Auntie Anne's

Auntie Anne's is not just a pretzel bakery. It is the premier pretzel bakery in all the land. Auntie Anne, bless her heart, just straight up makes delicious pretzels. Salty pretzels, sweet pretzels, all kinds of pretzels. Except for bad ones. I could try to describe them, but even the words in my vocabulary with the most powerful of connotations - delectable, scrumptious, exquisite, heavenly - fail to do them justice. I'll keep it succinct and say that the pretzels are buttery but not heavy, salty but not offensively so, and, above all, soft. The best pretzels on Earth.

My most gluttonous moment occurred during the consumption of one of Auntie Anne's treats. It was a cinnamon sugar pretzel - sweet instead of salty, but just as soft as the originals. This softness and my voracious appetite would combine to be my tongue's undoing. I was a few bites into the pretzel, just chomping away at a blazing speed. I have no recollection of intentionally trying to eat the pretzel as fast as was humanly possible, but my jaw was pumping up and down at no less than 2.5 hertz. Suddenly, there was a pain in my tongue unlike any I had ever felt before. I winced and stopped chewing. I ran to the nearest mall rest room and looked in the mirror. I had bitten directly through my tongue. There was no mistaking it. The right side of my tongue had managed to get in the way of my diligently working canine and that was that. An enormous black spot - a blood blister, I assume - formed that night and the thing took a few weeks to heal, my tongue extra sensitive all the while. It was a terrible experience, mostly because the second half of my cinnamon sugar pretzel was tainted by the taste of blood. Perhaps I should have gone with an original pretzel. The blood probably would have complemented a salty, buttery snack a bit better than it did my sweet and sugary one.

One night I was at the mall with a friend and we found ourselves standing in front of Auntie Anne's just as they were closing up. We perused the pretzels, pretzel sticks, pretzel bites, and other pretzel shapes behind the counter. My friend asked the girl behind the counter what was to become of these freshly baked treats in the coming minutes after closing time. We learned that they were to be thrown away. My friend, a business major, began to haggle. As we were clearly the last customers of the night, would it be cool if we just "took the pretzels off your hands?" he asked. She laughed along, but wasn't biting, saying it was against company policy to give food away. I was fine with this, but my friend wasn't done. "What if we were to meet you outside by the dumpster?" he asked. "You could even place the trash bag neatly on top of the dumpster, and we could take it out ourselves." I'm not even sure if he was being serious. Regardless, the employee still said no, and told us how they just dump all the remaining pretzels into the same trash that they use for the rest of their garbage. In a last ditch effort, my friend inquired about getting some sort of discount. The girl maintained that she couldn't give us one, but looked like she really did want to. She was either a model employee putting company policy before her own morals or just a really good actress. My friend had enough class not to keep going, and we decided to split a large thing of pretzel bites, full price and all.

As we walked away from Auntie Anne's, the girl behind the counter went right ahead and dumped everything into the trash. She wasn't bluffing. It pained me to see all that food just go to waste even more than it had pained me to bite right through my tongue a few years prior. Most bakeries I've been too, even the chains, are far more flexible when it comes to end-of-the-day sales. The local Dunkin' Donuts routinely sells stuff away at less than 50% after the sun goes down, and I've heard that places like Panera and Starbucks do the same. One Panera even donates all of the previous night's unsold bagels to a nearby soup kitchen every morning. After all, day old bagels beat nothing. They beat nothing by a lot.

I was brought up to abhor wasting food. "Cleaning" one's plate, vegetables and all, was always required by my parents in order to earn dessert. Somehow, this parental policy - finish everything you eat - manifested later on in life as a personal moral. I have no doubts that my aversion to throwing away more than a few scraps of food has led me to pack on some extra weight over the past few years, and its a habit I'm trying to get rid of. Still, I always feel a little bit of guilt when I throw away anything more than a pizza crust or the remnants of a taco or sandwich. After all, there are starving people in Africa, no matter how many Delia's shirts think otherwise. There are even starving people right here in America. Yet, right here in America, the local Auntie Anne's throws dozens of pretzels away every night. With over 300 locations nationwide, that's millions a year. The federal government, in order to subsidize farmers, buys surplus corn and burns it. Americans may be pretty good eaters, but we're even better wasters. It sucked that my friend and I had to pay full price for some snacks that were about to be discarded, but the true shame was that all of that food had been discarded at all.

Especially when the foodstuffs in question were the best pretzels on Earth.



If the mall is the place you go to when you need to purchase various types of things, Sears might as well be a mall all on its own. Only a lower-middle tier department store like Sears can get away with carrying both name brand clothes and auto parts. It's truly all-encompassing. Kitchen appliances, shoes, throw pillows - Sears has it all. I remember one time leaving Sears with a grill brush, some Dockers pants, and a season of South Park on DVD. Not a bad haul at all from a store that ranks just above Target in the American department store hierarchy. But this is far from my most lasting Sears memory.

