Mall visits used to feel like a miniature Christmas every weekend. A chance to flip through the CDs at an FYE or squeeze in a few games at the arcade. Now, so many malls are fascinating relics representing a long gone time of weekend frivolity, excess and Sbarro pizzas; a time capsule for what it was like when we had to leave our homes to get what we want. I’m somewhat of an anomaly as I often feel like the last millennial alive who still frequents malls in search of the best sales. I was taught by my mother how to find the best price so I’m usually alone, absorbing quizzical glances from clerks and shoppers unused to the image of a 6’4” black dad by himself in the children’s section comparing online prices, pulling out coupons from apps or scouring the clearance racks. I love the experience of grabbing the best prices and the serenity of knowing I’m not spending a single penny more than I have to.
But my love for malls is deeper than that. I just didn’t realize how deep until a trip I took a few weeks ago.
I’d found myself in dire need of slacks, so I headed to a Belk department store to buy some dress pants — two pairs of Ralph Lauren slacks to be exact. They were marked down to $29.99 from $89.99 so I’d hit the jackpot. At least I thought I did.
I slid the pants across the checkout counter where a black woman was waiting. She was somewhere in her 60s with a short bob, a blue pant suit and her ID card hanging around her neck. Her nails were pink and pointy and her bright red lipstick lit up the rest of her face.
“Hey, you’ve come here a bit, right?” she said as she searched the pants for their tags.
“And you’re here with that adorable son of yours, right?”
“Yes ma’am and thank you.”
“Look…do you have a job interview or something tomorrow? Do you need these pants now now?”
“Not really, no.”
“Okay, give me a second.”
I don’t really understand what happened next as she rang the pants up, typed some things in her computer, re-rang the pants up again, printed out a receipt, asked me for my card, swiped my card, printed out another new receipt, put the pants in a bag and stapled the receipt to the bag.
“Okay, here’s the deal. We are having a special fundraising event next weekend and everything on the store is going to be on sale even more. So I rang this up as part of the event and you can just come pick up the pants then. They’re about 12 bucks each.”
“Oh, wow, I…thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it, sir. Just hug that beautiful baby boy of yours for me.”
I walked out of the store with a smile on my face. Not just because I’d saved a ton of money, but because I was awash with a wave of nostalgia. A rush of familiarity I’d forgotten I’d missed since my childhood.
I got in my car and I called my mom: “You won’t believe the sale I just got.”
One thing my mother always has bragged about is my ability to go shopping with her without ruining her day. Even as a baby, I would sit in my stroller, peacefully looking on while she picked out clothes, put clothes back and bought what was needed. As I got older, I could just walk around with her for hours as long as I had a comic book or two in my hand. She’d always preach to me the value of good buys and maximizing sales. “You have to save money but get clothes that last,” she’d say. “There’s a difference between inexpensive and cheap. You don’t want cheap. You want inexpensive!”
I’d watch my mother combine sales with her coupons and credit card discounts to work magic. Then I’d watch my mother take the garments to a checkout counter where any number of black woman clerks she would know on a first-name basis depending on what store she was in would be waiting to perform some act of calculus — then give a wink, or whisper money-saving pointers under her breath when other customers or co-workers weren’t looking. They’d exchange pleasantries and small talk, then go their separate ways with knowing smiles.
Then the clerk would call out to me: “You mother really does love you.”
What I didn’t realize until I was older was that I was watching some of my earliest and strongest examples of black women helping one another, boosting each other up and providing each other with as many advantages as they possibly could in a world where they are given so few chances to do so. Essentially, I grew up witnessing my mother and black women behind the checkout counters at department stores engaging in a back-and-forth of communal support, solidarity and love.
Essentially, I grew up witnessing my mother and black women behind the checkout counters at department stores engaging in a back-and-forth of communal support, solidarity and love.
These trips to the store showed me black women using the extent of their powers to do whatever they possibly could to make another black woman’s life easier. They’d communicate in head nods, smirks and under-their-breath hints. These women weren’t just helping my mother save money; they were helping her keep her son looking his best even when he didn’t feel it and when she was out of answers as to how to make me love myself. This was black women loving on each other. I saw what unity looked like, and it taught me to appreciate the ways in which black women in particular give to one another.
