Scenes from a Mall

A while back, This American Life produced a story at a mall where they went to various shops to witness the state of the economy on the ground. One character was the manager at the Chick-Fil-A who used a moderately aggressive marketing technique to gain clients. The most interesting bit to me was that the vast majority of the clients she had were other mall employees like Gap cashiers and Piercing Pagoda piercers and not those buying jeans or piercings.

I think about that story occasionally when I walk my daughter to school and back because we walk right by women soliciting sex on one corner and then right by a small team of drug dealers on the next corner. The dealers stick out in the neighbourhood, the prostitutes do not. The dealers have intimidating tattoos but seem young and in shape, which makes them even more intimidating. The women on the corner look nothing like Julia Roberts but some may have a long time ago (several, though, would not ever have looked like Julia Roberts or anyone else from the movies. This is an inescapable observation, not a judgment. It also, I might add, says less about the women than it does about the law of supply and demand).

The corner where the dealers set up shop need not be there. Many other places in the area would serve just fine. In fact, their corner is now well enough known by everyone that several times a week I see the police there asking questions and on a few occasions dumping some brown liquid down the sewer drain and asking about prescriptions we all know do not exist.

So why do the dealers do their business there? For the same reason the Chick-Fil-A in the mall is particularly successful. They cater to the other businesses in the area as much as to outside clients. Many of the people I see smoking crack or rigging needles down the alley behind the dealers are the same women who often stand on the corner selling their bodies to people on their way from downtown to the suburbs. The women are on their corner partly because it’s an obvious market and also because they live in the rooming house next door that houses at-risk women. Once they return from their date, they seem to go to the alley behind their house and “get well” or rather satisfy their need for a fix.

Lately, because of a potentially scary incident involving a neighbour’s daughter, our neighbour has confronted the dealers explaining who else lives in the area. She said she is not a police person, but has some obvious limits. She somehow convinced them to vacate the corner from 8-9am and from 3-4pm. The negotiation seems to have worked for a week and then yesterday I was about to cross the street to take my daughter to preschool when I saw what appeared to be some dealers wearing baseball caps on the corner they were not supposed to be on.

The corner normally occupied by a prostitute was empty and as we approached, I noticed one of the supposed dealers bent over scouring the crack in the sidewalk. I realized I didn’t recognize these guys as we got closer and wondered if they were trying to take over for the regular dealers in their absence and wondered if this would cause turf problems. But then one of them started making funny faces at my son and trying to make him laugh, but doing so in such a manic way that it confused my kids as much as anything. It was then I realized that these guys were probably on a crack high and couldn’t wait for normal business hours for their next hit. They were the soccer moms at the doors of the Toys’R’Us on the early morning of Black Friday. The guy bent over who never stopped searching during our entire walk on the block was wondering if there might be some chance that someone dropped a ‘rock’ on the sidewalk. Unlikely. This mall has regulars who know the game.

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About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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