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Down The Tubes
Draining away a summer morning at the pediatric dialysis unit
By Bradford McKee
A kid has every right to feel uneasy riding into the bowels of the Children’s National Medical Center on Michigan Avenue NW.
Outside as well as in-, there is nothing remotely natural or familiar about the place. The building, with its faceted, smoked-glass modules grinning at you like horrid bronze molars, looms over the entrance to the underground parking garage. It menaces visitors as if it were a giant body snatcher, or a hive built by Vulcan wasps. As you walk up a moving rubber ramp into the lobby, a soaring cube of light swallows you into its gob of purple walls and green carpet—the painful Kelly green of artificial turf. It’s an alien enclosure, freakish enough to make adults feel as if they’ve developed a rare form of hypochondria.
Hospitals never seem like the right place to be, but summer makes the dissonance clank all the louder. Languid summer days are not meant to be broken up by long sentences in the hospital. In their well-meaning way, children’s hospitals tend to go over the top to make the white-coat factory of autoclaves and radiation and sharp instruments feel like an escape into a cartoon Saturday morning. It’s a bad example of what Disney World calls a “pre-ride environment,” the place where the theme-park passenger is supposed to decompress and leave the real world behind.
By the time a reasonable patient—no matter how young—has made it up to any of the variously color-coded units on the hospital’s six floors, he probably can’t keep dark thoughts at bay: Uh oh, I must be in for it now, because they’re trying to cheer me up.
Some kids come into this hospital and don’t go back out for a long time. Some kids come from as far away as Qatar and never go back out. Other kids, like Michael Freeman, who is 14 years old, come and go all the time. Michael is an outpatient in the hemodialysis unit, the only such chronic-care pediatric facility in the Washington region. His kidneys haven’t worked for most of his life. He’s had two failed transplants, one when he was 5 and one when he was 8; he’s not currently a candidate for a third transplant.
Instead, Michael comes here by van three days a week—all summer, all school year—to the yellow hallways on the third floor of the hospital. He visits for about four hours each time, long enough to have his system cleaned by a machine called a Fresenius 2008H, which for that time serves as Michael’s excretory organ: It takes the extra fluids out of his body, removes the nitrogenous wastes, and balances his electrolytes. When he leaves, he’s a little lighter than when he arrived and no longer has the fluid-induced headache he sometimes brings with him.
At about 9 o’clock on a hot, bright Friday morning in July, Michael is one of six children planted in the dialysis ward’s reclining chairs, napping like cats—mouths hanging open in snores, twitching, turning over, licking their lips in their sleep. Like the other kids, he has four large, clear tubes filled with blood running between his bicep and the Fresenius. The machine itself has a whole series of tubes attached to it, leading to bottles and something that looks like a car’s air filter under glass. It also has 20 or so indicator lights and a complicated digital readout: BP: 122/68 GOAL: 200 FLOW: 500 TIME: 1:33 TEMP 36.9. Et cetera.
“Mike, sit up, sweetie,” says Carol Carr, one of two registered nurses on duty this morning. “You need to drink something.”
Michael does not move.
“Mike!” she says more sharply. “C’mon!”
Michael starts to stir, looks a little pissed, and retreats defiantly back into his dream. The nurse shakes his foot. “You may think we’re mean,” she explains. “But they don’t come here to sleep. Normally, they’d be in school.”
Mike just finished eighth grade this spring at the Prospect Learning Center on F Street NE. He starts at Woodrow Wilson High School this fall. He’s into math, and like a lot of kids who grow up in and out of hospitals—he’s been visiting this ward since he was an infant—he wants to be a doctor.
As it happens, school’s out. It’s the heat of summer, and Michael was up ’til about midnight last night playing baseball with his brothers and their friends at the playground near their house in Kingman Park. Then he had to get up at 5 a.m. to get ready, wait for the van, and make it to dialysis by 7:30. So Michael is not really in the mood to sit up and chitchat while every pint of his blood runs in and out of his body.
Carr sets down a plastic cup of grape juice on the arm of his recliner and draws some blood from one of the tubes’ rubber terminals, just to make sure it’s not clotting. The machines whistle and whir. Mobile helicopters, airplanes, and pterodactyls swing from the ceiling tiles, and pasted all across the cabinets on the walls are posters with the names of the unit’s patients written in big, clownlike letters, from the “summer garden party” the nurses threw for the kids two days before.
To wake Michael up, the nurses resort to teasing. The other unit nurse on duty, Mary Rose Fragale—”Miss Mary Rose” to some of her patients—remarks on the new cornrows his mother has braided for him. The new ‘do has fastened what last week was an unruly Afro to his small round head. “He looked like Michael Jackson,” she says. Michael looks nonplussed.
“Oh, you almost cracked a smile!” Miss Mary Rose cajoles. He scratches his head
and yawns. His long eyelashes barely part.
So the nurse changes to a subject sure to get his pulse going.
“He’s too busy thinking about CeCe…”
The whites of his eyes pop wide. “No, I wasn’t!” he insists, bashfully, drowsily. CeCe is a girl he met two weeks before at Camp Holiday Trails in Charlottesville. It was his second year at the camp, where the chronically ill charges—children with asthma, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and so on—can do what kids normally do at summer camp while also receiving the medical treatments they need. (Michael hooked up at the University of Virginia’s medical center.) He spent two weeks with about 60 other kids at camp, swimming, hiking, rappeling, horseback riding, canoeing, doing skits at night—and dancing.
Michael, it is believed, danced with CeCe. And there is a rumor, on which he will not comment directly, that he kissed CeCe, who is slightly younger than he.
“….He didn’t hear from her,” Miss Mary Rose says by way of a one-week update. “He gave her his number, but didn’t get hers.”
He bolts up a bit in his green-and-white-striped hospital gown and then looks grateful for the interruption by Geannine Edmond, his 19-year-old ally on the unit, who’s waking up with a small fuss of her many braids at the next machine over.
“Miss Carol,” Geannine calls out to Carr, doing paperwork over at the desk, out of view. “Can I get a medicine cup?” She pulls out a small bag filled with prescription bottles.
“That would involve me getting out of my chair,” the nurse calls back.
“Oh,” Geannine groans sarcastically. “The treatment I get around here!”
Nurse Carol smirks and walks over to a cabinet to get a medicine cup for her. Geannine has a lot of pills to take. Lupus shut down her kidneys 11 months ago, and she now waits with 1,175 other people in the D.C. metropolitan area—21 of whom are children—for a kidney transplant. Luckily for Geannine, her mother is a good match and is scheduled to give her a kidney in September.
“She gotta be healthy,” Geannine says of her mom. “She is healthy,” she clarifies. “She eat all night.”
Apparently, Geannine’s wits didn’t get knocked out by her illness. Her mouth is as sassy as the black suede pumps stowed under her chair and the black minidress folded up on the counter.
She sizes up the nurse a few paces away at the counter. “Carol, I’m glad you took that lab coat off,” Geannine says idly. “It made you look wide.”
Nurse Carol rolls her eyes. “Oh, thank you very much,” she says.
“I’m serious,” Geannine assures.
The morning wears on. There is talk of hunger between Michael and Geannine. Suddenly, the nurses start dishing plates of leftovers from Wednesday’s party: cole slaw, macaroni-and-tuna salad, potato salad, and cold fried chicken—which seems exotic in the clinical setting, and smells twice as good.
“No cole slaw,” Michael insists.
“Yeah,” Geannine seconds. “We don’t eat cole slaw!…I eat cucumbers, tomatoes, onions…”
“Oooh, I hate onions!” Michael says with a pucker. “They make me sick.”
“Why?” Carr asks. “Because you can’t kiss the girls?”
Michael shrinks in his chair and mumbles, “You run your mouth.”
“Dag, Michael,” Geannine says, “they always givin’ you up.”
Talk and backtalk are the surest ways to pass the time amid the patter of machines. But the other kids aren’t engaged in the banter. A little-bitty Indian girl sits dutifully, silently, in her chair. From the look in her teddy-bear eyes, she has either a lot on her mind or nothing at all. She has only until the big hand is on the eight before she’s done, Miss Mary Rose tells her. The girl is tracking every minute.
Michael, meanwhile, has to spend extra time in treatment today because he drank too much since his last visit. Dialysis patients don’t, for the most part, make their own urine, so Michael is allotted only a liter of liquids per day. He likes to overdo it when he can.
Alongside his lunch, Michael eats several tablets from his big bottle of peppermint Tums. Geannine prefers the fruit-flavored variety. They need the calcium in the antacid because their kidneys no longer absorb it for them; nor do they expel phosphorus, which the machine removes from their blood. Michael seems to be craving salt; he asks no one in particular several times for crackers, “Totitos,” anything to rough up his tongue. But Nurse Carol doesn’t want him to have the sodium—although she deemed the potato salad OK, because his potassium levels have been good lately.
“I need a new fork!” he cries to the nurses talking to each other across the room. His has fallen on the floor—it’s hard to eat with only one hand free. They don’t hear him, but Geannine does.
“You could choke to death, and they wouldn’t know,” she says, with the implicit solidarity two kids are bound to form when hooked up in dialysis together. In fact, their nurses don’t miss a single bleep the sensitive machines make when a connection goes awry.
Michael is by now beginning to lose his patience. “I’m gonna get my hand free, and I’m gonna sue ’em….” He fidgets. Then he gives up.
The kids have mostly finished their morning picnic lunch. Plates of scraps sit on the bedside tables. The big hand is on the eight. Nurse Mary Rose suits up in a gown, mask, and goggles to begin taking the connections out for the tiny Indian girl. “OK, sweetie, you’re gonna get off now!” Nurse Mary Rose tells her.
“Hey!” Michael says, as if a pinata had burst and he missed out on the loot. “When do I get off?!”
“Never,” Nurse Mary Rose answers with mock sternness. “We’re going to keep you here forever.” CP
The Last Starfighters
Getting your quarter’s worth at the Time-Out arcade
By Sean Daly
O joyous, technicolor carnage! O sweet, sweet chorus of bings, beeps, and whistles signaling token-generated mayhem!
