Discover more from CAFÉ ANNE
The American Dream Mall Isn't Weird Enough Yet
Plus! Neighborhood Name Names!! Items of Interest!!!
Welcome to Issue #65 of CAFÉ ANNE!
I got lots of feedback on last week’s Q&A with John “Cats” Catsimatidis. While folks aren’t super thrilled with his Gristedes chain of supermarkets, the consensus is that he seems like a pretty good guy—for a billionaire. “This interview makes me want to pay a premium to shop at Gristedes!” wrote one reader in Brooklyn Heights. Haha.
Also, to my surprise, I only got one email from a reader asking me to connect them with Cats in hopes of getting him to finance their film.
In other news, it’s time for another round of Senior Citizen Roulette, in which I go around New York City asking randomly selected questions of randomly selected NYC oldsters found on the streets. What should I ask? Please leave your suggestions in the comments or send me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org. The interviews will appear in next week’s issue.“Which New York City neighborhoods would make good names?” she asked. “Like a daughter named Bellerose, a son named Douglaston.”
The replies were fantastic. “Briarwood. Unisex appeal. For the crunchy parents,” responded one person. “Bedford Stuyvesant the Third,” wrote another.
If I could name a kid—or a pet—after a NYC neighborhood, I’d go with “Midtown.” Very winsome, I think. What are your best ideas? Discuss!
Finally, huge CAFÉ ANNE shoutouts to our newest paid subscribers inking_snowy09, Glenn R., James B., and, of course, the one and only Cats! Thank you!!
You may ask yourself: if one of NYC’s richest billionaires can support CAFÉ ANNE, why can’t I?
I am very excited about this week’s issue, of course. I wrote about my first trip to American Dream, the nation’s second-largest mall, a 15-minute bus ride from Manhattan. And please scroll to the bottom for some very good Items of Interest.
The American Dream Mall Isn’t Weird Enough Yet
My visit to American Dream, the nation's second-largest mall, which is located just 15 minutes from Manhattan, has been a long time coming. I remember when developers first broke ground on the New Jersey complex back in 2004 for a 2006 opening. I watched it go through several bankruptcies and ownership changes. According to Wikipedia, construction was nearly complete in 2011 when then-Governor Chris Christie called it "by far the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and maybe America." Soon after, a big portion of the roof collapsed in a snowstorm.
The saga continued when the developers were sued by the Giants and Jets over concerns that shopper traffic would interfere with games at the nearby stadium. The settlement took two years. A planned 2016 opening was spoiled when the final financing fell through. The mall partially opened in 2019 but shut down in the pandemic.
When it finally opened for real in 2021, the $5 billion project sounded absolutely bonkers, and worth the wait. Three million square feet of retail space including more than 300 stores and 60-plus restaurants! A skate rink, ski hill, amusement park, and giant water park—all indoors! Not to mention a 300-foot ferris wheel and 33,000 parking spaces.
Meanwhile, the parade of mishaps continued. The mall lost $60 million in its first year. The ski slope caught fire. Last month, a decorative helicopter fell into the waterpark's 1.5-acre wave pool, injuring four.
I thought I'd better hustle over and write about the mall before a giant sinkhole opened beneath and the whole thing collapsed into hell.
I had an angle in mind, of course. I even had a headline written in advance: "The Ten Weirdest Things at the American Dream Mall." This was a no-brainer!
Waiting for the American Dream express bus at the Port Authority, however, I got my first inkling that my premise was faulty. Pedelyn, the lady next in line, turned out to be a mall employee. When I asked her to recommend the most interesting attractions, she cited the amusement park and the mini golf course. "There's a lot of stores, like Zara and H&M,” she added.
"But what's the weirdest thing?" I pressed.
"Sometimes the little kids fight at the park," she said. "Or sometimes, even when it's really cold outside, people have shorts on, like they're dressed to go to the beach. Those are the weirdest things."
The bus dropped us off at the mall’s south end, the retail side, and I started my tour in the swanky section known as The Avenue, which features stores like Hermès and Tiffany.
