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What I Miss: The Beverly Center....Really.

December 08, 1996|KATE BRAVERMAN | Kate Braverman, whose short story "Pagan Night" won a 1995 Best American Short Story Award, is affiliated with Alfred University in western New York state

Now that I live in the Allegheny Mountains, a day's drive from Philadelphia or Boston, and snow often falls for seven consecutive months, I know what I miss most about Los Angeles. It's not sun setting over the bluffs of Santa Monica Bay in a sequence of 82-degree days framed by palms and hibiscus, air magenta and citrus. What I miss most is the Beverly Center.

I watched the Beverly Center being built. There used to be a sort of permanent fair there, where children rode ponies in a field of mock straw. That was old Los Angeles, historic, in the era before shopping malls. In my childhood memory, this prototypal mall was a momentous event. It was built when Los Angeles still considered itself a strange, experimental, earthquake-prone bquasi-tropical place where most buildings, it seemed, didn't dare be taller than three stories. Los Angeles was a vast plain, a sequence of low plazas, of ma-and-pa groceries and restaurants, where we walked beneath untroubled acres of untarnished blue air.

Then something was subtly changing somewhere on the periphery. One day, it was simply there--colossal, multicolored and tiered. The Beverly Center. It was what I had imagined the Titanic would look like, risen from the ocean floor and installed and anchored at a random intersection with four levels of "underground" parking. Was this the future America we sixth graders had been so passionately envisioning?

Over the years, I would come to know the Beverly Center with a tender intimacy and fierce loyalty. I had my preferred parking areas, escalators, elevators. I would never consider shopping the Glendale or Sherman Oaks gallerias. I strolled the Beverly Center as one would a village. My hometown, the definitive mall against which I judge all others.

In rural southwest New York state, sport shopping and its strategies are not yet even concepts. Here, people don't realize that malls promise discovery and revelation--the beginning of the hunt, the tracking, the outwitting of global merchandising conspiracies. Now my closest mall is a two-hour drive. It's a transitory, featureless experience fueled only by the necessity to purchase particular items. Any mall will do. One shops near airports, or as a haphazard extension to any metropolitan visit.

On the other hand, the Beverly Center was an entirely volitional journey. I recognized certain stores, like mountain peaks or rivers on maps. Bullock's and the Broadway were my compass points. The mall offered a sense of uniformity and anonymity I found reassuring. It was like a bureaucratic embrace. The 20th century was actually happening, of course, but not to me personally.

The lighting, temperature and even the scents are controlled. The constant assault of bougainvillea, the lemon and orange trees, the ocean-- none of that matters. We enter a stylized version of reality. We understand this. It tells us what we already know. You can buy your way out of anything.

I remember the subtle seasons of the mall. Christmas smells of piano music and men's charcoal sweaters. It's a Christmas you feel with your fingers, lambswool and cashmere. Everything is black velvet and brass, tiny beaded evening bags and purses shaped like hearts.

The season of shopping-mall red is a magical, movie-theater-curtain red. It's a subliminal appeal to memory. It's a silk-ribbon red seen in early morning. It's a synergistic red--part suggestion, part manipulation. It's the definitive 8 a.m. of crumpled wrapping paper that you want to repeat forever. In the Beverly Center, it's always a morning to open your presents. In the mall, it's always a day for dress-up.

In summer, we escaped the blistering glare of consecutive three-digit-degree smog-alert days. In the caverns of the mall, it is perfectly cool and smooth. An afternoon for surrendering to the possibilities of white cotton and linen.

There is even the illusion of autumn--a sort of silver that's metallic and diluted like melted pewter. You can find it in the tiny enclosed movie theaters, your back safe near a wall, the images so small on the screen they can be absorbed. It is only a paint that looks like blood but isn't. Such visuals cannot harm you. In the tiny theaters of the mall, afternoons are always an elegant arrested autumn. A distillation, not of leaves precisely but representations of leaves, a stylized sequence of slow falling in colors of umber, russet, and slivers of gray. It is proof that alchemy exists.

This is a psychological expedition. It's not about purchasing Levi's and fur-lined gloves before the next blizzard. It's an emotional excursion. In memory, in the background, epic soundtrack music rises from the steel girders. It's themes from spectacular motion pictures. Something seems to be rising from sand, suggesting drums pushing out of concrete. If you purchase the right jacket, you can spend the day with Sean Connery or Peter O'Toole, as they were. It's a series of perfect stills. There are mirrors, and you look thin in all of them.

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