"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 Brochu with 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 Cash in 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.
Of course, management is not always amenable to the flagrant reappropriation of shopping thoroughfares. Mall walkers are not known to be big spenders (most splurge on a cup of coffee and a muffin or two), but as Chicago's Evergreen Plaza found out last year, if you take away the walkers' access, they take away their pocketbooks, and those of their children and their children's children. Better to chalk it up to good publicity and sign on with a grass-roots company like WalkSport America, which offers standardized mall-walking programs with monthly newsletters, prize incentives, and card-swipe mileage trackers that can be used in shopping centers from San Jose to New Jersey.
In only its third official year, Serramonte's "WalkAbout" is not at the technological forefront of mall walking, but it does offer monthly health lectures, free blood tests, and flu shots, along with its little gold pins and a glistening, 1.75-mile "track."
"And some of the nicest people around," points out Joshua Horde, who, along with his wife of 40 years, never misses a "WalkAbout."
"Are you spreading lies again, Joshua?" shouts a passer-by.
"Sometimes we walk at Stonestown on Thursdays," continues Horde, "but folks are friendlier over here."
"Stonestown is snooty," agrees a woman who has been following our conversation closely from a nearby table.
I catch up with Peggy Benjamin, a one-woman cheering squad who, despite an early-season flu that has her dawdling at a turtle's pace, calls out compliments, encouragement, and salutations to every person who passes us by.
"I wouldn't miss this for the world," she says as three men turn around to greet her by name in unison. "I laugh so much when I'm here. And laughter cures everything."
"Look, it's me in the window!" shouts Benjamin, pointing to a large skeleton in the Halloween Superstore window and waving to two girlfriends who stroll in the opposite direction at a good clip.
"Ooh, I wish I could walk like her," says Benjamin, adding something suggestive under her breath as two men, engrossed in conversation, whiz past us. Without slowing down, one of the men looks back over his shoulder and wags his finger as if a strange woman has just goosed him.
"That's my husband," giggles Benjamin.
As the clock approaches a decent hour of the morning, the mall walkers return to their starting point, refreshing themselves with fresh melon contributed by the Marie Callender's restaurant.
"I have four children and 10 grandchildren," says Mavina Natividad. "Would you guess I'm 81? I feel young. Walking keeps me young."
"I'm gonna break 500 before I turn 88," exclaims Anita Brusa, flashing her golden 220 pin while humming a Fine Young Cannibals song. "Now, take some fruit, sweetie."
Charmed and bewildered, I take the proffered melon.
"If we don't see you again," says Joshua Horde with his wife, Jewel, at his side, "we hope you find much joy and fulfillment wherever you walk."
After seeing Serramonte before 9 a.m., I'm pretty sure it's possible.