Among the Young

A line of cars snakes down U.S. 1 toward a party in Kendall. Although tropical storm Allison is directly over Cuba at the moment, a torrent of rain has fallen on Miami, leaving the streets glistening and slick. There are about twenty cars in all, including a BMW 325i, a gold Dodge Aires with "GO NAVY" stickers on the bumper, and a white Toyota minivan crammed with electric guitars, a drum set, and ten kids barely old enough to be called teenagers.

The late-night caravan began at Cheers, a bar just north of Coconut Grove on SW Seventeenth Avenue. Cheers usually caters to "women who prefer women," but this Saturday night the club was open to both sexes and all ages for a punk-rock showcase. Cell 63 was the featured band, a quartet of veteran local rockers playing their last show. The opening act was the debut of a trio known as the Smerffs. Lead singer and guitarist James Fullwood thrashed his skeletal frame around the stage wearing a black Ramones T-shirt and a rainbow-hued stocking cap. Bass player Lee Smalley, who used gobs of gel and hair spray to shape his foot-long mohawk into five perfect Statue of Liberty spikes, smiled at the dozens of schoolgirls in the mosh pit. Drummer Arthur Vogler, who needed glue to keep his longer mohawk elevated, pounded out a steady backbeat. The boys had begun playing songs together only a month earlier, but already rock has become the most important thing in their lives. All of them are fourteen years old.

Now, after the show, James rides in the minivan, buried under friends in the passenger seat. When he and his bandmates get to the party, they will drink from clear bottles of Olde English 800 malt liquor and from cans of Budweiser. They will hit on each other's girlfriends while they stick cocktail parasols in the tips of their mohawks. As the movie A Clockwork Orange plays on a big-screen television in the deluxe Kendall home of one of their friends, they will sit on overstuffed couches and argue about how to split up the $120 they received for the gig. Should they invest it in equipment? Should they divide it equally? Or should they just buy some more beer?

The next morning James will return to his comfortable middle-class home in South Miami. His mother will ask about the show and about the rest of his evening (he told her he was staying over at Arthur's). The next weekend he will do much the same -- tell his parents he is sleeping over at a friend's house when in fact he'll be hanging in the Grove or on the Beach. He will drink, carouse, and of course listen to music. No surprise, then, that he will get into trouble eventually.

"It's like my dream to be able to like get this band on the road and just be able to quit school and stuff. Not necessarily quit school and like never finish it, but just be able to get away from it and go on tour or something," James says. It's 2:30 p.m. and he's walking out of South Miami Senior High School. When the academic year began in late August, he was a ninth grader at Southwood Middle School, a respected orchestra magnet school where he played first chair upright bass. All his friends were in senior high, though, so he begged his mother to let him transfer. "I like South Miami better because my other school was like boot camp," he says. "I learned there in a day what I now learn in a week. And now I get to go out to lunch."

James's grades have not been what they could be. Though he's an avid reader of contemporary fiction, and though his mother describes him as a child prodigy in math, he has let his marks slip. Last year, taking all gifted-program classes, he pulled down only C's. "C's are what I get," he concedes. "A few D's and a few B's but mostly C's." His mother reminds him that in ninth grade, the report cards start to count. She says that if he is ever going to get into Julliard or Berklee like he wants, he's going to need better than a C average. James listens to her but he still can't motivate himself to study harder. "I just find it pointless," he says as he passes rows of almond-colored school lockers and pep-rally signs that say Go Cobras and Seniors Rule. "I know that whether it's playing classical bass or playing in a band, I'm gonna do music when I grow up. I don't care like what anyone says, I just am. So like everything I do in school has like nothing to do with what I am going to do in the future. And I can see it all as one big meaningless thing. It's just there to waste my time."

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Robert Andrew Powell