For some, teens at a mall spell trouble

September 09, 1996|By Mike Littwin

IF THERE'S anything we know to be true in life, it is that teen-agers scare adults.

There are a couple of theories on this. One is that most adults were once teen-agers and have forgotten what it was like.

The second is that most adults were once teen-agers and remember what it was like.

Anyway, I'm at the mall -- Towson Town Center -- on a Friday night to see teen-agers. I've come because the Mall of America -- the largest mall in the world, the Disney World of malls, a mall so large that it embraces an amusement park with an actual roller coaster -- has banned kids under the age of 16 on Friday and Saturday nights unless accompanied by an adult.

Here's another thing we know: Your basic 14-year-old knows no greater humiliation than to be seen anywhere with his/her parental unit, but especially at the mall. As if.

At the Mall of America, just outside Minneapolis, they don't care. Around 2,000 kids show up there on a typical weekend night, meaning some fights, some loud behavior and possibly some spitballs. People, meaning adults, were complaining. Therefore, the ban.

Now malls across the country are watching to see how this turns out. Apparently, according to lawyers, kids don't have your basic First Amendment rights at the mall. Nowhere in the Constitution does it guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of jeans at the Gap. As is often the case, when people are legally allowed to discriminate, they do.

The mall is, of course, where many kids hang out these days. And hanging out is, of course, much of what teen-agers do. It's what they've always done.

The other thing they do is prepare to hang out, and the kids here at Towson Town look the part, especially if you like nose-rings and spiked hair, fanciful hats, tie-dye and multi-colors. They come in packs, to see and to be seen.

They don't do much.

They cruise.

Sometimes, they're loud. Sometimes, they're rowdy.

They flirt.

They wear braces.

They try so painfully hard to fit in.

They even shop (teen-agers spend something like $90 billion a year, much of it in malls, which is why malls are very wary about offending them).

A couple of boys, maybe 15 or 16, get in a mock fight at the food court. About 10 kids gather around.

Another kid loudly drags a chair across the court. He hopes somebody notices.

It's Friday night, the kids are all right, and a security guy is nearby, and three cops are hanging out themselves -- hanging out is also much of what adults do, if you think about it -- near the coffee kiosk.

"They're just kids," says one of the cops. "The way they look, the vTC way they act, it scares the old ladies. But they're really not much of a problem."

They do scare the old ladies, and some others. Which is why, if they're loitering, or if they're blocking a doorway, or if they're too loud, the cops move them along.

Everyone knows the rules. Everyone knows the game.

I stop a pack of youngsters in mid-cruise to see if they've heard about the new rules at the Mall of America. They're all 15-year-old sophomores at Loch Raven High. They've heard of the Mall of America, which, for mall aficionados, must have the same meaning that Valhalla did for Norsemen. But they hadn't heard of the ban.

"I think it's rude," says Rachel Zitnik.

"The mall," says Scott Messier, "is one of the places you can hang out where you don't run into drugs."

"If people are going to party," Rachel says, "it's not going to be at the mall."

They both say that the grownups who run the mall should punish kids who are acting up and not just kids because they're kids. This makes some sense, and it's worrisome when you're talking to 15-year-olds and they're the ones making the sense.

"When I got here," says Kristen Doyle, "this rent-a-cop was, like, hassling these guys. They weren't doing anything. They were just standing there."

Garrett Witts chips in: "It's like my dad says, 'It's always the kids.' "

I run into this same group later. They're down at Friendly's, eating ice cream. And, as far as I can tell, not a real danger to society. In fact, if there's a danger here, it's that so many teen-agers think the coolest place to be is at a shopping center.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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