They hang at the Orange Julius, the magazine rack at Waldenbooks, the video arcade in the basement of Sears. They range in age from 12 to 18 and have a few things in common; among them, a kind of expertise on the subject of San Diego shopping malls and bus schedules — but mostly it is a summer full of time on their hands.
Matt is 12 years old. He is a husky kid with close-cropped curly hair bleached light at the ends from his hours skateboarding in the parking lots of Parkway Plaza. Grossmont Center, Mission Valley. Fashion Valley, even the distant and exotic Plaza Bonita. He leans forward on the bench, surrounded by his "mall friends." and turns his skateboard in his hands. A security guard walks by and eyes the board, while Matt’s 18-year-old bench companion Ronnie (with shoulder-length hair, ash-smear of a mustache, and Slayer T-shirt) smokes a cigarette and blows smoke rings in the direction of the rent-a-cop. The security guy points a finger at Ronnie, works his thumb like the hammer of a pistol, and winks.
“He throwed me outta here for skateboarding one time, I think ... was it him?” Matt turn to his friend David in a Chicago Cubs cap turned backward on his head. David tugs on the sleeves of his Bad Boy T-shirt.
“Nuh-uh. Another guy.” A pink eruption of bubble gum blossoms from his mouth, engorges, then explodes with a crack that echoes through Parkway Plaza. "Let's get some baseball cards at Kay Bee.”
“I already did.”
“Yeah, but you didden get nobody good.”
Ronnie, the smoking elder with an unfortunate complexion, sneers at David, then Matt. “Baseball cards?” He turns away disgusted, takes a step from the bench as if denying any connection with the unhip. “Shit.”
Two other boys are seated on the opposite bench. Matt introduces them and explains, “They come from like 60 miles from here.”
Kevin and Justin are from a mountain resort town where their parents work. They also work part-time in, respectively, a motel and a grocery store. “I work the cash register” Justin says and turns sidewise. “Me and Kevin are stepbrothers. His dad owns the resort and our mom married him. We’re off today, because we had to work Fourth of July.” Justin is wearing thick glasses attached to his head with an elastic band. He wears a wide, diver’s-type wristwatch that he keeps consulting. “We got to get a bus at 3:15 to go back. We wanted to go to Grossmont and the Parkway Bowl.”
“Yeah,” Matt leaned back on the bench and spun the wheels of his skateboard, “Parkway Bowl is pretty cool. Good video games. The movies are old though. I saw Hunt for the Red October twice and Pretty Woman and Milo and Otis. Pretty Woman was kind of cool.” He performs a Groucho-like undulation of his eyebrows to David, who blushes and looks down. Matt starts to sing, "Pretty woman ... walkin’ down the street....” He laughs and kicks out at David with his B.K. (British Knights) high-top sneakers. David dances away, his face suffused with blood. “You can meet more girls here though. Not as many as at Horton Plaza, but pretty many.”
When asked what they did with the girls they met, David shrugged. “Look at stuff in the stores, get their phone numbers ... see if they have any quarters”
What had their day been like so far? Matt again: “We went to Jack In The Box, then we went to Life’s a Beach and looked at the stuff. Then we went to Kay Bee and then we played Afterburner and Altered Beast and Sky Soldiers.”
How much had he spent on video games today? Two dollars. Three yesterday. His allowance? $15 a week.
Matt gets up. “We gotta go.” It is unclear why. “Wanna go to the bookstore?" He asks Ronnie, the older boy's head is now bracketed by a Walkman. Ronnie sneers, hitches up his ragged Levis with his right hand in his pocket. “CHUNG CHUNG CHUNK!" He stabs at the younger boys with an air guitar he swings from his groin. David flinches away. “BOYOYOING!" Ronnie works the imaginary vibrato bar in a vigorous, suggestive whipping of his fist against his hip. “No?" Matt laughs, raises his eyebrows, crosses his eyes. “Okay. See ya.”
From the psychology section of Waldenbooks, Kevin and Justin can be seen studying the paperback covers of fantasy novels in The Forgotten Realms series from TSR, the Dungeons and Dragons publisher. Justin examines a thick tome titled Darkwalker on Moonshaye, and Kevin reads the first and last pages of Piers Anthony’s Phaze Doubt.
