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How Country Club Plaza was able to stay open, nobody really knew. It ranked as one of the central mysteries of the city, along with the hauntings at the California State Library and the underground tunnels in Old Sacramento. The question: how can a shopping mall stay in business when sixty percent of the commercial storefronts are vacant? [private]On the south wing of the mall, where the management offices were, the vacancy rate was an alarming eighty percent: fifteen out of nineteen storefronts were empty. And this was no recent trend: it had been going on well over fifteen years, even after a multimillion dollar remodel five years prior. The reclusive owner/investor (whose name has never been released, curiously enough) must have hoped that the much-needed facelift would jumpstart the dying mall and attract new customers. That didn’t happen, however. The vacancy rate continued to hover around sixty percent (“Coming Soon: Another Exciting New Retailer!” the signs outside each empty suite promised), with most of the existing businesses being large, stable venues: Macys, Off Broadway, Sport Chalet, Ross, and Hometown Buffet. At the southern end, Gottchalks had called it quits some three years ago, hastened by a poor economy.
Once a vibrant, bustling mall, Country Club had been decimated by the arrival of Arden Faire—the darling of the city—some fifteen years prior, as well as the Galleria at Roseville ten years ago. Country Club had neither the glitz and glamour of Arden Faire—which attracted everyone from Christian choir groups to hoodlums—nor the trendy, upscale modernity of the Roseville Galleria. The only other two malls in the area were Sunrise Mall—which, as the city’s oldest mall, had managed to revitalize itself and survived because of its lucky proximity exactly halfway between Arden Faire and the Galleria, far enough away from both to avoid being swallowed up—and the Downtown Plaza, which survived due to a single, charming novelty: it was the city’s only outdoor, open-air mall. Surely, with dismally low attendance for fifteen years, the situation at Country Club Plaza couldn’t go on indefinitely. Yet the mall was always warm in the winter and cool in the summer . . . somehow, someway, it was able to pay its bills. Two groups of patrons were most prominent at Country Club: elderly couples, who used the mall as an exercise facility, for their daily indoor walks; and by the mentally disabled, who were carted in by groups via caregiver vans. Obviously, the institutions that brought them wanted a sparsely attended mall where they could go out in public and not get in anyone’s way, and who could blame them?
Then came the turning point for Country Club, something that would change its fate forever: virtually overnight—it definitely came without any warning—people were confronted with the sight of a man living in one of the larger business suites. The message: the reclusive mall owner had finally gone mad. Did he—or she, as the case may be—not know that allowing domestic renting violated zoning ordinances governing commercial vs. residential dwelling? It is safe to say that most people wouldn’t want to live inside a shopping mall, yet perhaps some viewed it as a novelty: the convenience of, let’s say, walking thirty steps to Panda Express or twenty steps to Subway or Mrs. Fields Bakery & Café. In any event, the public was obviously baffled—and then charmed—by the oddity of seeing a private renter living inside a shopping mall.
Naturally, all attention fell on the renter occupying the suite, a middle-aged man named Steve Delk, a person you might not otherwise glance at twice, were he in any other situation or environment. But being where he was, under the strange circumstances he in fact was in, he evoked tremendous curiosity. Who was this man, and why was he there? Had he been placed before us to tease our eyes and brains, to confound and enchant us? He was, after all, just an ordinary looking man: average height, mid to late forties, dark brown hair, a tad overweight (in the midsection region). He was, in short, memorably unmemorable.
Mall-goers saw Steve as soon as they entered the mall from the back entrance—a fairly key position, as storefronts go. Perhaps this suite had been chosen—there were twenty vacant ones to choose from, after all—simply because it had the most square footage, and perhaps Steve was keen on square footage. But the thing that caused the most speculation, which in turn led to countless theories, was the fact that Steve didn’t appear to care at all about his privacy. He didn’t draw the blinds or curtains because he didn’t have any, true enough (the suite not being designed for domestic dwelling), but he truly didn’t seem to care. How could this be possible? How can a man truly not care about being stared at by people as he watched TV or slept? As it was, Steve seemed to exist for the sole purpose of making his daily living into a spectator sport.