Away with the grown-ups! Let them purchase their shiny Powercards at the lifeless khaki playground of Dave & Buster’s. Away with those spoiled summer campers! Let them scratch their mosquito bites and sink their Fiberglas canoes.
This is an oasis for the lost boys only—determined young men desperate to blow some steam, burn some August, and cough up every last cent. Who says these kids don’t have a plan? The plan is to win! To conquer lost worlds! To eliminate evil emperors! So let them play.
The only women stationed at the Time-Out arcade in Silver Spring’s City Place shopping center are the curvaceous computer-generated variety, wanton for some manly assistance (and much bigger bikinis). This is a joystick-equipped public locker room, overrun by hard-core gamers who refuse to let Nintendo 64s and Sony PlayStations shackle them to the family-room couch. These are the last of the American vid-geeks, guys who still want their high-score triumphs to go public.
It’s the end of an era. And the rocket men of Time-Out are going out with a bang.
Finding a true-blue arcade anywhere near D.C. is no easy task. The gaming center at the Shops at National Place shut down some time ago, and the virtual Neverland that dominated Gaithersburg’s Rio complex is now nothing more than scraps of colored paper and an overturned bumper car. But discover the wilds of Time-Out, and you’re set for the day, week, summer. It may be the hottest place in the mall—all those button-slamming bodies crammed into a tight little room—but it’s not nearly as scalding as 98-degree blacktop. And who really wants to be outside?
Theron, 17, and Chris, 18, both of whom are from Silver Spring, both of whom are wild-eyed and wired, gather ’round the newest jewel in the Time-Out digital crown: Silent Scope. It’ll cost you three tokens—75 cents—to snuggle up with a sharpshooter’s rifle and pick off rooftop baddies one by one, but it is sooo worth the expense. A sexy female voice is drawing gamers in like the song of the sirens—”Silent Scope! Silent Scope!”—and the directions are simple enough: “Do Not Shoot Innocent Bystanders.” Silent Scope has an hour’s wait, but Theron and Chris are putting in the time.
Leaning on a Die Hard game—no one shells out for Bruce Willis the entire time I’m at Time-Out—Theron watches intently as a friend works Silent Scope’s night-vision goggles and riddles his enemies with well-placed shots.
“This game gives me new respect for snipers,” Theron says quietly.
Chris gives a solemn nod: “No kidding. I hope they get this game for PlayStation.”
Feeling a little left out—and much older than my 29 years—I motion to Silent Scope and say, “I went to the stadium level. Had a little trouble with it, though.”
Theron and Chris shake their heads. The guy cuddling the Silent Scope gun looks away from the ongoing chaos and warns, “Whoa, man, you never pick the stadium.” And then—in case I didn’t catch his advice the first time—he adds, “Never go to the stadium.”
I only have one token left, and, although most of the 30-some video games here are two tokens at least, VirtuaCop is still relatively cheap. Almost immediately, I’m getting my ass handed to me by muscle-head thugs, but Theron—using his last token, too—picks up the other pistol and bails me out of a jam. Without saying a word, he just joins the game. Who says chivalry is dead? CP
Lying by the Pool
Some tall tales in the shallow end
By Michael Schaffer
At home, Ray has a huge back yard with a big pool. Real, real big. To show me, he stretches his 9-year-old arms wide, gritting his teeth as if to underline just how enormous the gesture is. Of course, Ray doesn’t go there. Not usually, at least. He’s at the public pool every day, he explains, because he likes to be with “the people.”
And a lot of “the people” apparently share his desire for company. As the thermometer pushes 98 on a Thursday afternoon, there’s an entire kingdom of kids on Arkansas Avenue, an underwater city—well, actually a clinging-to-the-sides-and-splashing city—of preadolescents. Faced with the rare non-kid who isn’t interested in splashing or dunking them, they gather ’round and take turns demonstrating their aquatic prowess: underwater handstands, back flips, the dead man’s float.
For his part, Ray doesn’t join in with the chlorinated showoffs. He’s still waiting to get a lifeguard’s permission to swim solo in the 4-foot-6-inch deep end. (And Ray’s not his real name, but I’m using it in the interest of sparing him a further afternoon of unplanned dives.) So far, it seems the other kids’ skill at swimming-pool acrobatics exceeds Ray’s.
On the other hand, I think it’s safe to assume that none of them lead the life of adventure that Ray does.
Take the time he went to Africa. For a day. It was crazy. There were grizzly bears and all kinds of other wild animals around. Ray’s dad caught a tiger.
How long were they there? Oh, one day. Ray says his old man woke him up and told him they were going. It took a couple of hours. I have a premonition it was a Friday—the day the pool is closed.
And then there was the trip to—what’s that place called with the games and stuff?—Atlantic City. In apparent violation of the state of New Jersey’s age restrictions for casinos, Ray won $5,000. What’d he do with it? He gave it to his dad, he tells me. Unfortunately, that’s when story hour gets cut short. Ray’s aunt is calling, and he has to leave.
A couple of days later, Ray seems a lot less interested in talking about his adventures. There are more pressing matters. “Will you tell those kids to stop messing with me?” he asks.
Instead of talking about his life, Ray wants to have a contest: Who can stay underwater longest? I time him.
Ray manages 15 seconds on his first try.
On the second, he’s at 19.
He gets 22 on his third dive. But he’s so excited that he goes straight back down and only does 15 again. 7st
Then Ray wants me to try. I plunge under and come up after a little while. “Twenty-five,” he says. In search of victory, Ray descends again. I’ve come to scratch down more dubious stories from a 9-year-old far more imaginative than I ever was, but this is kind of fun anyway. I count the time off on my hands, speeding them along. At 21, Ray emerges. “What’d I get?” he asks.
I pause for a second and deliver the score: “Twenty-six.”CP
Wat Thai Washington D.C. exposes Thai-American kids to meditation,
monks, and lots of Oscar Mayer Lunchables.
By Elissa Silverman
Pailin Varavut’s debuting her new hairstyle today: a 1-inch peroxide-blond streak on her bangs, which drape like curtains across her forehead. “I like it,” she giggles nervously as she pushes a clump of her shoulder-length brown hair back behind her right ear. Pailin believes her friends in the 11th grade at Centennial High School will think it’s cool, but no big deal. It’s not as though she dipped her entire head of hair, after all.
Her mom thinks differently, of course. “She says I look too white,” Pailin notes, and then pauses. “Too American.”
The tint has also grabbed the attention of almost all the fellow summer students Pailin has encountered this morning. “You dyed your ha-air,” a young boy with short dark hair chants as he chases another boy with short dark hair past her picnic table. “You dyed your ha-air.” Everyone here has dark hair. There’s not a blond, dirty blond, or even redhead in the crowd. Almost all the boys sport short buzz cuts; all the girls straight, shoulder-length dark-brown or black hair.
And Pailin’s not going to glean any other tips about cultural nonconformity from her summer program sponsors: Thai Buddhist monks, who all wear the same uniform of shaved heads, orange robes, and sandals. At Centennial, Pailin is one of five Thai-Americans in a school of approximately 1,500 students. So her parents have decided to immerse her and her older brother Mati this summer in the customs of their own childhood at Wat Thai Washington D.C.
Pailin wonders what the monks must think of her new ‘do. At Wat Thai, the second generation engages in the traditional push-and-pull against both assimilation and ethnic solidarity. Most students, like Pailin, take an integrationist approach and view Wat Thai as cultural enrichment. A few see it as the path to spiritual enlightenment.
It’s a little less dense than the suburbs of Bangkok. The Wat Thai campus, located at 13,440 Layhill Road in Wheaton, contains a pink-and-white two-story A-frame Buddhist temple and a rambling ranch-style red-brick house on its left. A little after 8:30 a.m., a bell clangs, and about 20 children assemble between the temple and the circular drive, which hosts a flower bed and three flagpoles: The stars and stripes as well as the state flag of Maryland are already flapping, but the red, white, and blue bars of Thailand have yet to be raised.
Two Thai women usher the youngsters into four gender-segregated rows. The women study education at Chulalongkorn, Bangkok’s most prestigious university, but they’ve come to the United States this summer to teach young Thai-Americans about the mother country’s language, customs, and sports. One takes over the microphone and leads the children in the Thai national anthem while the flag is hoisted.
Most of the students have a distinctly American attitude toward reverence. Pailin and Mati skip the morning ceremony. Mati drives both of them to the temple, and they usually leave the house late. The other older students who attend Wat Thai left for a trip to Thailand two weeks ago, so they don’t feel that obliged to come, anyway.
Down the hallway about an hour later, the most advanced students are learning about Thai literature. I put my hands together for the traditional Thai greeting and apologize for interrupting. “No, please, interrupt,” says Mati, who wears a Newport With Pleasure T-Shirt and baggy, hiphop-style jeans. Monk Phramaha Taweepong says that the biggest challenge for teachers and the monks is dealing with the Thai-American students’ freedom of expression.
In broken English, Wat Thai principal Sopit Rajwongsuk attempts to explain the lesson. Most of the teachers have limited English skills and speak to the students exclusively in Thai. “I’m assuming you’ve read Lord of the Flies?” Mati asks me, cutting off his teacher. “It’s sort of like that.”
The other three students, including his sister, laugh. “I have such awesome sarcasm, people can’t even detect it,” Mati says.
Ten minutes later, the students head for lunch. While the adults munch down on leftover Thai food offerings given to the monks, the kids mostly snack on Oscar Mayer Lunchables. Three eat the Taco Bell variety pack.
Pailin, meanwhile, opts for a sandwich. Like most Wat Thai students, she says she would rather distinguish herself as an American, not as a Thai. “Sometimes I’m embarrassed to have new people come to my house,” she admits. At home, her parents cook the traditional dishes that Americans—Pailin’s friends apparently not included—spend so much money on at a seemingly endless number of purple-neon Thai restaurants. “If I’m going to have a party, I make sure that they don’t cook anything offensive the night before,” she adds.
Moments later, a few monks come out to mingle in their orange robes and sandals. In Thailand, monks are a ubiquitous part of the landscape, and everyone—religious or not—knows how to behave toward them. But most Wat Thai students have the same awkwardness secular Americans have around monks. “I don’t know how to act around them,” says Pailin. “If I pass one of them, I don’t know how to talk. I usually try to duck.”
