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Report From The Edge No. 2: Requiem for a mall

Downtown Plaza is dead.

I don’t mean business is slow. I mean someone has pulled the plug on the life support. It’s as if the mall itself, sensing its obsolescence and inevitable demise, sighed and collapsed from shouldering the burden of its own dead weight.

I don’t go to Downtown Plaza often, but when I do, I have good cause. This Saturday afternoon’s cause was more noble than usual. I served as an escort for budding singer/songwriter Hillary Susz, the bell of Bellingham, WA, on the Sacramento leg of her tour of the western United States. Hillary was scheduled to play at the stage set up between River City Brewing Co. and the women’s Macy’s at 1 pm. We arrived early for what turned out to be a requiem for a mall.

But first a little backstory.

Hillary Susz is 22. She lives in Bellingham now, but grew up in Spokane. Her English teacher in high school was Bruce Holbert, who’s debut novel, Lonesome Animals, continues to get rave reviews, lately from France. Bruce and I went to high school together in Grand Coulee Dam, WA, in the shadow of what used to be the world’s largest dam. Bruce’s novel caught my attention a year or so ago, and we reconnected through the miracle of Facebook. I escorted him to a reading of his novel at Time Tested Books on his book tour, and quite frankly the security I provided was so good he had no qualms about asking me to shelter HIllary for a couple nights so she could play the two gigs she’d booked in Sacramento.

Of course I said yes. Because hospitality is one of Sacramento’s greatest strengths.

Since Wednesday night, Hillary has been my asset. I failed miserably protecting her on her first gig, which was Thursday night at Fox and Goose. Failed as in I didn’t make the gig. I pulled the age card. As in I’m 53. I didn’t feel too bad, since I trusted the management and the crowd at Fox and Goose. Hillary, who plays this sparkly sliver metalflake Gretsch guitar, is pretty damned good and the audience was fairly well educated. The gig went off without a hitch. We questioned her intensely upon her return. What did she think of the crowd? Sacramento in general? Did anyone say anything about us? All on the hush-hush of course.

But the mall gig was hinky from the get-go. "I’ve never played at a mall before," Hillary admitted when we first talked a month ago. I agreed that it sounded odd. But I also noted that the Launch festival was happening the same weekend, the grand finale mere blocks away from the mall at Caesar Chavez park. Perhaps the mall was booking artists to attract the Launch crowd.

After missing the Fox and Goose gig, I was determined to serve as her Downtown Plaza escort. One, because she stayed with us for three days and we really liked the kid, two because she and I jammed on guitars the whole time she was here and I wanted to catch her act, and three, she needed a hand with her gear, including a really heavy PA system. So we got up Saturday morning, ate a good breakfast, loaded up the van and headed for the mall.

The gig had been booked through a record store at the mall I’d never heard of, not surprising as I rarely go to the mall. As Hillary understood it, she’d be playing in front of the record store, which was on the mall’s second floor. I say "was" because when we arrived at the address on the upper deck, the record store had clearly gone out of business. We peered through Plexiglas and saw only empty darkness.

She called the booking agent, who who was also allegedly the manager of the now-defunct record store. He told her the mall gig was on the stage in front of the women’s Macy’s store, right across from River City Brewing Co.

"That’s excellent, they do have a really nice stage down there," I told her. She followed me as I slithered down to the lower level then darted up to River City Brewing Co. The only thing standing between good music, a pint and me was moving the van, unloading the equipment and helping Hillary set up on stage. But first we had to check out the stage.

It really is a nice stage, a flat gray canvas perched a foot off the ground in the shadow of Macy’s, plenty of room for a solo singer/songwriter act. But there was a major hitch. Hillary’s an electric guitar player, plus she has her own PA system for vocals and backing tracks. But there was no electrical supply for the stage. The closest outlet was 30-feet away, on Macy’s property, and we didn’t have an extension cord that long.

We figured someone must be in charge of the stage (it is after all a really nice stage), but none of the Macy’s employees we asked could tell us who that might be. Finally, the hostess at River City Brewing Co. informed us that mall management arranges the entertainment, and could probably help us with our dilemma. Their office was all the way on the other side of the mall, where we had parked and just walked from.

The afternoon was heating up as we slogged our way past buisness after business with lights out. I never knew the names of most of them, and never will, since the signage has been removed. Tony Natsoulas’ ironic Fiberglas statues of consumers, public art that debuted with the mall’s last major redesign in the 1990s, smirked "I told you so" as we made our way past the darkened windows toward the office. A narrow fissure in the mall’s canyon walls led to both the security and management offices.

Which office was which was as up for grabs as a Jim Jarmush movie. We’d come to a fork in the road. There were three tines. A sign on one door stating mall management hours were Monday through Friday was not encouraging, being that it was Saturday. The security door, with its red and black paint scheme, looked like something you should only knock on in an emergency. We were narrowing it down. Hillary chose door No. 3, where her 5-3 waifish appearance startled the man behind the desk so much he turned gray, shade No. 50.

Hillary politely told the man who she was and why she was there. I realized that though she had startled him, gray was his natural color. She’d spooked him because managing the mall is so difficult, he was neck-deep in paperwork, working Saturday just to keep up, and he hadn’t heard the pitter-patter of her tiny feet.

"I’m sorry, management office hours are Monday through Friday," he said. He reminded me of Milton from the movie Office Space. I decided to take a more direct approach.

"Dude, she’s booked for a show here today, she needs electricity, and she needs it now."

