It's not hard to find Mall Guy, the seemingly ubiquitous Cleveland character who wears slogans like "One Sexy B" and "YOLO Swagg On" or "UNFORGETTABLE" in rainbow letters on his T-shirts and an LED belt that unfurls boilerplate city boosterisms like "Go Browns" and "Cleveland Rocks" in scrolling red letters across his waist.
You just go to the mall.
He's not always there, mind you, nor at Indians games, nor at Blossom, it just feels like it. But every Saturday you can find him at SouthPark Mall in Strongsville right after lunch.
You've seen him, undoubtedly, and maybe even snapped a selfie with him as Mall Guy gives the camera a thumbs-up. But that's about all you know, which is maddening considering that Mall Guy's been pulling this act for ten years now.
And so as the busy weekend crowd blends together awash in Abercombie and Hollister, sweatpants and dad jeans, flatbrim hats and Uggs, Mall Guy emerges from the casual saunter of indistinguishable apparel above the shoppers, taller than the rest – a staunch 6-foot-4 frame – with perfectly coifed hair, an Elvis-looking pair of sunglasses, and the color palate of a bag of Skittles splayed across his chest. He's hustling on the second floor of SouthPark between the massage booth kiosk, GNC and Anne Taylor.
Nice to meet you, do you have a minute to talk? We'd like to do an article about you.
An article, for the newspaper.
"Hi. Oh, have you read the article they did about me already?"
Mall Guy's talking about a very brief write-up in the local community newspaper, just a few paragraphs really. It says his name is Jim, helpfully provides the definition of YOLO, and says he's from Hungary. Certainly not comprehensive stuff. Why Swagg with two Gs? What's in his bag? So many mysteries.
Oh, we have a few more questions than that.
"No, no. I don't want to repeat myself. I already did that interview," he says, already motoring toward the food court by the time he finishes the sentence, escaping once again without baring any information back into his natural habitat.
Jim has been patrolling area malls and events for nearly a decade now festooned as a garish billboard to pop culture language that at once serves as a reminder of its half life and inserts Jim into that fabric into perpetuity.
There were the posts on The Dirty back in the early days of his LED belt – "Cleveland Mall Trout" was the headline -- and the #mallguy hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, and the Facebook tribute page – "Creepy Mall Guy" -- that boasts 11,236 fans at last count. (SouthPark mall itself so wishes to distance itself from the man they requested that Facebook page administrator to remove their name from the title of the page.) He's even a regular footnote in the user reviews for SouthPark mall on Foursquare -- "Creepy mall guy is really, really weird," and, "Watch out for creepy Mall Guy. He's always by Starbucks." – appear right alongside notes on dining – "Why did Mrs. Fields cookies close?" – and thoughtful critiques of the mall's general atmosphere – "Where all the fly honeys kick it!"
But with no last name attached to his moniker to mine for history, no real interviews, and a tabula rasa backstory waiting to be filled in by the curious public, the origin story of how and why Mall Guy became Mall Guy is a cyclone of rumors all masquerading as truth in the absence of a real story.
"He owns a strip club, fucking moron," reads one post on Facebook, repeating one claim that you'll hear regurgitated by plenty of folks.
"The story behind him is that he owns a strip club and he goes from mall to mall searching for talent," agrees another.
"Someone said he owns the mall," says Mary, a fortysomething clerk at SouthPark. "Another person said he's working on a thesis."
Ah yes, the thesis theory. Also popular among the conspiracy sect. Because Mall Guy couldn't exist in a natural state. No, something that strange could only be conceived as a laboratory experiment.
"He is a college professor doing a study!" counters one Facebook commenter to the strip club recruiter assertion.
"The cops interrogated him and he is a college professor studying reactions from people," chimes in another.
You hope for one of these to be true, for the inner narrative to fit the outlandish exterior. But it's not. It's less sensational, predictably, but no less fun.
After the earlier brush-off, Jim is perched in the front corner of the SouthPark food court, just where mall staffers said was his regular spot. He's sipping hot tea and eating some Chinese food – he always eats Chinese food during his visits, or Japanese. And today he's selected a blue U.S. Soccer zip-up decorated with the usual blast of vibrant homemade lettering across the chest. Ah, an in.
You a soccer fan?
