A gorgeous 20-something salesgirl with short brown hair cropped around her ears waves at Joe Adam from inside Bentley Leathers, a luggage and accessories store.
“Hi Joe,” she says as he passes. Joe returns her greeting with a smile and a modest wave.
His stride is confident. He carries a frosted, plastic glass of water with a twist of lemon, his long spiralling black hair bouncing with every step.
In his flip-flop shower shoes, T-shirt and shorts, he’s at home in the Seaway Mall.
He strolls past the small-town families: Past the small-town dads wearing their pinstripe cotton baseball jerseys and mullet haircuts; the small-town moms with their names embroided on the sleeves of their jackets and their _mullet haircuts; the small-town kids with Barney on their T-shirts and grime on the back of their necks. He’s imperturbable, despite the constant noise, the crowds and the oxygen-deprived mall air.
“Oh, hi Joe,” a delightfully feminine voice calls from inside Transit Shoes.
Another pair of tightly dressed retail girls bubble their way out to make conversation with this mall’s protagonist.
One of the most hackneyed questions Joe has been asked since he moved into the mall Aug. 1, to raise money for charity is how he showers.
“I just wanted to know how you shower,” asks one of the groupies.
Joe gives his cookie-cutter response: “There’s a shower in the trailer and I can have a shower in there,” he says as he backs away from the two and continues on his way.
He’s always polite, cheerful and friendly. Maybe that’s why the people of Welland like him so much. He admits he’s become a master of small talk since he moved into the mall.
“I learned to have a whole conversation without slowing down,” Joe says. He likes to keep moving when people stop him to talk—”cause if you stop you’re gassed.”
Not much goes on in Welland, an inert city of 50,000 wedged between Niagara Falls and St. Catherines, so it’s a big deal when someone agrees to live in a mall for a whole month to raise money for the United Way.
And it has raised Joe Adam, a third-year acting student in Ryerson’s theatre program, to the level of a local celebrity.
For the month of August, the 21-year-old is calling centre court in Welland’s Seaway Mall home. He’s across from a Payless Shoe Source, a Peoples Jewellers and a law office with a sign that reads “Law Office” in bright, blue neon lights above the entrance. He’s given up all the conveniences of living with his parents in Welland, his privacy and his daily routine, for charity.
When he emerges from the mall Aug. 31, he hopes to have raised at least $25,000. A plethora of events are planned to increase traffic around Joe’s Place: Model searches, visits from the Toronto Argonaut cheerleaders and soap star Scott Reeves, barbecues and buck-and-doe style parties. Money will also be raised by raffling off the furniture from Joe’s house once the month is over and through a black-tie reception Aug. 26.
Throughout the month, Joe has sold paper bricks for $2. Donors buy them, write their name on them and stick them on his house.
Joe’s Place consists of an enclosed furnished living area complete with a computer, a water cooler, a microwave and a small TV. He can also hang out on his indoor/outdoor-carpeted front porch, with its white picket fence, patio furniture and basketball net.
When he wants to get away from the crowds to sleep, shower, smoke or talk on the phone (he has his own line), Joe retreats to a travel trailer parked along the outside wall of the living area. He uses the mall’s second-floor executive washrooms for his number ones and twos.
Other than the small bit of privacy afforded by the trailer, which isn’t open to the public, Joe is always on display. Four cameras broadcast his every move on the mall’s Web site.
For the 24-hour surveillance, Joe is paid $450 a week to subsidize the wages he would have made working as a driver for his dad’s company, Crystal Springs Bottled Water.
While this sounds like a sweet set-up, Joe is the first to tell you what he’s doing isn’t a walk in the parkade.
Except for the occasional fundraising barbecue, Joe doesn’t see the sun. He’s grounded in the mall, with the smell of cheap Velcro shoes held together by a plastic hook permeating the air and Enrique Iglesias telling him he only wants to be with him over and over again via the relentless mall speakers.
“The whole experience has been trying,” he says as he shoots some hoops in his makeshift front yard. “There’s been a few days where I just want to curl up on the couch and watch a movie.”
Everyone who passes stares as he plays. A young couple with two little kids and another way walks by, all eight eyes checking him out.
From over near Joggers, a store that sells athletic apparel, a woman passing by with her daughter waves and yells, “Hey Joe.”
He waves back. “Somebody who knows me, I guess,” he scoffs.
When you’re a local celebrity in a small town, everyone knows you.
Later in the day, Joe steps into the sunlight for one of those fundraising barbecues. It’s the first time he’s breathed fresh air in six days.
Two chunky teenagers with baseball caps pulled down around their ears, one in an off-colour purple North Carolina Tar Heels basketball jersey, the other in a Korn T-shirt, come over to get a hot dog.
The pair are mall rats, not like the popular ones in the movie Clueless, but marginal rats who are lost in the abyss of searching for an identity and turn to heavy metal and grunge music. In their eyes, Joe sits on a pedestal. He’s the guy from the front page of The Welland Tribune who has his own show on Cogeco TV 10 on Fridays at 5:30 p.m.
After blurting out a few cliché observations—“it must be cool living in the mall,” and “gotta suck having cameras on you 24 hours a day”—one of the rats, Tar Heels spills his guts to his mall icon.
“One of the guys that was in your trailer the other day punked $15 off you. You didn’t hear it from me but…Cody, the big guy,” the brave informer teller Joe.
The childish stupidity of the act makes Joe mad as he tries to figure out why anyone would want to steal from the United Way. He remembers what Cody looks like and vows to get back at him.
The rat is beaming. He feels good about what he’s done—Joe cared about what he had to say, even if only for a moment.
“I seriously don’t know why anyone would want to mess with you man,” Tar Heels says. “You’re huge.”
That is, at least in Welland he is.