Pete Naksomboon doesn’t avoid the monks. Right now, he’s lounging with two younger students on the white couch in the monks’ business office. With its posters and maps promoting Thailand, Macintosh computers, and metal desks, the office looks like a travel agency. Clutching a book called Wandering Monks in Twentieth Century Thailand, Pete tells the younger kids Thai ghost stories. He points to a spot on the map of Thailand and tells the youngsters about a creature that sucks “pregnant women’s blood.”
That couldn’t possibly be true, one of the youngsters challenges Pete.
Of course it is, Pete tells him: “My master told me.”
This summer, Pete—a 13-year-old Rockville eighth-grader—is training as a novice forest monk. Dressed in a smaller orange robe and sporting a shaved head and athletic flip-flops, he has spent a month living and studying with the monks at Wat Thai.
Forest monks, Pete explains, lead a nomadic life in the Thai forest. In order to simulate that lifestyle, two monks took Pete and three other novices to live for a week in the wooded area behind Wat Thai. Pete offers a tour of the “forest” and points out his favorite spots for meditation. “It’s a life of facing fear,” Pete says of the forest monk lifestyle. “It’s all about meditation.”
A little under 5 feet tall, Pete admits he’s a little afraid of the wooded trail. First of all, he explains, the area contains wolf spiders that can kill. And then he adds some detail better suited to American urban myth than Thai ghost story: “A girl hanged herself around here, maybe in June,” he says.
Each morning, the students spend an hour with the monks learning the precepts of Buddhism and meditation in the main temple. Shoes off, they sit in front of the golden altar, which features a life-sized Buddha with legs crossed. Smaller Buddhas, fresh flowers, and four-legged tables are stacked together. Three monks, including Pete and another novice, sit in front of the altar facing the other students.
The students place their hands together and then bow to the ground. But after about half an hour, they begin to giggle, talk, and practice the morning’s Thai boxing moves. The Tibetan Freedom Festival it ain’t. Some of Pailin’s friends shelled out big dollars to watch Americans swoon over Buddhism and the Beastie Boys last summer. But to most of the young meditators at Wat Thai, devout or not, it’s about as spiritually uplifting as a Hallmark card.
Which is why it’s no surprise that Wat Thai’s campers spend a lot of time being scolded in distinctly American tones. Another young monk delivers the day’s sermon, in the same teenage American English as Pete’s. “You guys have got to pay attention,” he says. “When I first came here, I didn’t get anything out of it because I kept playing,” he tells them. “If you think this is for fun, it ain’t.”
The teen, like the monks and teachers, emphasizes how their behavior would never be tolerated in the mother country. “You guys can’t disrespect the teachers anymore,” he adds. He warns the youngsters that bad behavior will take away the extra-long recess they enjoy at lunch. That seems to drive the point home.
“You’re not here to play with friends, start fights,” he says. “When we tell you to meditate—meditate.”CP
The Last Night of Camp
On a steamy rural Pennsylvania hillside, 111 D.C.-area kids struggle through the final days at Camp Hormone.
By Jason Cherkis and Amanda Ripley
Andy, the head counselor, is patiently building a fire in a clearing of 12- and 13-year-olds. The kids have gathered around him just after dinner, sitting in neat rows on wooden planks. It is still light out. There’s still time for the kids to yammer away, fuss with each other, fake-fight with their counselors. Tonight, it’s as if the camp directors have bribed the gods into calling up just the right props at the right moment. Dusk. Fireflies. Darkness. Fire reflecting off the lake. Songs. Long looks into the distance. Tears. The end of summer camp.
Just as nightfall descends, the bundles of twigs and toilet paper ignite from smoke to full flame. The kids lean forward, crane their necks, and finally succumb to the ritual. They know that this bonfire is different from all the others at Camp Reich, because it marks the last night here. For many of them, this may also be the last summer at camp—under the trees in Waynesboro, Pa., without jobs or parents or learner’s permits or clean underwear.
On cue, a counselor with a guitar appears as the sun sets, and the kids begin to sing. They even put their arms around each other’s shoulders and sway, gently. Two girls break from the bleachers and start to do an impromptu jig on the grass. A group of boys bear-hug their counselor. The guitarist looks a lot like Jewel, and for a brief instance it looks as if she’ll play to an appropriately rapt audience.
The moment doesn’t last. Seconds after Jewel breaks into a new song, she’s forced to stop playing. Instead of using the real lyrics, which are in Hebrew, a group of boys in the back have started singing their own version of the song: “Rabbi’s daughter just got molested/Running nude/Running nude/Running nude.”
Camp is like this: moments of harmony interrupted by unpredictable flashes of naughtiness and nastiness. Especially in the middle-school years and particularly at summer camp, the kids are starting to outgrow their innocence. The official camp line is that the kids come here year after year for the fabulous activities, the breathtaking scenery, and the Jewish traditions. But the real draw is the freedom. They will remember the bated-breath anticipation of hi-jinks and heartthrobs a lot longer than the few desultory lessons from the Torah.
The campers—for one month out of the year—exist solely in a preteen biosphere: This session, various industrious kids have invented a “Burp Choir,” cultivated a collection of 20 praying mantises, and experienced the 24-hour romance. On any given night, there could be broken hearts or broken windows.
There usually aren’t, but the possibility exists. And that’s why the kids left their homes outside of D.C. to spend the summer at a Jewish summer camp. They packed their parents’ cars with CDs, stuffed animals, semiautomatic water guns, and dress clothes for Shabbat dinners. They couldn’t wait to get here, until they did—as they approached the camp, where the road starts to bend and climb up through the woods, they got that twisting sickening feeling that goes along with summer camp: one part excitement, two parts terror.
Four weeks later, they have all survived—except for one boy who kept disappearing for hours, whereupon the camp made him disappear forever, with a call to his parents. After a month of hard living, the camp looks dingy and the kids look even dirtier. Tomorrow, they will go back home to their parents’ houses in the suburbs. They have had just about enough of mosquitoes and humidity and each other.
But that escape is one whole, vital night away. Tonight, the kids gather around the bonfire spot for one final sing-along session. Later, there will be a slide show and dance parties and, undoubtedly, one last midnight raid.
To record these spectacles of youth, we’ve made a couple of one-hour road trips from Washington to Camp Reich, one of three camps run by Capital Camps. In keeping with camp etiquette, the girl reporter has stuck with the girls as they contemplated adolescence, and the boy reporter has accompanied the boys as they contemplated preadolescence.
The bonfire is where they come together. As the kids strike up “Stand by Me,” a boy named Danny is engaging a girl named Julie in a debate over the size of her breasts. “I’m not flat—I just look flat,” Julie says. Danny, his Yankees hat on backward, looks unconvinced.
He’s about to ask her to explain the science of that statement when his friend raises the stakes. “The other day, Danny was explaining the difference between you and a board,” says the friend.
“No, I wasn’t, you idiot,” says Danny, whacking his friend on the shoulder. “I wasn’t talking about her,” he says, leaning in to whisper the name of the girl he was referring to. But the damage has already been done.
“That was really rude,” says Julie’s friend.
And a slightly blushing Julie—a tiny girl with a lovely prepubescent face—stands up for herself: “It’s really not funny. I get that all the time, and it’s not funny.”
On a hot Thursday afternoon a week before the end of camp, I stop in at a woodworking class. At Camp Reich, each camper majors in one activity; their choices range from enticing (rocketry) to hopelessly dull (nature). Woodworking, which is somewhere in between, takes place in a log cabin lit by Christmas-tree lights.
The first thing I notice is the class roster: Lauren, Marcie, Roxanne, and Deidre (and Alex and Josh). I start to wonder if maybe times have changed that much since my high school woodshop class—where the girls made cookie trays because they had to and the boys made fun of them.
And then I meet the teacher, Yaron. Everything becomes clear. It turns out that when Yaron is not spending the summer at Camp Reich, he is an underwear model in Israel. “He’s gorgeous,” whispers Faye Bousel, the camp director. Yaron has olive skin, thick wavy hair, and a body that rarely occurs in nature.
Unfortunately for Yaron, the girls have taken little interest in working wood, leaving him and his physique to cut, sand, and stain their oddly shaped creations mostly by himself. Meanwhile, the kids stand outside the cabin, arguing about his looks. “People call him Ricky, but I don’t think he looks like Ricky Martin at all,” says Rachel, who has ventured over from photography.
When activity time ends, the girls leave woodworking without even bothering to check on the status of their projects. By this time, Yaron has lost some luster. His English is shaky, and, let’s face it, he’s kinda old.
Across camp, I spend three hours following Tyler, 12, through his play rehearsal, a spoof on Saturday Night Live. I share a sticky plastic seat during a van ride to the small amphitheater.
When the production starts, Tyler plays, in turn, a wobbly grandfather, a perfect imitation of Austin Powers complete with sexual swagger, and an illiterate surfer dude. He digs into each role with ease, partly because he has written all of his own lines. For the closer, Tyler and his peers belt out that Annie staple, “Tomorrow,” 50 or so times. His voice flatlines on the high parts, but he still bellows through each take. It’s enough to make me wish the sun would never come out; even the chirpy counselor supervising the rehearsal cringes. She finally stops the song, telling her off-off-off-Broadway crew to forget about the high notes.
After rehearsal, Tyler returns to his bunk, Sinai. It’s “Shower Hour.” As we walk up to the igloo-shaped cabin—this campground started life as a space camp—Tyler turns to me suddenly. It’s a different Tyler from the low-rent Dana Carvey of play practice, one that I’m not used to. “Can you, like, not be around when I’m taking my shower?” he asks. His eyes open up, pleading.
I’m not sure Tyler will even take a shower. He looks as if he’s been wearing dirt for days.
Then again, I wouldn’t want to shower if I were him. His seventh-grade bunk is an uncomfortable place during Shower Hour. For these kids, this period before dinner offers up a terrifying ritual of communal nakedness—plunging their pale, puny frames into one of three stalls trickling lukewarm water. And the humiliation is compounded by the unpleasant fact that the kids have to wade their unprotected parts through a bathroom that looks like a dried creek bed littered with dirty tightie-whities and sweat socks. Everything seems steeped in a brown, musty murk. I can see why Tyler ain’t having any of this.
