Parent-wise, there are certain things I’ve done a reasonable job of avoiding, mall-wise: gumball machines, claw machines, coin-operated hippos, lingerie shops and photo booths.
It hasn’t been a perfect record. Before Christmas, I ended up in a La Senza. I’ve often wondered what “La Senza” means. I now understand it means “definitely not designed for warmth.” I saw a bra made out of aquarium rocks, I swear.
Lingerie shops are on a whole other socio-sexual level of avoidance, of course, and I only bring it up because, seriously, that can’t be comfortable…
As for those other mall traps, over the years my kids have pestered me for money for this thing and that. “Please, Dad, can I have a dollar for the grubby hippo? Please, Dad, can I have a quarter for a calcified gumball? Please, Dad, can I have 20 bucks for an eye-patch – I mean a thong?”
And almost always I’ve said, “No way. Waste of money. Uh-uh. They’re a rip-off. Here, watch this sad child with no friends ride the acid-trip hippo and you’ll see how sorry and pathetic it is. No? Still, not convinced? Climb on my back and I’ll undulate slowly. Just maybe not in front of the lingerie store.”
On occasion, though, I’ve relented, spending a buck on a ride, usually on the basement-level of the mall by the licence bureau and Dollar Store, surely the most will-sapping square-footage on Earth. Sometimes, though, I could fit three kids on a ride for a buck, which felt like the smallest of victories.
Rides, claw machines and their ilk – they’re money vacuums, and I’m onto them. Photo booths, though, are a whole other kettle of coin-op. I’ve said no to photo booths as well – “What are you going to do with photos? Just stick ’em on the fridge?” – but I feel more like a heel when I do.
I have no personal attachment to the photo booth. There are no photo strips from my childhood depicting my siblings and our parents, with our father wearing a pork pie hat and us kids making faces like, “Dad, stop wearing food on your head!”
Yet there’s something inherently nostalgic and charming about photo booths, like department store lunch counters, cross-country bus rides or Betty White. The chrome-and-plastic construction. The stool spinning up to desired height. The three choices of background – curtain, no curtain or half-curtain. The murky hint of a lens behind the glass. The clunk-a-clunka of processing parts. Using a photo booth feels like being inside a jukebox, and you’re the record.
The photo booth was first presented at the Paris World Fair in 1889 (as, coincidentally, was Betty White), and they’ve never really gone out of style. In fact, photo booth rentals are popular these day at wedding receptions and birthday parties, although the funeral photo booth has yet to catch on.
But why, in the Age of the Ubiquitous Selfie, does the photo booth continue to not only exist but modestly thrive? Why, unlike vending machines, do I feel photo booths are borderline acceptable?
The answer lies behind the half-curtain. The cramped quarters of the photo booth offer thrilling moments of intimacy in the midst of the faceless bustle of shopping malls and train stations. Nosy passersby can glimpse only a leg or four or possibly eight if there are some real shenanigans going on. There you are, squeezed together, in artificial privacy, sitting on laps, giggling in anticipation of the – POP! – I wasn’t ready!
Plus, unlike that cellphone selfie sent out into the world, this is just yours, one of a kind. You get to take it with you, a private keepsake of that day, that time, that ugly 80s haircut.
And not just one photo, but four. They say the photograph steals the soul. But a series of photos animates it.
I dug out a strip of our kids from a decade past, taken on one of those times we relented. They’re crammed into the booth like they could never manage now. Each successive shot shows their expressions getting wilder and tongue-ier, until at the end they’re looking like kids you ought never let loose in public, least of all a lingerie shop. It’s a happy moment, but then, there are few sad moments in photo booths.
The other day, on impulse, my wife and Abby ducked into a photo booth at the mall. In their photos, mouths widen, tongues loll, eyes cross. It freezes a mother-daughter moment in early 2015 (bra shopping was involved). And now it’s stuck on our fridge, because that’s what fridges are for, and money well spent indeed.