Thursday, February 9, 2017

Highland Mall

On Christmas of 2009, my parents surprised me with the news that they'd rented a midcentury dream house in the Austin neighborhood of Crestview. I was twenty-three, still lived with them, and was about to transfer from Austin Community College to Texas State University to complete my long-in-the-making English degree. I worked part-time at Freebirds, a hippie-themed burrito restaurant in north Austin. We lived in a mobile home out in the country in Granger, a forty-five-minute drive from my ACC classes and job. At the time I had no problem with my long commutes, and would listen to Fleetwood Mac CDs start to finish while smoking Winston Light 100s. 
I was planning on moving to Austin proper with a friend in the coming year so I'd be closer to Texas State. My parents said they were renting the house in Crestview in order for my dad to be closer to his work, but the truth is that they were doing it for me. They wanted me to have a cool place to live so that I'd be able to finish school without worrying about rent. It should be said that I love my parents more than I love anyone on earth, I am the youngest child, and they have always spoiled me rotten. I didn't realize until I'd moved out on my own and they'd moved back to Granger that those years at the Crestview house, 2010 through 2013 plus one year they lived there without me, were the best years of my life. They were also the years where my perfume hobby was at its most decadent and excessive, so my memories are woven through the dozens and dozens of gorgeous scents I bought and wore during that time.
Highland Mall was the first indoor mall in Austin and at the time we moved to Crestview it was on its last legs as an active shopping center.  It became notorious for the crime and violence that took place during the Texas Relays and white people always avoided going there and talked about it in ominous tones. It had one remaining anchor store, a Macy's, but most of its open retail space was occupied by ghetto fashion stores, Army recruitment offices, and that jewel of the ghost mall, the discount perfume store run by Middle Easterners or Eastern Europeans and filled to bursting with dusty bottles of rare and exciting perfumes. There were three, maybe four of these stores, all with regal names--Perfume King, Perfume Palace--and they were my lifeblood. These were the first places I actually saw bottles of the legendary perfumes I read about in Luca Turin's book. Here, off the top of my head, are just some of the things I bought at these stores during those years: 

-Montana Parfum de Peau
-Kenzo Jungle L'Elephant
-Balenciaga Rumba
-Vivienne Westwood Boudoir
-YSL Rive Gauche
-Balenciaga Pour Homme
-Ungaro III
-Cacharel Noa
-Cacharel Eden
-Cacharel Loulou
-Caron Yatagan
-Paco Rabanne Calandre
-Paco Rabanne Metal
-YSL Kouros
-YSL Rive Gauche
-YSL Paris
-YSL Opium

In addition to housing the bus stop where my mom dropped me off to catch the commuter bus to school every morning, Highland was a thirty-minute walk from my house and I'd go there more or less every day and buy something new, always without having smelled it. I was rarely, if ever, disappointed with the little bottles that contained distant eras and exotic locales. That's what perfume became for me after I got into it--little vessels to past time periods and distant locations I couldn't possibly ever visit. Like Serge Lutens is always trying to recreate his absent mother through his perfumes, I am always trying to recreate through scent specific places and sensations I have sketchy but intense memories of as a child. Women were these Amazons with shoulder pads and warrior makeup and narcotic, overwhelming perfumes, and everywhere smelled of cigarettes. That is the smell I want; that is the place I want to be. 
When I opened my first blue box of Montana and could smell its dank, urinous patchouli wafting through the cardboard, I was transported to Highland Mall twenty years prior. I could be the woman who wore that, who picked up that helix bottle at the mall, who smoked carelessly, who got a perm at Visible Changes. It wouldn't be "weird" to wear this either. Everyone else wore similar things. 
Over the years I gave away or sold many of those bottles. I was concerned with not looking like a hoarder and tried to emulate my friend Monica, who was constantly getting rid of things she'd purchased and making her spaces look austere and immaculate. As I near thirty, I realize that I am a person who needs to own libraries of things. I'm a Cancer, which explains both the obsessive nostalgia and the filling of my house with emotionally significant objects. 
These days I find myself buying up pretty much everything I had during that time, and the memories are so vivid--seemingly inconsequential moments that I shouldn't remember but do, like my dad, who rarely said anything about my scents, driving me to Office Max while I was drenched in Rumba, and him remarking on how good it smelled. Me wearing too much Lolita Lempicka as I grilled meat in a hot food trailer during the summer and swearing it off forever (I love it now and bought a new bottle). Me wafting Eden while fucking some stranger in Midtown Spa and promptly throwing the bottle in the trash in revulsion. Me leaving my Poison-redolent pea coat at a Craigslist hookup's meth den and working up the courage to go back and get it--yes, these were the Craigslist dark ages right before gay hookup apps made Internet sex into a virtual candy shop. It's strange to think that it's late enough in the decade that "early 2010s Austin" is now a specific time period of the city completely different from what it is now. Everything that was still old and interesting when I lived there is either gone  forever or, worse, exists in skeleton form as a new-and-improved expensive hipster version of itself, as happened to LaLa's Little Nugget and Poodle Dog Lounge. Midtown Spa is gone. Chain Drive is gone. Bout Time is gone. The Crestview Minimax is gone. You wouldn't believe if you went to Burnet Road now, just a few years later, that I found a full 60s bottle of Schiaparelli Shocking at the Austin Antique Mall and wore the shit out of it. 
I have a beautiful memory of walking through Highland Mall the last Christmas it still had an anchor store with my mom, dad, and sister, stopping to smell all of the old Estee Lauder masterpieces, and coming home with a bottle of Kenzo Jungle from one of the discounters. The education that mall gave me in its dying years will stick with me my whole life.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a cancer too and like you...I'm a collector. I'm going to Austin in June with my husband. I felt nostalgic about my family's hometown of Key West when it was rustic. I still go down and play Austin to my nieces and fish. But Duval is not what it was. I remember driving down every other weekend, hang out with my drag queen friends and "is he on my team or yours" with my best guy friends. Then slipping into my other friend's caretaker house at a museum for J. Every place was unique and there were cool back alley local bars. There's like five left. Taken over by hipsters. Those were the days.