But Tyler buys into the rest of camp completely. He’s spent almost half of his summers here. Camp is what he knows. He’s sure about its landscape. He sums up the joint in five words: “Everything is on a hill,” his eyes focusing, microscope-sharp, at me.
But those awkward subjects of camp mythology—the zit-bit boy bodies, the mysterious opposite sex—are another story. Pasty, bushy-headed Tyler would sooner swallow his own tongue than French-kiss a girl—a badge of honor for the older boys.
“We are just thinking about getting into, getting into girls,” Tyler says over a spaghetti-and-meatballs dinner.
Even though they are penned up just a few cabins away, Tyler is as far from the eighth-grade boys as he can be.
Mount Carmel Cabin
On the walk back from woodshop, through the trees and past the canteen over to the main campground, the girls cannot stop gushing about the camp—and their cabin in particular. “We’re like sisters!” Rachel says.
Right from the start, she says, she felt as if she was among family—not like at Camp Louise in Maryland last summer, which she hated. “You can quote me on this,” Rachel says, not for the first time. “Let’s say someone told you that you were going to be with 11 people that you did not know, who came from all over the world, and you had nothing to do with them; if someone told you that at the end of camp you’d be best of friends, you never would have believed them.” She insists on taking me to her bunk to witness the harmony.
While we walk, Rachel talks without pausing for breath—as if afraid that I may wander into some other cabin if she lets anyone else speak to me. Rachel is a 13-year-old from Bethesda. She is allergic to smoke, beef, peanut butter, and sweat, she reports. Unlike many of the girls, Rachel still has a skinny body that’s always in motion, and she shows only passing, giggly interest in boys. She is
at least 80 percent kid, as is evidenced by the way she decorates the wall around her bed at camp—with tacked-up letters from her mom and dad.
But even Rachel has had at least one flirtation with summer loving. She has to be goaded into telling the story by her bunkmates, but finally she relents: “We all call him Boner Boy,” she says, lowering her voice. “We went out for, like, a day. But I broke up with him because he always has a boner! [wild, merciless giggling all around] He would get boners in the pool, and then he would try to push them back down! He even got a boner when Jessica shook his hand! So we went out for 16 hours, and then I told him I needed space before school started and whatever.”
Suddenly Rachel stops talking to pull her strawberry Fruit Roll-Up out of her mouth. “Look, you guys, my tooth!” As everybody gathers around, Rachel holds out the Fruit Roll-Up. Her tooth is buried in the candy. She cheers, blood dripping out of her mouth.
After evening activity—a suspect program on Jewish prayer featuring a hulking, sweaty rabbi in a too-small tank top who spends most of his time asking for quiet—I am assigned to a cabin of eighth-grade boys, Mount Hermon.
I am told by a flock of girls that the cabin
has been renamed Mount Hormone. It’s for good reason.
Heading over to the bunk, I run into a female counselor. She gives me a simple, direct warning: “The boys have been trying to anal-rape their CIT with a broomstick all summer,” she says, as if this is no big deal. “They are probably going to try and rape you. Sleep on your back.”
I knock and enter the bunk. A crowd of boys—in full, twitchy glee—work over their CIT, Eric. One camper, Danny, holds the broomstick. He waves it around like a sword and then goes for the plunge, poking Eric’s posterior. After a few narrow misses, Eric gets the best of the kids and breaks free.
Now I understand how Tyler feels. This is the barbed-wire hurdle between him and adulthood, and I don’t blame him for staying on the youthful side of the fence. Here the kids wear their ballcaps backward, have memorized all the songs off the South Park soundtrack (the bunk favorite: Chef Isaac Hayes’ “Chocolate Salty Balls”), and talk an awful lot about which girls are “bitches.”
Eric, 17, dismisses his near-rape. “It’s just kids being kids,” he explains. His face, red and sweaty, tells a different story. “It’s just kids being themselves. They’re 13 years old.”
Dressing for Dinner
Rachel and I reach her bunk just in time for Shower Hour, when the girls get ready for dinner. I am here to observe the sisterhood. But inside, camp’s emotional sine curve has arched up again. A terrific catfight is under way.
“Fuck you!” A snarl.
“No, fuck you!” Another.
“She put her shit on my shoes, and now I can’t even find them!” The meat of the argument.
“I didn’t put anything on your shoes!” Crying hysterically now.
“We’re having some problems now,” Rachel concedes, pursing her lips knowingly. Apparently, the cabin has two factions: one troubled, clingy girl vs. everybody else. “Both sides are being rude,” says Rachel. But within minutes, the fight dissipates as the girls obsess over what to wear to dinner. Emotions come and go in this cabin like flies.
“I have no clothes!”
“Who will wear shorts with me?”
“Ethan saw her naked!”
“Never mind. I’m wearing jeans.”
Minutes later, the girls reconvene outside. They are unrecognizable from their earlier selves; they stand on the dirt path swatting bugs and wearing platform shoes, eye shadow, body glitter, and bra-strap headbands. “If it’s not tight or short, it’s not in,” remarks Ellyn, the stone-faced Daria of the cabin, who wears clothes that are both baggy and long. The other girls have long since labeled Ellyn the most mature person at the camp, counting the counselors. She does a lot of eye rolling and occasionally wanders off on her own to sketch, but she likes to come back and say snarky things to the “superficial” girls. She is fascinated by them almost as much as she is disgusted.
The long days of swimming and hiking clearly come second for most of those girls, who see nighttime as a chance to show off their soon-to-be-completed teenage selves. They wiggle into their strapless bras and short shorts with the kind of intensity no parent is likely to abate.
Most of the girls read Seventeen (even Ellyn) and shave their legs every two days. Shorts that go any longer than their mid-thigh are scorned as “lesbian-length.” In the corner of the cabin, the girls have spread out one extra sleeping bag and designated it for leg lifts and sit-ups. One slightly pudgy girl can almost always be found there, maniacally gyrating through various floor exercises. And so far, the girls are much more captivated by breasts than the boys. “You know when you wake up in the morning and they hurt? That means they’ve been growing,” says one girl to another, who in turn grabs her own breasts and shouts: “Grow, goddammit! Grow!”
And yet nothing special happens to the girls that night. They sit with each other at dinner, not with the boys. They go to the next activity and the next, ending up back at their bunk—perfectly content to dance around to the Beastie Boys with the lights off and fall asleep at midnight. I am the only one who looks disappointed.
It’s 10:45 p.m., and the boys of Mount Hormone have banded together on an unoccupied bed. They ignore the fact that the bed is covered with clothes of unknown ownership. They try to whisper, but can’t help talking over one another. They are too nervous, too excited to obey any “lights out” orders.
Soon, scratching voices fall on top of scratching voices until they are all yelling at each other. Finally, Lawrence whispers himself hoarse: “Shut up!” Lawrence is the leader of the Mount Hormone boys. He wears an earring. He has armpit hair.
“We’re going to dress all in black,” Lawrence instructs his buddies, Danny (the broomstick wielder) and Mike.
They are planning to raid one of the girls’ bunks, Mount Herzl. Apparently, the girls are playing a game of strip poker. It will be their first raid all summer, their first time alone with more than a dozen girls. “Rachel said it would be worth our while,” Mike explains. That’s enough for Lawrence and Danny.
But Mike doesn’t like their odds.
The big problem is Uri, the counselor on watch. An Israeli, Uri has just finished his stint in the army, and the kids are convinced he’s eager to make some fresh kills. In fact, the kids are scared of all the Israelis.
“You think he won’t be able to see us?”
Lawrence finally agrees to forget about dressing in black. “We’ll go down to the street and stay low to the ground. You want to wait 10 minutes, 15 minutes.”
At 11 p.m., Mike leaves the bunk to do a Uri check. He comes back with bad news. There are at least a half-dozen Israeli counselors out there. “They are just sitting there, and Oren is playing the guitar softly,” Mike says. “Anything, and they’re going to hear us.”
Mike’s resolve is crumbling, fast. The guitar playing is just their ruse. They want the kids to think they’re not paying attention. “We won’t make it. We may get there, but we won’t make it back!”
Lawrence finally breaks the tension: “Screw the Israelis!”
Danny agrees: “Who cares!”
With that, the three boys gather their courage and leave. They walk out the back door of Mount Hormone and through the woods. Danny instructs everyone to walk “toes first,” so as to crunch quietly on the leaves and gravel. “Shhh!” he mutters.
They shuffle up a cleared path, scuttle low through the tennis and basketball courts, and stop by the dining hall. The lights are on. You can still smell spaghetti dinner in the sticky, humid air.
They dash around the cafeteria, glide against the walls, and flutter through the shadows. They round the corner of the cafeteria and finally see Herzl, just 20 feet away. The three hit the dirt and watch for any flashlights. All clear.
They dart toward the girls’ cabin without much direction. The only sounds the boys make are the nervous patter of sneakered feet and heavy breathing as they approach the door to Herzl. They are polite enough to knock.
In a Trance
The Herzl cabin, just before the raid: A half-dozen girls in sweatpants and nightshirts have gathered alongside a vacant bed. The girls are hardly visible in the darkness, save for a few jack-o’-lantern faces lit up by flashlights.
They sit together, some clutching each other’s arms, others holding hands. And at their feet is Julie—their test subject to be placed in a trance. The objective: to get Julie to reveal her secret crush. She lies on the floor super-still, staring up at her friends.
“It’s time,” Leah, the bunk hypnotist, says, ordering quiet.
But Leah isn’t so sure this trance will work. When she first introduced herself, she told me she was an expert trance-inducer, that she was famous for getting her girlfriends to speak their subconscious thoughts. In the course of the next 10 seconds, she changed her mind three times about whether the trances are real or only imagined.
For the girls, this ritual is a lot easier than actually sharing their feelings in public. Crushes are cruel, boys are crueler, and girls with secrets can be the most evil of all.
“You can get them in a deep dream,” Leah explains, for now a believer. “You can get them to say stuff—like who they like. But when you’re done, you have to wake the person up, or they won’t wake up.”
