Alissa Quart: Material girls tell of empty malls and new values

New York: Day 9
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"I would sign up to defend my country," says Brianna, 13. We are standing in front of a yet another of the city's makeshift memorials. At Washington Square, the messages of peace and God are ever-more lengthy, the candles now pools of coloured wax and the portraits of the missing wrinkled by rain – still disorientingly happy – eating dinner, smiling at a night club. Brianna says it is a hard time to be a teenager.

"If they took girls in the army, I would go to fight and if they didn't, I'd like, be a nurse or something," says her friend Xio, 14. She wears an Old Navy shirt with a flag on it, one that I have seen adorning the chests of teen girls around New York in the last few days.

Brianna and Xio are from suburbs near Manhattan, lower and upper-middle class towns that I visited in the months before the bombing doing research for a book on adolescence and money. Then, few considered anything beyond themselves: in these worlds of plenty, $200 designer handbags and leg waxing were de rigueur. Boys drove jumbo SUVs to the pizza parlour and were surprisingly obsessed with Tommy Hilfiger and Gucci and hair products – the answer to the feminist worry about girls being conditioned to primp and shop seemed to have been "solved" by a new unisex materialism.

Now, Brianna and Xio tell me of empty malls, cleared out by bomb threats, of dead parents, of classmates who can't believe they are living through something like this and then other classmates who make jokes about it.

Of course, you didn't have to be young to feel disturbed in New York, a week after the devastation. I, for one, am feeling more distraught now thanlast week. Death rites should be rituals that speak to the loss of life and humanity, but I felt the bodies of the dead being blanketed over as I walked around Times Square.

Sure, now the ads bombarding us are "sensitive" and emphasised self-protection – they are for (no joke) a home security system. On the giant screens of Times Square, even more topical ads played for military telly shows like JAG – it was disconcerting to see a man in a navy uniform running from an explosion, a giant close-up of an actor's face, forehead furrowed.

Here was the lingering presence of death without proper expiation, as well as the threat of ethnic violence in the air. Right around the corner from the JAG ads and the bopping bands of night time party-goers, hired black cars lined up in front of a 44th Street hotel: they bore the legend McLellan and Marsh, a company that had suffered many deaths in the disaster.

Looking for some kind of rite, my friends and I went to an enormous peace meeting, 600 union activists, teachers, professors and the like jammed into a sweaty conference room. We argued for what felt like hours whether the new anti-war coalition we were attempting to build should include the word "prosecution" as part of its pacific slogan.

Retiring to a rough-hewn bar, it was hard to not notice the return of a Reaganite soundtrack playing in the background, music that seemed to be plying its chipper anodyne nostalgia at stores and bars cross the city: Rick Springfield, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson à la Thriller. "I want to dance with someone who loves me."

I recalled that one teen boy had told me earlier in the day: "I can't listen to Eminem this week," and wondered what would now be the anthems of Generation Y, those Body Shop-ped children raised in a Nasdaq bubble whose world had now shifted overnight to war. Would they find comfort, as they always had, in the rites of the mall and the spun sugar of advertising?

"I think us teens will go back to the mall but it will take a while," Xio mused. "A month at least."