Pittsburg - It's 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Ross Park Mall is just waking up. A janitor with a Buckwheat 'fro mops the floor near the mall directory and payphones. Posters of androgynous, bored models stare out from the gated storefronts like inmates in a Tommy Hilfiger prison. Celine Dion is playing one of the newer songs where she's mad at Rene. Someone said it was pretty dead in the summer – people are either doing yard work or walking around the lake at North Park instead of lapping each other around and around the mall each morning. There's supposed to be a bigger crowd in the winter.
A man with a Walkman zooms by. He doesn't move his arms when he walks, his lips are pursed, and he's breathing deep, from his gut. Two middle-aged women power walk past. A couple passes by, talking about a wedding. This is their routine. They wave to their friends and slow down until they catch up to them, but they never stop walking. That would break the routine.
Gil has a strict regime: he'll talk, but only while he's walking. He's walked in Ross Park since it opened in 1991, walking five laps daily – two by himself, then three more laps when his friends come. On Sundays, he catches up with his friends at the food court. Not everyone is as serious about walking as he is.
"Some people walk for an hour and a half or two hours, and then other people go for two laps and then get a coffee" he says. "I had one friend of mine come in. She came in one day and did two laps. She said it was a piece of cake. I said, 'What's a piece of cake?' She said, 'This. Walking this is a piece of cake.' I said it's not a piece of cake because first you have to wake up and get here. Then you have to think about your laps. I didn't see her for a while after that. Sometimes she comes in with her girlfriends. They do a couple of laps and go get a coffee".
While Gil walks mostly to keep busy and see his friends, eighty-two-year-old Helen Schultz walks strictly for the exercise. Actually, she ploughs more than walks. She gains so much momentum when she goes around corners that she looks like she's going to fall over. Helen retired in 1986 and started mall-walking in 1987. She walks four or five times a week.
She says "Once you get motivated, it becomes a habit". She used to walk in North Park until a bike hit her. "That's when I thought, 'This is it'" Schultz says. "What if I had fallen and no one was around? I more or less stopped walking there". "The restroom facilities are much cleaner here" she adds. All the mall-walkers like the restroom facilities, and they mention them often. The restrooms have automatic everything, and they're roomy and well lit. Also, the ground floor has a family only restroom, which greatly reduces the chances of three year olds walking in on strangers. There's no graffiti.
People do not come to Ross Park solely for the clean bathrooms and the lack of bikes and skateboards, though. Most people have switched to Ross Park from other malls or parks because it's huge. There could easily be a hundred people walking laps in the mall without anyone having to say, "Excuse me".
Doris Hunkele used to walk in North Hills Village, but found it was not as challenging a workout as Ross Park. "North Hills is a smaller mall with two floors" Hunkele says. "So you start walking and before you know it you're on the escalator going up-down-up-down-up. So we came here". "The same people come all the time. [During laps] everyone says hi-hi-hi. Sometimes you walk beside people and talk to them for a little".
There are people at the mall who aren't walking laps or employees: families come in and have a coffee. Teenagers come in either to skip school or to hide from their parents. Ross Park has its fair share of loiterers. Even so, sometimes the walkers have had problems with the employees.
Dolly Geyer likes walking early, but she stopped walking in Ross Park for a while because a new manager wouldn't let people come in before 8:00 am. Now she and her husband come in through the workers' entrance. The mall doors open at 7:00 am, and it's usually not a problem anymore. "[The manager] used to come in with a clipboard and make us sign in. They even had a sign up that said trespassers would be prosecuted. My husband was worried, but what were they going to do? They're not going to prosecute us for trespassing. Why would they do that to customers?"
Geyer leaned over and said "I wouldn't want to work for her. We're not in anyone's way, the employees don't mind". Geyer is resting right now because she has a hip problem. Like most people, she walks here to improve her health. Her doctor doesn't want her to walk at all with her hip the way it is, but she came anyway to do a couple of laps and rest. While she sits, her husband and her friend continue their laps. "My friend who comes here is seventyseven" - Geyer says - "and she doesn't take one pill or have problems with high blood pressure".
Hunkele and her husband also mall-walk to improve their health. My. Hunkele has skin cancer, so he can't walk outside. Also, they both have heart problems: he's had a recent triple-bypass and she has a patch on her heart. "I got it from my mother" Hunkele says. "She had a leaky valve. You know how they say when you're born part of your heart is connected to your mother? Well, that part never closed up on me. I had that until I was in my thirties or forties, but then they put a patch on it. I guess it's still there".
As she talks her husband limps by, smiling. "He walks faster than me, I can't keep up. Everything he does is fast. Fast, fast, fast. He walks fast, runs fast". Mr. Hunkele doesn't really walk all that fast, but it doesn't matter; they just seem happy to get out of their house, happy to break up their old routine.
Run The Planet thanks The New Yinzer for the permission to reprint the article "Once You Get Motivated, It Becomes a Habit: The Culture of Mall-Walking" by Margaret Emery. Margaret Emery works for The New Yinzer, sells Avon and makes cookies. She and The New Yinzer can be reached at www.newyinzer.com.