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Confessions of a Teenage Mallrat

The Ocean County Mall was the 1990s' answer to a social network.

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 Prior to being purchased and renovated by the Simon Property Groups Inc., the Ocean County Mall was dank and outdated.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.

Rick Molinia July 18, 2011 at 11:27 AM
awesome brother! good times, The Mall Movie Theatre!! haha, atleast we would all be face to face instead of that silly book face thing!
BN July 18, 2011 at 12:46 PM
Justin: Just wondering...Were you one of the kids who used to take the hands off the mannequins in Macy's and send them up the escalator for a ride?
Uglykid825 July 18, 2011 at 01:08 PM
Spencers, The Arcade, Movies at the Mall, Wollworths' Fish Tanks, the old Pet Store....First dates at the Mall in Middle School Very Nice..... Brings back the memories of being a child WE USED TO HANG OUT AT GROGS SURF PALACE when it had the shop at the Mall.... THOSE WERE THE DAYS
Chris July 18, 2011 at 08:03 PM
Who remembers Plantastic, Jonathan's Arts & Crafts, and Joanne's Nut House? Come on, let's name all of the stores that used to be there...
ETmarine July 18, 2011 at 08:52 PM
what about camelot music and hot sam's pretzels
ETmarine July 18, 2011 at 08:55 PM
There was alos the music store next to radio shack (can't remember the name) and of course KB toys
Catherine Galioto (Editor) July 18, 2011 at 09:11 PM
I think those tell-tale brown and white tiles still exist in the side entrance to the food court, the remaining vestiges of days past.
Little T July 18, 2011 at 10:09 PM
My 1st kiss, my 1st job... The Wall music store, Wild Side, NONAME, the sweet smell of old men's pipes... Anyone remember the organ store? We always knew when my grandpa was there- we could hear him banging out some old tune halfway through the mall lol
Justine Rodriguez July 18, 2011 at 10:44 PM
I have so many memories of hanging at the mall through out my teenage years some of the best days of my life! Oh and I totally remember the mannequin hand up the escalator that was so funny well at the time it was hey we where kids lol
Daniel Nee (Editor) July 18, 2011 at 10:51 PM
Ha, I think the cigarette machine outside of Friendly's was the last of its kind in America.
Beverly July 18, 2011 at 11:46 PM
My favorite stores to shop were the Merri-Go-Round and Pants Place. haha!
Justin P. Roach July 19, 2011 at 12:57 AM
I seem to remember chains hanging from the ceiling of The DEB like some medieval dungeon. Also, remember the store that sold wigs? Sometimes I'll put on the original Dawn of the Dead and cross reference the old stores with the ones we used to have in our mall.
iamdph July 19, 2011 at 01:16 AM
Great Article, I too was there every Friday and Saturday night. Then at 10 we would walk over to the movies. And on a dance night we would hit up Friendlys as well. Good stuff, great memories.
. July 19, 2011 at 02:00 AM
Lets see what I remember. There were the concrete turtles to play on and fountains that people would throw soap into so they would fill with foam, one of the fountains was across from Father and Son shoes which i guess is where the Gap is now. There was Hotdogs n More near the center court, and going back to elementary school there was a store named Pandora that sold all kind of trinkets like pencils, smelly stickers, smelly erasers etc. There was the store that sold cheese across from Woolworth, always stopped in there for the free samples. The knife and tobacco store was always cool to check out, of course back then you could smoke in the mall. I remember my high school girlfriend coming home from work in the mall an smelled like cigs. Grandma always used to make me go with her to get her free battery of the month from Radio Shack. I remember there was a restaurant upstairs in Macys, I guess it was Bambergers at the time. Ummm,,, I took organ lessons at Toms River Music, my organ career never took off. Chess King
Mary July 19, 2011 at 03:11 AM
I remember me and my friends meeting boys from other High Schools in the "Game Room" Playing Pin Ball. Sitting in the middle courtyard talking on those leather couches. And the restaurant upstairs of Bambergers (Macys now) Oh those were great days!
Uglykid825 July 19, 2011 at 11:44 AM
The old Sticker store that used to be in the middle of the mall... JoAnn's was right on the corner by the movies....I think
BN July 19, 2011 at 01:05 PM
Sugar Pine Workshop, Tiffany's Bakery, Mouse Trap, Bun N Burger, Le Crepe Restaurant, Italian Delight Pizza, California Smoothie, The Jewel Room, Pandemonium, Timberland, G&G, Wall to Wall Sound & Video (The Wall), Thom McAnn, Joann Fabrics, Freehold Music, Ponderosa, Foxmoor, Deb, The Harvest House (Woolworth's grill), County Seat, Copper Rivet, Suncoast, Sam Goody, Chess King, Sounds Easy, Wicks n' Sticks, Polly Bros. Sporting Goods, San Francisco Music Box Company, and there was a store that sold nothing but knives.
hammer July 19, 2011 at 01:29 PM
i always remember the smell of smoke and the big ash trays that where all over haha. hot sam pretzels,the arcade,the weird silver entrance around Deb,Camelot,and the pet store where I got bit by a dog haha. good memories
Uglykid825 July 19, 2011 at 02:10 PM
Merry-Go-Round & Chess King...... the fore-runners of the jersey shore guido invasion Z Cavarichi pants.......lol...my oh my how times change.....
Laura E July 19, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Thank you so much for this article and the comments are fantastic! This is exactly what I needed to read today. Such good times, thanks for the trip back!
g July 20, 2011 at 12:46 AM
This made me depressed.
. July 20, 2011 at 03:32 AM
When the mall first opened, there was a bakery with the best brownies!
Karen July 20, 2011 at 10:38 AM
Omg I lived at the mall my BFF (whom I met in a bizarre story at mall) lived right by it we would go there every day after school. Make up on at Macy snacks at hickory farms lunch or dinner at jcpenney cafeteria, hang on all those walls they had and smoke yes age 15 and hoped parents friends didn't see us. I'm talking 79 thru early 80s. Loved the arcade and the movies. But my social network was the phone booth centers I knew each phone number and if I were looking for a friend I'd pick up phone reverse charges and call whatever section they were into meet up, check in or BS. This place ruled over seaside a world of wonder without worry of the weather and cops chasing you off. Lol I could go on and on, but I'd either make you laugh, bore you or have many locals in my age group know exactly who I am lol, yes we were well known.
Maria July 20, 2011 at 01:24 PM
This was a great article, thanks for taking us back :)
Jennifer December 11, 2011 at 07:10 PM
Thanks for the memories. Spent many weekends at the mall with my boyfriend (now husband). Especially in the arcade playing mortal kombat. :)
Terry S. December 21, 2012 at 04:03 AM
I remember as a kid going by plantastic and they had plant lights where you touched the plant and light turned on. I was amazed. It was by Kay Bee toys. Loved the OC Mall. Grew up in Toms River. Hell I remember when Macys was called Bambergers. And someone mentioned the fish at Woolworth - they were the sickest looking fish lol. We used to go watch the matinees for about a buck seventy five and spend all day at the arcade across from the mall. I stayed down the Sears end most of the time.
Beatrice Cullari January 02, 2013 at 03:49 AM
Does anyone remember The stuffed animal store i n the middle of mall called Fluff and /Stuff.

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