This has Julie a little nervous. Leah sits down cross-legged next to her. “Put your head back further,” she whispers. The girl lays her head in Leah’s lap and closes her eyes. “Count backwards from 100 and try not to think of the numbers,” Leah instructs, now rubbing Julie’s temples. “C’mon, just relaaaax.” Julie starts to count down in a
“99, 98, 97, 96, 95, 94…”
“Relax,” Leah purrs.
The girls lean forward ready, to find out Julie’s latest secret crush. A few numbers later, Julie starts losing count—”82, 81, 80, 82, 85, 84, 83, 82.”
Leah looks up, still rubbing Julie’s temples. The girls hold each other still and start murmuring.
“It’s working,” Leah whispers, amazed. “Where are you? Julie, where are you?” she asks. “Are you in a certain place?”
“Yeah,” Julie says. She has spoken. The girls lean in even closer.
“Where? Are you with somebody?” Leah asks. This is it, one more question and Julie’s crush is exposed.
Suddenly, one of the girls bursts into giggles, and then another. It’s over. Julie bursts, too.
They insist the trance was a success.
Lawrence, Mike, and Danny enter the Herzl cabin to hushed fanfare from the girls: giggles, gushing full-metal smiles, and hands filled with candy. Soon the boys scamper onto the girls’ beds. They do what they know—romp around the cabin hovering nervously between tackling and talking to the girls. Courtship is limited to copping feels, snapping bra straps, and telling smutty jokes about the girls’ “Virginias.”
Truth be told, there was no strip poker.
Most of this girl-boy time is spent finding hiding places for when Uri shows up. Once that issue is settled, the boys try to cajole the girls into coming back to their bunk. The girls are easily convinced.
“We just want to see all the guys,” gushes Amy, standing among a cotillion of smiling girls. “It’s scary, and you aren’t supposed to
Fifteen minutes later, Lawrence is hiding—hunched atop a toilet with Rachel. It’s Uri.
He grabs Lawrence by the shirt and gives him a good yank, and he’s out the door.
Still hiding, Danny and Mike are worried enough about their pimpled comrade to sneak out a few seconds later. They thought they might take a few girls back with them, but now they think better of it. They don’t get caught on the way back.
When they return to Mount Hormone, just before 1 a.m., Lawrence is standing in the doorway with a big grin, his arms raised to fists as if he just won a gold medal for panty raiding. “It brought thrills,” Lawrence boasts of the raid. “We’ll do it again some other time,” he exclaims. “But not with Uri.”
For all their bravado and self-anointed studdom, the reality of the situation falls far short of American Pie. The girls are still very much a mystery. When I ask the boys what really happened, they are surprised by the very directness of the question. Their faces cloud up; they aren’t too sure what happened. Specifics are few.
“We talked, got hugs,” Lawrence says quietly. “They said how brave we were for sneaking out there. It brought thrills.”
They all agree: The Hormone-to-Herzl trip was worth it, even worth getting caught. In fact, the three boys say that the planning of the raid—getting to the girls—was the best part.
Still, Danny titillates the other boys—the ones in their pajamas, who can only hear about the raid. “It was exhausting,” he boasts. “It was fun.”
Four days later, Danny will have a real story to bring back to the bunk. After weeks of purple nurples and wrestling, Danny will describe his first French kiss.
Don’t Know When I’ll Be Back Again
No one starts crying on the last night until the guitar-playing counselor strikes up “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
A group of girls huddled to the side of the fire don’t make it past the first chorus. One starts crying, then another and another. A few are actually shaking with sobs, their friends holding them up. Minutes before, they were laughing. But suddenly reality set in.
Two girls are at the center of the drama, racked with tears. “I love camp so much!” one says, her voice cracking. She is worried that some of her friends won’t return next year.
But, in fact, the crying is as much a part of the ritual as the bonfire. One girl reports that she used up four rolls of toilet paper last year. And it looks as if the record may be broken tonight.
Meanwhile, the boys are standing on the fringes, watching the girls wail. They look slightly annoyed at the display of emotion, some of which is clearly an act.
“Who cares?” says Lawrence. “I really want to go home. I love this camp so much, but…we’re tired. It’s been a long session.” Usually, he says, he cries when he gets home.
By morning, though, at least a few boys have cried in earnest. The seventh-grade boys are pissed at the eighth-grade boys, who allegedly raided their bunk with toothpaste and shaving cream in the middle of the night. Everybody is exhausted and hungry, waiting to be let into the dining hall. The girls look like hell, too tired to have performed their beauty routine before breakfast. The infirmary lady is making one of her last mealtime rounds. Every day, she
has carried a tray around, distributing antidepressants and attention-deficit pills.
Enough campers get meds that no one pays
her much notice.
The camp director asks for quiet and then launches into a final rebuke, calling the raid a “violation of privacy, a violation of private property.” In the back, one of the seventh-graders—a notorious loudmouth named Boris—strides up to the eighth-graders and
puts it in his own words: “Whoever did this can suck my beloved cock!” Finally, the kids shuffle into the dining hall to eat the camp’s version of Egg McMuffins, one last time.CP
Teach a Kid to Fish
An Old Angle on Coming of Age
By Eddie Dean
A few years back, there was a TV program called The Southern Sportsman. No matter what activity was featured—whether gator wrestling or gander pulling or something even further afield—each episode ended the same: Host Frank White, a bearded, wheezing man with thick-rimmed glasses and a different hat every week, would tell his viewers, “Do yourself a favor. Take a kid fishing.”
The sage advice of the Southern Sportsman always sounded more like a scolding than a suggestion. Even then, millions of would-be angling toddlers had been lost to the video-game revolution. Now, in the age of Ritalin and Doom II and Six Flags America, fishing is about as popular with the youth as fencing tournaments.
On a languid summer day, the peninsula of Hains Point sizzles like a frying pan. Those braving the heat have found refuge in picnics or simply sprawling on the grass. Couples on lunch-break trysts entangle themselves on the hoods of their parked cars. A sickly breeze off the Potomac barely ruffles the weeping willows that line the paved banks of the point.
The few fishermen along the shoreline metal rail this afternoon are the hard-core regulars who spend all their days here, armed with a coolerful of bait and all the time in the world. These men move in slow motion, if they move at all. The Washington Monument dominates the skyline nearby, but they could be in the Florida Keys for all they care.
All the way down near the end of the point is a sight that would warm the heart of the Southern Sportsman. Under a shade tree, an old man and a boy stand at the rail—as still as statues—holding their fishing poles over the edge.
The boy is skinny as a tadpole and serious as a broker. On his bony frame hang a loose Hoyas tank top and a Tazmanian Devil gold medallion sparkling in the sun. He’s got a black stocking wrapped tightly on his head. His name is Charles Cary III, and he’s been fishing since he was 4 years old, more than two-thirds of his life. “He taught me how,” he says, gesturing. Beside him is his grandfather, Charles Cary Sr. He leans against the rail in his paint-splattered pants, a white T-shirt, and a pair of worn socks.
They stare at the twin lines that disappear in the choppy waves of the Washington Channel. For bait, they’re using some crab meat they bought that morning over at the waterfront. It’s working pretty well: There are three catfish in a nearby bucket.
They’ve been here for hours now. Sometimes they don’t say a word for a half-hour. It’s clear that Charles III doesn’t need to be dragged down to the river; more than likely, he’s the one pestering the old man to go fishing. This is what they do all summer, either here or over by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or at some watering hole in PG County or down in Virginia along the Rappahannock River.
“That’s our waterfront property,” says Charles III, casting like a pro without taking his eyes off the water. His practiced technique and sober demeanor belie his age. Some time ago, he made the transition from boy fishing to fisherman. And now he’s casting about for other acolytes.
“Sometimes I carry him down there with eight or 10 kids,” says his granddad. “I built a pier 100 feet into the water. It’s in Mathews, in between Yorktown and Gloucester. That’s good fishing down there. You get a better quality of fish.”
One night, they reeled in 35 croakers down there. It’s also where Charles III caught four turtles. You don’t see many turtles up this way. On the other hand, a good fisherman can catch fish anywhere: All it takes is patience and know-how. “I caught a
4-foot rockfish right here,” says Charles III. He’s not bragging, just setting the record straight: Hains Point is a decent fishing hole, despite the helicopters and boat traffic and bustle of the nearby city.
“He wasn’t 4 feet, child,” says his granddad. “He was 3-feet-something.”
They had to throw the rockfish back in; it was out of season, and you need a license to catch rockfish, anyway.
Tomorrow, they’re going down to Solomon’s Island to do some really serious angling. They watch their lines. There hasn’t been a bite for a while now. Tide’s going out.
“I do it to relax,” says Charles Sr., breaking a long silence. “I get all tensed up at the house with all the women around there. So I come down here to relax.”
His grandson stays focused on the task at hand. “I just think about how big the fish is gonna be when I pull it in,” he says.
On another afternoon, at nearly the same spot, another granddad and grandson try their luck off the paved edge of the point. Charlie Moore lives in Northeast; he usually fishes at Chesapeake Beach or some Southern coast, like down in Morehead City, N.C. His grandson Mike Freeman is visiting from Canton, Ohio, so Moore is showing him the local fishing holes. “It’s kids’ day today,” he says, showing Mike how to cast on the junior-sized rod he just got him. “It’s a good character-builder. It teaches them patience.”
Mike shows off the bluegill he caught earlier in the afternoon. It’s barely longer than his palm, but the 6-year-old has his eye on bigger fish: “There’s a catfish in there bigger than me,” he says. “That’s what Grandpa Charlie told me.” CP
Kids along Alabama Avenue SE remake their neighborhood for themselves.
By Jason Cherkis
In the summertime, when the routine of school and homework has receded far from her consciousness, Gabrielle’s geography shrinks. Gone is Adelaide Davis Elementary School. Gone is H Street SE, the road she takes to school. What’s left is less than a city block—two rows of red-brick town houses along Alabama Avenue SE. The world becomes a patch of pavement, one stretch of lawn, and barely enough sidewalk to chalk.
