I'll begin with an apology. If you took your children to the Ocean County Mall on a Friday or Saturday night between 1996 and 1999, I'm sorry. If you nearly hit a pack of teenagers darting across Hooper Avenue on their way to Friendly's, I'm sorry. If you brought a date to Cool Beans anytime after 9:30 on a weekend, I'm sorry. If you ... well, I could go on like this for a while. So, let me just blanket everyone with a general apology.
Why am I apologizing? It's kind of step nine in this program I'm in: Hi. My name is Justin, and I'm a recovering mallrat.
To be cliché, the 1990s was a simpler time — a time before social networks such as Facebook or MySpace or even Friendster. The Internet was still in its infancy, dominated by powerhouse providers such as AOL. There was no Wikipedia or "blogosphere" and individual opinions were relegated to Angelfire or Geocities pages in sparse, rarely-traveled corners of the Web.
If you wanted to communicate with someone through our dial-up dinosaur modems, you could either waste an hour on instant messenger sending a handful of sentences back and forth or risk being targeted by some serial killer in a chat room. Cell phones were still a ways off for us and texting even further down the road.
We had the mall, the original social network site.
I guess it was inevitable that we gravitated toward the mall. By the time we’d reached our teens, my generation was already fully indoctrinated into the cult of consumerism. After all, we were the product of parents who had literally fought one another for Cabbage Patch Kids and Power Rangers action figures each Christmas; we were babysat by Saturday morning cartoons that were little more than thinly-veiled toy commercials. And with the disappearance of main streets throughout suburban America, the local mall became quite literally the only place for teens too young to drive to hang out.
Consequently, every weekend, between 7th and 10th grade, my friends and I would descend upon the Ocean County Mall like Romero’s zombies, wreaking some serious PG-13-level havoc.
Now the Ocean County Mall from my memories is a vastly different place than the one that sits perched on the corner of Hooper and Bay avenues today. Prior to being purchased and renovated by the Simon Property Groups Inc., the Ocean County Mall was dank and outdated. People drove to the Monmouth Mall or Freehold Raceway Mall to shop. The OCM was strictly for loitering; one needed to look no further than the labyrinth of brown-tiled planter/benches that serpentined the main concourse for proof of that.
Even the stores were geared toward mallrats. While those newer malls offered shoppers early incarnations of American Eagle and Abercrombie and Fitch, we were still bumming around Woolworth’s tapping on the fish tanks or rearranging a window display of ceramic dogs in Surray Luggage. While the newer malls had attractions like mammoth fountains and double-decker carousels, we had one of the last true arcades.
The arcade that once sat where Applebee’s currently resides was our Facebook. There teenagers from Toms River, Manchester, Brick, Lacey and elsewhere would congregate to gossip and share information on music, fashion and new trends over a few rounds of Mortal Kombat or Cruisin’ USA. Instead of an avatar or profile picture, kids distinguished themselves through their unique hairstyles and clothes. As a result, there emerged quite a few memorable characters that could be recognized week to week simply by appearance, even if their names and “status” remained a mystery.
But aside from these interactions with kindred spirits, weekend nights at the mall helped mold us into the men and women we’ve become.
We learned about love and relationships from awkwardly sharing an Orange Julius with our first girlfriend or boyfriend. We learned about sex from the birthday cards in Spencer Gifts. In fact, we learned a lot of things we probably weren’t ready to know from the stuff in Spencer Gifts. We learned to develop our adult palates drinking coffee at Barney’s. We learned how to avoid danger, staying away from certain department store restrooms known for hosting lurid and lascivious acts.
But, most of all, we learned to be on our own. The mall provided us an outlet from our "day jobs" as kids. At home or in school, we were bound to the rules and whims of our adult caretakers. At the mall and a few satellite locales within walking distance, we were free.
I don’t know much about what goes on at the Ocean County Mall on Friday and Saturday nights nowadays. I, like most mallrats, fell out of the game long ago when I got my driver’s license. The call of the road and new territories such as Asbury Park and Red Bank helped wean me from my mall addiction.
Still, I don’t regret an hour I spent hanging out there or a dollar I spent on something stupid like a black light poster or a yin yang necklace. I doubt today’s teens will be able to say that when they calculate all of the hours they’ve wasted on Facebook.