Upon entering the mall, people would do a double-take while passing Steve’s studio, hesitate in their stride as they see a man living in one of the business suites, stare in disbelief, and, finally, driven by overwhelming curiosity, come over and simply watch the arresting sight of Steve, who was doing nothing unusual, maybe just exercising or cooking some little meal; yet the very un-remarkableness of it made it all the more remarkable. Soon, a small crowd would develop, for people are always curious about what others are staring at (human nature being what it is): fingers were then pointed at Steve, urgent whispers exchanged, mothers would hold up their children so they could see better . . . in short order, Steve became a sensation at the mall, an unwitting local celebrity. While all this was happening, hardly anybody noticed something amazing: the little mall was thriving, for the first time in almost twenty years.
With all eyes on him, Steve did something unprecedented: he did absolutely nothing. He appeared completely oblivious to all the attention, didn’t seem the slightest bit self-conscious that he was being watched by crowds. He coughed, laughed, blew his nose, and scratched his groin with complete unselfconscious ease, as if he were in private and not being observed. In fact, he became—dare we say it?—a sort of human zoo attraction: Herein Resides Steve Delk in His Natural Habitat, Doing Common, Unremarkable Things . . .
And so “The Steve Show” was born, the newest, strangest reality show in town.
Suddenly, intense curiosity surrounded the specter of Steve: what kind of man was this? How can a person not be affected by being gawked at all day by the public? What sort of human being was this? What experiences had this Steve Delk had in his life that might produce such strange, un-humanlike behavior?
With Steve as the main attraction, the mall became replete with spectators and gawkers of all ages and races. How many were actual customers who had purchased something at the mall and how many were merely spectators of “The Steve Show” was difficult to say; yet clearly there was an increase in mall revenue. Many of the onlookers needed to eat and so business improved at the Subway directly across from Steve’s Place (as it became known), as well as Panda Express and Mrs. Fields, which sold miscellaneous snacks in addition to her highly coveted cookies.
The pressing question, the one that needed—demanded—an answer: why didn’t Steve care that people were watching him? Was he so world-weary that onlookers elicited zero reaction from him, not even a glance in their direction? Or was he simply an actor? Yet it wasn’t the things that Steve did that fascinated people, since they were commonplace ones; rather, it was the strangeness of him doing those things under those particular circumstances, and that seemed the defining point.
When the media got wind of “The Steve Show,” interest kicked into high gear as people from all over the city—and some from nearby cities—made the pilgrimage to see Steve in all his mundane glory. Indeed, many even crowned him “The King of the Mundane”—an anti-hero for the anti-age. Skeptics suspected that this was just an extravagant publicity stunt; some wondered if the whole thing had been planned and orchestrated by the mysterious, reclusive mall owner, in a last attempt to increase foot-traffic. This would indeed have made him a sort of mastermind—a deviant genius, really. If true, it would have to be counted as among the greatest publicity stunts in recorded history. One thing, however, was clear: the owner, mall management, and all the individual retailers jumped on the bandwagon and capitalized on the frenzy surrounding Steve. For the first time, a strain of genuine creativity swept through all things Steve: signs were posted on the outside of his mall-apartment, listing the times of his daily activities: what times he watched TV, ate, brushed his teeth (his place had a separate, viewable sink), talked on the phone, surfed the Internet, and exercised, for he was methodical in his daily regimen. Some skeptics said that nobody was that loyal to their routine; they charged manipulation and betrayal of the public trust, but this, in turn, was met with its own skepticism, for there was something thrillingly authentic about Steve, something gloriously un-choreographed.
Perhaps most surprising: rather than trivializing his daily routine, the advertised times actually increased anticipation and conjured genuine suspense as people waited with bated breath for Steve to perform a particular activity. Some preferred to watch him eat; others chose to observe him exercising; others still preferred to study him as he watched TV or worked on his computer. “10 am: Watch Steve Brush His Teeth!” “Coming up at 2 p.m.: Watch Steve Workout!” “3 p.m. Country Club Exclusive: Watch Steve Watch TV!”
