American Dream, New Jersey

True to my ambition to visit abandoned malls in New Jersey once I got vaccinated, I went to the American Dream mall in East Rutherford.

The mall is located across the river from Manhattan on a gargantuan plot of land that’s been in development since 2003, and you can get a good eyeful of the massive scale of complex while driving on I-95 towards the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel. From what I understand, the state of New Jersey has been working with various developers to create an attraction that will draw consumer spending money from the city and convince out-of-town tourists to spend the night in a hotel in New Jersey instead of New York, and the amount of money invested is in the billions of dollars. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of yearly subsidies into the seeing the development completed, which allowed it to project an opening in early 2020… and then the pandemic hit.

Parts of the mall are still under construction, and not all of its retail spaces are occupied, but it’s now open to the public. It is very new and very shiny. The pure white walls and floors gleam under soft white light, and there are fresh-cut flowers and public art everywhere. The empty storefronts and closed-off corridors are hidden by paneling covered in unique and gorgeous graphics, and there are all sorts of interesting pieces of modern furniture in the atrium areas. The soap in the literally sparkling-clean bathrooms is high-quality foam that smells like a garden in springtime.

The shopping seems to be relatively upscale, and the anchor stores are European chains like Primark and H&M. It’s not open yet, but there’s going to be an H-Mart in the basement, which I think is probably a nod to the East Asian retail strategy of having fancy grocery stores in shopping centers. It seems that the mall is also going to have a “luxury wing,” but it hasn’t yet been completed. They’re probably going to charge for parking in the future, but right now it’s free.

What makes this mall unique is that it also has a snowboarding hill, an ice skating rink, two mini golf courses, a Nickelodeon-branded theme park for little kids, and a huge and beautiful DreamWorks-branded water park in a huge and beautiful tropical biodome. There are a few other attractions that are still getting set up, like an aquarium that looks like it’s going to fit the aesthetic of being huge and beautiful and heavily themed in an offbeat artistic way that appeals to younger kids. If I understand the map correctly, the aquarium will have a giant ocean tunnel that will let you walk through a fantasy of a postapocalyptic underwater New York City, which is a bit morbid but still pretty cool.

And this entire place is completely empty. Just, completely empty. Except for a skeleton crew of retail employees at the stores and a few maintenance staff tending to the plants and flowers, there’s no one in the mall. American Dream looks like the international terminal of an airport if humans were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth – very shiny and modern and clean, but deserted.

Anyway, now I’m wondering how you get the job of being a member of the gardening staff at a high-end abandoned mall that was a ruin before it even opened, because the people I saw tending to the plants and misting the flowers looked very peaceful and happy. It was some next-level Studio Ghibli magic, like Castle in the Sky except real.

If anyone asks, being a gardener in the ruins of capitalism is very much where I would like to see myself in five years.

Wizard Pants

Today is Monday, March 8. It’s supposed to get warm tomorrow, but it’s not there yet. It’s probably starting to be gorgeous in DC – this is the time of year when the plum trees bloom, and the cherries and dogwoods are right around the corner – but I am past the point in my life when I think it’s reasonable to pay $3k a month for a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment. So now I live in West Philadelphia, which is beautiful in its own way, but it’s far enough north that there are still nasty piles of snow in the CVS parking lot.

This weekend my husband was a human slug that lumped around on the couch and rewatched old seasons of The Wire, and he was starting to get depressed from lack of sunlight. I wanted to take him on a field trip, but it’s Philadelphia. Where is there to go?

And then it hit me – Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is in northeast Philadelphia, a little up I-95 as it follows the Delaware River headed toward Trenton. Because it’s right on the river and right off the interstate, this used to be a manufacturing district, but now all the factories are closed and boarded shut. There’s no traffic, and everything is just sort of quietly rusting away. The roads are wide and obviously meant to accommodate tractor-trailer trucks, but they’re completely empty. Local rail lines cross above the roads on bridges, but they’re also rusting and falling down in places. It’s a little creepy and probably super dangerous.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is on one of these big roads. As reported, it is indeed across the street from a crematorium and next door to an adult video store. The crematorium is surprisingly tasteful, and the adult video store was surprisingly busy on a Sunday afternoon. There was nothing much to see at Four Seasons Total Landscaping itself, save for an excessive amount of barbed wire on the chain-link fence in front of their parking lot and a sign out front that says they’re hiring.

