Sleeping in a Mall
Posted by Jim Leonard on December 12, 2012
Just now, watching some 80’s music videos, it dawned on me that today — the second Wednesday of December — is the 25th anniversary of the time I slept overnight in a shopping mall. I keep meaning to write about that night, but keep losing interest… but today being the 25th anniversary of that night is too much of a coincidence to pass up, so here goes.
In 1987, I was a junior in high school lucky enough to work part-time at Babbage’s (a great source of software, something I’ve written about before) in Northbrook Court, an upscale mall in the North Shore. I would take a bus directly from high school to get there at 4pm, work two hours, and catch the last bus home at 6pm when I got off work. On this particular Wednesday, however, I was careless with money and didn’t have enough cash for the bus home, and by the time I thought to ask someone for some money, the last bus had left. My next option was to use what little change I had left to call my house for a ride home, but both parents were at a Christmas party, so there was nobody there to answer the phone. Adding insult to injury, we didn’t own an answering machine, so I couldn’t even tell them I was stranded at the mall. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to sit in the food court and do homework until I had a better idea.
Eventually it was closing time, and the mall patrons were instructed to leave. I waited inside one of the double-door entrances to the mall, still not really sure of how I was going to get home. I did some more homework, and at 10pm a janitor walked into the vestibule and asked me what was going on. I told him I was “waiting for my ride” to buy some more time: My plan at that point was to wait until my parents came home, call them collect, and get picked up. It was very cold that night, so instead of kicking me out, he grunted and locked the outer set of doors so that they only opened from the inside. The inner set of doors — the doors to the inside of the mall — he left unlocked.
He was expecting me to leave the mall, not go back inside. But since the vestibule was starting to get cold, at 10:30pm I did precisely that: I went back inside the mall. My first goal was to look for a comfortable place to sit down and wait until midnight so I could try calling home again. The drawback was that I couldn’t be seen, because if they caught me I knew I really would be ejected from the mall, and I wasn’t looking forward to being outside in -15C/0F weather with no money and no ride. So I had to find a way to stay hidden for a couple of hours.
My first thought was to return to the food court, as it was dark and there were many corners I could sit in. However, the Army of Janitors had emerged from the woodwork and were cleaning that area, so that was out. My next thought was that I could hide in a bathroom, but I dismissed that idea after a few minutes because 1. they were filthy after a full day of patronage, and 2. I was terrified of getting surprised by someone and having us both nearly die of shock. I briefly entertained going into the back corridors to wait things out, but since that’s where all the garbage goes, I was sure I’d be found by the janitorial staff. (Also, it looks very very bad if you are caught in an area of the back corridors that you have no business being in, since it looks like you’re scoping the joint and/or attempting to burglarize a store from its inside entrance. When I worked at Babbage’s, we were instructed to take the trash to the dumpster and then immediately return, no detours.) I couldn’t think of anything else, so I gave up and decided to throw myself on the mercy of the janitors and hope that one of them understood English well enough to cut me a break. I started walking to the food court… which took me past the Santa’s Workshop display, where the mall Santa would sit kids on his knee and charge for photos.
I don’t know what it looks like today, but back then, the Santa display was gigantic. It was half-surrounded by fake trees, large candy canes, plastic snowmen and reindeer, and oversized mock presents, all with a long winding path to where Santa sits. The chair itself had a back almost 10 feet tall, was painted in gold, and upholstered in red velveteen and looked more like a throne than a chair. And because that wasn’t quite good enough for an upscale mall, the chair was set inside an elaborate “workshop” mockup that was one-and-a-half stories tall and about 15 feet deep to the back and sides.
If I had been one year younger or one year older, I would have walked right on past it and stuck to the plan. But I was 16, moody, and a little rebellious. I decided to wait for midnight to roll around sitting in Santa’s Chair.
Sitting perfectly still, with my red ski jacket on, I blended into the chair and silently watched the janitorial staff clean the mall: Buffing the floors, washing the storefront windows, emptying the garbage. One woman got within 15 feet of me and never saw me; I stifled a chuckle. I was an invisible teenage king sitting on my yuletide throne.
Midnight rolled around, and most of the overhead lighting in the mall shut off. The janitors disappeared, and I made my way back to the pay phone in the vestibule. Propping the inner door open with my backpack for fear of getting locked out, I made a collect call to home. Nobody answered! I guessed my parents were having a good time at the Christmas party and hadn’t come home yet, so I made my way back to Santa’s chair to wait a little while longer. However, I was pretty tired by this time and worried I was going to fall asleep, so with the janitorial staff gone I decided to walk around a little bit. Almost immediately, I made a discovery: The “workshop” behind Santa’s chair had a tiny functional room in it! The coat rack in the room gave away its true purpose as a changing room for “Santa”. There was also a folding chair, and a small table with a box of chocolate gold coins for “Santa” to line his pockets (which I immediately proceeded to fill my backpack with). This made for a much nicer spot to wait half an hour to call my parents again, so I sat down in the folding chair.
At this point, you should be able to infer what happened next. It was past midnight, I was tired, I had nothing to do, I was in a dark room, and the folding chair was really uncomfortable to sit in. Sheer teenage stupidity set in, and I decided to take a small nap before calling home again.
When I woke up, I had to pee something fierce, so I made my way to the bathrooms by the food court. As I was relieving myself, the very thing I tried to prevent earlier happened as a janitor walked in on me and we both nearly crapped our pants. He stuttered in broken English “You! You the boy! This way!” and he led me to the security office where I learned three very troubling things:
- The mall had a security office
- I was not asleep for 30 minutes, but rather had slept for five hours
- The security guard informed me that, three hours earlier, he and my father had been roaming the mall, looking for me and calling out my name
I was horrified. He called my father to come pick me up. As I waited in the security office, I tried to come up with a reasonable excuse for what had happened. I had created a whole new level of stupid for not realizing earlier that all malls probably have a damn security office — I should have just gone there at 10pm and kept calling home every half hour! I had no idea what I was going to tell my father, who probably couldn’t understand how I had slept through people yelling my name all over an empty mall. I sleep like the dead! (Seriously, ask my wife!)
The ride home was mostly silent. I got into bed, slept until 10am, then got to school shortly before lunch and finished the rest of the school day. When I went back to work that day, my manager read me the riot act, more out of concern for my safety than actual anger. “You could have been lying in a ditch!” is a phrase I still remember to this day. That night, my family didn’t talk about what had happened. We were somewhat dysfunctional back then, following an if-we-ignore-it-then-it-didn’t-happen philosophy. I received no punishment, other than what I gave myself over the next few days.
So, what was the outcome of this little stunt? Other than a neat story to tell my friends the next day, I didn’t think there was any outcome at all until I mentioned it four years later to my father-in-law. I was telling the story during a car ride to pass the time, and he turned around at a stoplight and said, “That was you?” He was a mall manager at the time, and it turns out that my little stunt led to discussion in the mall retail industry, and later, policy reform in how large malls handle security. As a result of my antics, floor displays no longer have changing rooms/hiding places, security guards must walk the floor routinely (I never once saw the security guard walking around that night), and all vestibule doors are locked and checked every walkaround.
I always made sure I had bus money after that. Oh, and my parents bought an answering machine.