Nothing to see here, folks. Trent Moorman

Mall men's rooms used to mean something. When I turned 13 in 1993, the only sure way for a closeted suburban teen to see another man's parts was to go to Waldenbooks at the mall, find a Playgirl not wrapped in plastic, hide it between the pages of the Pulp Fiction screenplay Waldenbooks had for sale, ever-so-quietly tear out the best page in the concealed magazine, fold the page several times, pocket the dirty little square, and walk to the mall restroom to—if not enjoy, then at least exploit. At the mall where I used to do this, in Southern California, there was one stall with a door crack that looked out sideways across a row of urinals. You could look through the crack and occasionally see a tip. Or you could stand at a urinal and show your tip to whoever was looking out through the crack.

From 13 to 18, that was the extent of my sex life.

Now Waldenbooks doesn't exist, the internet does, and someone's doing a killer business in urinal dividers, at least as far as the Alderwood Mall is concerned. Not only is there no stall situated vis-à-vis urinals like in the mall of my youth, there are urinal dividers everywhere, foreclosing on any possibility of even the briefest sideways glance.

On a scale of 1 to 100, I would rate the sexual tension in the food court men's room of the Alderwood Mall at -12. But if you like your restrooms to feature a giant unnecessary antechamber out front with couches and Coke machines, you're in luck. Even the seedy suggestiveness of a condom-dispensing machine on the wall ("Protocols") turned out to be disappointing, because it wasn't dispensing condoms at all, only cologne, "chewable toothbrushes," and ibuprofen. As for Larry Craig–style under-stall shenanigans, this just wasn't one of those places. Restrooms in Alderwood's department stores—Nordstrom, JC Penney, and Sears—were just as straight-laced.

The lack of detectable gayness anywhere was total. The closest thing to a bookstore was a rack of calendars, and the closest thing to pornography was an 18-month Friends calendar with first-season photos of the cast. I found a store called Lovesac on the mall directory, but it turned out not to be what I was thinking. Then I saw a store called Build-a-Bear Workshop, which turns out to be for kids, although it's pretty kinky, I must say: There was a man with a bear on his lap, and the bear was being filled from behind, through the ass, under a sign that said "Stuff Me." When I asked what was happening, a female employee said, mirthlessly, "So, we actually build animals. The animals start out flat and then we build them." She pointed at a bunch of Silence of the Lambs–style skin-only teddy bears, waiting for insides.

Surely the mall is gayer than this, right? It has to be! It's the mall! All kinds of stores, all kinds of people, a marketplace of, well, if not ideas, at least things, right? Including gay things? Nope. I checked the gay cruising listings on CruisingforSex.com and Squirt.org on my smartphone. Results: 0. I typed "Alderwood Mall" into Craigslist and the only thing that came up was an "m4w" post titled "Any girls at or near the Alderwood mall?" (He wanted head in the parking lot.) I logged onto Scruff, which said the nearest guy was miles, not feet, away. Several straight Stranger colleagues said they thought the men at the Adore skin-lotion kiosk must be gay, but this only confirmed the faultiness of their gaydar.

The gaylessness of the Alderwood Mall isn't confined to the Alderwood Mall. Now that we have smartphones, the sex part of gay culture doesn't have to rely on eye contact and mall restrooms anymore. Meanwhile, even in the middle of the city, other cultural currents are doing away with gay bookstores, gay novelty shops, and gay restaurants (RIP Bailey/Coy Books, Beyond the Closet Bookstore, the Pink Zone, the Broadway Grill...). Clearly, if you're a closeted suburban teen now, surreptitious glances in retail environments simply aren't as necessary as they once were. You just get on Grindr or Scruff or you head into the city... where you sit around the fire pit at Pony and get back on Grindr or Scruff. This is almost certainly more efficient, but I pause to note the passing of the old, worse way with a small hint of melancholy.

Dejected, I went and ate a gay salad at Alderwood's iteration of Anthony's Seafood Grill, and while I was there, I used the men's room, where above the urinals is a "hilarious" image of five women sizing up your dick. That is way more hetero, and way more intimidating, than anything I've seen in a bathroom in years. A couple hours later, my boyfriend showed up. We peed next to each other at Sears and kissed over the urinal divider. Then we went and saw a movie at the Alderwood Loews, which, by the way, unlike all the other men's rooms at the mall, had no urinal dividers. Just a tip. recommended