That episode took place when I was ten years old. My mom had put me in an itchy sweater and my sisters in dresses and brought the three of us to Sears. At the time, they had a "portraits" department, and my mom was in the mood to get some professional pictures taken of her darling children without paying top dollar. So there we were. A few snapshots into my photoshoot, I began to feel a little bit light-headed. I voiced my complaints, but as a ten-year-old kid, had them shot down fairly quickly. As more and more pictures were taken, I became more and more restless and nauseous. The photographer claimed my discomfort was just due to the bright light and that I'd be done soon. I managed to last the entire session, but not a moment longer.

On the way out of the studio, emerging back into Sears proper, I keeled over and started vomiting. My spray covered a solid sixty-degree vertical arc, and I managed to project for a distance of several feet. No longer fit for consumer purchase was an entire rack of blouses immediately in front of me and a few wallets and checkbooks at the base of a stand a few feet farther back. My mother was mortified, the salespeople were apologetic, and the custodian who eventually came by to clean up the mess was enjoying a good-natured chuckle at the whole thing. It is worth noting that his arsenal consisted of a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels, and nothing more.

Sadly, that was only my second-most-infamous public display of vomiting. One fateful day in eighth grade, I came back from lunch feeling a little under the weather. It quickly worsened. My "language arts" class (that is what they called English in my hometown middle school, for whatever reason) was off to the "media center" (library) for a lesson on how to use books, or something. I must admit, I have no idea what the lesson was on, as I was hardly paying any attention to it, being that my stomach contents were ready to explode upward with great velocity. But I was a tough guy. I wanted to weather the storm. A little tummy ache was never supposed to derail a big bad eighth grader. Besides, after this library session and a math class and a bus ride, I'd be home free. No need to rush off to the nurse or the bathroom. Never mind that I wouldn't be in the clear for another ninety minutes, while my condition had been rapidly worsening. I was going to make it. I had to. I was, at thirteen years of age, a man, dammit.

What I really was, at thirteen years of age, was a dumbass. Would anyone have really cared if I had gone to the nurse's office? Of course not. But for whatever reason, I was determined not to. So there I sat, holding back vomit, forehead getting sweaty, trying to ignore a conversation going on behind me about kids eating chapstick (in my present state, a revolting concept indeed). With mere minutes to go before the class change, I finally could no longer take it. I stood up to head to the nurse's, but the mere act of standing was enough to send shockwaves through my shivering body. I got to the library's doorway and threw up in my mouth, cheeks puffing out and everything. I swallowed it back down, knowing that the nurse's office was just down the hallway, and pushed open the door.

Calamity. The hallway right outside the library was filled with a science class doing a loud experiment of some sort. "Hey there!" shouted a friend of mine at me, merrily. "Bluargh!" I responded. And just like that, I was no tough guy at all. This upchuck exceeded even my Sears Portraits one. There was vomit everywhere. I mean, everywhere. There was vomit all over the floor, creating a puddle that spanned the width of the hallway. A total roadblock for anyone who didn't want to get the retch on their Adidas sneakers. There was vomit on my New Found Glory shirt. There was vomit on some poor girl's locker, and far worse, due to the weird ventilation holes on the door, perhaps there was some vomit inside of it. Kids went nuts. Some shrieked. Some laughed. Some went silent. One screamed, "that's awesome!" pretty much immediately. A few ran to grab a teacher. One passerby was just absolutely roaring with a giggle fit as he held his nose and jumped over the spill while strolling down the hallway. I was thoroughly and utterly embarrassed. Vomit had conquered me in front of all of my classmates at a time when the pressure to be cool was at its height. I could easily have ducked out ten minutes prior, made it to the nurse's office with ease, and saved some face. But no. I had to try to outlast a stomach virus, and instead ended up making an absolute chunderdome out of the hallway. Plus, I graduated with the distinction of being the last kid in my grade to ralph in school. But hey, it could have been worse; I could have been one of the three kids who shit their pants in high school.

I guess I've kind of veered off subject, but what I'm trying to say is, Sears is an underrated store with a lot to offer.


Pardon the obnoxious capitalization in the title, but I strive for authenticity. Delia's, as it will henceforth be called since I do not have the patience to type "dELiA*s" every time I want to refer to it, sells clothing to young women. Their style is a fun and light-hearted one. They sell tie-dye tees with panda bears on them. One shirt features a giraffe in Kanye shades saying, "Sup?" A pair of tees, one with a brontosaurus silhouette and the other with that of a tyrannosaurus, say "Herbivore" and "Carnivore" respectively. In short, it's a very silly place.

In a way, it is refreshing to know that such a place exists in a teen fashion world seemingly dominated by the skimpy and the lewd. After a while, it gets old seeing jailbait parading around. One can only handle so many teens wearing sweatpants with "Juicy" written across their ass cheeks. It is a rare kind of man that can see an underage girl baring her cleavage and popping out of a tiny V-neck without feeling downright terrible about himself and his natural instincts. Delia's provides young girls with non-revealing, non-suggestive attire. Surely, it must be refreshing to see a girl wearing a shirt with a smiling caricature of Earth on it instead of the words "dripping wet" written across her prominent chest. Right?

