NOT far from where I live in my city is a shopping mall famous for its blocks and blocks of free parking spaces and its nonstop sales. There isn't a day of the week that multitudes of people do not brave traffic, or weather, or even their own inertia to go out there and take advantage. Young mothers wheel their infants in strollers along the marble promenade between the shops and stores. The little ones wave their button-sized fists in rosy glee. Some of them, if old enough, carry tiny rubber balls that, when squeezed, give out a honking sound like a car horn, turning the promenade into a kind of freeway bound for bargains. Crowds of shoppers are drawn to display windows, where mannequins wearing the latest fashions smile at them as if from a world where everybody is content and nothing can go wrong. Some people sit on benches, their brightly bagged purchases on their laps, looking like adventurers who have taken great risks for great rewards and succeeded.
It is a place where people want to see things they've never seen before, and where they think they can find what they want. A place where seeing is believing, and believing is seeing.
I have been to this mall a number of times and always it has had a very strange effect on me. It is what you might call a shrinking effect. I look around at all the tall-windowed, almost vaulting stores and shops, at all the people, so many, even more than throng the downtown sidewalks of a big city at noon, and I feel utterly dwarfed. I feel insignificant.
It is very difficult for me to fight off this feeling, but I have a method, a memory, that enables me. I remind myself of a summer night in Brooklyn when I was a child of 10 or so living with my parents in an apartment on the top floor of a building. It was so hot, all the heat of the city seeming to have risen to pay us an exclusive visit, that I was sitting on the ledge of an open window literally with my tongue hanging out.
Finally I had to go up on the roof. There, closing my eyes, I leaned my head back and drew in a deep, quenching breath of breeze-cooled air. When I opened my eyes I saw, for the first time in my life, a sky that was filled with stars. They glittered like the silver beards of old scholars in the study house of the synagogue when the sun slanted through windows and lit them all, from wispy to bushy, down to the very tips. It was as if, by sudden, mutual consent, I belonged to the stars, to their light, their silence, their eternal pondering of everything that had ever been or ever would be. They didn't dwarf me; they welcomed me.
So how can I let myself be dwarfed by the shopping mall when I've been welcomed by the stars? It's unthinkable.
When I go into any of the big stores, especially the department stores, I experience the paradox of the shopper, the abundance of human company and yet, within, a loneliness. I go my way, people go theirs; I go around in my circles, they go around in theirs. Something is missing. Or perhaps, someone.
One of the star-bearded scholars in the study house was a man named Mr. Rosen. He was a very tall man, almost 6 feet, with a carriage of great dignity and eyes full of kindness and faraway thoughts. There was a story, and true, that, back in the 1930s and '40s, he had made his living as a floorwalker, a person who wandered with a slow, almost grave gait around a store and answered customers' questions about where items were located.
Mr. Rosen would always walk with his hands clasped behind his back, solemn, dependable, and it was no exaggeration to say that to people lost in tempests of merchandise, he looked like a lighthouse. He looked like someone who knew everything.
Here he was, one of the greatest scholars in the study house, a man who immersed himself in books every night after work, and people would come up to him and ask where were the pajamas, where were the doilies, the laces, the perfumes.
Never taking offense, never intimating that his scholarly dignity or importance had been insulted, Mr. Rosen always gave clear and concise answers. People came away from him cheered that here was a person who understood their feelings and wanted to make life a little easier for them. In his heart, Mr. Rosen may have felt that everything outside his studies was levity, but he never showed it in his work.
It would be a real lift to people at the shopping mall, I think, if floorwalkers could be brought back, rein-stated to modern times, and if they could all be as kind, humble, and wise as Mr. Rosen. One of his answers to a customer is still famous. A lady exasperated by her futile efforts to find just the right shade of summer dress blurted out to him, ``Heavens, it will take a miracle for me to find it. Do you believe in miracles?''
His eyes serious even as he smiled, Mr. Rosen answered, ``No, but I rely on them all the time.''