Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mall Walkers

A morning in the mall walking underground

Cafeterias have long been pre-dawn gathering spots for the elderly, a quiet refuge where folks gather to chat about yard work or term life insurance over breakfasts of grapefruit and Metamucil. But, on the second Thursday of every month, when the mall walkers make the scene, the normal chatter is replaced by an excited energy that permeates the air like Vick’s VapoRub. Decked out in the latest high-end orthopedic footwear, some stake a claim to the middle dining room of the S&S Cafeteria in the Midtown at Forest Acres Mall to discuss health and fitness while others, out near the malls information desk, get loosened up to hit the tiles before the main building opens for business at 10.

Mall walkers are a different breed than the run-of-the-mill neighborhood power walker. Both share a flare for exaggerated upper body motion and, yes, there are the tracksuits. But power walkers prefer to be out in the elements dodging traffic, angry dogs and sneering motorists. By contrast, mall walkers avoid the scenic route and all its pitfalls. And though they enjoy crisp air conditioning and soothing Musak, mall walking comes with its own set of risks in the form of potentially slippery floors and gangs of scary looking teenagers, just to name a couple.

The youngest of this group, Eileen Sullivan, has been mall walking for over ten years. She says she prefers mall walking to outdoor power walking because she can work up more speed indoors. “I also have a lot of allergies,” she says, “so walking outside is not usually an option for me.”

On this bright Thursday morning the walkers orbit the lower floor of the Midtown mall at varying speeds, the sun filtering in through the plate glass ceiling above, a pan flute version of “Dust in the Wind” playing lightly on the audio system. The rocking tunes cause some to push their walkers along at a peppy, false teeth rattling pace while others seem to zone out and lumber slowly along in their street clothes.

Mac Carroll, 72, and his wife, Sara, look young enough to have kids in college and easily lap walkers half their age. Carroll attributes his youthful appearance to “good genes and a good woman.” And Jack Daniels whiskey, he adds, jokingly.

At times the Carrolls have to slow their pace so that we hung over City Paper staffers can keep up. Sara concedes that mall walkers keep earlier hours than most, but she says she prefers to walk in the morning before the stores open so they don’t disturb shoppers.

As we walk, a security guard shifts weight from one foot to the other near the escalator and surveys her charge like a chain gang boss. But, the mall sanctions walkers on these mornings, so for now, at least, a shaky truce seems to be holding. The guard begins to exhibit a growing interest in the reporters in her midst, though, so we pick up the pace and try to blend in.

On one lap, we pass a mall walker slumped on a bench near the Belk and I posit to the Carrolls that other mall walkers in the area might charge that walkers have it easier in Forest Acres, that Midtown walkers couldn’t hack it over at Dutch Square, a longer mall with more inclines.

Mac bristles at the thought. “Well, I’d say they’re full of—”

Sara quickly pops his arm, smiles apologetically and asks that we “don’t print that.”

“Hey,” Mac says, slapping my shoulder, “you’ve got to tell it like it is.”

And with that the Carrolls say their polite goodbyes, ratchet up their speed and leave the rest of us the dust. Bring it on, Dutch Square.

-Todd Morehead

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