"The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue"
The New Yorker
Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series
November 13, 2000
(A Reading from the New Yorker, February 20, 1995 issue, pp. 82-84)
he tenth graders heading up Madison Avenue at 7:30 A.M. to the private high schools are freshly liberated from their dental braces, and their teeth look pearly and magnificent. They are fifteen years old. During the week, they arrive, by bus or on foot, singly or in pairs or in clusters, and they make their way up the west side of Madison -- they call it the "cool" side -- toward their schools: Dalton, on East Eighty-ninth; Sacred Heart and Spence, on East Ninety-first; Nightingale-Bamford, on East Ninety-second; the Lycee Francais, on East Ninety-fifth. Brearley and Chapin are farther east; Collegiate, Columbia Prep, and Trinity are in the west; Browning is south; Horace Mann, Riverdale, and Fieldston are in the north. On the weekends, the tenth graders from all points will find a way to get together. Today is only Tuesday.
Boys and girls spill out of the Eighty-sixth Street crosstown buses at Madison Avenue and join the flow of their counterparts heading north. The walking tenth graders greet one another in soft, kindly rhythms, in polite, gentle tones. The boys greet one another with high fives. Girls with girls and girls with boys bestow quick, sweet kisses on one another's cheeks -- some cheeks still not completely rid of hints of baby fat. No routine air kisses from these kids. Their kisses are heartfelt, making their unity, their devotion to and trust in one another, palpable. Kisses from their mouths are like the cool little first nippy smacks of a very young baby.
ost of the tenth graders are in the habit of leaving home without eating any breakfast. Still in clusters, with fifteen minutes to get to school, they pause in doorways. One girl in a cluster of five takes out a pack of Marlboro Lights -- the brand favored at the moment -- and each member of the cluster participates in lighting the cigarette, string the match, guarding the flame, offering a propane lighter. They share. The lighted cigarette is passed from mouth to mouth. They all inhale, the girls twisting their mouths like though pros, exhaling the smoke from a tiny corner opening on one side of the lips.
One angelic-looking blond beauty with raw, red nostrils takes a puff, inhales deeply, and says wearily, "I've like got the fucking flu or something."
Fuck the you know fucking germs," another says smoothly, reassuringly, a positive reinforcer.
"I got home like three?" another member of the cluster says, making her statement in the form of a question. "I sweat Henry? Who do you sweat? Anybody?"
The others regard her skeptically. "Nobody," one says.
"I sweat the shit out of Henry," the one who got home at three says mildly.
On the feet of all the members of this cluster are boots, not quite Timberland. The girls, some wearing black panty hose or black kneesocks, have on chic black laceups, all with Vibram soles, all with steel tips. One girl wearing laceups two feet high lifts a knee, turning the booted foot this way and that. "New shit-kickers!" she squeals, but in subdued, ladylike tones.
"Cool," the angelic-looking one with the flu says. "Cool shit-kickers."
They crush out their shared cigarette with the heels of their shit-kickers, and they go to school.
henever the tenth graders have a break in their school program, and daily at 12:35 P.M., they head for one of their hangouts. The second floor of Jackson Hole, at the southwest corner of Ninety-first and Madison, is in at the moment. On this Tuesday, at 12:36 P.M. six four-place tables and a couple of two-place tables, accommodating twenty-eight customers, are filled. Ketchup bottles absolutely full are at the ready on every table. A teen-age Al Pacino-look-alike waiter serves them their first meal of the day: lone platters of ketchup-doused French fries or fired onion rings, or combo French fries and onion rings, and Cokes. A late arrival, dark-eyed, and smaller and chubbier than the ones settled in, turns up, and a place is found for her. Tearfully, she reports that her French teacher sprang a surprise test on her class, and she thinks she did badly on it.
"Don't like get fucking stressed out," a girl says, offering that same kindly positive reinforcement.
"Fucking teachers," a companion says, chewing on a fry and simultaneously taking a drag on a cigarette and passing it on. "I'm on my way you know to lunch, and the fucking teacher asks where I'm going?" The statements continue to sound as though they were questions. "I don't want teachers being like into my you know business?"
