TAMPA - The food court has chandeliers.
Well, technically they're the "Portico Cafes" at International Plaza and Bay Street, a sanctuary of fast food bathed in streaming natural light. You've never felt so glamorous eating a hoagie. At lunch these cafes are jammed with people on banquette couches, men with tiny ear devices, women carrying Gucci with intrepid nonchalance, like, "This old thing?"
We're all watching each other. We pretend not to, of course. It's practically law that when someone looks at you, you look back at your phone or your feet.
People-watching happens with dizzying panache at International Plaza, which turns 10 this week. It has become Tampa's pre-eminent place to see and be seen, an anthropological runway, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with stilettos. You don't come here looking dowdy. You plan. You work. You prepare to be sized up.
My skirt jabs my stomach as I eat a cheesy pita. I'm feeling regret after already changing several times that morning. I spot a hot girl with a belly jewel slithering to the Great Wraps counter. Her boyfriend waits, and when it dawns that he is being watched, he shifts nervously against a trash can.
Our eyes meet. We both pull out our phones.
• • •
International Plaza and Bay Street opened three days after Sept. 11, 2001, a 1.2 million-square-foot bastion of luxury born amid a national disaster. Until then, the fanciest store in town was Saks Fifth Avenue at WestShore Plaza, a mall which also has a Sears.
International Plaza has Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Tiffany & Co. There's Forever XXI, Victoria's Secret and an incoming H&M. It all creates a careful cocktail of things you can afford, and things you cannot.
The mall drew high-income shoppers, the curious middle-class, athletes and celebrities. New York Yankee Derek Jeter chatted outside the Blue Martini. Tampa Bay Ray Carlos Peña walked a runway at Nordstrom. Online mall reviews deemed the people-watching an attractive and fun feature.
A great place to get out of the Florida heat and go for a walk and do some people watching.
Awesome selection of shops, plenty of parking, people watching, great food!
"It's an experience, as shopping centers go," said Nina Mahoney, the mall's marketing director. "The people that come here are distinctive. They're fashionable. They're friendly. They want to be their own person, and they know what they want and they appreciate the finer things, but they're not a snob."
Like most malls, International Plaza caters largely to women. But Mahoney quickly noticed many men hanging around.
"Tell me, why are you here?" she asked. And they said, "It's a great place to watch women."
• • •
I'm still fed up with the skirt, so I duck into Nordstrom to use the bathroom and adjust. I pass a towering blond modeling a $138 gray faux-fur vest.
"The proportions on this are really good, and since I already have a white one . . ." She turns to admire the back.
In the bathroom I dig a cardigan from my purse, a Coach bag I'm suddenly aware is an outlet model from an online closeout. Behind me, a tall brunet totes a tiny Louis Vuitton, this year's model. She pulls her jeans over her stomach paunch, but they are so low-cut they don't stay. She sighs and leaves.
I sigh, leave and wander to Burberry.
"How are you enjoying your day?" a clerk says, checking my outlet Coach. "You in the market for a new bag? Love your bracelet."
I wander into Bebe. I fidget with my waistband.
"Are you finding everything okay? Love your skirt."
• • •
This mall is just part of the people-watching milieu.
There's Orlando's Mall at Millennia. Minnesota's Mall of America. There's the grocery store, the park, the office. There are blogs devoted to people-watching at Walmart, the subway, Disney World. I wonder if we're all watching each other all the time, Jane Goodalls in the Tanzania of our own making.
"We understand in many ways the rules of the social world," said Bruce Friesen, a sociology professor at the University of Tampa. "In order to accrue status, we need to emulate the sort of consumerist culture that exists."
Okay. But when I'm thinking someone's skirt looks worse than mine, and then I suddenly feel better? What is that?
"You've identified a fundamental social psychological process," he said. "Something that helps us in depression or low self-esteem. We compare ourselves to others who are not as fortunate. Personally I hate malls, and probably it's because of that."
We go to social hubs and devise narratives about strangers to fix ourselves. In the children's book Harriet the Spy, a girl totes a notebook and spins tales.
I bet the lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and feels just terrible.
Does his mother hate him? If I had him I'd hate him.
The stories are usually not so true, but the truth is usually not so appealing.
• • •
A guy in a slim suit and expensive loafers saunters to Starbucks. He grabs his coffee and flashes a sparkling smile. I decide he's an important power broker on lunch from his job in a Tampa high rise.
People stream through the coffee line. Hipsters wear artfully rumpled shirts. A blond slinks by in a chevron-striped dress so tight, I decide she's drinking air. A woman's clear plastic purse reveals $20, Clinique lipstick and a book called Secretos de la Vid.
"I really never deserved him," a lady in a snakeskin skirt tells her friend in a leopard blouse. "He knows it. After so much, I still love him."
I decide she should dump him.
I wander into Neiman Marcus, where a cascade of white feather butterflies hangs, where a diaper bag costs $350 and a real fur vest is $695. In the shoe department, a woman assesses a pile of $600 red-soled Christian Louboutin heels.
The guy in a slim suit and expensive loafers fetches shoes and places them at her feet.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.