When it hits ten-thirty, everyone disappears.
I’m not sure where they go, though I can guess to their homes with white clapboards, fridges that once-a-week run out of milk, household pets that have their own doors.
To stand on High Street around ten-thirty at night is to stand in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks only without the nighthawks. At that point, there are two types of cars: cars with teenagers, young adults; and the cop cars that circle after them, making the route from parking lot to parking lot.
The towns are fifteen minutes out of Boston and the main streets are routes: Route 16, Route 60, Route 38. Any right- or left-hand turn reveals houses nestled like ink pots. They rest with their heads against their chests, while out on the main roads tires murmur. We hear them when a cell phone rattles in the well of the door and someone lowers the radio volume. It’s usually a text: “Come to The Lot.”
The Lot. The Lot. There are three or more of them, actually. There’s the parking lot behind Medford Square’s ice-cream shop. There’s the Rite Aid parking lot in West Medford Square. Continuing west, just over the border into Arlington, there’s The Lot, the AC lot. So on a Friday, we convene where we hours ago left. The building, our high school, and the church next to it are darkened. It feels like a different place: without the teachers, without the chimes that signal the end and beginning of classes. Without the uniform pants, the students– no, the kids– seem different, too. It’s bizarre: the preponderance of jeans and Hollister t-shirts. Now I can really see who’s not quite sure, who has money, who doesn’t care. For the most part, what I’d always guessed is proven right. Cars pull up to each other side-by-side—boys in baseball hats. I will always remember them in baseball hats. “Hey.” “Yo.” Boys with Irish mothers and Italian last names.
What we do– nothing. It’s a meeting place, a stop-over, but we never actually leave. Though no one wants to admit it, it is the destination; we have no place else to go. So cars idle, headlights on. From our pockets and handbags we produce cigars, cigarillos, cigarettes and water-bottles of alcohol. You pass them along; you don’t really ask what’s inside. If you do, you do casually, as though you were thirty years older and trying to place the name of a wine whose year you have forgotten. “Mmm. That’s good, what is it again?”
Standing there, for the first time, I look around and feel grounded– just not to there. Everyone wears a look of malaise.
“Waiting for Eddie,” I say. “It feels like we’re waiting for Eddie,” thinking of that scene in Rocky Horror Picture Show, the moments just before Meatloaf crashes through a wall on a motorcycle and how, before that point in the movie, everyone is milling around, living, yes, and maybe aware of it or maybe not, but just waiting, anticipating the moment he crashes through, though they don’t know it will be him, don’t know it will be a motorcycle, but certain that at some point a wall is going to be crashed.
In a weird way, it’s like a cotillion. Being at The Lot is like announcing yourself as “out” in society. Some people are regulars. They lean against car doors and attract their usual group the way they do leaning against a locker during school hours. Others are clearly timid, unsure of their social status. Showing up with one friend or two, they step out of their cars peering, scanning for someone else to stand in their circle. Sometimes they sit in the car for a moment before emerging.
“Is so-and-so coming?”
“Don’t like walk away from me, okay?”
Because if you are at The Lot on Friday or Saturday, come Monday you get the walk-by hit. It is exactly as it sounds. One person passes another in the hall as he crouches at his locker with back turned in conversation, and hits him– on the arm, back, head, sometimes softly, sometimes with force. It’s a small thing. Sometimes the other person continues walking; sometimes he turns around with a smile, a look. There are no words necessary because it’s just a gesture, a means of recognition or sign of existence. It says: even in the daytime, even in this uniform, in these hallways, as a functioning member of this other social system, even here I remember that not more than three days ago you and I sat on the hood of a car together. I remember.
And what is that really? It’s nothing. It’s a “Maybe I’ll see you around” at the end of the year, or a “He’s cool” when your name comes up in conversation. It’s also all we have. Everyone has their friends, the people who have seen their parents eating dinner in front of the TV, who know the name of their dog; but then there are the others, the tenuous holds. And the walk-by hit is one step closer to a friend to call in crisis.
To walk from English to calculus, from calculus to lunch, untouched– that’s loneliness.
The malaise extends further than it appears. What feels novel to us… isn’t. What we think are high stakes…aren’t. At some point in the evening, and I’m sure it happens every evening, the words will bubble up. “The cops are coming.” Some kids get outwardly irritated but all are anxious. The air changes. The sense of anxiety now has a target and can rise up unabashed. People start to shift on their feet and always, always look to someone else, to see how they’re reacting, if they believe it and how bad it could be.
“Are you staying?”
“Who said they were coming?”
“Where can we go?”
Where can we go? To one of the other two lots, really. So people climb back into cars and it starts again.
“So-and-so says to go to Rite Aid.”
“Is that where everyone’s going?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
But when the cops do show up, they drive through the lot with the fatigue of routine. I remember a young cop (probably a local, the odds of it are always high): “Just go somewhere else, guys. Go to the woods. We don’t want to be chasing you all night.”
“At least he was nice about it.” But the truth is disheartening. Even law enforcement can’t really bother. Even they seem to be waiting for something bigger.
It seems as though everyone knows this: give us four years, and then we’ll be done. It is so much more a role than a lifestyle. There is always one, though, for whom it’s not just a phase. And we all know, we all sense that, will talk around it. There is one for whom this is just a single Friday night in an ever-stretching string of Friday nights and Saturday dawns later and lonelier as the years pass. He stands out. He enjoys the drinking, the dash from the cops, in a more visceral way. It reaches deeper, while the rest of us just play at being high school kids.
My year, he was old before his time and that was how I knew. I knew from the hats he wore, Irish caps like my grandfather, and from the way he was on speaking terms with everyone but I couldn’t really say who his friends were. I wasn’t sure if there was anyone who would take him home and feel comfortable going inside, making sure he made it to his bed.
For everyone else, the ones who showed up at The Lot, there was a deadline but a sense of ownership. We owned those weekend nights; we owned the car interiors and the stomach swoops of danger. What would have been really sad, sadder than the reality that our nighttime selves were tied to the one location we had in common, sadder than the sham of rebellion, sadder than wearied cops like cowboys indulging Indians, sadder than the kids with real sadness, what would have been sadder than all of that would have been a Friday night, eleven o’clock, a police car coasting through the circle of parking lots and seeing nothing but parked empty cars. Then, when we no longer play, then there’s no more complicity, no more possibility of connection. And each goes off to make individual memories and, somewhere, Eddie sighs and turns around. He won’t show up at all.