Among the Young

Shave your head, ditch your classes, chug your beer, duck your parents, thrash your music, and don't let anyone mess with your teenage life

The bass player for Patty's band sits on a couch in front of the big-screen TV and works on a geometry assignment. When the Smerffs take a break, Lee comes over to bug her. Lee, unlike James, is no child prodigy. He failed history last year, he says, because he blew off the final. "I just showed up for my guitar final and then said, 'Fuck this' to history, so they made me go to summer school. Summer school was a joke," he says. "One teacher was like, 'Who won the battle of Normandy?' I'm like, 'Uh, the U.S.,' and he goes, 'Oh! We've got a smart one.' I think that the summer school teachers just want to get out of there."

Lee wants to make the band his life, just as James does, but he is not so confident that this band has what it takes to make it to the big time. There are so many other bands out there to compete with. "Being in a band is great, but it can fall through," he says as he sits on a recumbent exercise bicycle. "You have got to have something to fall back on. I want to be an architectural engineer. It's pretty satisfying. You can see a building and go, 'I helped make that.' All you need is four years of college and one year of architectural school, then you graduate and get a job. The first-year salary is like $50,000. Next year is $100,000. Then $150,000. You can make some really good money. Like the guy who was the architectural engineer on the Empire State Building? He's like set for life."

Arthur heads for Patty's bedroom, where someone has brought a six-pack of Budweiser Ice beer and a bottle of Southern Comfort. He flips through some snapshots on Patty's bed while the band Fugazi plays on her boom box. Getting beer is no problem, James explains. They just have to go down to a gas station where a homeless man will usually buy it for them. But they have to watch out because sometimes the buyer takes off with either their money or their beer. "Usually it's no problem," he says matter-of-factly.

Lee hears there is liquor and scoots into Patty's room for a drink. Patty's half-brother pounds on the door until he is let in. Someone allows him a few sips of Southern Comfort then laughs at how calmly the four-foot tall eleven-year-old drinks the hard liquor. "It was just a few sips," the teenage bartender later says with a laugh. "He's going to be an alcoholic!"

Except for the rehearsal and the dinner at Taco Bell, this is a fairly typical night for James. He stays out with friends until about 9:00 p.m. or 9:30 p.m., he says, then comes home and talks on the phone for a while before going to bed. "I never do homework," he confesses. "I just can't do it." On weekends he gets together with the same friends he's known for the past couple of years, the ones he saw every day this past summer, the ones he knows everything about. Maybe they'll go to a show, and to the Grove beforehand. They'll hang out and drink in Peacock Park until the cops chase them away. On cue, they'll complain about how boring it is. Then, also on cue, they will all agree it's a lot better than sitting at home with their parents.

Occasionally they swerve from the routine by visiting Miami Beach or making a road trip up to Fort Lauderdale for a big rock show. Those are sometimes pretty exciting nights, James says: "Like the other night, the last night of summer, Saturday night, this friend of ours she has, um, she has a fake I.D. So she rented a hotel room on South Beach, at the National. And so we're on the ninth floor. It started out as about twelve of us. Three of our friends went to the Vandals -- the show when they played with Splat. They brought back 25 more people. I freaked out. I got really mad they brought all these people over. 'Cause I thought it was just going to be a bunch of drunk punks. Drunk punks are really annoying, but these guys were like really like cool, like nice, like they're respecting kind of guys."

James's mother gets grief from her brothers and sisters for letting her son have such freedom. "They come over to the house," Christine says, "and they see James and they tell me, 'Oh, you let him go to the Grove,' as if it was something horribly bad. And I'm like, 'Well, what do you want me to do, keep him at home?' They don't understand what it's like to raise a teenager. They don't have a right to judge me. Nobody does."

As a form of discipline, Christine started grounding James when he turned twelve. He had begun attending a middle school with older kids who smoked cigarettes, drank liquor, and used drugs. After two years, however, the effectiveness of grounding had worn off A it is just as tough on her to have him around the house all the time. So now she tries to compromise and communicate better with her son. Her husband, she says, would like to take a more active role in raising James, but he has been more or less neutralized because the boy's natural father will not allow it. (James's father, who now lives in Rochester, New York, could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.)

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