Metro, Column

Finding Stories at the Push of a Button

Malls are filled with people waiting. As other shoppers mill about, wandering in and out of stores, they sit on benches under the beams of florescent lights. Sometimes they’re waiting for someone, a friend or partner inside of a store. Sometimes they’re just waiting, taking a breather from swarming within the sea of other people. Regardless they sit there, trying to pass the time.

Back when I was younger, before carrying tiny TVs in your pocket became the norm, they would distract themselves with a little book or magazine carried in the back pocket, or even just by watching the people stream by. There was much more to watch back then, teenagers loitering or going on first dates, group of active elderlies powerwalking past in velour tracksuits.

Nowadays, most people just stare at their phones, a subtle blue glow reflected on their faces as the scroll through feeds and articles. That is, if they’re even in a mall in the first place, which is becoming more and more of a rarity. Why endure the crush of other shoppers, the stare of salespeople, and the windowless seclusion of a mall when you can shop from the safety of your couch?

But sometimes, there’s something about a mall that makes the physical visit worth it. Something like the little electronic pillars that sprung up in the Prudential Center last spring.

Sprinkled throughout the halls of the building, they come up to about waist height, and are often hidden behind endless waves of shoppers. When there’s finally a break in crowd, however, you can get a closer look. The pillar is sleek and gray, narrow at the bottom and widening as it rises. About three feet from the ground, it plateaus into an orange face, a bright panel with three shining silver buttons, each labeled one, three, and five. A skinny, plastic panel rises from the pillar’s orange face, offering a simple explanation of its function. SHORT STORY DISPENSER, it reads in blocky yellow type. Just below are simple instructions, select your reading time of one minute, three minutes, or five minutes.

Intrigued, you’ll draw closer, your index finger hovering above the buttons. Will it really work? And which button should you press? Probably three, best to choose the middle option.

So you touch the middle button marked three, the silver metal cool to the touch, and press in, thin rings around the buttons lighting up as you do so. The pillar comes to life with soft whirring sounds, and after a few moments, it spits out a slip of paper from a slot that you hadn’t noticed at first. A stark white, the paper is same the width and thinness as a normal receipt. Instead of a list of grocery items and prices, however, is a story printed in a stark and simple font.

Along the top is a category isolated in a rectangular box—in this case, family. A title “A Calvados in the Longue,” and an author, Karine Eterno, follow directly below in a font slightly bolder than the rest of the text. Then comes the story itself, the story of a woman on her second marriage who runs to a beach, evading the clutches of another Sunday for just a while longer. And then it’s over, the story ended just as quickly as it was churned out.

It’s a nice idea, a distraction from the glowing phone for a second, and—like all fiction—a mini exercise in empathy no matter how short the story you choose. But it’s amazing to me that you can just push a button and out slides a story, formed with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe my amazement has something to do with the fact that I’ve been trying to write a short story for class, only to find it akin to pruning weeds that keep sprouting. Once I tackle one issue with the story, I write another section to fix the first issue and end up adding even more—it’s a nightmare that makes the idea of confining a story to a single recipe-like page inspirational.

The amazement also stems, however, from the ease with which these stories are shared. Whether they are of an autobiographical or purely fictional nature, stories are something so deeply personal, and the story dispensers make them available at a push of a button. It might seem removed and mechanical, suggesting that stories just appear from within the gears of a machine, but it’s really kind of wonderful. The dispensers give you something to hold, something that make you imagine and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if just for a single minute.

Or, if you have the time, maybe five.

Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor

November 12, 2017