Milton sprang into action. He picked up a walkie-talkie.

"[Unintelligble] Get a Johnny Team down there on the spot!"

He then looked at us hopefully. Which was also his cue for us to leave.

"This is good," I told Hillary, as we staggered through the heat and past the shuttered stores back to River City. That pint was screaming my name by this time. I was hopeful in more ways than one. We just might be able to pull this gig off. "A Johnny Team is on the spot. That’s got to be a good thing," I assured her.

At last at the brewery, I got my pint, she got ice water and we sat down under an umbrella at an outside table to wait for the Johnny Team’s arrival.

"This is weird," Hillary said. She’d been on tour for two months. Her bandmate pulled out of the tour three weeks ago–that’s why she needs those backing tracks–but she decided to forge ahead, because she’s invested a lot of time and energy planning the tour. She’s had a lot of strange experiences so far, but she was convinced this one was going to turn out to be the weirdest.

I agreed, keeping an eye out for the Johnny Team. The whole thing was off. The booking dude had a four-star rating. The record store he worked for had an active Facebook page. According to Google Maps, it still existed. But there was nothing left of the record store but a black hole. The booking dude was no longer answering the phone. Besides Milton, the mall management appeared to have the weekend off. My Cap City IPA was awesome and I took my time sipping it, but Hillary started getting anxious. Where was the Johnny Team? She eyed my beer, which was half empty, half full.

"Do you think this is worth it? Is it bad if I bail?"

"You’ve got twice the balls I do," I said. "I would have left as soon as I found out there was no electricity."

I asked her if she was supposed to get paid for her performance, but she wasn’t sure. Some gigs pay, some gigs don’t. It doesn’t really matter to her, she saved up her hard-earned cash to go on the tour, so she doesn’t have to get paid to keep going. But it’s still a point of honor. At most bars she plays, she hangs out till the end, and she usually gets paid something. Or maybe she can sell four or five of her CDs to make a few bucks. That’s how it went down at Fox and Goose. But at Downtown Plaza, who the hell do you ask?

"Milton?" I offered.

My pint was down to a quarter, the sweat was beading on my brow and clearly the Johnny Team wasn’t so on the spot after all. It had been more than an hour. Hillary was my asset, and once again I was failing her. She was pretty torn. Should she stay or should she go? What if that one passerby happened to video her and it went viral? That wasn’t likely to happen in this case, we agreed. But still … you never know. I swigged down the rest of my beer.

"Back to Milton then."

Once again we waded back through the heat, the economic shadows and the snears of Natsoulas’ dummies.

"Maybe we should make this a matter of the pros and cons," she suggested.

"Well, I suppose one pro is that you can say you’ve played in a doomed mall."

"That’s a pro?" she jibed.

"In this case, yes, it is."

Milton was just as busy when we burst in on him again, but only hit shade of gray No. 39 this time. He actually seemed to perk up when Hillary told him that the Johnny Team never showed up.

"What the fuck? That means I’m gonna put my boot halfway up someone’s ass," he said, cheeks almost fleshtoned. "Sorry for the language, miss."

He snatched up the walkie talkie again.

"[Unintelligible]? You get a Johnny Team down there ASAP!"

He again looked at us hopefully.

"Do you know who I ask to get paid?" she asked.

"Management handles that. They’re here Monday through Friday."

"What about selling my merchandise? Am I going to get in trouble for selling it? Do I need a permit?"

"Management handles that. I think they have contracts with the performers."

"So I have to come back Monday to find out?" she said dubiously.

"Wait a minute," I interjected. "Aren’t you the manager?"

"Oh no. I’m the head of security."

"Can you validate our parking?" Hillary asked.

"You have to go to Macy’s to do that, " he said. "I’m not allowed to do that."

It was approaching 3 pm as again we trudged through the hot clammy tunnel of darkness and despair that is Downtown Plaza, back toward River City Brewing Co. and the non-electrified stage. Neither one of us expected the Johnny Team to show up. But when we arrived back on the other side of the mall, there it was, the Johnny Team.

Or there she was, actually. It took me a while to spot her, a Latina janitor standing next to Macy’s holding an extension cord and a power strip, exaclty what we needed. I suddenly realized Johnny Team was code for the folks who clean the commodes at Downtown Plaza. The "johns." And apparently manage weekend musical performances. Not that the janitor wasn’t helpful. She showed us where to plug in and warned us to be careful, because if someone tripped on the cord, Macy’s might get their ass sued off.

Right about the same time, two security guards came over. They were Latino. They had no idea who was running the show either, but told us we could move the van to the alley and carry the musical equipment through the door across from the stage. We could even park there until Hillary’s performance was over. They were nice guys in the their black-and-yellow uniforms and it was a tempting offer, no question. But by the time we would have finished setting up, it would have been 3:30 pm. And Hillary had a schedule to keep. San Jose tonight. Fresno in two days. Arizona after that.

"OK, we’ll be right back, we have to move the van," I told them.

We were almost to the escalator when we remembered we hadn’t validated the parking. So we walked to the men’s Macy’s all the way at the far end. There was some sort of crazy fire sale going on. Everything must go. People were lined up at the counters with mounds of clothing. It made me really feel like shopping. But all we were doing was validating a parking pass. We waited 10 minutes at one register. Five minutes at another. Finally, in the underwear section, we found an open cashier and got validated.

After we exited the store, Hillary and I looked at each other.

"We’re not going back there, are we?" we said at the same time.

We didn’t.






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