NASHUA, N.H. -- Jim Flessas' bulk strains against blue as he trudges through the tiny suburban mall.
He's 76, and retired. But for $6.50 an hour, more than 50 hours a week, he puts on a blue uniform and monitors the Nashua Mall and Plaza.
He works as a security guard, keeping the mall free of young hooligans and helping shoppers find their cars. His training? Years at the wheel of a taxi.
Some complain that Mr. Flessas is typical of mall security: under-trained, underpaid, overworked.
But now that Mall America has replaced Main Street America, security guards, not police, are often shoppers' first line of defense against crime.
Are they up to the task?
"(Most malls) have grandpa who is kind of between retirement and the nursing home," says Howard Levinson, president of Howard Services, a security company in Franklin, Mass.
"Or they have a kid who wants to get into law enforcement. Maybe he's smart enough to do a good job, or stupid enough to act like a cop."
Either way, many are not prepared to tackle crime at today's mall.
The malling of America has been intense. There were more than 28,000 shopping centers nationwide in 1986, according to the National Research Bureau in Chicago. By 1997, that number jumped to nearly 43,000.
In a typical month, 187 million adults visit shopping centers across the country, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.
As malls replaced the traditional town center, becoming as much places to socialize as to shop, crime also shifted -- with thieves, and worse, moving inside. But no national statistics record shopping center crime, and few mall managers will discuss security issues.
"The publicity and the public relations are huge," Mr. Levinson says. "How many women are going to want to go to a mall (by) themselves if there's been an attack?"
There also are no firm numbers on how many security officers patrol U.S. malls, even though mall security, like mall marketing, is big business.
William Cunningham, vice president of Hallcrest, a security consulting company in Amelia Island, Fla., estimates that shopping security cost $98 billion last year.
Despite their growing role in keeping shoppers safe, mall security takes a beating in the public eye. Teen-agers make fun of them, and Hollywood has not been kind.
Hit cult movies like Mallrats play on the lore of teen-agers harassed by overzealous and dimwitted guards.
Mark Francis, a 24-year-old security guard at the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, spends as much time fighting stereotypes as he does petty crime.
"Every time a security guard is in a movie, they are either an idiot or get killed," says Mr. Levinson, also a former security guard. "They're never a hero."
As a result, he says teen-agers don't take the guards seriously, making their jobs harder and, perhaps, malls less safe.
Tom Mills, operations manager at Howard Services, says mall security may deserve those shoddy reputations.
"In general, they're too young, and they're more interested in being friendly with the cute girls who work at the mall stores," he says. "The ones I see aren't walking around watching for bad guys. They're kind of just walking around hoping nothing bad happens."
But bad things do happen. Earlier this month, Frederic Daniel, 25, of Atlanta, was shot and killed during an argument at a mall in that city.
A New Jersey woman is suing a local mall because her son, a bystander, died during an August 1996 shootout between robbers and armored car guards.
Patricia Morris, of Clayton, says her 17-year-old son, Nicholas, died because the mall allowed the armored car guards to use customers as shields.
One of the robbery suspects was killed. The other, Moses Clary, 24, was charged with killing Mr. Morris; he is expected to go on trial in September.
And a North Carolina mall security guard was arrested in May on charges that he raped two teen-age girls he met at the Crabtree Valley Mall.
Held on $50,000 bond, Willie Donald White Jr., 31, faces one count each of statutory rape and second-degree rape.
Mr. Mills blames malls for the sorry state of mall guards. "If you have a person working for $8-$10 an hour, how far out of your way are you going to go to put yourself in danger?"
Low wages keep pools of applicants slim, forcing companies to choose between not enough security and not enough qualifications, says Gerald Arenberg, spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police in Washington.
That can create situations that blur the line between criminal and mall cop. A Kansas City, Mo., mall is facing a civil rights lawsuit over allegations that its security guards discriminate against black shoppers.
The suit, filed last month on behalf of three young blacks, claims the guards ignored activities of white shoppers while asking black customers to leave.
The three teens refused to leave, eventually were arrested, and acquitted at trial.
Weeding out bad guards is difficult, as regulations governing them vary widely. Alabama and Colorado are among several states that have no regulations.
Others, such as Florida, do background checks and require more than 40 hours of training for armed security guards.
The powers of mall cops also vary by state. Some, including Hawaii and Michigan, allow private security guards to arrest people seen committing a crime.
Low pay or not, guards say they can handle the challenge of patrolling America's malls. After all, they are hired to help customers, not solve murders. "You take care of the little kids and the old people," says Mr. Flessas.
On his most exciting day on the job, a deer jumped through a store window and dashed around the mall. Not exactly material for "NYPD Blue."
"We're not police officers, and we do what we can to help people," Mr. Francis says. That means they handle medical emergencies, reunite lost children with families, carry packages for the elderly, keep the coins in the mall's water fountains.
Despite such benign beats, shopping center crime is real, and malls are taking notice. Some are bridging the gap between guards and police. Mall cops can enforce mall rules, but in all but a few states they lack the power to detain or arrest.
Some shopping centers have curfews that limit when and with whom teen-agers can roam the malls. Others are developing stronger ties with the local police force.
Pheasant Lane has built a police substation in the mall, next to Radio Shack and the food court. Mr. Cunningham cites that as a good use of both forces.
"It gets better use of taxpayers' money by letting trained police officers do what they do best and perhaps letting security officers be their eyes and ears," says the security analyst.
Officer Kevin Rautenberg, who patrols the Pheasant Lane full time, agrees, acknowledging how he and mall guards rely on each other.
Security officers lack training, experience and respect to handle most mall crime, he says, but they can be where he isn't.
"If I need anything they are there for me," he says.
"Being there" is what attracted Mr. Francis in the first place. Despite the jokes, he knows he makes a difference.
"You're the unsung hero," he says. "We help a lot of people and they think you're a hero."