It had an odd feel. While the glass-vaulted atrium was beautiful, the retail space looked to be roughly 80% vacant. The place felt like heaven might feel if you were the only person on earth who’d been good. I had it pretty much to myself except for two janitors repairing a light fixture.
Heading north into the mall's middle-brow section, the place got a lot more crowded with stores and shoppers. There was an Old Navy, a Sunglass Hut and a Victoria's Secret. There was a Sephora and a Zales. There was 80s pop music, potted plants and fountains. It looked like every other mall in the world.
But one spectacle stood out—the handsome fellow manning the gift kiosk. I passed by three times and each time he was diligently performing an elaborate light saber routine before an audience of nobody.
His name was Dustin. "It's saber spinning!" he explained when I asked about his performance.
Dustin has been selling $30 light sabers and other novelties at the mall-owned kiosk for about a year. It wasn't until this winter, however, that he discovered the world of saber spinning video tutorials on YouTube. He's been honing his routine ever since: "It's really satisfying!"
"It looks like you're enjoying your job," I said.
"I'm enjoying it a lot more now that I found this," he said, wielding his saber. "Retail is what it is. But when you have something that you're passionate about, it definitely helps the time go by."
"I'm looking for the weirdest thing at the mall," I said. "What would you say that is?"
"The weirdest thing at the mall. What is weird anymore?" he said. "In 2023, what is weird?"
"Someone was telling me they had chocolate-covered crickets at the jerky shop," he said finally. "But you know, I just don't think this is a very weird place yet. I'm kind of hoping we get a little more weird."
The "Beef Jerky Experience" store was just around the corner. A whole shop devoted to jerky! This sounded unusual, but the clerk, Debbie, told me it's a national chain of 132 shops. The best-selling varieties are Cherry Maple followed by her personal favorite, Prime Rib. "We have alligator, kangaroo, ostrich and python," she added.
"Do you have any horse or dog or cat?" I asked hopefully.
"No," she said.
She did, however, escort me to the bug section: "We have crickets, we have scorpions!"
I noted the dried cheddar cheese larvae, aka "The Original Worm Snack."
"That's disgusting," I said.
"They're grown in a farm setting," Debby explained. "It's not something they go out and find in the woods."
"So they're not harvesting them off a dead squirrel?"
"Right!" said Debbie.
She seemed to know a lot about food, so I asked Debbie to recommend the most interesting place to eat in the mall. She suggested the wine bar. "They make sandwiches," she said.
"What's the weirdest thing at the mall?" I asked.
She thought about it. "I don't know. The mirror maze?"
I took a break at the mall's Coca-Cola Lounge. I’d expected something spectacular from the world's most successful marketing company, but the lounge was just a dark room with seating, a vending machine and a giant screen showing Coke ads.
I texted my friend and top CAFÉ ANNE correspondent Aharon, who had asked me to update him on my discoveries.
"It's surprisingly not very interesting so far," I wrote.
"Oh no!" he replied. "Is it a mall?"
It was slowly sinking in: The only thing weird at the mall was me, walking around like a dumb-ass, expecting a mall to be weird.
In my defense, I'm from Buffalo, where many area malls fell on hard times and saw their national tenants replaced by the DMV and Patty's Doll Repair. Those were weird malls.
Malls also tend to get strange here in NYC. Our newest, the Oculus in Lower Manhattan, resembles a giant bleached turkey carcass. And then we have places like the wonderful New World Mall in Queens with its bananas basement communal dining food court and 30 different places to buy bizarre cell phone cases.
Of course, none of these malls have an indoor amusement park. The Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park was my next stop at American Dream.
Here is what I can report: It is indeed an actual amusement park under glass, featuring dozens of rides and attractions including a full-size coaster, merry-go-round and flying swings. It was also the cleanest place I’ve ever seen. If I had to get open heart surgery, I’d want it performed at the Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park. Was this place amazing? Yes, in theory. But I did not feel amazed and could not say why.
Next stop, the Oreo Cafe´—a cavernous store dedicated to the famous sandwich cookie. Here you can buy 13 kinds of Oreos, not to mention Oreo tee-shirts, Oreo hoodies, Oreo pillows, Oreo ceramic cookie jars, Oreo baseball caps, Oreo blankets, Oreo boxer shorts, Oreo slippers, Oreo socks, Oreo tank tops, Oreo water bottles, Oreo cookie-scented candles, Oreo lip balm and Oreo umbrellas. Who buys this stuff?