Gabrielle, 9, isn’t allowed to go anywhere else. She is forbidden to cross Alabama Avenue—too many gang shootings, her parents say. The alley behind her house is off-limits as well, because too many cars speed by. She and her roughly dozen friends are thus confined to one little fenced-in area, beneath two white clotheslines. It’s the size of a batting cage.
But listen to them talk about their rectangle of pavement, and it grows to contain an infinite universe of possibilities.
Donta, a big, dimple-faced boy, leans against a fence. If you ask him about what they do there, he’ll give you a puzzled look—they do everything. “I like it when we get together,” Donta, 8, explains. “When we decide what game we play, we make it up. And then we play it.”
If the kids of Alabama Avenue are self-sufficient imagineers, it’s for good reason: They’re constantly looking for something to do. On a hot Tuesday afternoon, Gabrielle hooks a finger into the fence and stares into the alley, the one they are not supposed to play in. It’s not safe for 9-year-olds, not even bored 9-year-olds or 9-year-olds itching to go to the pool.
All it takes to escape is a suspension of disbelief and a rubber ball. The clotheslines form a makeshift basketball hoop. The metal poles holding the lines become a jungle gym for climbing. A middle stretch of fence is second base in kickball games or a net for volleyball. The fenced-in cage is also used for intense games of dodge ball, Concentration, “Mother May I?” and “Simon Says.”
The wall next to it works as a backdrop for skits, songs, and dance routines to old hits like “This Is How We Do It.” And an adjacent sidewalk is another stage, for jump rope call-and-responses—Double Dutch and Blueberry. Meanwhile, the identical red-brick patios that front each town house—when they are allowed to enter them—make great spots for hide-and-seek. At night, before showers, television, and bedtime, the kids make forts out of old chairs and sheets.
“We get to make stuff up,” Tasha, 8, says of her play space. “It’s soooo big.”
And then there’s the group’s own “Boys and Girls Club.” Some afternoons, Gabrielle and Derrick and Tasha and Kenneth and Tony sit cross-legged in a circle in the middle of the cage, beneath the heavy heat.
A meeting starts with a round of handshakes and salutations: “How are you doing?” They are polite—and stricter than their teachers would ever be: Fighting or missing two meetings, Tony says, means a kid is banished. The club is divided into girls
Kendra, in charge of the girls, shows up after finishing a round of household chores. This is cause for much excitement. The tallest and most mature of all the kids, Kendra exudes a know-it-all aura. The others respect her fiercely for it.
The main purpose, Kendra says, for their meetings is going over old schoolwork—mainly practicing cursive handwriting and rudimentary math skills. Her tone suggests that she’s above all these kids and this small play patch.
Kendra clutches a wad of old hand-me-down homework. The games stop, everyone looks ready to learn, and some even try to hustle the papers out of Kendra’s hand.
Unfortunately, today, there is a problem. The kids can’t find any pencils. After a few minutes, Kendra makes a practical decision. “We’ll put off the meeting,” she says. “We’ll just cancel it.” Meetings are held on a random schedule, usually late in the day, whenever they are bored enough.
Gabrielle seconds the idea: “‘Til Friday.”
Kendra agrees: “The fun day.” CP
Indoctrinating a new generation of commuters at the Go-Kart Raceway
By John Dugan
At some point in their lives, suburbanites change.
One day, they blink their eyes in traffic and suddenly realize that driving, the great American obsession, no longer means freedom and leisure. They find themselves on a one-way road that leads straight to gridlock, headache, and expense.
From then on, a low-level road rage simmers. Automotive bliss, they now know, is the stuff of SUV Ad-Land—a place where you can explore the Western frontier on stretches of deserted highway, park on a hill overlooking a valley, and ponder the ways of the world. Who was it, they now wonder, who sold them this bill of goods?
One easy answer lies at the Go-Kart Raceway in Alexandria. For a sweltering crowd of unlicensed, uninsured drivers, the track might well serve as the propaganda arm of Road and Track. Just a hubcap’s throw from a tied-up Beltway, the raceway remains a world where speed thrills rather than kills, and nary a jackknifed tractor-trailer is spotted. The experience narrows the thrill of driving—the rite and the rush of getting behind the wheel—in a parallel universe kids know all too well: the miniature.
Norman Jefferson watches his nieces and nephew run up to the track. He’s brought them from his nearby Riverside Park apartment on the other side of the Beltway. “I can see the sign from the balcony,” he says. “It’s kind of natural, because every kid, they want to drive a car anyway.”
Jefferson has a complete belt of 50 ride tickets. He could probably wrap them around himself twice and still be able to fit in one of the karts. This is a good thing, because a ride costs $2 a lap for a single-seater, $2.50 for a double. In the midst of a busy summer season, economic laws at the raceway are just as natural as the lust for speed.
Tickets exchanged, Jefferson’s younger relations strap themselves into their buzzing karts with H-shaped belts. After a briefing from pit man Kevin Goldsmith—no bumping; none, he repeats—they’re off. One by one, the karts turn left into the track’s first sidewinder. The modern motor may be stealthily silent, but here the rumble beneath the kart is a reassuring, vibrating reminder that the advent of the Machine Age was blissfully accompanied by a persistent racket.
It’s love from the git-go. Little Americans and their little machines.
Jefferson, meanwhile, is left to play the straight man. As his nephew comes speeding through the pit, pit man Goldsmith pleas with him to slow down. The youngster zips away, slightly embarrassed, not at all slowed. Next lap through—a driver must glide through the narrow pit stop every time—he’ll get a lesson on how to find the brake.
Thirteen-year-old Delaunte Hart breaks it down as he waits for another run. “It gives you the chance to experience what you can’t do,” he says. “If you want to drive in the street, you can’t. So you come here. It’s fun.”
And it’s fun that doesn’t get interrupted by tickets or sirens, either. There’s just one cardinal rule: “No Bumping”—an edict reinforced by countless signs placed around the track like roadkill. In any event, most of the ramming is accidental. Well, it’s sort of accidental—but then, the other kid cut him off and he shouldn’t have been there anyway.
Karts—they are never carts—at this raceway come in two varieties: There are wide two-seaters in red, blue, and orange, and one-seaters in basic black with racing number designations. All were manufactured by Johnson Kart of Milwaukee and run on 5.5 horsepower Honda air-cooled engines at maximum speeds of almost 20 mph, depending on the mass of the lead-footed occupant. “Most of them are originals, 15 years old,” raceway employee Janet Cariaga explains.
The raceway opened in April 1984. It’s a shrunken version of the standard Formula One track. Kids must be at least 4-and-a-half feet tall to drive themselves (measured by the ubiquitous faded painted yellow pole on the raceway fence). Pro-style night lights are mounted above the track, and new-school rap blares from the PA cone. Protective rings of tires surround the track.
The track, according to a flier, has “27 spine tingling turns.” A mechanic calls them “hairpin”; I’m not sure what the difference is. In any case, the little karts whip you around in a frenzy. But the track’s scale is really put into perspective by the Beltway, which sits in the background, its westbound traffic staggering to a halt on a Friday night.
Down here, on the other hand, it takes approximately two minutes to do a lap around the half-mile track without mishap. Of course, it’s more Mario Brothers than Mario Andretti. Nine-year-old Keelan Carpenter, like a lot of his fellow racers, spends a lot of time comparing the kart not to a commuting SUV but to a Nintendo vehicle. He finds the kart “faster, shakier, and harder to turn” than its video-game analogues.
Occasionally someone veers off the track and through the tires. All of a sudden, the PlayStation action features a real—but painless—accident. The parents and friends watching from the pit break out smiles whenever someone loses it.
The only big concern occurs when a driver comes ripping back into the car return area at top speed, with a look of helpless horror as foot seems cemented to accelerator. Ending his first lap, one of Jefferson’s nephews comes around a bend where a stop sign stalls the racer before the pit. Instead, he seems lost in the frenzied turning of the wheel and slightly confused that suddenly there are no turns. He straightens out and simply floors it. He comes careening into the row of empty karts, slamming them at full force.
With a jerk of a head, the wild ride ends, and a yellow-shirted “field supervisor” checks out the driver. At worst, the racer may have a brief headache. And, if he’s not too embarrassed, chances are he’ll be rolling again in a hot second, high speed, no interruptions. Don’t get too used to it, kid. CP
For students, there’s no escape from summer school. For teachers, there’s no escape from kids like Shaneice.
By Holly Bass
Nobody wants Shaneice. The art teacher thinks she’s too disrespectful. The computer lab instructors say she’s too loud. To the history teacher, she’s a constant obstruction. And I don’t want her around, either.
“It’s…it’s…not a child,” says one teacher, trying to convince the program director at Shaneice’s summer school to permanently banish her from his classes. “It’s a spirit, a demon.” Other teachers resort to begging. Each day, the student groups rotate between classes. And each day, the instructors beseech the program assistant who puts together the schedule to not give them Group 14—Shaneice’s group.
There’s only one person who ends up seeing a lot of Shaneice: By the last week of summer school, the 12-year-old will have visited the principal’s office more often than the bathroom.
Teaching summer school is a strange science. For teachers, being successful seems to have as much to do with the day’s pollen count and heat index as with creating innovative lesson plans. The nine months of a regular school year give teachers time to bond with students, to connect with a couple of troubled kids and reform a few bullies. With a short schedule and a constantly rotating cast of characters, however, summer school casts instructors as warriors, there to contend with broken air conditioners, distractible students—and kids like Shaneice.
The phenomenon of Shaneice is gender-neutral. She’s not the student who constantly gets suspended and eventually gets kicked out of school. Rather, she’s the one who comes close to crossing the line every five minutes, but never does something bad enough to get kicked out for. She downgrades the role of the teacher from educator to baby sitter. Instead of planning cool activities, teachers spend hours trying to think of legitimate ways to contain Shaneice so that at least some of the students can learn. And at summer school, one of those legitimate ways is simply avoiding her.
I teach creative writing. It’s not what the average 12-year-old considers cool, but I usually manage to overcome their misgivings. I’ve gotten adolescent boys to scribble lyrical poems about something other than sexing up the girl in the too-short mini. Once, I got an easily distracted younger boy in Group 14 to write nearly a page of careful script about Paul Robeson.