"Yeah, I made this one for the game when the U.S. played here this year," he says. "I've owned it for like, ten years, but I made it and started wearing it this year."
The team's got a good shot in the World Cup.
"They're good," he says, chippering up on the topic. "Michael Bradley, he's the best."
Play really dies in the midfield when he's out.
"You know he plays for Roma, first place in the Italian league," he continues. "He controls the whole thing, so good. And [Landon] Donovan is good too, and [Clint] Dempsey, but he's winding down. He's a wild man. He played in England, the toughest league in the world."
Set the record for goals by an American player.
"Yeah, if you can make it in the English league, you can play anywhere," Jim says. "I've been a Manchester United fan for 25 years now. I watch the games every Saturday morning on ESPN – they have two, an early one and another at like 10 a.m., and sometimes they show Manchester United. This morning I watched Arsenal."
Buttered up on talk of the beautiful game and fueled by teriyaki chicken, Jim finally loosens up on some biographical details.
He's 49 and immigrated to the U.S. more than 20 years ago with his family from Hungary – he speaks with a thick Eastern European accent – directly to Cleveland. His aunt lived here and his brother had a few friends running produce at the West Side Market, so that's the business Jim got into. He still distributes produce via a wholesaler near East 55th St. to restaurants. Up before the sun, he'll work until the early afternoon – in regular clothes.
Yes, as incongruous as the thought of Mall Guy wearing anything other than his Mall Guy accouterments is, Jim does in fact wear regular clothes as he grapples boxes of vegetables "Just jeans and a shirt, you know," he says.
The food distribution game, while solid and dependable as a way of life, was not what Jim had always envisioned. Back in Hungary, he went to music school near his small hometown, learning the string bass and keyboards. And, like any young man with shoulder-length hair and a classical music background in a forlorn Hungarian town might do, Jim joined a rock band. They'd play weddings and parties and, according to Jim, were "known all over town."
Some two decades later, while he still plays music privately, those days of professional gigs are done, but one aspect remains. And that is how Mall Guy began to become Mall Guy.
"I always had outfits for when I was onstage," he says. "I would wear weird stuff, I had a ton of shirts, and I never minded looking different."
Showmanship and a healthy lack of self-consciousness comingled when Jim spotted a novelty T-shirt one day about eight years ago. "Drunk Chicks Love Me," it read. Jim had been a semi-regular at Shooter's at the time and chuckled at the phrase. He grabbed a plain white Tee and a black marker and scrawled out the brag and wore it out to his new adoring public at Shooter's. Instant hit, at least to Jim.
(Shooter's is also where very rare photos showing both Mall Guy and Super Pimp, Jim's natural complement in the Cleveland character hierarchy, in the same shot would have been snapped. "A bachelorette party wanted to pose with both of us," he says. Unlike the man with a love of flashy suits, however, Jim doesn't have a Facebook or Twitter presence. "There's already enough pictures of me out there.")
And so it began.
"The next one I made, I think, was 'I'm Too Sexy For My Job,'" he says. Once again, enough people commented and snapped photos that he was motivated to make some more. With cheap plain shirts, fabric paint from Jo-Ann Fabrics and more than a few bedazzled rectangles, the colorful swatch that is Mall Guy's sartorial sense was born.
"I bought the belt at Parmatown Mall, like, eight years ago," he says. "But I didn't wear it for a year. It was too out there for me. But I tried it out and people were crazy about it. It still works."
Jim isn't a sponge of pop culture so much as a parrot. "I was walking around, and these girls would say, 'You swag, you swag,'" he says. "I didn't know what that meant, so I went home and looked it up. I liked it, so I put it on a shirt. But I don't wear this stuff every day. I do it for fun. I come to the mall every Saturday. What else am I going to do? Sit home and watch television?"
Jim lives with his aunt in Cleveland Heights, and around the neighborhood, like on the job, it's regular jeans and shirts. But his family and friends are well aware of his weekend habits. "My family's used to how I dressed when I was a musician," he says. "So it's not weird."
Jim's never seen an American movie, and when he does watch television, it's soccer, Indians games, or reality shows about cars or nature. And yes, he still plays music when he's not making his own clothes.
