Wanted Dead or Alive
by Katherine Murphy Sanchez
Dead malls. Vaporwave. Niche interests, to be sure. A neon-lit, Muzak-accented little corner of the internet where it’s always 1994 and where the ache of nostalgia both awakens and nurtures pleasant feelings. When asked what exactly piqued their interest, members of these communities often say something like this: The music and accompanying imagery make them feel lonesome for a time that never was, a childhood they never had, a place they remember without having actually experienced it. Fact of the matter is that it’s hard to put into words. Like ASMR, you either get it or you don’t (and full disclosure: I definitely don’t get ASMR).
For many, discovering the dead mall and Vaporwave communities is like coming home to people who feel the same way they do. It’s a feeling that has lived in them always, and stumbling upon these communities finally gives them the words to talk about it.
As kids, my brother and I discovered a shared love for these spaces many decades before we ever talked about it, too.
Growing up in Albuquerque in the early 1990s, the Wyoming Mall was a major fixture in our lives. We’d trek there with our mother at least once a week, because that’s where Furr’s, the grocery store, was located. Behind the scenes, she and our father budgeted very carefully, but we never knew it.
What we did know was the sticky fizz of the store-brand lemon-lime soda that would clunk down when you deposited 25 cents into the machine. The slightly scandalous and always educational explorations of 49-cent video rental section, gazing in silent wonder at the covers of movies we weren’t allowed to watch, like “Pulp Fiction.” And on a sauna-like day, the kind that only New Mexico can make, nothing beat stepping into the tiny refrigerated floral department. I can still smell it - garden hose and carnations.
Outside of grocery trips, our father would take us to the Wyoming Mall in the evenings after he got home from work so we could browse the dimly-lit Everything 99 Cents and the brightly-lit Service Merchandise. We’d go there on Saturday afternoons with our mother, too-- a fabric store was located at one end of the mall and it was there that she’d stock up on fabric for our handmade Halloween costumes, the ones we planned out months in advance, drawing up blueprints with Mr. Sketch scented markers.
The Wyoming Mall was home to Planet Fun, the location of countless birthday parties we attended in elementary school, and Sandra’s School of Dance, where I took exactly two tap-dance lessons before realizing I possessed no coordination whatsoever.
And (this just has to be pointed out): In addition to Furr’s supermarket, there was also a buffet called Furr’s Cafeteria. They were of no relation and were not owned by the same people.
Simply put, the Wyoming Mall is inexorable from our childhoods. Our memories don’t exist without it. It was more than a shopping center. It was a part of our lives. And on the day where we discovered a (in hindsight, super a e s t h e t i c) tiled hallway with a fountain that connected some of the shops from the inside, we got that same feeling you get when you have a dream that you’ve found a new room in your house. By the early 1990s, that part of the mall was already dying. The main anchors -- Furr’s and Service Merchandise, and to some extent, Everything 99 Cents and Planet Fun-- lived solely in the strip mall sections. So discovering this whole, unexplored section of a place almost as familiar to us as our own home gave us a shared feeling we couldn’t really name, one that we couldn’t place until decades later when we discovered the dead mall community online.
I know I said it can’t really be put into words. But I’ll try.
That small, tiled hallway, lit by fluorescent bulbs and blue neon, accented by potted palms and a rushing fountain, made me step outside myself at age 6, made me wonder “is this all there is?” Something about that hallway made me aware of my existence. And for me, so much of what appeals to me about dead malls and Vaporwave is that they straddle the line between ignorance and awareness, innocence and experience, optimism and realism. They form a pastel line straight through my early 90s childhood all the way to right this very moment, reflecting the fact that no matter how much I’ve changed, I haven’t really changed at all.