Well, not exactly. Delia's merchandise has its own kind of problem. While most of it is innocuous enough - a dictionary saying "Word!" or a smiling piece of bread popping out of a toaster - a very decent-sized chunk of Delia's merchandise revolves around environmentalism and world peace. When you factor in a few shirts that feature solemn-faced Bob Marleys and Jimi Hendrices, which stand in contrast to the happy-go-lucky atmosphere the rest of the place exhibits, you begin to realize that Delia's is turning young girls into something far worse than tramps.

It pains me to see just how unabashedly naive much of the youth of America is about various realities such as, in general, the way the world works. We cannot simply "stop polluting." Pollution is an inevitable side effect of industry in general. Manufacturing requires both energy and physical change to raw materials; energy consumption and physical change result in waste and runoff. Even the process of recycling results in some pollution. We cannot simply "not make war." Humankind is wrought with the desire to compete, achieve, and retain. A group of poor and starving people will understandably go to any length to achieve the food and money they require for survival. And one third of the world is, yes, poor and starving. War and pollution are unpleasant, certainly. Few would argue against that much. But they are necessary evils. There is no way to eliminate or even significantly reduce either of them without radically changing our way of life. And this is something that the average 16-year old girl wearing a shirt that says "stop all the fighting!" is not yet capable of understanding.

One of the few times I have been in Delia's, waiting for my girlfriend outside of the fitting room, I saw a girl take a shirt off the rack featuring Africa superimposed on a peace sign. I'm sure the intent of both Delia's and the girl was to say, "hey, look at this shirt, I care about Africa," but for me the shirt just screamed ignorance. Africa is a continent riddled with disease, famine, and political instability. Slavery is still legal in certain countries there. Overpopulation would be an extreme issue, but due to the rampant AIDS, is only a minor one. Terrible, terrible people routinely take control of entire countries via military coups. Children are taken from their mothers' arms to be trained as soldiers. Men are torn limb from limb in front of their families. Hands and feet are removed with machetes. Civil wars are the norm and not the exception. Genocide occurs but goes largely unnoticed by the world at large. And yet, according to this girl and her Delia's shirt, peace in Africa is pretty doable. It's just that easy. How shamelessly condescending.

The majority of Delia's clothing - Snoopy using an umbrella because it is raining musical notes - is fine enough by me. But when it comes to choosing between a trollop and a hippie, I'd rather have young ladies' outfits save my imagination than Darfur. Peace in Africa, thanks to t-shirts? Come on. That's even sillier than a talking giraffe in Kanye shades.



I would describe myself as a "casual gamer." By that, I mean that I enjoy video games more than the average person, but do not spend the majority of my free indoor time playing them; my Xbox Live profile describes my "gamer zone" as recreational rather than "pro" or "underground," so you can take from that what you will. Anyway, as a guy who likes to play video games. I am often buying video games. Not just the new ones, but older ones that I never got around to playing at the time of their release for whatever reason. Now, the Internet is a great place to find used video games, but with the cost and delay of the shipping process, I sometimes seek alternative options. Fortunately, there are several used video game stores close by. Unfortunately, they are all GameStops.

The mall used to have a Babbages upstairs and an Electronics Boutique (later EB Games) downstairs. There was also a Funcoland across the street. Due to a series of buy-outs and mergers, each of these is now a GameStop. So now we have two identical stores in the mall and a third across the street. To me, this is stupid. To succeed at selling any type of media, you need a large library. Why split that library into three parts within the same region? It's endlessly frustrating. Sometimes, I'll show up at GameStop A looking for a game. When they don't have it, they tell me to check GameStops B and C. They won't even look up whether or not the game is in stock at either of the other locations. In this day and age, how can it be impossible to do this? Obviously, they just want me to spend more time in GameStop stores, as more time in stores means more potential for them to make a buck. This is company policy; GameStop employees are not bad people (several of my friends have found themselves working there at one point or another), but part of their job is to refuse to let me know if other area GameStops have something in stock. After all, encouraging customers to waste their time is the right thing to do if there's a profit. Sadly, this is hardly the only example of GameStop shitting on its customers.

Try to buy a new game at GameStop, and they'll pester you to get it used instead. Even when you explain that the game is a gift, they'll try to convince you that giving somebody a used present isn't an egregious faux pas. I once went to GameStop seeking a DS game for my sister's birthday. When I asked for it at the counter, I was handed a used cartridge. When I asked for a new one, I was given a different cartridge. When I asked the man behind the counter if he had any unopened, factory-sealed, "no way this has ever been used" versions of the game, and not just loose cartridges, he gave me a funny look and hesitated before asking if it really mattered. I cut my losses and went to Best Buy for the game.

Try to sell GameStop a game still sealed in cellophane, and they'll accuse you of having stolen it. It doesn't matter if the game hasn't been sold new in years. I once tried to sell back Max Payne 2, which I had purchased new for no more than $1.50 a year ago and never opened. They weren't having it.

