Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
The Multidimensional Topology
Department Stores
Spencer Pate


If you’ve ever been in a department store, you probably know that it’s next to impossible to get out of one.  They never have just two or three floors:  Their topology extends through the eleven dimensions of string theory, their escalators expanding into the orders of infinity, their elevators contracting into infinitesimally small points with the density of a black hole.  Department stores are tangled mazes with no end.  There is no kindly Ariadne to provide you with a ball of twine that will lead you out, twisting around corners and slithering between racks of clothing.

All I wanted to do was to purchase some underwear.

Since department stores are based on non-Euclidean spacetime, as soon as I walked in and turned around, the entrance had disappeared.  A trained mathematician will note that parallel lines do not exist in a department store; all lines intersect each other twice.  Furthermore, the angles of a triangle can add up to more than 180°.  You don’t want to look at space dilation effects like this for too long; they cause your eyes to water.  Time acts differently in department stores as well.  Minutes inside last a day outside, while sometimes a person can spend years of his or her life inside such a store while only an hour passes back in normal spacetime. 

After I realized there was no way out, I consulted the imposing, color-coded department store map.  The layout of the store looked simple enough; underwear was located on the second floor.  All I would have to do would be to find an escalator, grab a pack of underwear, pay, and exit into the shopping mall on the upper floor.  Perhaps I would have no difficulty in escaping this monstrous labyrinth. 

I was wrong.

The hours, or days, or years I spent wandering aimlessly blur together in my mind.  I passed wrinkled, jewelry-bedecked old salesladies spraying noxious clouds of perfume into the air, concealing the narrow path in front of me…  I wearily trudged through the racks of women’s underwear, a section of the department store so large that it resembled an endless field of some strange and eldritch crop designed to simultaneously conceal and reveal the bosom…  I fled through the rows of shoes - work shoes, dress shoes, casual shoes, golf shoes, and even tennis shoes, all of them giving off the acrid smell of leather and rubber . . . I observed great herds of expressionless mannequins, all evidence of time effaced from their smooth plastic bodies…  I entered into tiny, cramped dressing rooms strewn with clothing and hangers as if a miniature tornado had swept through…  I witnessed vain women like magpies fighting over shiny objects and lingering avariciously over glass cases of glittering diamond and zirconium rings, gold and silver necklaces as heavy as millstones, and earrings that dangled like pendulums…  I saw endless dull shelves of black and grey shirts, pants, and suits made for every body type imaginable, big and tall and short and slender, racks of ties and belts like miniature nooses, matching bedroom sets and linens, white pillows and towels piled up like mashed potatoes, manly tools and gadgets, useless bulky exercise equipment and shiny kitchen appliances.  The pathway I followed crossed over itself, branched off into several different routes, or sometimes narrowed and disappeared completely.  I was trapped in Borges’s Library of Babel, only with the detritus of consumer society instead of an infinite expanse of books. 

And the humanity!   

It appeared to me that many of the other people in the department store had been in there for their entire lives:  They ranged from roving bands of well-dressed thieves who preyed on the lost and unwary to self-sufficient societies living in ecological niches like the dressing rooms or the bed and bath department.  Then there were the Sherpa guides who waited at the bottom of escalators to assist those who needed help ascending to the next level.  By sheer luck I had discovered an elevator, but I was worried that it would take me deeper into the depths of the beast, into its immense heart of darkness from which there is no escape.  Now, I had no desire to continue searching for underwear; I only wanted to leave this place and never return.     

I decided that gaining the aid of a Sherpa guide would be my ticket to freedom.  One of the Sherpas agreed to help me climb the largest escalator in the store - it led all the way to the top floor where, hopefully, an exit would be located.  Like all department store escalators, it was out of order.  The guide had never been to the summit himself, but he had heard stories of men losing their lives on the route to the upper floors.  His name was Tenzing (evidently a popular name among Sherpa guides), and although he spoke little English, he managed to communicate to me that it would be a treacherous ascent to the top of the store.  Tenzing was a short, stocky man with arms and legs roped with muscle from years of strenuous climbing.  His thick black beard and mustache were clotted with frost from the frigid upper altitudes of the store’s escalators. 

Tenzing carried a backpack full of supplies and food for our long journey.  We climbed for an entire day, our shaking legs pushing us up stair by stair until we could carry on no further.  The department store had no day and night - the harsh fluorescent lights above stung our eyes, and we could afford to sleep for only a few hours because Tenzing’s supplies were running low.  When I awoke, I peered over the side of the escalator and realized the dizzying height to which we had ascended.  Beneath us people darted around like minnows in an immense pond.  I reeled back for fear of falling into the abyss below. 

On the second day of our expedition, we passed several grinning, bleached-white skeletons on the escalator, each one desperately clutching some treasured piece of clothing they had never had the chance to buy.  Tenzing and I uneasily looked away whenever we encountered a pile of bones.  As we went on, the air turned thinner and breathing became more laborious, like drinking a thick milkshake through a coffee stirrer.  Cold winds whistled past our ears as we struggled to hold onto the railing.  My extremities were going numb, and slippery ice had begun to form on the cold steel stairs of the escalator.  We rested for a short while and then continued on. 

I began to have hallucinations. 

What if the department store were God, a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere?  What if the store actually encompassed the entire world, or the entire universe?  Could it be infinitely large, a manifold of spacetime folded in on itself?  Suddenly, my legs buckled beneath me, and Tenzing grabbed me before I could fall.  He picked me up and began to carry me the rest of the way up the escalator.  Soon, I could see the end of the escalator, a glowing halo in front of us.  Tenzing stumbled and crawled the rest of the way up the stairs, with me slung over his shoulder.

When we finally made it to the top, our exhausted bodies collapsed to the floor.  We were on the upper level.  Tenzing looked around frantically with a horrified expression.  He screamed, ran toward the top of the escalator, and threw himself over the edge.  Blood pounded in my head.  Tenzing would be plummeting, as in a nightmare, into the void. 

What had caused his leap to certain death?

I began to take in my surroundings.  A brightly-colored department store map, jewelry cases filled with metallic baubles, women’s underwear of every imaginable color and style — I was back on the first floor!  There was no upper level.  The building was a giant Möbius strip.  It had no beginning and no end; the store was a gigantic loop, a zero, containing everything and nothing.  Tenzing had taken his own life out of despair.  He realized that there was no exit, no hope. 

Then I came to a realization of my own:  We created this labyrinth of material things, and we can get out of it too.  It’s a conscious choice - you make your own exit. 

I began to laugh, and the department store started to melt away, like a candle flame that flickers and sputters and finally goes out, leaving behind a thin wisp of smoke rising to the sky, like a dream being forgotten as the sleeper awakes, like your eyes adjusting to the dark so you can see what’s really there.   


Spencer Pate is one of my favourite thinkers, writers, and come to think of it, people. The fact that he's not old enough to legally inebriate only worries me in the context of "is he a cheese or a strawberry?" I hope he's a cheese, not to everyone's taste, but nothing great ever is.
The Zen of Ramen Noodles
A Day at Creationland
A Rebirth of the Imagination
Night of the Living Crickets

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"The Multidimensional Topology of Department Stores" copyright © January 2007 by Spencer Pate.
This appears here with thanks to Spencer Pate, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2007