Across the store, Matt is flipping through Thrasher magazine, while David sits cross-legged on the floor looking at the pictures in Cosmopolitan. David is crying quietly, one fist jammed against his tearing eyes, the other hand turning pages. Girls near his own age are depicted in miniskirts, makeup, cleavage, on beaches, in sports cars, brandishing champagne glasses, their heads thrown back laughing or looking up in sultry invitation. He turns to Matt. “I’m not gonna come out with you anymore."
"So?” Matt doesn’t look up from his skateboarding magazine.
“So nothing. I could slam you too.”
“So, go ahead." Matt stuffs the magazine back in the rack and picks up a Batman comic from the revolving rack behind him. “The Dark Knight Returns!” He reads the title out loud.
“I’m gonna do it when you’re not thinking about it.” David puts Cosmo back, picks up the novelization of Total Recall, looks at the pictures.
Matt mocks him in a sing-song, girly voice: “I'm gonna do it when you 're not thinking about it.”
Descending into the “Home Life” section of Sears, en route to the video arcade, one passes decorator urns, plaster animals, bedroom sets, mirrors. Kevin and David have linked up with three other boys and two girls, all approximately 11 to 13 years old. The girls are pretending to be asleep on a queen-sized mattress framed in brass posters. One of them snores loudly. Kevin and one of the new boys crawl under a twin bed next to the queen. David is laughing from behind a bureau. Another boy jumps onto the bed with the girls and starts bouncing up and down between them. The girls scream, laughing. They run in two directions.
“Hey, you kids!” a salesman in a funny haircut, long-sleeved white shirt, and wide-striped tie waddles past refrigerators, microwaves, washers, dryers, his arm extended, his finger pointing ceilingward as if he is trying to hail a cab. “Leslie, security!” The kids have scattered except for Kevin and the other boy.
The girls, David, and another boy have bolted upstairs. As the salesman begins to ascend the stairwell, Kevin and a boy wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt (“Underachiever and Proud of It”) scuttle out from their hiding place. They run in a crouch, sprinting for the hair salon, tuxedo shop, and hearing-aid kiosk along the corridor leading to Fun Time, the video game arcade. Kevin is in the lead. His face is red, his eyes tearing, he keeps both hands over his mouth to keep from erupting in hysteria.
Fun Time is a darkened cubbyhole sandwiched between a watch repair and photo studio booth in a fluorescent corridor. Warbles, beeps, metallic recorded gunfire, laser blasts, and explosions fill the blackness. The faces of children from 4 to 18 are illuminated eerily from color screens stuttering with light. The faces are flushed, the eyes riveted, intent; sweat forms on fleshy cheeks and furrowed brows in a parody of adult anxiety. Kevin, Justin, David. Matt, Ronnie, and the girls are congregated in front of Crossbow and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video games. Ronnie seems to be the star of TMNT, and he holds his audience of preteens enraptured with his prowess.
One boy, maybe ten years old, is Jason. He feeds dollars’ worth of quarters into Operation Wolf within five minutes. He works the Mac 10 machine pistol from side to side, cutting down scores of swarthy terrorists with joyless determination. He spends five to six hours a day either at Grossmont or at the Parkway Bowl. Five days a week. His allowance is ten dollars a week. “I was at Family Fun Center yesterday,” he says. As to where he might rather be other than shopping malls for the summer: “My dad keeps saying he’ll take me to the beach on weekends, but he is usually working.” Jason has been augmenting his allowance the past couple of weeks by selling off his baseball cards. “Some are worth one dollar or two dollars to some kids.”
Matt and David are waiting for a bus on Fletcher Parkway. It is 5:00 p.m. Matt’s face is sweaty, smudged with pizza, dirt from his fingers, and what looks like chocolate. He leans back onto the bus stop bench, his skateboard held to his chest like a pet. His eyes are lidded, heavy. David leans forward off the bench, tosses baseball cards into his Cubs hat three feet away. “Pretty woman ... ” he sings softly to himself, ”... walkin’ down the street...” The number 858 (Grossmont College) bus arrives, and David scoops up his hat, returns Matt’s cards to his Kay Bee bag. “See ya tomorrow. Fat Matt.” David says and leaps aboard the bus quickly.
“See ya tomorrow,” Matt returns sleepily, rubbing at his face with the heel of his right hand. Through the haze of bus exhaust rising into the late-afternoon heat, with plump arms crossed protectively over his skateboard. Matt closes his eyes and suddenly seems much younger than his dozen summers.