People noticed that Steve had an unusual schedule and speculated that he must work some kind of graveyard shift, since he always slept until noon and was home the rest of the day and much of the evening, until about 9:00 p.m. Just minutes before the mall closed, people would get a tantalizing glimpse of him putting on what appeared to be some kind of uniform. The nature of his work could never be determined with any certainty, but it appeared to be some kind of construction job, given his overalls and bright yellow and orange vest; perhaps he was one of these highway workers who toiled all the night, when traffic was at a minimum.
As with any thing that gains sudden publicity, controversy followed: some people rose up and protested against what they viewed as the exploitation of a human being, calling the attention lavished on this all-too-common man a farce, a “perverse and misguided example of modern voyeurism.” It represented (they said) the superficiality and emptiness of our age, and pointed the finger at our hollow, bankrupt values. Naturally, the issue of personal privacy came to the forefront. Some civil rights activists declared that the public voluntarily watched Steve and so any disagreeable action on his part would be at the viewer’s risk, “gawker beware,” as they put it. Christian fundamentalists, however, charged that Steve was an incurable exhibitionist who got his thrills from being watched by an unsuspecting public. Such concerns had taken hold with some vocal, opinionated people, and the media was more than willing to exploit the matter and put their own spin on things, as it always does.
While all this was occurring, a dark side of the public made itself known for the first time. Maybe it’s something sinister in the human psyche, some inherent defect in our brains, which make us unable to embrace untainted goodness and innocence for too long without eventually swinging to the opposite pendulum and finding fault with the beloved object. And so, with virtually no evidence, somebody claimed to have seen Steve fondle his genital region while he was sleeping. Rumors surfaced of him “doing something strange” underneath his bed sheets, something all the more shocking because people had taken him to be asexual. This in turn led to another scandalous charge as one spectator claimed to have witnessed him viewing a pornographic website on his computer, something heightened by the fact that there were so many families and children present.
For the first time, people found themselves wondering why Steve was still a bachelor and became suspicious of his strange, solitary existence. Clearly, this Steve Delk was a very lonely man; perhaps he was even a sexual deviant. Some defended him and said that the self-groping was merely an accidental brush of the groin area, while others cited outright skillful manipulation, of a very perverse nature. For those who hadn’t been there when it happened, of course, it became difficult to separate fact from fiction; in the end, however, public perception became jaded and established a new critical mindset toward The Innocent One.
Suddenly, Steve could do nothing right as the tide of public opinion turned against him.
Mall-goers suddenly found fault with the way he brushed his teeth, citing faulty technique, and noticed that he often neglected to floss; this caused something of an uproar and was simply not to be tolerated. With so many children onlooking, he was a role model, they said, and a role model who didn’t recognize that fact and who continued on with his aberrant ways didn’t deserve to be one. Worst of all, Steve’s constant, unchanging oblivion to being watched was seen by many as his strangest fault; it showed a pathological disregard for humanity at large. And so the very thing that had once fascinated people about Steve—his very oblivion to spectators—now became intolerable. The mall itself did not escape unscathed: it came under fire for allowing Steve to reside there in the first place. They claimed that the mall had violated zoning laws restricting residential dwelling—all for the sake of greater profits—and deserved to be held accountable for their actions.
In light of these attacks, the reclusive mall owner/investor distanced himself into complete invisibility as the charge of Steve’s lewd conduct would not go away; even the most steadfast Steve supporters could not shake it. Soon, everyone acted as if the frenzy surrounding Steve had never happened at all; almost overnight, the fascination and idolatry had been wiped from public memory. While his seeming asexuality had at first provided a certain innocent charm, now it was viewed as pure façade, as the surface deception of a confirmed pervert. How cunning he had been! How skillful in his façade!
And yet, during all this chaos and uproar, during this period of accusations and counter accusations, Steve remained perfectly unchanged, just like before. He continued with his daily routine: his exercising, his tooth-brushing, and his TV watching. Indeed, he almost appeared to be making some kind of a point: in the face of turmoil and crisis, one must still continue with daily life and put one foot in front of the other; perhaps this contained a profound philosophical message; but since the masses aren’t especially concerned with philosophical messages, this had precious little effect.