"Are there actually people who are Oreo fanatics?" I asked Steven, the manager.
"It happens all the time!" said Steven. "Big Oreo people! They come in and buy all the apparel—hoodies, shirts, blankets. They buy anything they can, the candles. Anything that shows Oreo representation, they'll buy."
"That's so funny," I said. "What's going on there?"
"I honestly can't explain it," he said. "But you see it first-hand—customers who come in amazed and ask you all these questions. You can just tell they're true Oreo fans, Oreo supporters."
Fans also gobble up café treats like the newly launched, $13 Oreo-Oreo Shake, he added, "Which includes Oreo double-stuff filling, chocolate syrup and Oreo crumbles on top."
"Do people lose their minds after they eat it?" I asked.
"Yes," said Steven.
I wanted to try the Oreo-Oreo Shake. But in an effort to economize, I had brought my own lunch, which I ate in the third floor Coca-Cola Eats Food Court overlooking the 300-foot Dream Wheel ferris wheel, which was closed for repairs.
I did a little reflecting. I've written several NYC neighborhood profiles for this newsletter, including reports on Roosevelt Island and Clinton Hill, which involved checking out the area’s sights and shops and chatting with random folks. These excursions left me happy and exhilarated. Here at the mall, I was doing much the same thing, but felt nothing.
I texted my thoughts to Aharon. His reply: "You should tour the Mama Mancinis meatball factory next door."
Great idea! But I was determined to finish my mall tour. "Off to the indoor ski slope," I wrote. "I mean, that's weird, but I already know in advance it won't seem weird when I see it."
"Yeah, true," he replied. "I guess that's your story."
“Big Snow,” which opened last spring, is billed as North America's first and only indoor, real-snow, year-round ski resort. It's got four lifts and a 1,000-foot slope descending roughly 15 stories.
I know! Amazing! And yet when I saw it in action, all I said was, "Yep!"
One guest I stopped to interview, a young man named Jason, turned out be a regular. He hits the indoor slopes twice a week. I asked how it compared to skiing outdoors. If he'd ever been impressed with the novelty of indoor skiing, those days were over. "It's not as cold," he said. "And it's a lot cheaper."
And that's when I saw it, at the bottom of the staircase, across from Big Snow—a dozen mall guests riding around on furry little motorized animal scooters. You can rent them from the "American Dream Riders" concession—$10 for ten minutes.
Everyone riding the animals looked so happy, which made me feel not just totally charmed, but grateful to feel so charmed by something so simple. I'm not a monster after all!
And I'm not alone. "This is the second-highest making business in the whole mall," said Sumble, the manager, a former kindergarten teacher from Pakistan turned nursing student.
"As in revenue?" I said.
"Yep!" she said. "Today is kind of slow, but on the weekends we have a staff of ten, eleven people working, and all these animals here are running around outside."
I don't know if that is true, because the mall did not respond to my request for comment, but I did a little calculation. Suppose you maxed things out and rented each animal for 45 minutes every hour. That’s a potential $6 million a year for a business based on a few dozen furry toy scooters. Amazing!
I have to say my day at American Dream was a terrific deal. While you could spend $5 an hour for parking, $34 for an hour at the ice rink, $59 for a VIP Dream Wheel ticket and $79 for an amusement park pass, I spent $12 on bus fare and was thoroughly entertained for a day without spending another dime.
I also came away with a deeper understanding of why I love New York City. At the mall, the most interesting things were not the big attractions engineered to wow, but the occasional unplanned discoveries. Which made it occasionally interesting. In the city, by contrast, nothing is ever really going according to plan. Which makes it a little challenging, but also a lot more fun.
I imagine, however, that as the years go by, the American Dream mall will get far more interesting in ways that no one currently is planning. Because doesn't everything? Dustin, the saber spinner, agrees. "We're getting there," he says. "We're new, yet. It's only been a couple years!"
ITEMS OF INTEREST
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