Scene: The second floor of the Marq*E Entertainment Center, a mall in West Houston, around midday. A fifteen-year-old girl, TAMI, and thirteen-year-olds PATTI and ANGEL are standing together in an arcade. Each is wearing tight hip-hugger jeans. TAMI is a petite, talkative girl with Irish features, a spray of freckles, and long hair that has been dyed the color of a plum. PATTI is Hispanic, with shoulder-length curly hair and a round face; when she is not in a playful mood, her expression alternates between concern and boredom. ANGEL is black, with a long, mature face; she is tall for her age, extremely shy, and wears thin gold earrings that spell out the word “Sexy.” The three girls are best friends. As we encounter them, they run into a restroom, giggling and gesturing wildly as they talk.
TAMI: Oh, my God. So Ryan and I were just out on the balcony, and he pushes me against the wall? And I say, “Don’t look at me like that.” And he says, “Like what?” And I say, “Like you love me and you’re going to kiss me.” And he says, “What if that’s going to happen?” And he kisses me!
PATTI: Oh, my God!
ANGEL: Oh, my God!
PATTI: So are you back together?
TAMI: I guess.
I MET TAMI, PATTI, AND ANGEL at Vans Skate Park at the Marq*E mall one Saturday in July. It took no time to see that they were regulars. “We’re here every weekend, so we know everybody and they know us, or know of us,” Tami explained as she waved to boys who were passing by. The three girls have been coming from Houston’s western suburbs to the Marq*E “for forever,” Tami said. She specified: “I’d say since … September?” This was my first trip to the two-year-old mall near the intersection of Interstate 10 and West Loop. I had come because a friend had told me that the Marq*E was unique and that it is currently the hangout in Houston for unsupervised teens who are too young to drive.
Both the setting and the merchandise announce that the Marq*E is not your typical mall. The exterior is made up of large, irregularly arranged cubes painted bold colors. The interior is not enclosed; its main thoroughfare is a breezeway covered by a sheer canopy. You can walk from one end of the mall to the other in 350 paces—a three-minute stroll that Tami, Patti, and Angel know well. (Because the girls and their friends are minors, their names have been changed, and we can’t show you what they look like.)
Its retail outlets are also unusual. The mall has no chain stores—no Limited, no Gap, no Starbucks. However, if you are looking for an ashtray glued to the top of a mannequin leg, this is the place. At Hot Topic you might inspect a pair of red vinyl boots that lace up to the thigh. Or consider an Afro wig at Dapy. Or get your fortune told by Angelina in a pink kiosk. Or get your name hand-painted onto a piece of rice. Or step inside the glow-in-the-dark caverns of an indoor miniature golf course, the Putting Edge. At the ends of the breezeway are the anchor tenants: on the east, the 23-screen Edwards Cinemas; on the west, Vans Skate Park (35,000 square feet devoted to skateboarding and in-line skating) and a two-story arcade called Jillian’s, where you can bowl on a video screen downstairs or in an honest-to-goodness bowling alley upstairs. The skateboard park draws large numbers of teenage boys with hair that is spiked, dyed, or purposefully mussed. Sometimes the older boys get jobs at the Marq*E; one clerk explained, “There is nothing around here for people like us except this mall. This place is like Mars.”
Scene: A bar table near the bowling lanes in Jillian’s, fifteen minutes later. TAMI, PATTI, and ANGEL are sipping Cokes. They have been joined by RYAN, a boy from southwest Houston. RYAN has thick arms and legs and close-cropped hair, and he likes TAMI, which is why he kissed her. But they tell their story best.
TAMI: Okay, so here’s how we met. I met Ryan’s friend Roberto, who’s a buttface and a half, and I gave Roberto my number and he called me and—
RYAN: I was her second to last choice.
TAMI: Aw—[ She grabs RYAN’s hand and tilts her head toward him]—you were the last choice but my favorite choice. And February 16, 2001, or somewhere around then, Roberto called me on my own line at home, and we ended up three-way-calling Ryan at three o’clock in the morning, waking him up, and I ended up going out with Roberto. We were all meeting at Vans in that area by the concession. So I went out with Roberto—not even for two months, though.
RYAN: And she started talking to