Upon learning about dead malls, and in seeing photographs of spaces so similar to the ones I experienced in my childhood, I immediately went in search of information on the Wyoming Mall. I came up empty-handed. So did my brother, and his search went much deeper than mine. He scoured the internet, of course, but he even dug through the archives of the Albuquerque Journal. All he could come up with was the fact that the mall was established in the late 1960s. As far as photos, all he could track down was a single image of the mall’s back corner by the parking lot, a painted cinderblock building under a cloudless New Mexico sky.
We decided that someone out there must have pictures and information about the mall, so I posted to two Albuquerque-memories Facebook groups: “Does anyone have any photos of the OLD Wyoming Mall (intersection of Wyoming/Menaul)? The land is now home to a Wal-Mart, but it used to have Tom Young's gym, Service Merchandise, Planet Fun and Everything 99c, just to name a few.”
While the groups had a combined membership of 60,000, I didn’t really expect anyone to respond. But answers flooded in, one after the other, ping ping ping until I had to turn off the notifications when they began to distract me as I worked.
So many people remembered the mall! And not just remembered. It was a vital part of so many lives. Some of the commenters had worked in its stores, hung out there as teenagers or were taken there as kids just like I was.
One woman responded that she saw the very first “Star Wars” movie at the movie theatre that was already long gone by the time I was a child. One man revealed that he had rolled his car in front of Woolco long ago, and another told stories of bartending at a dark restaurant called El Patron. A couple of people shared stories of meeting their spouses at a nightclub there -- marriages now going on 40 years.
I got what I asked for, too -- photos. Beautiful ones. A shiny black Corvette Stingray in the parking lot, the blue and white Wyoming Mall sign behind it on another blazing, sun-drenched New Mexico afternoon. A teenage boy with a shiny brown bowl cut in 1976, smiling in his rust-colored shirt outside the record store his father owned inside the mall.
For a community that essentially exists only online, the whole experience showed me how little we truly know about dead malls, even the ones with a heavy presence in the community. And especially the ones that virtually don’t exist on the screen, no matter how deep the Way Back Machine goes, or how many pages of Google Images you sift through.
Outside of these two threads in private Facebook communities, Wyoming Mall essentially doesn’t exist. There’s a Wal-Mart on that land now. The mall itself was demolished at least a decade and a half ago. I’m not sure exactly when. Perhaps that’s a question for another Facebook post.
If nothing else, Vaporwave and dead malls reinforce that almost instinctive feeling that time isn’t linear.
The writer Mitch Albom said: “The truth is, part of me is every age. I’m a three-year-old, I’m a five-year-old, I’m a thirty-seven-year-old, I’m a fifty-year-old. I’ve been through all of them, and I know what it’s like. I delight in being a child when it’s appropriate to be a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it’s appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age, up to my own.”
If this is true, then do the places we lived stay with us, too? I think they do. We are, each of us, tender webs held together by the faint strings of everything we’ve experienced and everywhere we’ve been, both alone and together.
I think that dead malls aren’t dead at all, that they’re very much alive in the hearts and minds and memories of a great many people. Just in the time it’s taken to write this, 34 more people have commented with their memories of the Wyoming Mall.
As for my brother and I, we have grown up and moved away. Neither of us live in New Mexico -- I’m in Seattle, he’s in New Zealand.
Last time we were both in Albuquerque, we drove over to that Wal-Mart, and around the perimeter of the parking lot, looking for who knows what exactly. Some reminder of what was once there? The weathered-shingle apartments across the street were the same, and so was the tan, Brutalist miniature office park that gazes down onto the corner of the parking lot where the fabric store used to be.
But there was nothing there - at least nothing that existed the way that it used to. Just the enormity of memories. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. The mall’s not dead at all. Close your eyes, the fountain turns on. It’s alive.
It lives in me still.
Katherine Murphy Sanchez is an animal lover, a road-trip taker and dead mall enthusiast, and she's been writing stories since childhood. She is an advertising copywriter and the author of 41 plays for children. Her favorite Vaporwave album is Dan Mason's "Miami Virtual." She lives in Seattle with her husband, Chris.