GameStop's worst offense occurred when I went into one a couple years ago with a bag full of PS2 games I did not want. There were probably 15 to 20 in total. I just wanted to see if any would fetch more than $10 or so. I put the bag on the counter and asked, "Can I see how much these are worth?" The GameStop employee immediately began to ring the games up, one after the other, without telling me the value of any of them. A second employee started taking the games out of the cases and preparing them for markup. These games were still mine. They were still my property. All I had asked for were some price checks. Yet here was a decent-sized chunk of my gaming collection being processed for resale right before my eyes. Adding insult to larceny, the employee taking out the discs had been in the midst of a meal from Burger King. Chicken fry grease and all, hands just working the game cases. She even put her dipping sauce on top of one stack of my games, spilling a dollop or two right on the cover, not giving even the slightest shit. It was horrible. It was like watching somebody kick your dog without understanding that it is wrong to do so - you can't get mad at them for not knowing any better, but still, you're just crushed witnessing it. When the games had been tallied, the man behind the counter said, "Sixty-four dollars. You want cash or store credit?" I told him to hold on a minute. I wasn't sure I wanted to sell all these games, or even more than a few, for that matter. Many were old favorites, and to get rid of most of them for less than $5 seemed depressing. But the guy made a big deal out of the fact that they had already been scanned into the system. Instead of asking which ones I wanted to sell, he asked which ones I wanted to keep. In his mind, they belonged to GameStop now, and he was doing me a favor by letting me choose a few to keep. In the end, I sold about a dozen games for $44 or so - less than the price of one new one. The guy was upset I had taken so many back (really, kept so many, as "taking back" implies that they had left my possession in the first place), but I had still only sold 2 or 3 that I really wanted to part with. I felt taken advantage of. Violated, in a way. When I later recounted the story to my GameStop employee friend, asking why the guy wouldn't just tell me the prices of the games before attempting to steal them from me, he shrugged it off and said it was just company policy. Of course.

Of course GameStop wants to buy as many of your games as possible. Of course they want to sell you used ones instead of new ones. After all, fifty percent of GameStop's revenue comes from the sale of used games. Half! GameStop will buy your game for three dollars and sell it for seventeen. I understand that, obviously, the middle man needs to make a profit for any middle man to exist. But in this modern era, why does a middle man need to exist? Why do GameStop's customers allow it to make 400% profit on many used games? If I'm looking to buy and somebody else is looking to sell, let's meet halfway and make a $10 exchange. In the aforementioned scenario, we both save $7. With sites like Craigslist and eBay existing, how in the world does GameStop stay afloat when they're blatantly (seriously, they don't even try to hide it - they can't) marking up their used games by ten to twenty dollars apiece? I suppose the answer is the dreaded word "monopoly." Again, there used to be three different competing used game retailers in the area. Now there's just one three-headed monster. I swear, anyone could make a killing (for a little while) by just setting up their own used video game store nearby, provided they had a moderate catalogue. I'm not going to explore the legality or financial stability of it, but how could a small business not succeed by advertising "Used Games: We pay 150% what GameStop will on all games, and sell them for 2/3 the price!" or something somewhat similar?

I hate the way GameStop treats both its customers and its merchandise. I hate that people enable GameStop by trading with them for twenty cents on the dollar. I hate that GameStop has bought out virtually every competitor outside of the Internet. But I can't bring myself to hate GameStop. After all, where else can you stumble upon NHL Hitz 20-02 for $2.99?


Bourbon Street Cafe / Wok USA / Texas BBQ Factory

[We're going to break convention a bit here and go with a three-venue post. I apologize for the lack of venue logos. Unfortunately, these three eateries are so insignificant on a national level that I could find no logo for any of them.]

You might be thinking, "what do a Cajun joint, a Chinese place, and a steakhouse have in common?" In doing so, you would be the umpteenth individual to make some incorrect assumptions about two of these three places. Names can be deceitful. Bourbon Street Cafe does not serve Cajun food. No Texas-style barbecue at all can be found at the alleged BBQ Factory. No, these places serve Chinese. Shitty, no-name brand, mall-quality Chinese.

That's right. In our food court, there are three identical Chinese food places. How did this come to be? I do not know. I know that Wok USA used to be a Panda Wok, and I know that I never noticed Bourbon Street Cafe until a few years ago, which is not to say that it was never there, but only that if it was, nobody I knew gave a shit. I do, however, remember the arrival of Texas BBQ Factory, and I remember it well. A few years ago, Taco Bell found itself out of a lease, and vacated its place in the food court. Shortly thereafter, a sign went up outside the closed off storefront. It read, simply, "Coming soon: Texas BBQ Factory." For several months, my friends and I were pretty excited by the prospect of eating steaks, ribs, and chicken wings in the mall. I'd never heard of this barbecue chain, but barbecue was barbecue, and this place was going to be awesome. When it finally did open, you can imagine my utter disappointment at finding out it was nothing but a third shitty Chinese food joint. What a pump fake.

I am beginning to suspect that the three no-name Chinese food places are all actually the same place. They could even share a kitchen behind the counters, as all are located right next to each other. Only a closed Pizzatella and the food court restrooms divide the trio of Chinese eateries from being one continuous string of spare rib dispensers. All three use the same pastel shades on their behind-the-counter menus, and all three are staffed entirely by Asians. Most strikingly of all though, all three places offer the same exact special.