"I miss the teacher who used to be a model and then left the school and went to Africa to be a nun?" someone says. "She would like talk you know about her experiences? She was very like open to everybody?" The others at the table and the girls at all the other tables agree that they miss the teacher who went to Africa to be a nun.
One of the girls, very pretty, with long dark hair, is "presenting" a party and hands out printed invitations. She has dark glasses pushed on top of her hair. She wars silver loop earrings, a double in the left ear, a single in the right. The invitation shows a picture of Stonehenge on one side, and the other side has a long list of names of people supporting the party, which has a title: "The Farside."
"I can't go to the party?" one of the fifteen-year-olds says. "My father grounded me? Because I was smoking?"
"My mom is trying to like ship me off to a fucking school in fucking Spain?" another girl says. "Unless I you know quit smoking?"
"I want to quit, but I can't? I don't have a choice? It's too late?" one fatalist says.
The party entrepreneur explains that she is working with six other presenters to spread the invitations around, to telephone friends at the schools to the east, west, north, and south, and to obtain the services of a really topnotch d.j. They are working with a well-to-do party producer, whose take of the proceeds will be forty per cent, the balance to be divided evenly among the seven presenters. Admission to the party will be twelve dollars per person.
"This rich, older guy is like experienced you know?" she says. "He's twenty-nine?"
The mention of the number draws forth gasps.
"Fucking twenty-nine," one of the girls says. "That's the age of those actors in the mindless '90210' or that mindless 'Melrose Place.' They're twenty-nine, and they're like playing our age."
At any rate, there are plans to be made. The party is going to start at 10 P.M. The girls will spend the afternoon before in preparations.
"Here's what we'll do," the entrepreneur says. "We need five hours. You three come to my house you know at five? You bring all your clothes? I take everything out of my closet and spread everything out on the floor? We try on all the stuff? Depending on what kind of mood we're in, we make our selection?"
"We have to be fucking blunt," one of the potential guests says. "About what like looks good on us."
"Then we take showers? Half an hour? Then we like shave our legs? Half an hour? Then we like put cream on our legs? Half an hour? Then we call up everybody who's been like grounded? We talk to them for at least an hour? Maybe we give them an hour and a half? Then we go out and buy a quart of vodka and some orange juice and cranberry juice? Then we go to somebody else's house and drink vodka with orange juice or vodka with cranberry juice? Then we get dressed? Then we get another quart of vodka and go to somebody else's house? We become like outgoing? And we make calls to friends and invite them over? By then, we'll be ready to go?"
n the first school day after the weekend, promptly at 12:36 P.M., the tenth graders are back in lace at Jackson Hole, smoking, chewing gum, eating fries and onion rings, and reviewing the party. "I like feel real ripped off?" the young Farside presenter-entrepreneur is saying. "Too many people came to the party, which was at this nice club on West Forty-seventh Street? There were hundreds pushing and shoving and clogging the street, and the police came? And they said we had to be carded, because they had a bar? And we you know didn't like have cards, so this twenty-nine-year-old rich guy said the fee for getting the club had to be raised from three thousand dollars to eight thousand dollars, because they had to close the bar and were not allowed you know to sell us drinks? And everybody had to pay twenty dollars instead of twelve dollars just to get in? So, but even so, nobody like wanted to leave? And it was so crowded you couldn't even dance? And at the end of it the twenty-nine-year-old rich guy took forty per cent, and all I got was about fifty fucking dollars, after I did all the fucking work and made a million phone calls?"
She chews on a French fry, accepts a glowing Marlboro Light from the girl beside her at the table, and takes a quick puff. The chubby, dark-eyed girl who was stressed out by her French teacher comes over from another table and gives the entrepreneur a soft, comforting kiss on the cheek, and one by one all the other tenth graders in the area come over and do the same.
Copyright 1995 The New Yorker. All rights reserved.