A Tuneful Time At The Mall (A Pandemic-Era Story)

Although I’m not much of a shopper, in at least a few respects I’m lucky to live near Willow Grove Park, a huge three-level shopping mall in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For instance, I like to go there now and then to gaze at its clean yet kaleidoscopic interior design and to marvel at the massive quantities of goods that its stores contain. I don’t think that the USA is anywhere close to being an idyllic land of milk and honey, but, as the mall demonstrates, there is no shortage of products in this country.

As things have turned out though, probably the main reason that I enjoy having Willow Grove Park close at hand is that it occasionally becomes story fodder for my blog. When I began this publication in 2015, never would have I expected that such would be the case. But I sure as shit am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. The story that you now are reading is the result of my latest visit to the mall. That visit took place on a recent, dreary, rain-dominated Thursday.

The mall was on my mind that day mainly because I wanted to take a walk. For the past eleven months, you see, I’ve been walking regularly for health-related reasons, four or five times per week and almost always outdoors. But an outdoors trek would have been unwise, as the rains were descending not in trickles but in f*cking buckets. Striding purposefully through the mall, an enclosed structure, though? Yes!

Due to the pandemic, the businesses in Willow Grove Park (excepting its two restaurants, which were allowed to sell take-out orders), along with almost countless other businesses state-wide, were ordered by Pennsylvania’s governor to close in mid-March. The lockdown eventually was partly lifted, the mall reopening on June 26. Arriving there at 11:25 AM on the wet Thursday in question, I was curious about the mall’s state of affairs four months post-reopening. How much damage had the pandemic inflicted?

Well, while spending 45 minutes walking the mall’s every avenue and byway, I saw a fairly decent number of people shopping and wandering, possibly about the same number that you’d find on a similar off-day during normal times. As for store vacancies, there were five or six, not the many more that I was half-expecting. However, several stores hadn’t opened for the day, which was not a good sign. Possibly they were on the verge of throwing in the towel altogether.

A truly bad scene, and probably indicative of the mall’s overall financial health, was the food court. There were not many customers at all, even though it was lunch time when I walked past that busy-in-normal-times area. It was sad to see the court’s businesses doing poorly. And, of course, millions of businesses worldwide are in the same boat, due to coronavirus. On any number of occasions I’ve said the obvious on these pages, and I’ll say it again: We need an effective vaccine pronto. It’s time for the suffering to diminish significantly.

But I’m not going to end this essay on a down note. How could I, seeing that I listened to an episode of The Many Moods Of Ben Vaughn, a terrific music podcast, as I walked through the mall? It put a whole lot of pep in my step and prevented me from getting anywhere near bummed out.

In that episode, which is from September 27, 2020, Vaughn spins the original versions of songs subsequently made famous by other artists. A large bunch of them jumped out at me. But let’s limit that bunch to three. Otherwise I’ll be here all day, and nobody, including me, would be in favor of that. The three songs are Louie Louie, Boys, and Do Wah Diddy.

Here are some facts: The infamous Louie Louie, an enormous hit for The Kingsmen in 1963, was originally recorded by Richard Berry And The Pharaohs way before that, in 1957 to be precise. Berry also penned the composition. The Beatles included Boys (written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell) on their first album in 1963, and popularized the tune, but the initial recording was in 1960 by The Shirelles. It was the B-side of their single whose A-side was wildly popular — Will You Love Me Tomorrow? And although Manfred Mann’s 1964 version of Do Wah Diddy (a composition by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) conquered the world, the song’s first appearance was a recording by The Exciters one year earlier.

The tracks by Berry, The Shirelles and The Exciters rock, roll and rouse. Day-brighteners, they appear below. I think you’ll like ’em. Okay, boys and girls, that’s a wrap. As I almost always mention, please don’t be shy about adding any comments that you might have. Goodbye till next time!

Jeff Bezos Spoke With Me! (An Amazonian Story)

I was mad as hell. You would have been too if the monogrammed boxer shorts that you ordered from Amazon came with incorrect initials. My initials are NSS, not ASS, for crying out loud! And the manufacturer got it wrong not once, not twice, but thrice. And so I decided to give Amazon a piece of my mind before returning defective goods to them once again. They needed to know that Underpants R Us, based in Crotchonia, Bulgaria, is a firm that does not deserve to have its products handled by the world’s largest online retailer!