Then something happened that surprised everyone and made them rethink their entire position: one evening, Steve had a woman over for dinner—a date, apparently. Everyone watched as they ate by dim, romantic candlelight and even had a few drinks. People wondered about this new woman in his life, who, unlike him, would occasionally glance in bewilderment at all the people scrutinizing her; clearly, she was not oblivious to all the watchful eyes. Steve appeared to reassure and comfort her, but then an argument arose . . . voices became heated . . . then strong gesturing, mainly from her. Finally, he showed a volatile side that the public had never seen before, obviously emboldened by the alcohol: he pointed a stern finger at her, apparently some kind of warning . . . at one point, it appeared he might even strike her.
After that, things truly unraveled for Steve.Speculations about his aberrant sexuality ceased; but now there was something equally contentious to take its place: the heated issue of domestic violence. Maybe underneath that tranquil, mild-mannered exterior lurked a woman-beater with an explosive temper, especially when he had some liquor in him. Naturally, there was public outcry.
And then, just like that, Steve was gone. Perhaps he had grown tired of being misunderstood, or had he been evicted by the mall owner? Maybe building inspectors had finally shut down The Steve Show, having gotten wind of the zoning violations, or had Steve simply decided to move on and take up a more normal residence elsewhere? These were the questions that weighed heavily on the public, but they remained unanswered. Mourning the loss of his presence, the public slowly came to realize the sins they had committed against him. Was Steve a victim or a hero? Nobody really knew. One thing, however, was certain: they missed The Steve Show, missed his TV watching and his flawed tooth brushings. Humans beings are resourceful animals, however, especially when attempting to appease their conscience, and so people got together to brainstorm methods of finding him and enticing him back into suite-living. Missing Person flyers were tirelessly distributed across the city, but to no avail . . .
Then, something unexpected: giving in fully to their grief, the public went so far as to hold candlelight vigils outside his former suite, praying for his return and hoping to send positive vibrations his way. In a rare concession to public sentiment, mall management even allowed the dimming of lights to heighten the effect of the tiny candle-flames, the public suffering from what can only be called a kind of collective withdrawal. When Steve didn’t return to his abode, however, the mall manager (for it must never be forgotten that the mall never stopped benefiting from all the crowds) went so far as to open up Steve’s former residence for those who wanted to commemorate him. It must be noted that his sparse personal belongings had already been dispatched; a few items had been left behind, but they were promptly snatched up as souvenirs, as can be expected.
Grief poured out in many forms, each person mourning in his or her own way. In an affectionate tribute, some groups reenacted Steve’s strange mall-lifestyle, performing mundane daily activities with sincere oblivion, just as Steve had. “Be Steve for a Day!” gained mixed reviews; some viewed it as questionable and disrespectful, while others saw it as the ultimate form of homage to a very misunderstood man. Not surprisingly, media attention reached a crescendo, which created solidarity among mall patrons as groups gathered and took turns sharing memories of Steve.Even his detractors begrudged him this one fact: in light of all the hysteria, he had always refused to compromise with any aspect of his very singular existence. Surely, that counted for something.
And that takes us back to where our story began: Country Club Plaza had experienced its up and downs over the years, yet nobody seemed to take notice that after Steve’s disappearance, the mall was finally on a stable financial footing, the public having discovered first-hand that it was an acceptable place to grab a sandwich or have a plate of Chinese food. The crowds, while never as massive as before, were decent, neither large enough to create a parking space dilemma, nor small enough to threaten the mall’s survival. Individual retailers snapped up the available suites and Country Club’s vacancy rate declined as standard commerce commenced and obliterated everything in its path as business (and life) went on as usual. Nobody appeared to remember that the mall had once been a virtual ghost town.
A full two years after his disappearance, Steve’s name finally became etched in immortality, and not just figuratively, but quite literally: a statue of him brushing his teeth (contributed by all the retailers who had benefited from The Steve Show) was erected outside the suite he had once occupied:
In Honor of Steve Delk, A Common, Unremarkable Man
Ultimate Mall Resident, Savior of Country Club Plaza