Our correspondent tries to keep from being trampled by the seniors who walk, very early in the morning, at Serramonte Center

Morning fog still hangs heavy in the air, softening sharp edges and blanching the concrete sprawl of Serramonte Center. It's quiet -- too early for shoppers -- but we are definitely not alone. We pull our van into the closest available parking spot, some three lanes from the front door, and peer through the rising steam of our coffee into the morning gray.

"Just wait," says John Law, a neon installer and director of Central Sign Services. "They'll be here."

Two spindly forms, hooded and swathed from head to ankle in gray fleece, shuffle around the eastern corner of the nearest building and toddle toward the mall's main entrance with deliberate and obvious determination.

"There's probably a hundred more inside," assures my guide.

We emerge from our van just as a willowy couple with silvery hair springs out of the vehicle parked adjacent to us.

"Good morning!" hails Butch Brochuwith a broad smile. "Going to work?"

"Well, good morning, sir," replies Law, nodding. "Going to walk?"

"Oh yes, definitely," enthuses Brochu as his wife, Cookie, wags a laminated badge similar to the one Butch wears around his neck.

"We've done 120," beams Cookie, indicating one of several tiny gold pins affixed to the badge. "Twice around. So that's almost 240 miles."

Butch smiles and nods as the pair strides swiftly toward the door.

"Butch had a heart bypass two months ago," says Cookie proudly.

"In my 80s, you know," says Butch.

"You'd never know it," says Law truthfully.

Point of fact, Butch Brochu is more lithe, nimble, and spirited than 87 percent of my friends, and Cookie practically sparkles. Either one of them would be a model for active living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, but their chosen destination, twice a week for the last two years, has been a shopping center in Daly City. And they're not alone.

Technically, the shopping center is not open for business, but the courtyard between Burger King, Mervyn's, and Forever 21 is buzzing with chatter. One hundred forty-eight of nearly 200 registered regulars have turned up for today's "WalkAbout" -- an organic collaboration among the mall, Daly City Senior/Adult Services, Stonestown YMCA, and Seton Medical Center. The women, dressed in pretty sweaters, bright workout clothes, and glittering accessories, splinter off from the men, forming little clutches while their male counterparts bellow greetings and slap each other on the back as if they haven't seen one another for years (though they admit it's only been two days). Flirtation and gentle mockery pass among the clusters as they await the aerobics instructor, Ray Hanvey, a longtime YMCA volunteer and full-time director of the Young World Learning Center.

The pewter-haired Hanvey, an obvious favorite with the ladies, arrives a little late, looking like Johnny Cashin black jeans and a black T-shirt. He slaps in a home-mixed tape of '80s new wave hits and dance club classics and begins his routine. The crowd -- a marvelously heterogeneous mélange of Asians, Caucasians, African-Americans, Latin Americans, and American Indians -- spreads out across the courtyard to follow along. Amidst the jewelry carts, map kiosks, and manicured indoor foliage, the silver-haired health nuts march and lunge and twist and bend. Some of them even sing along with the music, mouthing lyrics that, to my mind, seem utterly incongruous with the "grand narrative of old age."

A few of the strapping gents bounce over to the plastic seat where I am perched and offer me a healthy ribbing -- both literally and figuratively -- for sitting out the warm-up, but I am saved by Edna Louise Trannell, who flops down at the table next to mine.

"I think I'm done for, baby doll," declares the self-proclaimed "delicious, delightful great-grandma," who is, by the way, currently unwed. A few minutes later, several close friends flank her.

"That's Maria," says Trannell, indicating a friend, Maria Melendez, who looks glorious in bright lipstick and a large-brimmed hat. "She's had two strokes and two aneurysms, and she's doing fine, honey child. Just fine. Life is good, very good. Don't you forget it, baby doll. God is good to us: We got good friends and big families and free exercise classes, and that Ray Ray, he's the best."

The music stops and the crowd disperses quite suddenly. I stand up and gaze down the well-polished corridor where they have all but vanished.

"Time to walk," announces Trannell, disappearing after her friends. "C'mon, honey, you got two legs. Time to log in some miles."

Not having grown up in a city strewn with indoor shopping centers, the concept of "mall walking" is more than a little foreign; in fact, if you'd set me down in front of 200 white-hairs singing Duran Duran songs and doing leg bends in an abandoned shopping center before this week, I'd have thought someone had slipped me a tab of acid. But "mall walkers" have existed since the mid-1950s, when the first fully enclosed shopping center was built in Minnesota and local doctors began recommending window-shopping as a form of midwinter exercise. These newfangled consumer meccas offered ideal settings for those of fragile constitution: year-round protection from the elements, cleanliness, security, food, interesting sights, and, most important, bathrooms, all for free. Mall walking spread across the country as quickly as malls did. Today, there are 2.5 million people mall walking in locales as remote as Sri Lanka, and the numbers are growing still.

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