The "special" is always hyped as "today only!" but is literally always being offered by all three restaurants. It has no name. I call it the "Four things! Two ninety-nine!" I call it this because this is what the employees at Wok USA et al. will holler at anyone passing by. Each place has one guy out front dishing out the free samples, and they're always worth taking. But be careful. Should you hesitate for even a second or glance toward the place's menu, the ladle guy will go apeshit and immediately pull out a tray while asking which four things you'd like.

Three Chinese places within fifty yards of one another. All three offering the exact same deal ("four things") for the exact same price ($2.99). I ask, how can they be competing? How can they not all be in cahoots? Why is my mall's food court slowly but surely being taken over by Asian cuisine? Like the Orient itself, the whole thing seems rather mysterious and full of secrets. One thing's for sure though: I miss Taco Bell.



Books could be in trouble. We just aren't reading them like we used to. Kanye West, the self-proclaimed voice of the current young adult generation, is also a self-proclaimed "non-reader of books." There are more and more television programs every year. Everybody loves movies. Even video games are finally becoming accepted as a story-telling format worthy of critical praise in their own right. How can we expect anyone find the time for books anymore? And anyway, whenever a book becomes popular enough to merit more than a few recommendations between friends, its movie adaptation is not far behind. Back in middle school, a friend of mine was reading the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy. He stopped halfway through the first one. His reason? He didn't want the upcoming movie trilogy to be spoiled for him.

Even those of us reading books don't need to buy them. Thanks to sites like Project Gutenberg we can easily find all kinds of classic and contemporary novels, for free, online. The public library, while no longer in vogue, is also always an Internet-free option. And books, far more than DVDs or video games, are frequently passed around and given away upon completion. "You haven't read that book yet? I finished it yesterday; you can have my copy."

So in a world where book-readers are diminishing in number and book-buying seems unnecessary, how does Borders thrive? On a very small but key demographic: the upper class. Books have been rebranded as luxury items. Reading, while always a hobby that leaned toward intellectuals, has now more than ever become the hip thing to do if you've got a degree and plenty of time. And why not? The ability to leisurely read a book is a status symbol in and of itself. It says, "I have both the money to spend on something that is otherwise free, and also the free time to read something for several hours." The fact that bookstores such as Borders now sell coffee, thus prompting customers to "sit back and stay a while" only furthers the image of the modern book-reader as an upscale individual. Blue collar America lacks the sophistication to enjoy books, the money to buy them, and the time to read them, the mentality is.

And that mentality is how Borders stays in business. Call it nothing more than a stereotype that book-buyers are college-educated, liberal-minded, and hoity toity. But ask yourself, is this not the exact image of the customers bookstores strive for? The coffee shop youth? The saviors of Darfur and Tibet? Adults without children? The exception, of course, is when an enormous fad is made over a teen-oriented book series. At these times, Borders will rebrand itself momentarily as "Your Neighborhood Harry Potter Headquarters" or "The Go-To Place For Everything Twilight." But hey, that's just business.



Lids sells hats. Primarily, baseball caps. The small store is lined on either sides with shelves full of baseball caps. Between the walls are a few racks of more baseball caps. For me, a baseball cap is a baseball cap. It's not an accessory. It doesn't complete an outfit and it doesn't add style or flair to one's appearance. But that's only because I haven't been swept up by the urban fashion sandsweeper. I'd call it a fad, but it's so much more; it's a culture. And it's not for me. Blame it on my innate whiteness. Blame it on the lack of time I've spent in a city. I just don't think a baseball cap, in the traditional sense, needs to have a city skyline on it.

But Lids does, and so do its customers. Lids has hats with argyle and houndstooth patterns. They have hats with enormous and skewed baseball team logos. They have hats with lavishly ornate cursive letters spelling out "New York Yankees." They have plaid hats. They have camouflage hats. They have hats with comic book characters. They even have hats that consist of brightly colored splatter shapes and nothing more. What don't they have? Official MLB team hats.

I went into Lids recently looking for a St. Louis Cardinals hat. Specifically, I wanted a "home" hat, which consists of a white lettermark on a red background. I went straight to Lids for this because Lids is a store that sells, well, baseball caps. Furthermore, the St. Louis Cardinals are a very popular and historically important team. Surely I could find their home field hats at a store that specializes in the sale of MLB hats, I figured. No dice. Lids had one official Cardinals hat. It was the red-on-blue road version and was far too small. Looking around, I could find hats featuring giant cartoon cardinals. I could find hats with "Saint Louis" written in pseudo-graffiti. But I could not find an actual legitimate St. Louis Cardinals home hat.

I think there's something to be said about going too far out of the way in a quest for creativity only to abandon the basics. We have ice creameries that sell all sorts of original flavors but lack options such as chocolate and vanilla. We have cell phones with tons of extra features but terrible service. And now, in Lids, we have an MLB hat store that lacks certain MLB team hats. Sometimes, we need to stop planning tweak X and twist Z and remember to include standard thing A. Take a step back, so to speak. To basics.


