The endless night: hanging out in cars with boys, and girls
IT was midnight on a Friday in August, but where was everybody?
Check the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, said a carload of teenagers in the Taco Bell parking lot on Hempstead Turnpike, over the border in Levittown.
But the police had just cleared out the Dunkin’ Donuts lot. A few stragglers there said the others would be at the old reservoir in Sand Hill Park, or in the woods behind Burger King, where they like to climb the trees with their beer to avoid the police searchlights.
It turned out that they were behind the Wendy’s on Wantagh Avenue here, in a parking lot under the bright lights of tall lampposts. About two dozen teenagers, mostly boys, had gathered around a half-dozen cars. Nearby, a constant carousel of Toyotas and Fords and S.U.V.’s headed slowly through the drive-through lane, the squawk of the intercom competing with the drone of crickets.
The kids were there practicing the ancient teenage discipline of doing nothing with their friends.
“Straight chillin’, man, this is what we do basically every night,” said Matt Mauro, 17, who leads a hard-core band called This Town Again and is beginning at Nassau Community College, around the corner on Hempstead Turnpike. “We hang out here because there’s nothing else to do. Either this, or just driving around seeing what everyone else is doing.”
The serial drama of suburban teenagers plays out nightly in places like this. The set is a parking lot, the backdrop a strip mall, the lighting provided by halogen lamps and big, gaudy commercial signs that glow all night. The action rarely varies: teenagers in cars orbit a constellation of fast-food places until, as if drawn by some gravitational force felt only in adolescence, they pull into the parking lot of one.
“You know what a perfect summer day is?” said one girl at the Wendy’s lot, Jenna Schulman, 16. “You go out till 4 in the morning and wake up at 2 in the afternoon. You go to the beach and lay in the sun and then come home to eat and take a shower. Then you go out with your friends and drink and the next day do it all over again.”
The place was Wantagh, on Long Island, but this was as much an American rite of suburban adolescence as it was a local one. It’s re-enacted on almost any given night in any town where an abundance of cars and acres of asphalt are readily available to the young and the restless. A parking lot may be an ugly, utilitarian place, but to the American teenager it can be irresistibly attractive, a blacktop oasis safe from parents and teachers.
This is also a rite of summer. Many of the teenagers spoke of passing up elaborate family vacations and fabulous summer camp options for a simple reason: they just want to be with their friends, especially when the late summer announces itself with cooler weather, earlier sunsets and school-supply sales. Like migratory birds, the young can feel the end of something. Freedom is fading fast. Some are headed to college. Others will be yoked in by weeknight curfews.
“We hang out late because there’s less people around, so we can do what we want,” said Devin McKenna, 17, a high school senior, who was eating cake frosting from a can. He threw the frosting high into the black night sky, letting it splatter white onto the pavement.
“See? You think I could do that in the daytime?” he said. “I’d probably hit a car or a person, and then someone would throw a fit, and we’d be in trouble again.”
This is a nocturnal existence in which, to hear the teenagers tell it, nothing really happens, even though there was a youthful charge in the air and a lot, presumably, was going on inside them. Most of them were polite kids acting cool. Several boys had Mohawks topped with baseball caps with the tightly curved bill favored by dorm room dudes: something of a “punk rocker meets Abercrombie & Fitch” look.
Most were from white neighborhoods with safe schools and nice homes in bedroom communities. But this was not their fault. Manhattan was only a 45-minute car or train ride away, but it might as well have been a foreign country. No one spoke of heading in there for an evening.
With each car that came into the Wendy’s lot, every neck craned to see who it was. A familiar car got a cheer, and everyone mobbed the newcomers. When the group gets too big or rowdy, the teenagers said, the police cars inevitably descend. Then the kids scatter, regroup and move to another lot whose coordinates are agreed upon over a network of cellphones.
“There are 7,000 cops right now on Hempstead Turnpike looking for us,” said Lindsay Vallo, 16. “It’s a matter of time before they come here. Then we’ll just go to another parking lot until they chase us out of there. That’s basically what we do at night around here.”
