I Spent 18 Hours in Canada's Strangest Mall
I found alcoholism, gambling, God, and deep conversations about Donald Trump at Vancouver's Kingsgate shopping center.
The first thing I notice as I breach the entrance of a store called Mirage is a table piled with multicolored underwear and a display of store-designed T-shirt unironically bearing slogans like "CAUTION Slippering when it wet" and "Happy Birthday Jesus 2015." While browsing through the shirts the store owner—imagine a hobbit with alopecia wearing oversized raver pants—approaches me and points to a shirt on the wall that depicts the Chicago Bulls logo wearing a bandana with text that reads, "No Bull Shit." The owner, chuckling before managing to get out a word, says, "That one's for Donald Trump." This begins a speech that concludes with the metaphysical relationship between God and Satan.
This type of encounter is not uncommon in the Kingsgate Mall, a modest shopping center in the heart of Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighborhood that's home to a hodgepodge of stores and services. This tiny worn-down space is a microcosm of the city's diversity, hosting weird establishments that should have perished at the turn of the century (any century). The result is a place that exists outside of a recognizable time. Such is its charm. And it's not just me that feels this way. There's even a popular tongue-in-cheek Twitter account for the mall.
As Vancouver continues to expand, a handful of chic condos and multi-use developments have surrounded the Kingsgate Mall, which has also been tagged for redevelopment. As a result, Mount Pleasant is an area becoming increasingly hip for its proximity to downtown with the benefits of not actually being downtown and it's only a matter of time before this mall becomes gentrified.
I know there's a soul to this place, beyond its reputation for alcoholism, small-time gambling, and resistance to consumer trends. It's unlikely this place will be here for much longer so I needed to write a living biography, not a eulogy. And there was only one way to do this—I had to spend 18 hours at the Kingsgate Mall.
It's still dark. I'm standing in front of the Kingsgate Mall, knowing it doesn't open for another three hours. I regret agreeing to doing 18 hours at this place, instead of 12. The lights are on inside but it's empty. Vacant malls are inherently eerie because we are used to experiencing them packed with people and seeing them empty makes us feel alone and vulnerable, not unlike walking into a dark basement at night.
In the parking lot, between the gray sky and the gray pavement, a light gleams on a billboard that reads, "Lonely? Be Loved," followed by a Bible quote. I look around and I am alone on the sidewalk. This message of piety for nobody to read verges on apocalyptic. Or maybe I've seen Dawn of the Dead too many times.
The Rize is a development company and one of their projects is directly across the street from the mall, titled "The Independent." By 2017 it will be a "mixed-use development" that towers over the Mount Pleasant area. Right now, it's a no more than a hole in the ground.
As I snap photos a construction worker hops out of his truck. I ask what the neighborhood thinks about the building and he says, "We're getting a lot of complaints from the locals, but it'll be great for the area. We'll introduce some commerce, it'll be good for business." We stand in silence, looking across the street. "And they'll finally do something about that horrible mall."
I gaze at the sign that lists the stores. Another construction worker with a long ponytail shuffles by and mutters, "It's a brilliant display of post-modern expressionism." I can't tell if he's joking.
I realize the side of the mall with the Shoppers Drug Mart has been open since 8:00 AM. I take a last breath of fresh air and enter. Workers trickle in, preparing to open their shops. Pop ballads drone through tinny speakers. The kids' rides flash bright colors, but they're also gloomy: a pink sports car with one broken headlight and a shabby model of Noah's Arc.
No stores are open, so I decide to explore, glimpsing into my day ahead.
The most intriguing storefront is an unrented, boarded up space that currently hosts church services. A WordArt sign on the door that says they hold a Bible Study session on Thursdays at 7:00 PM. Today happens to be Thursday.
Off the main drag I find Unisex Hair Palace. The lettering on front window reads, "Ear Pier," and I can only assume the other letters have fallen off. I make note to come back later to get my ear piered.
The security guard opens the liquor store gate and a swarm of gray-haired men flood in. A man with liver-spotted hands who had been sitting next to me on the bench outside for the previous ten minutes is in and out, holding a bottle concealed in a paper bag.
