Paradise Park takes them in- in more ways than one.
Hiding out at the library too academic? Richard Peck takes a tip from George Romero and suggests an alternative!
The Plot: Scrappy 8th graders Teresa and Barnie attract the unwanted attention of the King Kobra street gang at their decrepit and dystopian Manhattan public school (Teresa reports that she’s not even sure which P.S. she is attending since the name has permanently been graffiti’d over with RATSO LUV CHARLEEN); when the new friends discover that they’re both practically orphans (Teresa lives with a mostly-absentee aunt, Barney in a succession of foster homes), they decide that they have nothing to lose by seeing how far they can get on a $2.00 bus fare.
Teresa chooses Paradise Park, New Jersey off of the destination board at Port Authority: she imagines that it’s a literal park, a bucolic Garden of Eden far away from the grimy city. Barnie is more practical and suggests that it probably a retirement community, but perhaps they can ingratiate themselves to the old folks and become permanent surrogate grandchildren.
Both are stunned when they get to the end of the line and bus drops them off in a massive parking lot: Paradise Park is a shopping mall. Just minutes before closing time, the teens venture inside and find a surreally cheerful, pre-fab reality:
Paradise Park was brighter than a city street and totally climate controlled. Palm trees and regular trees grew in long planters down the center in front of hundreds of shops without doors. There was even a creek, more or less, full of plastic water lilies and pennies. Small arching bridges crossed it every few yards.
Following the crowds, Teresa and Barnie wind up at Forbes & Ledsmar, an upscale department store (“Smoking is a no-no… Be a darling and cooperate.”) with 8 floors of luxury goods, including a tea room and gourmet delicatessen. Barnie can’t believe their luck:
“Well, look at it this way. A big store like this is a total life support system, right? I figure we can settle in for quite a while, if we don’t get caught.”
“Like for how long?”
“Quite a while,” Barnie said. “Till we’re grown.”
After spending the night under a queen-size bed in the furniture show room, the teens carefully study the habits of the night watchman (he mostly sleeps in a recliner in front of a display of blaring TV sets all night) and store detective (competent at catching shoplifters, but clueless enough that they are able to scam a free lunch off of her).
Teresa is also accosted by a group of college-aged Merchandising Trainees and the head of the Junior Miss department, who assume she is a wealthy high school student (“This young lady goes to a terribly smart suburban school. It never fails, the more fashionable the school the tacki- the more casually they dress…”) and forcibly redress her in several hundred dollars’ worth of fashion from the “Coeds College Bound” collection, waving off Teresa’s protests:
“You just run up to Better Dresses and show Mummy your marvelous transformation. She’s bound to be… overjoyed.”
“No buts about it, darling. Run on up to Mummy, and tell her to drop by Junior Miss and flash us her charge card.”
A day and half in, and Teresa and Barnie seem to have it made- Paradise Park is surely living up to its name! But they can’t seem to shake the feeling that they’re being watched when they’re inside… and when they venture outside (“I’d forgotten about weather”) they a get a very bad feeling from the group of discontented teens hanging around the parking lot.
They are right to be concerned: after the night watchman falls asleep for the night they head out of the bedding showroom to “borrow” some new clothes for Barnie when they are grabbed, bound and gagged by a pair of smartly-dressed mannequins!
Barnie and Teresa weren’t the first teenagers to figure Forbes & Ledsmar for a “total life-support system”- apparently it has been hosting runaway teens from the posh suburbs of Saddlebrook and Short Hills for some time. These teenagers have eerily adapted themselves to their environment, like cavefish: sleeping in out-of-the-way corners during “S.H.” (store hours), perfecting the mannequin poses for keeping watch at night and speaking in weird, low tones “like a foreign language you could understand, but you had to listen.”
These teens have created an intricately constructed society for the gifted who have no use for parents or school (“Whoever heard of a Gifted grown-up?”), and they’re none too pleased about Teresa and Barnie’s gate-crashing and willy-nilly breaking of the “rules”. Stuffed into a packing crate to await their sentencing by the kangaroo court, Teresa and Barnie are able to get some answers from their somewhat sympathetic jailer, a moony hippie type named Rosemary, who explains that the Store People have to be ever-vigilant against the Mouth Breathers- those slimeballs that live out in the parking lot, a gang of low-class teens that want to break into the store just to loot and pillage: Barnie and Teresa are on trial as suspected spies.
In the midst of their sentencing, pandemonium breaks out- the Mouth Breathers have breached the store, although through no fault of our heroes. The Store People are vastly outnumbered and out-maneuvered by the Mouth Breathers, until Teresa triggers the store’s sprinkler system, alerting the authorities and finally rousing the night watchman (Adults: useless or mostly useless?) The Mouth Breathers scatter (and are subsequently arrested), but the Store People are confused, the delicate balance of their society completely upset, especially after Teresa and Barnie cleverly ingratiate themselves onto Forbes & Ledsmar’s payroll during the confusion of the “fire sale” the next day:
“Even though I’m Gifted, I can’t handle it when two different ideas come down in my space. I mean Crystal says Teresa’s a merchandising trainee. Right? And you say she’s Mouth Breather. I’m Gifted, but honestly I can’t get a handle on this.”
Rosemary finally cops to having made friends with one of the Mouth Breathers, inadvertently becoming source of the breach. The Store People just can’t handle all of these conflicting loyalties, man, and decide that it is time to return to their various suburban enclaves and boarding schools.
Ever-useless, the adult employees don’t even notice a large group of teenagers exiting the store when it opens the next morning.
Only Teresa and Barnie remain, with big plans to scam their way up the ladder to become the heads of their respective departments at Forbes & Ledsmar.
Sign It Was Written In 1979 Department: “Those Mouth Breathers came on like the cast of The Warriors”