MALLS, like Metro stations, all look alike after a while.
Though born not to shop, Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder finally succumbed to her teen-aged daughter's repeated pleadings to take her to White Flint. Running into the House parliamentarian on the mall elevator, Schroeder explained, half-ruefully, that it was a long-promised mother-daughter excursion.
"That's nice," said the parliamentarian, "except that this is Mazza Gallerie."
Malls are mind-numbing, nerve-wracking, budget-bending and diet-busting. They are prisons of fashion and prisms of foolishness. But at least they keep us off the street.
Shopping is a fact of life. So take along a sense of humor, a couple of IDs and a list. Here's how we handle it.
SHOP BY MAIL.
To every page, turn, turn, turn . . . This is the season, and there is a catalogue for every purpose under heaven. Leave the driving to UPS -- and the search for matching boxes to the order form.
SHOP NOW, OR NEXT MONTH.
Do not shop next weekend (unless you're into S&M or S&Ls). The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year -- store workers call it "Black Friday." If you haven't already started your holiday shopping, it's too late to avoid the crush, so queue up for the December blues.
Practice the tango Armani -- a quick-step sideways and a slip-slide back -- and avoid that bleached-blond teen-ager wielding a "sample spray" of Giorgio. Avoid walking too near men with briefcases, women with strollers or students with boom boxes: They bruise.
MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME.
Take advantage of the try-its -- get a fake nail, a free makeup, a sample snack from Hickory Farms. Dunk a few baskets in the toy department. Hang around Bloomies and try to figure out which kids have their own charge cards and which had to borrow their mother's. (Try to figure out which kids have a mother.)
Ask about a free introductory session at a tanning salon. Leap into a no-appointment-needed hair salon for a soothing shampoo. Get a shave: This Sunday afternoon, you can get a free, old-fashioned straight-razor facial at Caswell-Massey in Georgetown Park (965-3224 for an appointment). Get a shine, too, and give your tired feet a massage at the shoeshine stands on the floor level there. Or watch television in a bar: Fotis Thomopoulos of Zachary's in White Flint says that on Sundays, "all the guys are in here drinking and watching the football game while their wives are spending all the money."
OR MOVE TO JAPAN.
Christmas is as big a commercial crisis there as it is here, but you have an excuse if your gifts arrive late. Besides, you can shop till you drop, because in the big Tokyo stores you can buy three minutes' worth of pure oxygen, right over the counter, and live to shop again.
SPLIT THE TAB
with a department store: Take a job as part-time holiday help. Most stores offer employees a discount, up to about 30 percent. (Shop fast enough and you can quit in time to hit the slopes with Santa.)
Working at even a small mall store has the advantage of cutting down your commuting time. Just take a late lunch hour to avoid the working class crowds. Also check around to see if any of the in-house restaurants offer medicinal treatment for over-stressed salespeople. Zachary's, up in the crow's nest of White Flint, is turning Monday into Mall Employes' Night: With a store ID, it's happy hour until closing.
SHOP OFF HOURS.
Lunchtime's the busiest, Saturday's the worst, Monday's the best, say mall workers. After 5 on weekdays is rush hour, but first light -- about 10 for most stores -- tends to be fairly clear. Sunday afternoon during prime football hour is a little slower. Otherwise, consider shopping the 24-hour drug stores and variety stores for cosmetics and small appliances, and all-night groceries for gourmet tins and candies.
PARK THE KIDS.
The vast majority of malls come equipped with multi-screen cinemas, and Capital Plaza has a bowling alley next door. Ikea at Potomac Mills has a complete child-care center with one of those corrals of colored balls into which a small person can completely and happily disappear. Lower the holiday IQ (Irritation Quotient) of everyone involved, and shop solo.
LET THE VALET PARK.
At the I. Magnin's side of White Flint is a $2 valet parking service, so you can pile your packages high and wait at the door to unload. Admittedly, the parking they've reserved for this service is right in front of the door, so you might have mixed feelings about the service.
LET THE MECHANIC PARK.
Many Montgomery Ward and Sears stores have adjoining automotive service centers. Schedule an oil change, battery installation or tire mounting, and shop while the car's in the garage.
