Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Don't Kid Yourself: The Garden State Plaza Shooting Affects Us All

Is the concept of safety merely a shadow in our past?

The Garden State Plaza shopping mall in Paramus is massive, the mother of all shopping venues. It's full of tony stores and bright spaces with “streets” leading to even more opportunities to spend your money. It's a place I grew up near and frequented while I lived in Bergen County. Family members still live nearby. So watching the news last night and seeing it in lockdown due to a man shooting a rifle was surreal.

I remember the Plaza, long before it was enclosed when it was a series of strip malls strewn together, encircled by a moat of parking lots. It tried to evoke the feeling of a small town with its benches and well-manicured plantings. I frequented Bamberger's and Gimbels and even worked at a bank at the mall while I was in college. Back then, every Christmas , Santa's reindeer would be housed in makeshift stalls and you could go right up to them to feed them while a person in a large snowman suit walked around giving out candy canes. Among my peers, the mall was probably the more unpopular of the two in the area (the other being The Bergen Mall) because it was outdoors; shoppers would freeze going from store-to-store and if the maintenance guys didn't shovel the walkways properly, there was a good chance you'd slip on the sidewalk outside of J.C. Penney. And don't even think about going to the Plaza on a Sunday! Due to the highly-restrictive blue laws that are still in effect in Bergen County, limiting what can/cannot be sold, the mall was closed on the Sabbath, so if you were Holiday shopping, you'd better get to the GSP during the week because Saturdays were a notorious mess.

Over the years, the mall expanded to become a virtual city of retailers. With Pacman-like precision, it gobbled up stores from nearby cities and even incorporated the nearby movie theater into its massive folds. I eventually left Bergen County and would primarily go back to the GSP only when we took family who still live in that area out for dinner. I avoided it at all costs because for me it had become too big, too loud, and overwhelming. The last time I had been in it, to review a new store called Marbles, I'd dragged my kids around trying to find the tiny retailer. Despite the mall's map, it still took us a good half hour to get from one side of the mall to the other.

Seeing video of helicopters circling and SWAT teams positioned in front of the Nordstrom's I had been in so many times was puzzling. Why would someone want to shoot at people in a mall, I naively wondered. I could picture the inside of the store with its “classy” piano player and elegant merchandise. I remembered the double-decker carousel my daughter had ridden many times over the years and the massive food court that had impressed my son when he was little. I knew that there were tons of places a shooter could hide.

I understand the fact that the world is a scary place. I'm used to being on alert when I'm in New York City or the airport. As my town is hit by more and more crime, I instinctively clutch my daughter's hand tightly whenever we go out. But malls are specifically designed to invoke feelings of safety, with their soft music and ever-visible security guards strutting around. You're supposed to feel safe there and while I'm not stupid enough to think they're fortresses of safety, I did let my guard down just a wee bit when I was in them.

No more. I heard reports that some security guards at the Garden State Plaza succumbed to panic last night. Even with the safety drills that had been done, when faced with the prospect of being shot by a gunman, a few were moved to tears. I don't blame them. As much as you practice, you never know how you're going to react to something until you're face to face with it.

The world is a much scarier place now. Another venue in my memories of childhood has been tainted by some idiot with a gun. Even though he didn't hurt anyone but himself, he frightened more people than were present in that mall last night. The ripple effects of his actions are hitting the world today, eating away at the feelings of security we try desperately to hold on to. How sad that what was once surreal is the new reality.

(Note:  This post also appears on Jersey Moms Blog.)

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