There's an ancient man with a painting booth set up in the mall foyer where he paints portraits of babies and lap dogs. I ask how long he's been in the mall and he says, "Many years." He tells me that he used to travel the country painting landscapes, but not so much anymore.
I've walked the length of the mall five times already. It's roughly 160 steps from one end to the other.
A woman with one eye walks by. Her appearance frightens me, and I feel bad about my natural reaction.
A child hops into the Noah's Arc ride and begs his father for the dollar it costs to experience the great flood. The ride begins and its antediluvian 8-bit tune compliments the nearly vacant mall.
I see a small crowd gathered at the lotto booth. The woman working the counter tells me they're playing Keno, a mix between Bingo and a standard lottery. She suggests, since it's my first time, that I only play one round. I immediately buy ten. I move to the table where a group gathers below a Keno screen and I sit. A motley crew of people approach as the rounds progress. They all know each other, and speak like family.
The signs around the booth read, "It could be YOU!" offering the impression that anyone could be special. That's part of what brings these people here every day, and I understand the appeal.
I win six bucks, and I decide to play out my winnings until I lose it all or win big.
I lose it all.
I'm standing in front of the only place in the mall to get food, the Sugarcane Café. According to their signage, they can also help you to acquire a sugarcane juicer if you're a true juice lover. I order a banana muffin and an Earl Grey tea. It's mediocre.
I notice familiar faces pacing back and forth through all 160 steps of the mall over and over again. I'm staying in this mall for a piece of journalism, but other people do this on the regular by their own volition. But as Camus wrote, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
The woman with one eye walks by again. I am not scared this time, but the repetition makes me feel like I'm trapped in a dream.
It's time to enter every store in the mall. I begin at the tiny nameless convenience shop. Beside the cash desk, a glass case hosts bongs, grinders, utility torches, poker chips, condoms, and nude playing cards. It's a tiny display of hedonism that's likely been here since the 80s.
Dollar Land. This is a shop filled with useless oddities, the perfect place to buy gag gifts and rejected holiday paraphernalia. I try on a rubber Halloween mask and it stinks of chemicals and someone else's saliva.
The toy section is The Island of Misfit Toys. Sifting through bins I discover "My Super Dinosaur," the offspring of Godzilla and a comb. The product description says, "Different type with different funny."
Digging through the baskets of notebooks, I find the "memories journal. "I'm not sure who it's targeted toward, but the only two memory options listed at the bottom of every page are "fighting" and "farting."
I take my dinosaur and memories journal to the cashier. Dollar Land has been part of the mall for over 25 years, and she's been with them ten. I ask what she thinks of the construction projects across the street and she tells me, "I'm not too happy and neither are a lot of my customers. They say their rent is increasing around here because of the new buildings. It affects us because it brings change."
Coming out of the surprisingly clean bathroom I spot the claw crane hidden under the stairs. The decal reads, "$2 – Play Till You Win" and I need to find out if that's a guarantee or a suggestion. I insert my money, move the crane, and, for the first time in my life, I see the claw rise from the pile with a stuffed-animal in its grips. The guarantee/suggestion remains a mystery.
I round the corner and I bump into the woman with one eye. This third encounter freaks me out more than the first. Why is she still here? Is she asking that same question about me?
I continue my tour of the shops with Jay Set. The clerks glance at me with disdain. The customers are elderly women lurching through the rows of pastels, florals, and faux-fur. It all stretches to fit the form. One of the clerks approaches me with an inquisitive, "What're you doing?" I tell her I'm taking pictures, doing a piece on the mall.
"You picked a boring day to come."
She tells me she does a lot of watching herself, especially so on Wednesdays after the senior citizens get their checks and flock into the mall for the sales. "Then," she says peering over her glasses, "the mall gets busy and there's no telling what will happen."
The nightclub-ish bass thumps in my chest before I even cross into Ruffles. It's all low cut shirts, halter-tops, and skirts of leopard print and black lace. The clerk steps out from behind the counter to follow me. The music changes to Poison's PG-rated classic, "Talk Dirty to Me." When I'm about to leave, I spot two racks of black t-shirts hidden at the back. It's the only men's apparel in the store—an assortment of the crudest graphic tees I've ever seen. The most unsettling of which features a grunting egg with a political face thrusts its genitals into a wide-eyed chicken from behind. The text reads, "Who came first?"
