Strip malls are almost a Jungian archetype, if they’re not already. Strip malls are where the secrets are, where the plot twist happens. They have a lack of ornament shared only by spy agencies. And they sit quietly at the part of the story where the hero is at rock bottom, waiting for something, for the machinery of narrative to take over. Strip malls seem to only exist in the 25th minute of our lives, right before the turning point where we find the drug money or the winning lottery ticket on a sidewalk. The hero can’t appreciate being a millionaire without first knowing the spiritual emptiness of a laundromat at 10:00 p.m., where every passing car is a personal news item and every figure in the distance is a formless highway killer.
Proper malls, the big ones you never actually go to, have an Atomic Age air about them, like they were designed for an unsustainable level of prosperity. Going to a real mall off-hours feels like going to a ruin. This was an idea for a different time, a place for John Hughes characters to discover themselves, and it’s outmoded now. You can visualize the end of The Mall as an AP story: “Glenbrook Square Mall in Fort Wayne, Indiana will shut down on Tuesday.” “Richard Linklater to film Glenbrook’s last day of operation for the Library of Congress.”
But strip malls lack that baggage of false hope slowly normalizing. Everybody who goes to a strip mall needs to be at a strip mall, because they need flu medication at 10:42 p.m. on a Wednesday and Wal-Mart is 17 miles in the other direction. So you get the idea that strip malls can survive the apocalypse. Nothing can kill the bad dream imagery of the laundromat with the analog TV, or the Thai place you’ve never been to because it feels like only divorced people between 43 and 57 are allowed inside. Not even nuclear winter can’t kill that. People will still need flu medication at 10:42 p.m. on a Wednesday after the food rationing kicks in and we have to import our corn from Brazil.
I don’t like going to my neighborhood strip mall, it just has an air of death around it, but when I do, I’m hyper-aware of its narrative heft. “Is this the part of the movie where the college football player fallen on hard times starts drinking or stops? Where Uncle Sam calls me up to take down the Martians? Or is it where the gut-shot CIA agent tells me to send the telegram?”
It’s the most nowhere place on earth, so the temptation is overpowering to make it somewhere. For about six months I’ve been doing this by planning a bank robbery. See, there’s a bank at the end of this strip mall. It’s not one of the big popular banks with nice signs where you hear ambient discussion about new housing developments. It’s one of those banks where people go to quietly withdraw forty dollars and deposit a roll of quarters and get the hell out.
I know the faces of everybody who works at that bank, but it’s not my bank so they don’t know my face. I know how to get there on foot and where to park my getaway car. I know the surveillance cameras are old and fairly low-resolution. I have a track suit from high school that I’ve never worn, and a ski mask I’ve worn once. I have a pair of tennis shoes I could wear and throw away. I have no criminal record and I’m good at fake voices. If I could find my left work glove, I’d be set.
It’s in the bank’s best interest to comply with a bank robbery. There’s no need to go cowboy on everybody. I’ll hand the teller a note, pretend I have a gun, collect my spoils and roll. After that it’s just an exercise in discretion. I won’t spend the money, I’ll just put it in the wall of my coat closet. For a year or two, that will be enough to satisfy me. It gives me a mysterious backstory and an appealing moral ambiguity.
It’ll be the most boring bank robbery ever devised: a desperate sober fella sticks up the last bank on earth and disappears. That’s not even hard. I don’t have friends, really, if we define friends as people we regularly talk to who know how our faces contort in moments of shame. I’m basically a recluse. I’m reasonably intelligent, I have virtually no paper trail in this town, and I know how to disappear. I could pull this off. I could walk in there at 4 p.m. tomorrow and have the money in the wall by 5:30. Only 20% of bank robbery loot ever gets recovered, and I’m more discreet than most real life crooks. It’ll be safer than the pretend money on my debit card.
My other advantage is that real life criminals aren’t like movie criminals. A bank robbery doesn’t need the jewel heist level of preparation I’ve given it in my head since last fall. Most bank robbers are dumbasses and they still get away with it. All I have to do is listen to one intrusive thought and ride out the statute of limitations, then make a fictionalized middle-tier crime thriller about it. Critics will compliment the dialogue and depiction of spiritual exile but find it anticlimactic, and I’ll have a fun story for, I dunno, the nurse who happens to be in the room when I die.
The ultimate goal here is pretty reasonable. Rob a bank and pay off my student loans. Do one wrong thing to evade the debtor’s dread that makes me squint when I open the mailbox. But my debt is north of twenty thousand dollars and the average bank robbery doesn’t even net five grand. To pay off my student loans, I’ll have to rob four or five banks. That’s way too many. It’s out of the question. One bank robbery at my neighborhood strip mall is doable. I have just enough vigor to psych myself into that. If I were to press my luck, I’d get sloppy, make mistakes, leave a paper trail, require alibi juggling. It would easily cause almost as much dread as the student loan payments. I’d have to go out of town on weekends and get hotels. It’s exhausting.
So I would never rob a bank for the simple utilitarian reason that if I robbed one, I’d have to rob five. But I’ll never stop planning that robbery, because it’s the most entertaining hobby available once you get too dull for problem-drinking. And sometimes have to make those drives to get flu medication at 10:42 p.m. feel like the shading that precipitates your real story, the story that never happens.
Last week I went back to that strip mall a little past noon, to buy baking soda. About ten minutes after I left, somebody went and robbed that bank. He was my age. He looked a lot like me. The surveillance footage wasn’t enough to identify him. He also lived within walking distance of the bank. But he had a record a mile long and couldn’t maintain discretion and somebody ratted him out.
After they busted him, I drove around his neighborhood to see what was different about his circumstances and mine. What turned him into a bank robber and me into somebody who just wants a story that’s more exotic than the one I inherited. He had about as much money as I did and less debt. What was the difference? I looked around and realized he lived in one of those places you feel like you can’t escape, with suspicious neighbors, where the freeway seems 50,000 miles away and that strip mall becomes the only place you ever go. Where you sit around high in a lawn chair and realize you have nothing better to do than rob a bank that’s asking for it. But I’m content just to daydream about a life that’s so eventful I have to hide money in walls. I can tell the story and forget all about it when I’m done. It’s easy to forget I have that luxury.