and didn’t get the work done.

    He was right about one of those things. I was mad boy crazy too as a teen. But damn it, I had the work ethic of a young Ryan Seacrest! Shit got DONE on my watch. 😉

    Great post, Kelly.

    1. The smarmy, leering Italian probably fired you because he wished you were giving him that attention. Eeeew! I bet his business took a dive when you left—the boys certainly wouldn’t be coming to see him.

      Thanks for reading, Kelly!

  4. I am a bit older, and from a bit smaller town. We had No malls. I never had those experiences, but I’ve since always lived in towns with malls, ironic since I so rarely go there, but I’ve had a teenage daughter, and I’ve seen the dance. Thanks for sharing this, Kelly

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