Mandarin Photo—a full service photo shop and key cutter. The owner wears a standard blue button up and black slacks. He tells me he's been in the mall for 35 years after moving to Vancouver from China. He tells me that one day he hopes he can be like me, taking photos to make a living, "but right now," he says, "it's only family portraits. Just family portraits... it's easy, I guess."
When I ask if he thinks the mall will still be here in a few years his face contorts, like an infant tasting something bitter for the first time. I tell him that they might tear it down and his face drops with genuine shock, "I didn't hear." He pauses and looks at the wall. "There's nothing I can do. No point to worry for now. I'll just... go somewhere else."
I saunter over to Mirage. The window display is so dejected that it almost works as a piece of modern art: The mannequin's shirt shows a hybrid of Tupac and King Tut, beneath which socks, wallets, and belts lay on the floor in no particular order. Inside the walls are crowded with graphic tees endorsing the American dollar, marijuana, guns, and the two people all potheads idolize: Che Guevara and Tony Montana. There's a noticeable division—one side of Mirage hosts white shirts, and the other hosts black shirts.
The tiny proprietor's semitransparent white button-up tucks into his billowing black raver pants. A gold clip fits snug near the knot of his black tie. His gleaming button eyes fill their sockets, their near imperceptible movements expressing caginess.
I browse the rack of store-designed shirts with slogans like, "GET DIRTY." The owner walks over, sweeping the floor, and after showing me the Chicago Bulls shirt, I take the opportunity to ask how long he's been in the mall. "A long time, my friend. Long time," he says.
I ask about the construction, and he responds, "In life I don't worry about nothing or nobody. Like a bird. Wake up, bathe, eat, and fly without worry about nothing or nobody." I'm not sure how to counter, but the window display begins to make sense, not a piece of modern art, but a small revolt of "let it be."
He brings the conversation back to Donald Trump, asking me what I think of him. Taken aback, I say, "Not much."
"I like him. People don't like him. He has money, power, but," and he points to his heart, "he has no kindness."
"But you like him?" I ask.
"He's unique. But so was Hitler... Trump's father is German, you know?" he rings a man through the till, welcoming the audience. "People say that listening to Satan is bad, those who do are lost. I say, no. Satan is a child of God, just like us, and if you run from him, then you are lost."
The sudden inclusion of creed does not surprise me, and I wonder about black and white shirt division. He steps back over to me as EDM pulses. "That is why I don't mind Trump. You cannot escape Evil. You cannot defeat Evil."
He says a big problem nowadays is that we pursue "earthly knowledge," and that knowledge lives in the darkness with Satan. "But wisdom," his eyes widen and shift, "is the love of God. It's perfect. Pure." Gleaning his insight, he says that problems do not exist outside the mind of man, not in time or in space, only in thoughts, and that between thoughts is where God lives. I look around at the shirts encouraging weed, infidelity, and guns.
He sees my confusion and clarifies, "The soul guides the body, not the other way around," he says. "That is why you are in front of me."
I ask him how one gets in the light. He tells me to pay no attention to earthly knowledge. "Not even religion," he continues to my surprise, "Who's to say God exists in one temple, but not another? If you walk in the light, darkness finds no life there."
He parts his dry lips, bringing the conversation back to the beginning, "This is why I ask you about Trump." I fail to understand, wishing I did, and at this point a gaunt woman wearing a fluffy pink shirt enters. He sticks out his hand to shake mine, "I don't want to waste your time. Thank you." He shuffles to the back of the store, following the pink shirt.
I walk out in a daze, like I'm looking at something up close that usually remains in the distance.
Feeling like I lost part of myself in Mirage, the only way to feel whole again is to fill the void with a hotdog from the Sugarcane Café. I also elect to test their namesake and order sugarcane juice. The elderly Asian woman who takes my order grabs long stalks of sugarcane from the fridge and inserts them into a cumbersome silver machine that moans with the pain of usage. The hotdog is standard, and the juice is better than expected.
I've put off going into Lely's because this is a shop I frequent, my favorite movie store in the city. I sift through the sections, and find the DVD that holds the power of 1,001 classic TV commercials, and consider that sitting through all 16 hours would likely evoke a similar mood to my current one: a faraway torpor.