Lindsay had come with Jenna and two other 16-year-olds, Alicia Levy and Katelind Flavin. All said they were going into their junior year at MacArthur High School in Levittown. Alicia wore a T-shirt with the motto “Cowgirls have it. Cowboys want it.”
They went on to explain how they managed to stay out so late. One of the girls’ parents were “cool,” imposing no curfews, they said. So the three others told their parents that they were sleeping at their friend’s house, knowing that her mother would cover for them if the other parents called the next day. The cool mother would say, oh, yes, the girls were watching videos and all tucked in by 1 a.m.
“My mom thinks I’m an angel,” Jenna said.
The girls showed off their new tongue piercings, through the connective tissue underneath. “It’s called getting your web pierced,” Jenna said. “It’s just for rebellion, just to go against our parents.”
Alicia looked around at the parking lot. “We know this isn’t all that’s out there,” she said. “We don’t hang out with these guys every night. Sometimes we hang out with jocks or the popular kids. There are parties.”
Some of the guys began teasing the girls and chasing them around. Alicia yelled, “Free dome shots,” a euphemism for oral sex. She was only joking, she said.
Some of the teenagers were drinking a cheap beer, Keystone Light, which they kept in a car trunk. Older friends or siblings usually buy it for them. The Wendy’s lot is a good drinking spot, they said. A hole in the rear fence provides an escape hatch when the police show up.
There were episodes of high jinks and mischief. Several boys had small fire extinguishers, which they said they took that evening from a bus depot. They ran around spraying one another with the powder and lighting and then extinguishing small trash fires.
When the extinguishers expired, they grabbed some shopping carts and held a demolition derby, finally overturning them and whaling on them with their feet and stray heavy objects.
When one teenager started his car, another dived onto the hood and was taken for a rollicking ride around the parking lot.
About 1:30 a.m., Jeff Roache, 18, who said he was leaving to go to Taco Bell, backed his 1998 Jeep Cherokee into his friend Rob Stanley’s 1985 Buick Regal, leaving a big dent.
Jeff apologized to Rob, 18, and said, “Dude, anything I can do?”
“Yeah,” joked Rob, “but it would involve us being alone together.”
“Well, let’s do it quick and get it over with,” Jeff said. He headed to his car.
“No, dude, just get me a Super Taco No. 8 and a raspberry soda,” Rob said.
By 2 a.m. the strip mall sidewalks had been rolled up, and the traffic lights were presiding over mostly empty streets. Even the fast-food outlets had closed. But in the parking lot it was simply time to blast some death metal on the car stereo. The boys screamed along and slam-danced in a loose mosh pit. They seemed more excited by one another than by the four 16-year-old girls sitting and talking nearby.
The group of boys eventually thinned out, and those who remained broke off to have heated discussions about hard-core music and the hard-core concerts they had gone to and how dangerous hard-core gangs were.
One teenager bragged about growing up in Queens and sermonized about how much more dangerous and tougher it was than Long Island.
“Kids on Long Island try to act tough to make up for something, because there’s nothing to worry about out here,” he said. The others nodded. Then they commiserated about various Nassau County police officers who they said had it in for them, although on this night the only officer to arrive headed straight to Wendy’s drive-through window.
One girl walked off in the direction of the Wantagh Beverage Barn, now closed, to relieve herself. On the way she spied a beer carton that looked as if it had some beers left. She found three abandoned kittens inside the box instead.
The discovery seemed to sober and energize the group with a sense of purpose. They now had a task at hand: the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter was across the street.
So they trooped across Wantagh Avenue and passed an outdoor kennel of whimpering dogs. “Don’t worry,” one teenager said to the dogs, “you’re all going to be killed in the morning.”
They roused a groggy attendant, who told them that the shelter could not accept the cats at that hour. The teenagers put up a brief argument but then left with the kittens.
It was about 3:30 a.m., and some of the kids piled into cars to go to Jones Beach.
“We’re going to watch the meteor shower,” Jenna yelled to the others. “Come on, stay out with us.” Autor: Corey Kilgannon