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Robrt Pela Watches An Unrecognizable Metrocenter Mall Auctioned Away

If you grew up in Phoenix in the 1970s, you probably have a special place in your heart for Metrocenter Mall. But earlier this year, after 47 years of operation, the current owners of Metrocenter made the decision to close the iconic shopping center. And Dec. 4, a virtual auction was held so people could grab a bit of Metrocenter paraphernalia.

Robrt Pela, Phoenix New Times culture critic and friend of The Show, watched the auction. He shared this essay about the surreal walk down memory lane.

It was 1979 and I was a senior in high school — a mouthy, opinionated senior in high school. When I told our yearbook advisor that I thought the clubs and organizations section was boring — full of pictures of teenagers standing in a line, staring directly into the camera — she called my bluff and made me photo editor. Fine, I figured. I knew where I could take more interesting photographs. There was no place in our westside neighborhood with more gorgeous backgrounds and appointments, I thought, than Metrocenter.

I planned to have the key club roll up their Jordache and stand ankle-deep in the giant two-story fountain by Galáncamp Shoes. I would pose the chess club on the sloping sides of the conversation pit by Foxmoor Casuals. The mat maids would stand on the red enameled op-art sculpture just beyond Heti's House of Wigs. And those snooty National Honor Society kids? They'd look great on the stair-stepped, manicured lawn alongside my favorite Metrocenter detail — the glittery, swooping entrance arches.

I thought of these photographs the other day when I heard that Metrocenter, which closed in June, would be selling off its fixtures and furniture at an online auction. I don't have room for a single other object in my life. And I wondered if I could stand watching the smoothie blender from Orange Julius go to the highest bidder. But I couldn't stay away. Even though we'd be invisible to one another at this virtual auction, I figured I knew who else would be there, looking at and bidding on that cement planter near the entrance to Goot Shoes, and the mall kiosk that sold mood rings: other westside kids like me.

Metro had been our de facto community center. We went there to ice skate or watch movies, play air hockey at Red Baron, skateboard off the loading dock behind Sears. Moms weren't thinking about sexual predators when they dropped kids off at Metro on a Saturday morning in 1973. We'd spend the day playing tag in front of Rosenzweig Jewelers, grab a free lunch of cheese and sausage samples at the Swiss Colony, and then go make faces in the photo booths in a patchouli-scented corner of the mall called the Alley.

Was I hoping someone had unearthed from the bowels of the mall one of those cool, old shag-carpeted benches from Metro's several sunken conversation pits?

I was.

I guess I wanted one last glimpse of a garment rack from tops and trousers where I bought my first grown-up, three-piece suit made entirely of spun petroleum. Or a drinks table from Metro Port Lounge, a saloon shaped like a jet airliner where I ordered my first adult cocktail in 1978. Or a pricing gun from Diamond's Department Store, from which I used to shoplift record albums when I was 12.

But it didn't happen.

The detritus of my mall rat past had clearly been annihilated during Metrocenter's 2007 remodel. The hunks of my childhood haunt being sold off belong to a newer generation of shopper. I had no relationship to the flat-paneled LCD monitor displays offered at $40 each. The neon sign for Wetzel's Pretzels, which finally sold for a whopping $750, meant nothing to me. Soft pretzels was a '90s thing.

And while the neon orange, child-sized spaceship was awful cute, I didn't recognize it. Someone did, though, and paid $400 for it.

I lasted about an hour, watching invisible buyers bid on play-area space tubes and boxes of tract lighting and an auction item cleverly titled "37 Fire Extinguishers," which sold for $140.

Just as I was about to switch off my computer and file away — at last — my memories of Metrocenter, I spotted it.

Mistakenly labeled "oversized mall trash can," it was, in fact, one of the many cone-shaped cement planters from the mall's earliest days. Instead of reaching for my credit card, I grabbed my senior class yearbook, and there it was — positioned with its twin on either side of the elevator that took one from upstairs to down. In my yearbook candid, rather than trash, the pot was filled with an especially leafy African fig. Way in the background, you could see the entrance to Heti's House of Wigs.

Having spotted a bit of my past, I left the Metrocenter auction and went back to leafing through my old yearbook. Eventually, I stopped that too. I couldn't bear to see what I'd put those poor teenagers through 40 years ago, forcing them to pose in a human pyramid in front of Morrow's Nut House and enact a kick line at the entrance to Park Lane Hosiery.

I didn't need an incense kiosk from Lotions and Potions or a metal ashtray from the Wild Pear. I had enough in the way of memories of Metrocenter.

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