I don’t actually know how badly my mother needed those discounts because she was the type of mother who never let on how much or how little money we had; how close we ever were to financial peril or how much of a struggle it was to outfit a child the size of an NFL linebacker four years after going through a divorce. She also just made parenting look so easy.
I never knew if we were struggling; I just knew that one day I was living in a house with both my parents and the next I was in a two-bedroom apartment with my mother in which I could throw a football from the front door to the back of her bedroom. My mother always seemed to make it all look so much easier than it had to have been. And I always went to school in outfits that had all of my friends thinking I was the rich kid, largely because of my mother’s hawkish quest for discounts. And largely because of those black women in retail stores who wink, smile and work miracles. What my friends didn’t know was that a black woman sliding an assortment of under the table coupons allowed my mother to buy the Tommy Hilfiger sweaters that probably cost as little as any off-brand garment they may have been wearing. They didn’t know that my shiny FUBU denim outfit I tucked my 260 pound frame into every Friday in 9th grade that made me look like a million bucks came together after my mother bought the set over two trips because the black woman behind the counter told us the jeans would go on clearance a week later.
These loving transactions weren’t one-sided either.
My mother trusted these women and made sure to only go to the mall when she knew they would be working, so they could benefit off of her commission. Because these black women behind the counters have stories too, and they needed my mother as much as my mother needed them.
My mother trusted these women and made sure to only go to the mall when she knew they would be working, so they could benefit off of her commission.
These women behind the counters were feeding their families — sometimes by themselves. Some had full-time day jobs and then were working night shifts or weekend shifts to supplement their income. Some were retired but still needed the extra money to put their kids through college or help take care of their grandchildren. Some just worked because an employee discount was the only way they could afford clothes for themselves and their children.
One woman was Mrs. Magee. I knew her as the woman who worked in the library at my middle school. Later I’d know her as the mother to my sister-in-law. But first I knew her as the woman at a department store in the mall who helped my mother squeeze an extra outfit into her budget. Mrs. Magee worked in retail for 17 years while raising three kids, clothing them with her employee discount.
She’d call customers and let them know sales were coming, especially if she saw them eyeing outfits for their kids, but putting them back on the rack because the price was too steep. If she saw a black woman with kids struggling to get clothes for back-to-school or Christmas she’d even sneakily type in her employee discount.
And when unexpected bills or expenses came and a mother had to return her clothes, she went to Mrs. Magee because she knew she wouldn’t be questioned or harassed by a manager about why a return was needed. Mrs. Magee would handle it herself with an understanding, judgement-free nod and no questions asked.
Now, 20 years after Mrs. Magee’s final day in retail, she’s still stopped at least three times a week by a black mother or her child who remembers the deals, discounts and conversation.
I’m just happy and proud I could impact their lives in the little way I could.
When Mrs. Magee saw a customer, she saw my mother. When my mother saw a store clerk, she saw Mrs. Magee. And when they looked at one another, they saw themselves.
We are in the midst of a retail apocalypse that has seen 8,600 stores close this year alone. And the stores that are left are down to skeleton crews. The chances for these relationships between black women in these spaces are dwindling; replaced by the black and white algorithm-based search for discounts online. Black women’s ability to obfuscate the rules out of a communal love for their sisters is becoming something we talk about in the past tense. And the jobs, discounts and ability to care for their families are falling apart with each store closing. Of course, nobody cares as much as they do for, say, coal mining jobs because those jobs are associated with white men. The retail jobs are reserved for everyone else, thus they are easy to ignore.
Black women’s ability to obfuscate the rules out of a communal love for their sisters is becoming something we talk about in the past tense.
I went back to Belk three times over the last two weeks to look for the woman who helped me with my dress pants. The woman who reminded me of those loving mall trips with my mother. The one who made me feel like home.
She wasn’t there either time. I didn’t know her name or even how to ask for her. It’s possible her job is a casualty of some sort of scaling back. I can only hope not.
But I choose to imagine something different. I choose to imagine she’s retired. Or that she was only working to save up for a big vacation or a her dream home. I imagine she gets stopped by black women in the street who remember the way she clothed them and their children. I imagine she knows she’s done good.
I imagine she’s happy.