At The Bart Oates Museum In A Dead South Jersey Mall

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In a half-empty mall’s nail salon just outside of Philadelphia, there is a small shrine of sorts, honoring the five-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Bart Oates, who played nine of his 11 NFL seasons with the New York Giants before retiring in 1995.

The Voorhees Town Center is not necessarily a “dead mall,” but it is certainly not in the best of health; it could maybe best be described as down a kidney or two. Built in the early 1970’s as the Echelon Mall, it was popular until the late 1990’s, when an ill-planned Sears opened and closed within a few years. That effectively split the mall and accelerated a decline which resulted in half of it being torn down and redeveloped into a “town center” just as our most recent recession began. In the Voorhees Town Center today, high-end stores are scattered between closed and never-opened shops in the town center; lower-end stores are scattered between closed shops and two weary department stores in the mall. Voorhees Town Center is nowhere near as accessible as other local malls. I go there out of nostalgia -- it once had a place called “Exhilarama!” on the premises -- and also because a decent library is across the street.

Beautiful Nails & Spa is one of the constants at the mall, and its lounge being within view of the entrance vestibule by the bus stop. On the lounge’s wall is the aforementioned shrine to Bart Oates, which is both weirdly fitting and totally inappropriate for its South Jersey setting, which places it deep in Eagles territory. I gathered the guts to ask the owner about the Bart Oates autographs on my most recent trip to the mall, and answered a question that had been nagging at me for longer than I like to admit.

As it turns out, the story behind this particular offensive line-related Folk Museum is not all that exotic. The owner ran a nail salon up in North Jersey about fifteen years ago. One of his customers happened to be Bart Oates’ wife, and he obliged with some signed photos.  

Bart Oates is best known by football fans as the center on the New York Giants for their first two Super Bowls, and for the San Francisco 49ers when they won Super Bowl XXIX. Add to this two USFL titles with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars (where he played with his older brother Brad) and countless Holiday Bowl appearances while with BYU, and Bart Oates has had a lot of success. He is also the guest star and namesake of one of the greatest episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which is why I’m laughing as I write this, at the thought of a poorly built cyborg Bart Oates trying to get Carl to become a better person and kill Linda Hamilton.

Granted, the “one of my former customers happened to be Bart Oates’ wife” explanation is not the sexiest solution to the Bart Oates Sad Mall Nail Salon Shrine mystery, but it’s representative of how things are in South Jersey. What we think of as being representative of South Jersey largely comes from other areas, like how Aqua Teen’s Carl Brutananadilewski is a Giants fan somehow. Moreover, what actually does represent South Jersey, such as Matthew Quick’s novel The Silver Linings Playbook, gets dragged across the border. Watch the movie, and all of a sudden everything is happening in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and the local diner -- where you eat, and which is in the book -- is nothing like the one in the movie.

In South Jersey, you take what you can get, be it Joe Flacco winning a Super Bowl for a team that is not the Eagles, or a couple of signed photos from Bart Oates stuck on a wall in a dying mall’s nail salon. You make your own significance, and put it where you can.

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