Burger King

I could go the obvious route and use my entry on Burger King to ridicule obesity. "Did you know a double Whopper has 1000 calories?" I could ask. "No wonder America is so fat!" I could also use a personal anecdote to question programs and policies that promote hiring the mentally retarded; one such man working as a BK cashier voided a $25 gift card of mine and refused to acknowledge even the possibility that he may have done so. Instead, though, I will use my Burger King paragraphs to talk about advertising.

Man, Burger King has some amazing advertisements, specifically in the all-important category of television. Over the past ten years, we've seen Shaq put some little kid on a poster while dressed like Shaft. We've seen an enormous chicken tackling extreme sports. We've seen Whopper Jr. throwing a ripper, only to have his dad come home and go apeshit at Junior's friend, Spicy Chicken sandwich, for hitting on his daughter (somehow, a human). We've seen a group of men throw a minivan off of an overpass into an awaiting dump truck being hauled by some sort of brute who is lured into movement by a burger held just out of his reach on a shovel by an attractive woman. We have even seen Darius "Hootie" Rucker lazily strum "Big Rock Candy Mountain" while describing in great detail the "Fantasy Ranch," a place where cheddar paves the streets, Dallas cheerleaders give you shaves, french fries grow like weeds, and streams of bacon ranch dressing flow right up to your knees. And we've seen all of this thanks to Burger King.

But they don't only excel on the TV-front. In fact, as our society heads boldly and rapidly into a commercial-free TV age, I think BK will prosper. Burger King has released three video games for the Xbox 360. They have released a cologne called BK Flame. They have created a 75-page pdf about the "Angus Diet" written by the fictional nutrition expert "Dr. Angus." They've done just fine on the viral front too, giving us both the Day Without a Whopper and the Subservient Chicken.

Never underestimate the power of commercials. Before the new millennium began, I was a Mickey D's guy, through and through. Now, when I think of grabbing some fast food, it's BK that comes to mind. What happened? When it comes to the quality of food, McDonald's got no worse, and Burger King barely improved. Their prices have stayed comparably consistent. What it all comes down to is one brand beating the snot out of the other in the marketing realm. When I first saw Hootie regaling me with promises of tumbleweeds of bacon, I immediately wanted a Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch. It was that easy. I tried it, I loved it, and, lo and behold, McDonald's has never earned me back with any chicken commercials of their own. Olympic medalists preferring McDonald's chicken to their medals? It just doesn't compare to the Big Buckin' Chicken, or even his cousin, Big Huckin'. For ten years, I have always been able to count on Burger King to entertain and amuse me with each and every television snippet. From McDonald's, I've come to expect nothing more than misguided attempts at portraying urban culture.

So I'd like to thank Burger King for really "getting it" when it comes to advertisements over the past ten years. But I'd also like to warn them. After ten years of futility, McDonald's appears to finally be coming around. Their recent "Give me back that Filet-O-Fish!" ad was an instant classic, and certainly the best thing to come from either corporation in years. In fact, it was so great, that like the Hootie ad of years gone by, it made me actually order something I'd not otherwise get - in this case, a fast food fish sandwich. It didn't floor me, but imagine if it had! At the very least, now I'll never settle for the BK Big Fish should I get a hankerin' for some cod with a McDonald's nearby. At least, not until Burger King floors us all with another great commercial. Advertising: one of the beautiful by-products of capitalism. God bless America, all 50 billion pounds of it.


Yankee Candle

For my money, nobody does what Yankee Candle does better than Yankee Candle. And that thing is scented candles. The store is loaded with shelves and tables filled to capacity with, well, candles. Candles of all shapes, scents, and colors, all of them coming in an old-fashioned-looking glass jar with a picture on the front in the least tacky sort of way. What amazes me most about the place is the sheer variety in scents. "French Vanilla," "Vanilla Cupcake," and "Vanilla Lime" are all available, and so are four different fragrances beginning with the word "Autumn." All said and done, there are nearly 100 different odors. I really don't have much else to say about the place. Let's face it, it's a total mom store. I've been inside it maybe twice. I also knew someone who worked there, but barely.

For me, the memories evoked by Yankee Candles are those of winter power outages. My mom always had a plethora of candles on hand, and whenever a blizzard knocked some power lines out of commission, we'd head straight for the cabinet which held them all. Spreading them out mainly in the kitchen and living room, we'd light them all. From a practical standpoint, I can't really say why; a dozen spread out candles made for more of a fire hazard than a lighting fixture. Besides, we always also had an assortment of flashlights handy. I guess more than anything we did it for the tranquility. There's something about a small flame flickering about on a wick, slowly melting away an enormous amount of wax, that is just so utterly beautiful and hypnotizing. Even staring at a wall or ceiling and watching shadows dance sporadically due to the patternless nature of fire could occupy me for ten or twenty minutes, if the power had been out long enough. The smells were indescribable - not because they were so otherworldly or anything, but because they were always a hodgepodge mixture of five or ten different fragrances.