I cash out and shoot the shit with the owner, who explains that they've been around for eight years. He believes there's such an eccentric community in the mall because it's one of the only places in the area where people can gather for free. He sees people coming from all over the city because they are one of the last movie stores. And maybe that's why I love this mall: because it lives in the past, it allows me to do the same, bringing me back my childhood, of days spent eating hot dogs and wandering video stores.
I ask him the same question I asked all the others, "What do you think of the new buildings?" and he tells me that such developments are always controversial because change is controversial. Like the others, he appears to acquiesce.
I return to Unisex Hair Palace feeling to get my ears pierced. The woman behind the tiny counter has her hand in a bag of chips, watching TV on her phone. I ask if I can get my ears pierced. To my disappointment, she tells me the piercer isn't in until tomorrow at noon.
I've exhausted all the shops in the mall. All the familiar faces have abandoned their haunt for the day. A few gamblers still perch near the Keno tables and I decide to sit with them because it offers a good view of the "church" entrance. People continue gathering around the Keno tables. It's the centerpiece of the mall, a place to congregate, a place of worship in its own rite.
A man with considerable paunch, holding a two-four of soda, opens the church doors to reveal two rows of gray tables inside what used to be a clothing store. Slowly the members trickle in: A woman with a limp, a little man with a guitar case, a handful of others, and finally a wiry-mustached teenager, wearing all black with huge headphones on either side of his ponytail.
As soon as I get near the entrance, the seven members wave me inside with warm smiles. The teenager has found a bag of chips, the congregation snack, and shovels them in his mouth. He turns to me with glazed eyes, stoned, and says, "What's your name?" I tell them and they welcome me as "Brother Lonnie."
The small man with the guitar case rises and stands in front of the tables—Brother Billy. He wears what would be short-sleeved shirt for a bigger man. They ask everyone to begin by saying what they are thankful for. Most everyone says family or health, I say for finding this Bible study. Then it gets to the teenager.
He finishes off the bag of chips. Finally, he lets out, "I am thankful to God for teaching me a lesson in cleanliness this week." He rambles about how he had to clean his apartment or else his landlord would kick him out, and so he cleaned and got to keep his place.
Brother Billy says, "Yes, cleanliness is important," and asks everyone to open take out their worksheets. He explains that today's topic is community.
The teenager rises, licking his fingers, "Uhh. Yeah, I still have some more cleaning to do, so... Thanks... God bless." He puts his headphones on, and stumbles out.
I'm made to read from the worksheet as a way for me to feel included. It's going well until one passage about evil things happening when we turn away from Jesus, like "the creation of Islam." I think about their topic of the week being community, about Mirage man saying, "God is not a religion."
At the end of the session, the man with the paunch brings out a cake as they deliver a modest rendition of Happy Birthday to the woman beside me. I consider just how bizarre it is that I'm eating birthday cake for someone I don't know, at a Bible study, in the middle of a mall. At this point, a timeworn black woman with cloudy cataracts eyes leans over me and explains that I am a sheep, and God guides my soul. Again, it harkens back to the words heard in Mirage, adding to the day's wistful repetitions.
The amount of religion in the Kingsgate contrasts with the apathy, gambling, and drunkenness of of the regular patrons, but it's fitting at the same time—a place with an uncertain future, a place that rebuffs change, is a bastion for faith.
I'm back on the bench where I started my day. It's dark and unoccupied once again. In the reflection of the Payless window, I swear I see the one-eyed woman, if only for an instant.
Boredom sets in for the first time—frankly, I'm amazed it took this long.
I enter Shoppers and the woman who runs the cosmetics counter is as bored as I am. I ask if she'll do my makeup, and she agrees. I tell her I want to look like Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet.
My makeup is done, and the other customers look at me like a freak, and I wonder if the afternoon crowd would even notice. I pick up a pitchfork from the Halloween section and walk around the store for no reason other than because delirium is setting in.
The last of the Shoppers employees have left the building. The security guard walks up to me, wary because of my eye shadow, and tells me I have to leave.
The mall is closed.
I walk out into the fresh night air.
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