LEAVE THE SHOPPING TO US.
Some malls, Forest Village Park and Lakeforest, for instance, offer a "Good Anywhere, Anytime" gift certificate that can be used in any store or restaurant in that mall. If you have a friend -- or teen-ager, which is not the same thing -- addicted to mall life, why should you suffer?
LEAVE THE DRIVING TO US.
Select a designated driver, either an inordinately unfazable person who will drop you off and then spend the next 45 minutes voluntarily looking for a parking space (buy his gift while he's parking) or someone who does all his shopping through the catalogues, and thus doesn't need to go into the mall at all (buy this person a drink). Or set up a car pool with your friends, and take turns doing the dirty work. Or . . .
LEAVE THE DRIVING TO METRO.
Take advantage of the bus routes to local shopping centers, which take you right up to the entrances and eliminate the parking problem. For Metro route information call 637-2437; for Montgomery County info, call 251-RIDE. (In Montgomery County, almost all Ride-On routes lead eventually to Lakeforest parking lot, so if all else fails, sit tight.) But as Metro's Marilyn Laverty puts it, "Think small. A bus is no place for a 10-speed."
Shopping malls with subway connections are even easier, of course. The Crystal City station has direct access to the Crystal City Underground, which has no large department-store anchors but is worth a detour. The Friendship Heights stop has a tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue to Mazza Gallerie and another into Woodies, thereby making it a Siamese twin to the mall. And since Metro runs until midnight these days, you can wander through Needless Markup to your heart's content.
White Flint: The Mall and White Flint: The Metro are a half-mile hill apart, but there is a 25-cent shuttle bus. Many of the other Metro stops are within eyeshot of malls: Metro Center, which has direct access to Woodies and Hecht's, is neighbor to Garfinckel's and The Shops at National Place; Ballston is a block and a crosswalk from Ballston Commons. Someday there may be a Rockville Mall, in which case the Rockville station and its mid-air pedestrian bridge over the Pike will be useful; likewise the future Wheaton stop, which will share parking with Wheaton Plaza.
For a single greenback, you can ride any Metro or Ride-On bus in Montgomery County all day, so if you're really mall-minded, you can work your way from Mazza to Montgomery to White Flint to Wheaton to Lakeforest, and however many other shopping strips you can stand, until midnight, when your transfer turns into a pumpkin (and your arms to squash). Jingle Bus transfers are available after 9:30 weekdays and anytime weekends.
EAT BEFORE YOU GO.
Those mini-malls of fast food that are becoming a staple of shopping malls are both penny- and pound-foolish. Whenever possible, shop with a stuffy nose: Eau de chocolate chip is really deadly.
DRESS FOR STRESS.
A hat is more portable than an umbrella, and much less dangerous to fellow shoppers. Wear comfortable, non-slick shoes -- tile, parquet and marble floors are trendy, but tricky, and get worse when winter wet tracks in. Flats or sneakers are best; escalators eat high heels. And remember that malls tend to exaggerate the temperature: If it's only mild without, it's warm within; and three minutes' chill outside is better than two hours' overheating inside, or hauling 10 pounds of down around.
X MARKS THE SPOT.
If you're staring at several hours of heavy-duty shopping, case the mall first thing, and find a friendly hideaway -- be it bar, bench or bakery -- to escape the madding crowd.
Sunday shopping in Wheaton Plaza will be a lot more fun if you start with dim sum at the Tung Bor, Silver Spring's relocated veteran. The waiting list at Ruby Tuesday's in Lakeforest does not apply to the bar. Italian Delight in Fair Oaks Mall has the best pizza in the neighborhood. The Boston Seafood Company walk-in at National Place has a bar tucked under the escalator. And at Beefsteak Charlie's in Beltway Plaza, the bar -- and the TV -- are just inside the door.
Georgetown Park has plenty of restoratives, including the hot sake at the Samurai's walk-up bar; but its premier SOS (Strung Out Shopper) spot is Clyde's. The bartenders are not only charming and competent, they're experienced. Last Christmas, a psychically wounded shopper who lurched in from the mall exit, wild-eyed and shuddering, was immediately poured a Stoly and offered a free follow-up. 'Tis the season, you know.