"I have, like, 40 shirts I think," he says. "People have offered to buy them from me, either right on the spot for, like, $50, or to make a line. But it's like music, you know, it's my creation."
"People must think I'm a millionaire," Jim says outside of Macy's the following week.
He won't sit down to talk right now – he's exercising. Those six or seven hours every Saturday at SouthPark are not simply for show; they're for mall walking.
To keep pace with Jim on one of his twice-daily, 45-minute walks is to motor along faster than the average jogger might, and four times the speed of your average geriatric mall-walker. Like an over-caffeinated commuter late for work, Jim dashes in and out of mall traffic, eyeing openings and gaps long before they develop. It's a track with obstacles. He manages to cover the whole length of the complex during the course of only a couple answers.
"You're going to be tired at the end of this," he promises.
Everyone knows Jim and everyone thinks Jim is everywhere simply because he's a memorable addition. Yes, he's around every Saturday at SouthPark, but also seemingly each and every one of the 81 home Tribe games and any country concert at Blossom. ("I like country the best," he says. "It has a good melody.")
"I'm a smart shopper," he says. "You don't have to buy front row tickets to things. You can buy a $8 or $10 ticket to an Indians game – I go to about 25 a year – and go to 10 concerts for maybe $200. I don't drink there; I bring my own water."
It's becoming apparent Jim makes his own clothes not only because they can't be found elsewhere but also because he's a thrifty sonofabitch. Sales, bargain racks, if anything.
"You can't spend $200 on jeans," he says. "In my life, I've never spent $200 on jeans. I can buy $5 jeans and fix them up and make them look like $200 jeans."
He's scouted jackets he liked for nearly a year, waiting on the price to fall to a reasonable point before pulling the trigger. He, of course, has the shopper's benefit of checking in once a week, but he "saw it for $50 and waited for it to go down to $10." His bag that he's always carrying? That's not anything he's purchased that day. It's a briefcase of sorts, stuffed with the essentials: his brush, his cell phone, his MP3 player (a Nokia web tablet he bought years ago), a bottle of water, and his belt, which he's not currently wearing. It's there just in case the mood strikes later on.
"15 more minutes still," he says, chugging along with purpose.
"You know, I play tennis too," he says out of the blue. The mere thought of Mall Guy not dressed as Mall Guy playing tennis itself is worth a chuckle, but especially at the thought of him playing his college-aged nephew. He can't describe his tennis style, only that he taught himself after he moved to America and is just "okay." It's likely he could rally his opponent to death with this kind of stamina.
"I usually play tennis three, four times a week when I have a chance," he says. "You need to stay in shape. It's about the exercise."
To walk with Mall Guy is also to experience, if only slightly, the public's reaction to his presence -- the sideways glances, the warm smiles, the occasional high fives. And to walk with Mall Guy is also to fall behind every so often as he hits the hole between the watch kiosk and that ambling grandma over there like Adrian Peterson. And when you do, you'll catch the murmurs once people know he's out of earshot, already five or 20 paces in the other direction.
"I knew I'd see him today!"
"He's even weirder in person."
And everything in between.
For the most part, however, they're genuinely nice, and throughout the afternoon a handful of people walk up directly to him and say, "Hi, Jim," though they know little more than that little fact about him.
Is your real name even Jim?
"No, it's Joe."
Will you tell us your last name?
"No, there are some weird people out there."
Mall Guy/Jim/Joe, despite not having social media accounts of his own, is fully aware of all the theories about him.
"My cousin, they have kids, they always are on Facebook and they read it about me," he says. "I don't read it, I don't care, but they always tell me what they write about me. I don't know where people come up with this stuff. I'm just a regular guy with a regular job."
That is both true and not, and in most ways, as Jim himself points out, everything wears out. By sheer force of repetition, he has made himself normal despite all outward appearances. Even in a lily-white suburb like Strongsville, he is no longer strange. His routine has made him less alien. The pictures are still requested – "It was really strange at first to take pictures, and it's still strange now," he says – but he's a predictable part of the landscape, and even more predictable once you know his schedule.
But people can still be harsh, childish and capable of lashing out at the foreign. And it still happens to Jim, though less than before.
"Some guys say stuff sometimes, some comments," he says. "But you know, they're just jealous. Their girls are the ones asking to take pictures with me."
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