Losing electricity for more than a few hours always makes me pensive about man's place in the world. The majority of my waking hours in the winter time are spent staring at some sort of screen or reading words under artificial light. Lose electricity, and there's very little for me to do. I sit, and I think. I reflect on how much I take electricity for granted and imagine no one must have stayed up very late in the time of our forefathers. Hell, half the world today has no electricity. Sometimes if it's still snowing pretty hard, I'll just walk outside and stand there, right in the middle of it. If you've never just stood in the middle of a heavy snowfall, you need to do so. All around you, the snow muffles all sounds coming from every direction. There's a total and beautiful silence. The moonlight reflects all the more so from the snow, and it's as bright as twilight outside, even in the middle of the night. Hunger and sleepiness notwithstanding, I could walk around on nights like those for hours.

So yeah, that's Yankee Candle in a nutshell. (Also optional: nutshell in a Yankee Candle.)


The Arby's in the food court at the mall has never had a line. It's remarkable that it is still in business. Respected chains like Taco Bell and Sbarro have come and gone, but Arby's has been a food court mainstay for as long as I can remember. And I can't remember any lines. The lasting image I have of Arby's is one in which two Arby's employees, bored out of their gourds, check to see if their manager is watching them and, upon realizing that he is not, jump over the counter and run next door to Chick-fil-A for a quick photo oppurtunity with the Chick-fil-A cow mascot.

Every so often, the food court will be just full of people, and lines will form in front of every eatery aside from Arby's. These are the times I go to Arby's. And every time, I am reminded why there is never a line at Arby's: the food is horrible. They've somehow managed to screw up the roast beef sandwich. It's cheese and beef and bread - how hard is it to make a decent-tasting combination of those three ingredients? Every time I get in line at Arby's, I sort of convince myself that the food is not as bad as I remember it being. Yet every time, it is. Their curly fries are soggy. Their barbecue sauce is terrible. Their mozzarella sticks are dry and flavorless.

Arby's also features one of the world's biggest disparities between the way the food looks on the menu and the way the food looks on your plate. on paper, the cheeze is yellowish orange and of a perfect melty viscosity and the roast beef cold cuts are a hearty pinkish brown. In reality, the cheese is a pale yellow liquid and the meat is thin and grayish. Right off the bat, when you see your food emerge from its bag and wrapper, you're regretting "thinking Arby's."

Still, I continue to try it out every now and again. Maybe I'm forgiving. Maybe I'm hopeful. Maybe I'm stubborn, and just cannot accept that a roast beef sandwich can taste so bad. Whatever the reason, I give Arby's chance after chance to impress me. Since it's still around, I guess everyone else does, too.

Banana Republic

I own one item of clothing from Banana Republic. It is a pair of brown shorts. I never really intended to buy them at all. One August day I was doing some back to school shopping with my girlfriend. An enthusiast of the Gap and all Gap subsidiaries, she insisted that we drop into the Republic for a few minutes and see what they had in the way of back-to-school clothes. I was looking for some new shorts, and while my girlfriend went off to peruse a collection of black and white "tops," I was told to try on a few pairs.

I have never been one for fitting rooms. I suppose most guys aren't. Generally, I know what I want, in terms of color and style, and do not need to stare at a mirror from three separate angles while contemplating a purchase. Unless size is an issue - and it rarely is - there's no need for me to see myself wearing something in order to justify buying it. In my experience, women are totally different. They'll bring six pairs of jeans into a fitting room with the intention of just buying one, or sometimes none at all. In general, women shop; men buy.

So there I was, in the middle of a fitting room, wearing a brown pair of shorts. Suddenly, my girlfriend knocked on the door and asked what I had picked out. While trying to describe the shorts I currently wore, I used the word "chocolate." My girlfriend squealed with excitement. What a fun color, she said. I must have looked so cute, she said. I had to let her see them on me, she said, and right away. I opened the door and she reacted with a look of minor disappointment. It was sort of like the look you see on a person's face when they have forgotten where exactly they have parked their car and then notice it about a hundred fifty feet further away than they thought it was. "Well, I do like them," she said, "but that's much more of a sepia than a chocolate." Of course. Anyway, one bout of using the fitting room and having my fabric color vocabulary criticized was enough for me for the day. Unwilling to try anything else on, I bought the shorts and left the store in a haste. I wore them once the following school year.

And, yeah, that's the first and last Banana Republic purchase I have ever made. I wonder why. It's not because the clothing isn't my style. After all, the retailer is essentially just an upscale Gap, and their threads are pretty crisp and classy for the most part. It's not because it's too pricey. I mean, yes, $25 is a bit much to pay for a plain white cotton tee, but I've seen far worse. It's not because the store's name is a pejorative reference to the turmoil-filled nations of Central America. In fact, if there is any real reason for my lack of a second purchase, it is probably a certain sales associate.

It was spirit week, senior year. More specifically, the day before dress-up day. For some reason, I really wanted to participate in dress-up day. Our theme was the wild west. I had my get-up all picked out and ready to go. All that was missing was a cowboy hat. So, at the eleventh hour, I scrambled to the mall to look in every store I could think of for a simple cowboy hat. No luck anywhere. My next-to-last resort was Banana Republic. I figured I'd find nothing. I knew they primarily sold "business casual" and "urban chic" items, and that my quest for a country style cowboy hat was likely to turn up nothing. Nonetheless, I went inside and looked for one. A sales associate walked up to me immediately (the store was empty) and asked if she could help me find anything. I asked if Banana Republic sold any cowboy hats. What followed was an epic look of disgust I will never forget.