And then Shaneice walked in.
She was 30 minutes late, with no excuse or pass. Quickly, everything began to unravel. She decided she wasn’t going to write. Since everyone else was quietly writing or reading, I suggested that she lay her head on the desk and rest, kindergarten-style. It worked for about five seconds. When I looked up next, she was “tattooing” the names of sought-after boys on her friends’ arms with a metallic-ink marker.
“Uh, Shaneice, could you return to your desk and not distract your classmates?”
“Mm hmm. Just a minute, Ms. Bass. Let me finish drawing this flower on Nina. I’m almost done.”
“Shaneice,” I said again, using the quiet but sharp tone that black women employ to mean “Don’t start with me, girl.”
By now, the little boy who had been writing about Paul Robeson had also gotten up from his chair, to watch Shaneice’s artistry. Conversations erupted around the room. I tried to cordon her off by putting two empty desks on either side of her. I moved the boy to a corner in the back, so he wouldn’t be sucked in. And I spent the rest of the class period watching the clock, waiting for the minutes to wind down, vaguely trying to keep Shaneice from keeping the other students from doing what they were supposed to.
While the kids are on their break, we teachers speculate about what happens—or doesn’t—when Shaneice goes home, whether she suffers from attention deficit disorder. We talk about tactics to keep her in line. We talk about which kids she shouldn’t be seated with. We swap stories about whose class she’s disrupted the most. But mostly we talk about how
we can get the programmer to keep her off our schedules.
In the end, Shaneice wins. She stays in summer school until the final week. And we teachers mutter obscenities under our breaths and head back to the blackboard. We wait for the end of school. We wait for the end of Shaneice. CP
Homeownership may thrill their parents, but kids see just another place to live.
By Neil Drumming
The houses lining the 2300 block of Skyland Terrace in Southeast are none too remarkable from the outside. Each is a color-coordinated copy of the one on either side of it: 2312 is a light-olive house with black shutters on each of its five windows, 2310 is yellow with red shutters, 2308 is beige, and so on. It’s the same simple setup on Skyland Place, just one block over. This Thursday afternoon, like most others, there is a flock of African-American children playing in the yards, driveways, and out on the sidewalk. They seem to attach no real significance to any particular house, dashing in and out of them indiscriminately—or just opting to stay out as long as possible before dark.
The parents feel differently. Their sense of ownership, of property and place, defines their new lives. Skyland Terrace is one of those streets where Habitat for Humanity has been building inexpensive housing to be owned by low-income families. All hopeful homebuyers had to put in 500 hours of service for Habitat in addition to the low cost of their homes. Except in the case of the physically incapable, these ominously termed “sweat equity hours” usually included helping to build their own houses as well as the brand-new homes of others. Having paid for and built a dwelling literally with their own hands, these homeowners have a great feeling of pride and even greater expectations. It’s a big deal.
Lisa Pryor owns a home near the end of Skyland Place. With five active children, she is practically obsessed with its upkeep. Since her family moved in three years ago, Pryor has taken on a number of small projects to beautify and make the house more comfortable, “like putting a border up around the kitchen. You see, we never really got into things like that when I was living in my other home.” Her face lights up just talking about it: “This place brings out a lot of my inner beauties…and my creativity, and it’s motivating me to want to go out there and work and then provide for my family.” When people ask Pryor how many children she has, she admits, she often includes the house among them.
The pride in ownership is supported by the sense that the residents have done something real and tangible for their kids. Yvonne Walker of Stanton Road has held up her sweaty end of the bargain and is hoping to move herself and her two youngest children into their new home on Skyland Place in the fall or winter of this year.
“I live in the projects,” she states matter-of-factly. “It’s just time to move on. Do better.”
While their parents worked and saved to get them here, the children of Skyland just kept playing. For many, it seems as if the move was only a slight interruption in their daily activities. Eighteen-year-old Maria stands on her own front step before her newly mown grass munching down on a home-cooked turkey wing—even in the midst of it all, she shrugs off her parents’ efforts. She cannot fathom—at least for my benefit—why in the world they might want to move to this area from wherever they came from. Surveying the younger, happier kids with typical adolescent disdain, Maria remarks smugly, “A neighborhood is a neighborhood to me.”
Shanita, 8, sitting in the grass with her next-door neighbors and chums Malinda, 6, and Crystal, 9, measures a place by the people it holds. She describes the difference between her old neighborhood and Skyland as the simple difference between a “little bit of friends” then and a “whole bunch of friends” now.
Yvonne Walker’s 11-year-old son, Cornell, is not sure how his mother is getting the new house, which he insists she “talks about almost every single day.” Nor does he remember quite where it is. He is, however, certain that he is entitled to the “next-to-biggest” room when they move in. CP
Eating Your Heart Out
What’s the use of summertime without Snickers?
By Brett Anderson
Timmy Dykes has no recollection of the first pizza he ever had, but he’s heard about it. His mother, Mary Jane, remembers every last bite. That pie changed their lives. Mary Jane has pictures commemorating the event, and despite the fact that the meal happened more than six years ago, the mom recalls exactly how it went down.
“[Timmy] was 7 months old,” she remembers. “We had gone to Pizza Hut to have supper, and we were feeding him, as you would a young child, the crust off the pizza. He was fine at the time.
“On the drive home,” Dykes continues, “it was dark, and he started crying. I just thought he was tired—it was evening, a sleepy baby, whatever. He cried all the way home. When we got home, and the lights turned on in the car, here we found that his eyes were swelled shut. He was covered with hives. He was gasping for breath. He looked like a monster. He didn’t even look like a human child.”
Timmy was no better the next morning, but doctors were telling Dykes she had to wait several days for an appointment. She has a photo of Timmy taken three days after the Pizza Hut dinner. Even though the picture depicts a baby who’s fully awake, whose hives have mostly subsided, his eyes are still swollen shut. Timmy has the look of a baby who’s just been brutally mugged.
It took Dykes months to get her son properly diagnosed, and in the years since the near-fatal ordeal, Timmy, who’s now 6, has become accustomed to living fearlessly in the face of death.
The cause of Timmy’s Jekyll-and-Hyde routine, it turns out, was the pizza crust—or, more specifically, the wheat products that went into making it. But even if the wheat hadn’t gotten Timmy that day at Pizza Hut, there were plenty of other menaces lying in wait in corners all over the kitchen: barley, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, mustard, and small pea beans.
So Timmy knows little about the brain-reeling, sometimes gooey enjoyment of a cake or a late-night cookie binge. For his sweet pleasures, Timmy has had to make do with applesauce or Jell-O—neither one of which is very easy to pack into a lunch. Timmy’s 9-year-old sister, Amy, scoffs at many of the things that end up on his plate. “It tasted all the same to him,” she says. “Then we tasted
it and it was like…” She squishes her face up.
“There might have been two or three times at the most when he’s kind of whined about it,” his mother explains. “He just doesn’t mind that much.”
Hearing this, Timmy briefly interrupts his coloring. “I mind,” he says.
But not enough to take too many chances. Like most allergic kids, Timmy has grown out of some of his food allergies. (He’s recently discovered that he now can eat wheat and egg products.) When he overcame his wheat allergy, his mother served him a sandwich made with real bread. He couldn’t eat it—he was too afraid. Timmy turns 7 this August, and it will be the first time he’s ever had his own birthday party.
Most of the time, though, he can joke about it. At one point during our lunch, after listening to his mom go on at length about the time he almost died after eating a Snickers bar, which contains wheat, eggs, and nuts, Timmy sarcastically quips, “Mom, my throat feels scratchy”—one of the first signs that he’s eaten something he shouldn’t have.
Timmy carries a syringe with him to school—part of an emergency kit he takes wherever he goes. The shot is epinephrine, a drug that buys him enough time to get to the hospital should he have a reaction. He’s also got an inhaler for asthma and a card with directions on how to administer the shot in the event that he can’t do so himself. (It’s a task he is able to do without flinching; he even shows me how.)
The ’90s are the decade of the ersatz meal. There are soy burgers and Not Dogs, meatless meat and milkless milk. There are reams of information chronicling every last globule of fat that Fresh Fields-shopping America desperately wants to avoid. But there are not, so far, breadless bread and nutless nuts.
Immediately after finding out about her child’s condition, Dykes feared she wouldn’t be able to feed him. Grocery stores were like minefields—some products didn’t list all of their ingredients and others that appeared to be safe contained ingredients that caused Timmy to swell up. Being allergic to wheat, Mary Jane discovered the hard way, meant that Timmy needed to avoid not just that grain, but almost the entire bakery. Allergies necessitate a substitute culinary childhood.
That’s where Anne Munoz-Furlong comes in. Using the information she had gathered in raising her own food-allergic child, Munoz-Furlong started the Food Allergy Network in 1991 and now serves as a sort of Julia Child to the allergic set. The Fairfax-based network boasts more than 20,000 dues-paying members and aims to educate them on things Munoz-Furlong wishes she had known when she first found out about her baby’s condition.
Munoz-Furlong sends out bimonthly newsletters containing allergy-friendly recipes (milk-free cream filling), consumer tips, and the latest medical discoveries (a recent issue featured a physician-penned update on vaccine therapies); runs a food allergy hotline; and creates educational videos like Alexander, the Elephant Who Couldn’t Eat Peanuts. The titular character in the video, which is meant to boost the spirits of food-allergic kids, is a neurotic cartoon elephant analogous to Dumbo—only instead of floppy ears, Alexander has a food allergy. Alexander is depressed because the other elephants tease him. His mother consoles him by pointing out that he’s more normal than he thinks. Lenny the Lion, after all, is allergic to milk—and he’s the king of the jungle!
Munoz-Furlong can dash off a chocolate pound cake and maple cookies that are milk-, egg-, peanut-, soy-, and nut-free. It turns out there’s a big consolation for the allergy-ridden: Sugar may turn the little angel into a monster, but it’s rarely lethal.
By now, Dykes has gotten the business of feeding Timmy down to a science. She carries cards with lists of all the things Timmy can’t eat because of his allergies. Thanks to his mother, Timmy’s classroom is peanut- and peanut butter-free. I meet the Dykeses at T.G.I. Fridays for lunch, but we have to leave after the mother discovers that the kitchen uses peanut oil. At the Silver Diner, she quizzes the manager about the oil there, doesn’t trust the answers, and decides to order Timmy a microwaved hot dog with no fries.