That’s why I dialed 888-280-4331 last week, Amazon’s customer service number in the USA. I wasn’t sure where my dissatisfaction would take me. Turns out that the call resulted in an experience that in a million years I wouldn’t have expected.

“This is Anna, in Amazon’s customer service department in beautiful Kennewick, Washington. Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with, and how are you this fine day?” were the words that greeted me. Ah, such a lovely tone. Anna seemed so agreeable, so gentle over the phone, I almost decided not to burden her with my complaint. But complain I did, succinctly explaining the situation without ever raising my voice.

Anna listened attentively, confirming all pertinent information and asking appropriate questions. Then she took me aback.

“Mr. Scheinin,” she said, “I am pleased to let you know that there is a special visitor in our facility today. He stops by several times each year, being a very hands-on individual. He has been listening to our conversation and has indicated to me that he would like to talk with you. He will provide you with the highest level of customer satisfaction. If it’s all right, then, I’m going to place Mr. Bezos — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO — on the line.”

“Why, yes, that is absolutely all right, Anna,” I said. “Thank you.”

A few seconds passed. And then I heard the voice of the world’s richest person. (He’s worth well over 100 billion American dollars.)

Photo of Jeff Bezos by Tom Stockill/Redux

“Neil! This is Jeff Bezos. I’m so sorry that you’ve been having problems with some of our merchandise. I don’t quite understand what the situation is, though. Something’s wrong with your ass, is that it?”

“Well, not exactly, Jeff. You see . . .”

He cut me off. “Neil, if your derriere isn’t feeling right, I have just the product for you. I totally swear by it. I tell you, it’s provided me with wonderful relief many times in recent years. Preparation H, Neil. Preparation H. It’s been around forever, and that’s because it works. Hemorrhoids begone! Neil, Amazon will be glad to sell you a case of this magical concoction, enough for many years, for a mere $109.99. And shipping, it goes without saying, is free. What do you say, Neil? May I process your order?”

“Mr. Bezos,” I said, “you’ve got it all wrong. Let me start from the beginning. You see, I’ve been having enormous difficulty obtaining properly-monogrammed boxer shorts . . . oh, it’s a long, boring story. Who really cares? I’ll just keep the ones with ASS stitched onto them. My wife thinks those initials are appropriate, anyway. Listen, do you have a couple of minutes?”

“Indeed I do. Wassup?”

“Jeff, you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain. You have achieved success and wealth to a degree that boggles the mind. Obviously you are a man with a plan. On the other hand, I’m a chap with no map. Jeff, all my life I’ve been bouncing through life like a pinball, rarely finding satisfaction, unable to smell the roses because of my intense sinus condition. Hire me, Mr. B! I want a job that I can throw myself into.”

“Neil, I liked you the moment we started talking. But I have to probe a little deeper to make sure that you’re the right individual for the position I have in mind. Spot quiz: Spell hemorrhoid quickly!”

Wham! The convoluted letters flew off my tongue like bullets.

“Excellent! Another spot quiz: How many writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“Jeff, that depends on how deeply they want to analyze the situation. Writers, you know, can be complicated.”

“Right on, Neil! You’re the first person to get that one correct. My man, I can’t believe my good fortune in meeting you today. I want you to join Amazon as my sounding board. I have so many ideas to bounce off you. For instance, I’d like to create a chain of restaurants that serve nothing but LOL sandwiches — liverwurst, onion and Limburger. Man, I love me a good LOL! And I have the perfect slogan for the sandwich: It surely does smell, but what the hell.”

“That’s brilliant, Jeff. Brilliant.”

“Thanks, Neil. And how about this one? Amazon gas stations manned by robots who give you the best hugs of your life before and after they fill up your car’s tank. Customers will drive away bursting with happiness!”

“Bravo, Jeff! You have your finger on humanity’s pulse. It will be an honor to work for you. What’s my salary going to be, by the way? Eighty grand a year sounds about right, don’t you think?”

“Salary? Who said anything about a salary? This is an unpaid internship, Neil. Despite the lack of remuneration, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. When, my boy, can you start?”

That was a good question. I don’t encounter good questions all that often. And when I do, I usually don’t have good responses to them. This time I did.

“Later, Jeff,” I said.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. I thank you.)