The woman was a thirty-something blonde with her hair up in a tight bun. She wore a pearl necklace over a black turtleneck sweater up top, and a pinstriped gray knee-length skirt. Pointy-toed heels and sophisticated-looking glasses were also part of the ensemble. The whole costume made her seem like an important board member of some gigantic firm, or perhaps an extremely professional real estate agent. It certainly did not say, "I fold clothes for twelve dollars an hour." Anyway, upon hearing my question, this pseudo-CEO just sneered in disgust. She didn't say a word, but her raised and furrowed eyebrows, evident grimace, and flared nostrils said more than enough. "Are you fucking serious?" they asked me, rhetorically. "Cowboy hats? Look around. Fuck, have you seen what I am wearing? Do you even know where you are?" Hammering the blow home was a slow and deliberately condescending shaking of her head, the look of shock and horror staying all the while.

Banana Republic was founded with a "travel and safari" theme just thirty years ago. Safari vests and hats frequented their early inventories, I'm sure. Was I really that unjustified in asking - not even assuming, but just wondering - if there was any chance that cowboy hats were still sold at Banana Republic? Apparently. While the name "Banana Republic" may bring to mind images of a tropical place full of colors and adventure, the store is instead an uninspired sea of grays, blacks, whites, and chocolate sepia browns.

I ended up buying a felt cowboy hat at a costume store for $5. It was a big hit, especially with one kid who had grown up in Texas who was, by default, the biggest cowboy hat aficionado I knew. Best of all, I never even had to try the hat on before buying it.


Abercrombie & Fitch

Whenever you walk by this store, you can't help but notice three things: blaring dance-pop music, the cologne-and-perfume odor of the beginning of a high school dance, and a fifty square-foot black and white portrait of some muscular dude's six-pack. I can't tell you what it's like on the inside, as I haven't shopped there for some years now. There are some people in my age group who still do, but I just can't bring myself to spend $70 on a pair of ripped-to-shreds khaki pants or $45 on a simple leather belt. Furthermore, I no longer feel the need to impress eighth graders.

When I was in middle school, A&F was the top dog when it came to fashion retailers. You could be any kind of person at all, but as long as you wore Abercrombie clothes, you could pass for someone popular. "Preppy" was the best word we could come up with to describe any kid sporting a tee reading "A&F '92" or something somewhat similar. One good friend of mine actually had an entire wardrobe of nothing but Abercrombie. I remember this because one day, for some reason, we were going to wear black t-shirts. He didn't have one. I was shocked by this - who doesn't have a black t-shirt? Apparently, the entire Abercrombie & Fitch line of apparel.

In keeping in line with their mission of "providing high-quality merchandise that compliments the casual classic American lifestyle," - and that's straight from the moose's mouth - the folks at Abercrombie have decided that black is too formal, or at least not casual enough, of a color to use in their apparel. According to one of my friends who worked at A&F in high school, the dress code for employees mandates two things: that the color black not be worn and that flip-flops must be worn. Flip-flops, a must? Yes, she said, even in the dead of winter. Clearly, Abercrombie has taken great measures to ensure that its employees present themselves as lazily and sloppily as possible in order to accurately promote the brand's image of "casual luxury."

I look back on my days of buying Abercrombie products not with an embarrassment, but more of a bewilderment. Why did used-looking jeans sell successfully for double the price of normal jeans from other stores? Why did the concept of being a "name brand" slob catch and stick? Most of all, how does a clothing store succeed when its models are 50-90% naked in every photo on every advertisement? I guess this just once again goes to show the power of the name brand. Clearly, a rose by any other name does not always smell as sweet, particularly when that name is the "Salvation Army." I do have to give Abercrombie & Fitch credit for one thing, though: their clothing was about as comfortable and fitting as clothing gets. You know, for whatever that's worth.


It goes without saying that the shopping mall is a long-standing symbol of American consumerism. I would posit that it is even symbolic of American society in general. Think about it. It’s all-encompassing. Where else can you find fast food and designer purses in the same building? Or used video games and scented candles? How about cell phones and basketball sneakers? A mall has universal appeal to all ages, both sexes, and the vast majority of socioeconomic classes. Aside from the DMV, I can’t think of any location with a wider array of people inside at any given time.

But the American shopping mall is on the decline. More of them are being closed and demolished than opened or built. The same pattern exists within all the malls I’ve been in lately, as there are more and more emptied out stores without “coming soon” signs in front of them. Blame the economy. Blame Wal-Mart. Blame the internet. Malls just aren’t the busy shopping centers they once were. Fifty years from now, they could be as rare and unused as drive-in movie theaters are today.

What follows is the story of a shopping mall. Rather, stories from several of its stores and outlets that together create an anthology of sorts. There will be no specific format for each store, and no particular rhyme or reason for ordering them the way I do. (In this regard, it won’t be very unlike a mall itself.) My hope is that as I explore and recount various outlets one by one, a larger picture will start to come together. That picture will be one not just of a shopping mall, but also of one man’s experiences and observations, past and present, of growing up in middle-class America.