Today, Timmy says that his favorite food is eggs. “For obvious reasons,” says his mother, “we don’t eat at that many restaurants.” But on the rare occasions when the family does eat out, they usually end up at Pizza Hut. CP
Steel This Drum!
The sounds of Trinidad—sort of—in Prince George’s County
By Ayesha Morris
They say music tames the savage beast. Music lessons, however, are another story. Squeaking violins, discordant pianos, and reverberating guitars may be an adolescent rite of passage, but they’re also nails on the psychological chalkboard of parents and neighbors and little sisters and probably even family dogs. Why can’t those kids just play something nice? Something easy, something that doesn’t squelch or crash or squawk. Like, you know, steel drums. How could you ever mess them up?
Easy. Very easy.
At 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, a low grumble of commotion is coming through a red door, around a white hallway of empty classrooms in the basement of the First United Methodist Church in Hyattsville. Inside a sizable auditorium, 33 kids behind 60 steel drums are gearing up for rehearsal. It’s not a pretty sight, and the sound is even less attractive. The tall frame of their musical director, Marc Anatol, affectionately known by the children as “Mr. Marc,” stretches above a partial drum set.
“Ready? From the top, from the top!” he yells above the cacophony of banter and musical notes straggling on from the end of the last song. In mere seconds, the kids in the back playing tenors and double seconds create two-way traffic between the rows of shiny metal instruments. They somehow, mysteriously, end up in place by the time the song starts again.
Drifting notes eventually converge into Vicki Sue Robinson’s 1976 classic, “Turn the Beat Around.” Draped in an oversized Redskins shirt, Jeremy Caesar emotes for the camera, waving his arms wildly and exaggerating his smile in the hope of being noticed. Then he turns around, still struggling to play his part on the double second, and tips his friend to the goings-on. “Daniel! Look!” he squeals. Nine-year-old Daniel Thibou glances across and grinds his entire 4-foot body into the notes he rolls out on the tenor pan.
Toward the left side of the room, the bass section doesn’t know its part. So it attempts to catch up while the rest of the band is hopping forward, slightly ahead in the song. Assistant musical director Malika Green sings a line and points to where they are supposed to strike next. But it’s too fast. The two girls scratch their heads and look bewildered.
It’s not the Kennedy Center, and it’s certainly not Port-of-Spain, but it’s a start. It had better be, considering that the band has a public performance in a couple of weeks, and the world will be listening.
The steel drum, also known as steel pan or simply pan, started off as an experiment by society’s young and rebellious. The instrument was created in the back yards of Trinidad and Tobago, first built from 55-gallon oil barrels left behind by an American naval base in the early 1900s. With refined production and tuning techniques, pan has grown into a popular musical instrument that’s fast moving beyond the Caribbean.
To Lorna Green, the founder of the Cultural Academy for Excellence summer program, the instrument is also an educational godsend. Green chose to work with steel drums in her Hyattsville camp after she sent her daughter, Malika, to a camp in Trinidad, where Malika learned how to play. After doing some research, Green realized that the steel drum is a relatively easy instrument. “You don’t become proficient overnight, but in just one day you can learn a simple song and feel encouraged,” she says.
Three years later, her six-week program features steel drums alongside the usual smattering of academics and life skills. Green has expanded from her Mitchellville basement to this church, where up to 40 students between ages 9 and 17 beat the drums four days a week. Parents send their children to learn a new instrument or to keep up the culture of the Caribbean. The kids, on the other hand, are just looking for one more summer diversion.
Given their prepubescent lankiness and caffeine-coated attention span, the kids eventually manage to stay within the timing fairly nicely. They play with relative ease. Sharon, who started on bass, moves to double second and tenor on different breaks between songs. Daniel jumps from tenor to tenor bass and then double tenor.
On the repertoire one summer afternoon is “Legends of the Millennium,” a medley wherein Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Dizzy Gillespie, Vicki Sue Robinson, and Simon and Garfunkel all have some say. Surprisingly enough, with only three-and-a-half weeks of practice under their belts, the children are listenable.
Starting off, they succeed in playing simple recognizable covers of “Jamming,” “Turn the Beat Around,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The music resounds off the walls and the bass line starts up again, and they’re on to a cover of Dizzy Gillespie.
They also have a dance routine down for every song. For “Turn the Beat Around,” they go from the running man to the bogle to a weird imitation of the Village People, arms pumping up and down. They’re also often caught jiggling about during unpredictable breaks in their parts. Daniel says he remembers when he had trouble learning the songs, but these days he prances about like a showman, contorting in drama as he pounds each note out.
Sharon Cyrus, whose father forced her to come to the camp, says she initially wanted to spend her summer working at CVS or Bath & Body Works. But as time went on, her feelings changed: “I went from just resenting, to tolerating, to somewhat enjoying it.”CP
Teenagers constantly try to buy cigarettes from local businesses. Meet 16 kids who get $10 an hour to do so.
By Laura Lang
Seventeen-year-old Josephine Stedman walks right into RK Liquors at 3rd Street and Florida Avenue NW, straight up to the counter, and looks the cashier square in the eye. She orders a pack of Virginia Slims, speak ing casually through the holes in the Plexiglas.
Stedman’s underage, but the cashier doesn’t notice—and he doesn’t seem to care too much, either. He quickly grabs a pack from the shelves and rings up the order. Stedman hands him a five. The cashier hands her the change and the ciggies, wrapped in gold.
That kind of transaction happens all the time on corners all over the city. But this time, the kid buying the cigs is quickly replaced by Deborah, a youth director at the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (APRA) who has seen the whole transaction take place. Deborah, who declined to give her last name, flashes some paperwork and tells the cashier he’s just sold cigarettes to a minor, without even asking for ID. The cashier tries to deny it, says he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But Josephine is still in the store, cigarettes in hand. Deborah jots down the name of the store’s owner. In a few days, the owner will get a warning in the mail from the Food and Drug Administration. A second offense will bring fines. Repeat offenders risk losing their license to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products.
The cashier, on the other hand, doesn’t have to wait for his comeuppance. He’s confronted by the cold, hard reality that he’s been had by a kid, a punk who’s probably making more money buying cigs off him than he is selling them to her. Josephine is an employee of an APRA program that has hired 16 teenagers this summer to do “compliance checks” at local stores and businesses. The job is a simple one: walk in, buy cigarettes, step aside, and let Deborah do the rest. Plenty of kids do it every day. For their end of the transaction, the kids get paid $9.99 an hour, 40 hours a week.
The stint is one of many within the District government’s SummerWorks ’99 program. The $5.9 million program this year placed 9,281 District kids, ages 14 through 21, in summer jobs with government agencies and private businesses all over the city. Most of the jobs are standard office setups—sorting files for a D.C. councilmember or answering phones at a local agency. But the APRA kids spend their summers out on the streets. As the city’s appointed teen vice squad, they earn their pay ratting out small-business owners. The people who run the program say it takes a special kid to serve as a ciggie nark.
“They have to be pretty good kids, because they have to go against peer pressure,” says Lawrence Jordan, APRA’s tobacco project coordinator. “We’re proud of all of them.”
This teen vice squad travels by minivan—a big brown one that’s covered with phone numbers for District agencies and a sign that says they’re on official “D.C. government business.” It doesn’t feel so official, though: As we drive along Florida Avenue, the kids bop around in the back seats, singing along with the radio and changing the station at every other song.
Not that some of these kids look all that young. Josephine, for one, could easily pass for 18, the legal age for buying cigarettes. She’s wearing simple jeans and a T-shirt, but she has a sharp scarf tied in her hair and the poise and confidence to make her seem years older. Another kid in the group, Charles Grandson IV, also looks well beyond his 16 years. He says he tries to cut some of the business owners a break by dressing down—in shorts—so that he looks younger.
But a couple of the kids don’t need to bother. Robert Crawford Jr., 17, and Charlitta Moreland, 15, look as if they’re hardly out of middle school. Not that it matters. Robert says he can still pull off a purchase almost half the times he tries, many of those even after the cashier has checked his ID and seen that he’s well below the legal age. “They just don’t care,” he says.
Her older look notwithstanding, Josephine gets rejected at the next store. The woman at Rafaer Grocery & Deli asks for an ID and confers with another behind the counter before finally refusing Josephine. She’s got young daughters, the cashier tells her, and she doesn’t want them smoking, either. Why doesn’t Josephine try jogging, she suggests.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do,” Josephine says as we leave.
But teens being teens, I have to ask whether—when they are not serving as the young arm of the law—they might take the occasional puff. The whole group erupts in laughter. “We’re too young to smoke,” scolds one student.
For the time being, their vice is working vice.
“The first time [you buy cigarettes], it’s kind of like a victory, like [you tell yourself], ‘I look old enough to buy cigarettes,’” says Josephine. “But after a while, it really makes you wonder.”
“It’s really shocking how quickly [stores] sell you cigarettes,” says Charles, who also happens to be youth mayor of the District.
Some of the marks don’t take too kindly to getting nailed. One of the most repeated stories among the crew is the one about the shopkeeper who was so startled by the sting that he locked the kid cop and his supervisor in his store after he was busted.
Sometimes the bravado of the crew slips away and is replaced by age-appropriate twitchiness. When Charles pulls up to a store called Butch’s Place, he gets one look inside and pivots, heading back to the safety of the van. “I don’t like the looks of the place,” he says, not bothering to explain why. The crew heads out to the next stop. Plenty more where that came from.
In spite of the fact that the job pays well and offers the frisson of a bust, there are drawbacks. The kids in the APRA program will tell you that being a teen nark isn’t the most popular summer job among some of their friends. “They think I’m a spy,” says Charles.
Of course, $10 an hour can paper over a host of negatives. “None of my friends seem to care about the being-a-snitch part,” says Robert, dubbed the “Marlboro Man” by his colleagues because that’s the brand he illicitly requests when he walks into a store. “They’re just glad I have a job. Most of them don’t.” CP