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I AM GOING directly into the belly of the beast. Ahab had his Moby Dick. I've got my mega-mall.
Sunday. Early afternoon. The Walden Galleria. The second-to-last weekend before Christmas.

Call me Ishmael, but malls R Not Me. The usual complaints, combined with a heightened sense of claustrophobia, turn mall-going into a test of nerve and self-control. Still, come the holiday season, there remains but one place with many stores in a limited space ("Jaws"-like music, please): The Mall.

Already, I have heard seasonal horror stories. Filled parking lots. Cars mounting six-inch curbs to park on the grass. A mall-OD'd father kicking his baby's carriage in anger and frustration. With the baby still in it.

The worst seems to be coming true. I have been in the parking lot for eight minutes. Riding around and around and around.

There was a guy in front of me in a rusted blue sedan. Twice, he spotted a newly vacant space, only to be beaten to it. After the second time, he floored it and sped off, tires squealing.

A woman in a brown Corolla has another solution. After circling for her non-existent prey, she pulls into a no-parking zone between two handicapped spots.

A pickup truck pulls out of a spot, nearly backing into me. I rejoice. At last, after nine minutes, a spot.

Look for a relocating landmark. A woman I read about kept a plunger in the car. Whenever she parked in a mall, she stuck it to the car roof, so she'd know where the car was when she came out. Unless, of course, while she was gone someone needed a plunger.

Food court, 1:32 p.m. Minimal evidence of holiday diets. Thirty-one people are lined up for Taco Bellgrandes and MexMelts. Across the way, two wait at Turkey and Salad.

Find the mall directory. It is coded with colors, numbers, letters.

"30 Yellow," says a middle-aged woman. "What does that mean?"

A store dedicated to the tasteful commercialism of nature is packed. At first, the "plink plink" of plucked violin strings and other naturelike sounds over the loudspeakers seems soothing. After 15 minutes, it's the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture. Steady, I tell myself. Get a grip. Recall Rule 1 of mall survival: When the walls start closing in, go somewhere else.

Slogan outside one store: We live in a world in which everything occurs but once -- preserve the moment.

One didn't expect philosophy in the mall. And, upon closer inspection, one realizes this isn't it. It's a slogan for a portrait studio.

Sign outside of novelty shop: Buy one mood ring, get one free. Which raises the question, Can one hand be in a different mood from the other?

One woman to another: "Let's go to Penney's. I've got my charge card and can go wild."

Two woman inside of a collegiate-type clothing store. One says, "I got that sweater for Warren."

The other responds, "You got that sweater for Warren?"

Warren, wherever you are, don't get your hopes up.

Scene from "The Stepford Children": Toddler after toddler sits in Santa's lap for a photo. Not one of them cries.

This frightens me.

A small reward. I have found the world's most totally gratuitous gift. Something for the man who has everything, except common sense. The Dipstick Squeegee.

No, not an oily rag. A small plastic box, with magnet, slots and residue chamber, with which one (this is true) can clean off a dipstick after checking the oil. Retail, $7.50.

2:52 p.m.: First mall casualty spotted. A middle-aged man, with wife and teen-age son. He sits on a bench, bent over, head in hand. Excedrin Headache No. 43. Mall OD. Medic, somebody get a medic.

3:05 p.m. The legs are weary, the back a little stiff. Time to enjoy "the incredible rejuvenating power of Japanese Shiatsu Massage." Developed more than 3,000 years ago, yet looks like a common dentist's chair. You sit down, push a button and it undulates like a Buffalo Jill. Retail, $1,795. Marked down from $1,995. No home should be without one.

3:30 p.m. Run into some friends. Chat.

4 p.m. Realize the unthinkable. I am actually having a decent time. At no time have I broken out into a rash, begun weeping uncontrollably or felt like the tree in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

I have gone directly into the belly of beast and emerged, not just unscathed, but almost chipper. Have even gotten a couple of bargains (the Shiatsu Massage Chair not among them).

4:20 p.m. Leave mall. Scan parking lot. Ah, there it is.

The car with the plunger on the roof.

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