Gary Steel is a baby boomer with a bubba. Today: a big day out at Albany mall.
THIS PAST SATURDAY, I drove Yoko to Albany’s Westfield Mall to celebrate nine years of marriage. It was a big day out for all of us, especially Minay, who at five (five months, that is), can get pretty cranky if she’s over-stimulated.
Not that over-stimulation is even possible at a shopping edifice as fundamentally repugnant as this. As it turned out, Minay behaved like an angel, thanks to the extra sleep she had been getting after Yoko tried out some new techniques suggested by a sleep coach.
But why, you might ask, had we resorted to mall ‘culture’ (a most inappropriate word to describe the soulless spending spree that satiates the content void in people’s lives), and doing so on a day that was highly significant to both of us?
Malls aren’t our thing at all, and I remember thinking to myself when baby was still growing in the womb: ‘No way are we going to expose bubba to the shallow consumer fetish that’s replaced meaning with hollow acquisition!’ But here we were, wheeling the chicken-shit encrusted wheels of baby’s Ponsonby-style buggy across the shiny floors and past all the glittering corporate branding to be found in the shop windows.
It was a rare immersion, precipitated by a 12-month “no pay, no interest” credit card deal and the biting need for a mower to replace the hopeless granny electric “eco” mower that had packed a permanent sad, and the purchase of a freezer to enable us to make, prepare and store meals for Minay now that she’s on the brink of eating solids. The tiny freezer in a fridge just wouldn’t cut it anymore.
We’re used to living an austerity budget – I’m a struggling freelance writer/editor, and Yoko is currently a full-time Mum – so this seemed like impossibly extravagant spending: $299 on a lawnmower! $399 on a freezer!
We even thought we’d treat each other to a café lunch on our special day, but the lunch, it turned out, wasn’t much chop. As vegetarians with vegan leanings, I had scouted out the various cafes and restaurants while Yoko was feeding baby (our main reason for shopping at Albany: excellent changing/feeding facilities), and despite what would appear to be an appetizing selection, our options turned out to be utterly miserable.
I guess this is the face of John Key’s middle New Zealand, where every decent meal simply must contain some kind of meat, and when there is the opportunity to provide a vegetarian dish – like the corn fritters on the menu at Columbus – they have to go and spoil it with ‘streaky bacon’. This is where I start to feel at odds with the populace. If I lived in Ponsonby or Grey Lynn I could choose from a good variety of vegetarian and vegan eateries, and the choice out in Sandringham would be even better, as long as I was happy to chow down on delicious Indian grub. But out here in the vast stretches of suburbia, it seems that there is no vegetarian consciousness.
I looked at the menus of all of the cafes and restaurants in the outdoor area nearest to the entrance to the movie theatre, and I started getting sad-faced. On the rare occasion that there was a meatless meal to be found, it was an overpriced cheese-smothered pasta, or some other clichéd dish that would have filled my tummy without giving me a genuine lift.
It seemed that, unlike the rest of the world (or Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, at least) nobody out here had heard of the wonderful world of superfood smoothies and salads-as-complete-meals or any of the scrumptious, simple (and economical) dishes that Yoko routinely whips up at home. Not that we came out to eat what we routinely eat at home, but it made me realise how impoverished these so-called eating establishments really are that despite the weight of evidence against meat-oriented diets, they couldn’t get it together to put at least a few good ones on their menus!
[But then again, I guess it’s a catch-22. In their defense, they might say that they’re just servicing a market, and this could, partially at least, be the truth. Yoko remarked that in the baby changing room, she was the only one not using disposable nappies. And in a playgroup she sometimes attends, she’s the only mother who is breastfeeding rather than using formula. More on this some other time].
Meanwhile, our tummies were grumbling, and through experience, both of us know that when we’re past a certain hunger point, we get grumpy! And we didn’t want that on our anniversary! We also didn’t want to eat in the super-noisy, crowded food hall, so we opted for the Coffee Club, which has a branch in a reasonably quiet part of the complex. In fact, we were lucky to find that the (nominally) outdoor area of the café was not only quiet but spacious enough for Minay’s stroller.
The Coffee Club has always been pricey: not restaurant-pricey, but pricey for what you get. In other words, typical of Australian café franchises. But they were once a place I could go and know that I could be confident in ordering at least a smattering of selections, because they had the ‘V’ symbol beside some choices. These days, they still have the ‘V’ symbol, but the number of vegetarian items has shrunk drastically, and the options that are still available are miserable: bowl of chips ($8.50!), cheesy melt, nachos with no beans (!), et cetera. We disconsolately made our selections and pretended our way through lunch – pretended that we really liked the food, pretended that the coffee was strong enough, pretended that everything was good with the world.
I wondered why not even one of the sandwiches, wraps or toasties was listed as vegetarian, so when a waitress turned up to clear the table, I asked. She apologetically explained that we could ask for custom fillings, and noted her own disappointment in the lack of vegetarian options, given that several of her colleagues in the kitchen were vegetarian and vegan!
This is something I’ve come across time and again in meat-oriented cafes: vegetarian or vegan staff who aren’t high enough up the chain to make a difference to the food that’s on offer.
Albany mall isn’t anyone’s idea of a great hot date on one’s wedding anniversary, but we go there so rarely that socio-anthropologically speaking, it’s kind of interesting. Still, we were super-happy to finally get back on those country roads on the way to our semi-rural idyll in the Northwest.
Our last stop for the day was our local village’s A&P show, the biggest event of the year. As an ethically oriented vegetarian, I’m not interested in supporting the meat trade, or the habitual exploitation of animals that you see everywhere on farms, but A&P shows aren’t just about agriculture – they encompass the diversity of farming life. [The big irony of living amongst country folk is that most of them do eat meat, and most of them are lovely people. I’ll save that topic for another time!] The contemporary A&P show is a real carnival of displays, shows and shops and we found it pretty entertaining, but I couldn’t help noticing that one of the organisations with a large stall was there to promote the “right to life” ethos – that is, that abortions are murder, end of story.
Since I had my first baby – at the grand old age of 55 – I’ve certainly revisited my thoughts on abortion, and the immense father’s love I have for my daughter makes me feel squeamish about the aborting of fetuses. But my views haven’t changed: that a very young fetus is not even conscious of the fact that it’s alive, and in certain situations, as unhappy as it makes me feel, abortion is better than bringing an unloved child into the world.
It would be great to try and bring every single baby into a loving world, and maybe one day that will happen, but that time is not yet here. And it galls me that with the whole world going to hell in a hat, some are still banging away about a “right to life” when they’re probably the very same people who brutally kill young calves so they can sell their mothers’ milk, or arrange “home kills” to get their “beast” dealt with.
It’s this kind of societally acceptable brutality that for many years kept me from wanting a child. It’s a hoary old cliché, but for all the good, kind people in this world, there are still so many barbarians with no real love for life that it seems cruel to inflict that world on an innocent new life.
Still, it’s done now and that wide smile we see on Minay’s face convinces me that she’s up for the experience. GARY STEEL