The way I understand it, the Trump campaign choosing Four Seasons Total Landscaping as a venue was a characteristically stupid mistake, but this area of Philadelphia is also the only part of the city that consistently votes Republican. It’s about 85% “white,” but the majority of these people are either immigrants or the children of immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet countries in Central Asia.

So, sitting in our car on the street outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping, we googled “Russian grocery store.” We struck gold with a place called NetCost Market, which is apparently the Eastern European equivalent of H-Mart (by which I mean large and a bit upscale but with mostly foreign brand-name products). They had a Halal butcher and a bunch of kosher food, and I have never seen such a prodigious gathering of meat and cheese and pickled fish in my entire life. They also had enormous displays of German chocolate and Northern European (mainly Russian) herbal tea, and it was all ridiculously inexpensive. We filled a shopping basket and walked out of the store having paid less than $40.

That’s not the story, though. The story is that there was a Dollar General in the same shopping center. I don’t know what Dollar General stores are like in the rest of the country, but in Philadelphia they’re all over the place and where you go to get paper goods (like toilet paper) when the neighborhood CVS or Rite Aid invariably doesn’t have any in stock. They’re super sad and depressing but also super cheap, and they’re like the Wild West in that you never know what fell off the back of a truck somewhere and is currently on sale.

Since the Dollar General was right there, and since we already had the car, I was like, “Listen, I know this is supposed to be a fun day out, but we’re almost out of paper towels.” So we went into the Dollar General, and…

They had wizard pants.

I don’t know how else to describe them – dark blue and black pants covered with various patterns depicting stars, planets, and constellations. Some were high fantasy European, and some were more geometric West African, but they were all fabulous. It might be a stretch to call these pants “tasteful,” but the prints were beautiful. The fabric wasn’t the sort of rough flannel normally used for pajama pants, but a light synthetic cotton like yoga pants, except it was loose and flowing instead of tight and “shaping.” Each pair was $8 even.

My first thought was “holy shit,” which was quickly followed by the realization that I could probably buy these in bulk and resell them on Etsy for an enormous markup. (Which I would never do because that’s too much trouble and lol what, am I going to use myself as a model.) And then I thought, But why is American athletic clothing and longuewear always so gray and boring? Why doesn’t everyone own at least one pair of wizard pants?

So I’m just standing there, right in the middle of the store, staring at these pants and having galaxy brain thoughts, and my husband comes up with the paper towels and is like, “Please hurry up and pick one so we can leave.”

And that’s how I got myself a snazzy pair of wizard pants. They are magical and I love them very much.

I have never seen wizard pants at any other Dollar General location, but I promise this is a real place. It’s the store in the shopping center with the NetCost Market at 2417 Welsh Road.

By the way, when I say that Dollar General is super depressing, what I mean is that it has a bare-bones interior with ghastly fluorescent lighting. The stores are always comically understaffed, so the shelves are in total disarray while there’s just one lonely person at the check-out counter. I used to work at Walmart, and to me Dollar General looks like it’s just a stockroom with no sales floor, by which I mean there’s no attempt to make the space pleasant and inviting. They also sell highly processed American junk food in bulk, which is depressing in a way that runs much deeper than the immediate shopping experience.

I suspect that some people will read what I wrote about Dollar General and jump to the conclusion that I think working-class people are depressing. I actually don’t have much money myself, and the point of my story is that traversing an urban landscape becomes much more interesting when you put stereotypes and generalizations aside in favor of thinking about the histories of specific communities and the daily experiences of the people who live there. I am not slumming it, or whatever, by going to the grocery store in a different neighborhood as a fun day out.

That being said.

These wizard pants transcend social and economic class. They also transcend time and space. They are fantastic and amazing. I don’t know where they came from or where they’re going, but it is a privilege and an honor to accompany them on their journey.

Anyway. I lived in Philadelphia on and off for seven or eight years before moving to DC, but I’m just now realizing that I don’t know the city very well. It will be nice to get out more once the weather gets warmer and we all get properly vaccinated.