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 me all the time.

TAMI: Ryan started asking me my name, my age, and I started liking him, and then Roberto started cheating on me with a friend of mine.

RYAN [Shaking his head]: What an idiot.

TAMI: I broke up with him the same night, and Ryan really, really wanted to go out with me, right? And then Ryan and I made a bet on the OU­UT game: He bet on Oklahoma, and he said if Oklahoma won, I’d have to go out with him. I said, “Okay.” But I ended up going out with Roberto for three more days anyway, and then Ryan said, “Are you and Roberto still going out?” And I said, “Yeah, but we’re going to break up.” So Ryan broke up with that smart rollerblade chick that day, and then I started going out with Ryan. Then Patti’s ex-boyfriend Peter kissed me on my fourteenth birthday—right over there in the corner of the room? By the stairs? That caused some problems. Can you hold on a minute? I have to go to the bathroom.

[TAMI gets off her bar stool, then spots two well-coiffed, tan, skinny girls in their late teens exiting the restroom and sits back down.]

TAMI: Whoa. I’m not going in there. Look—Abercrombies.

RYAN [Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouts at the two girls as they pass by]: Prep!

TAMI: I’m going to wait.

FOR THE SKATEBOARDERS AND THEIR friends who are Marq*E regulars, as well as the store clerks, the mall is a stage on which drama crescendos and fades within minutes: Gossip flows, relationships develop and dissolve, friendships are saved, fistfights break out. As the day wears on, though, more and more teens arrive, most of whom have no interest in the skate park. They come from as far away as Clear Lake, on the southeast fringe of the city—a 45-minute drive.

The kids have come here to cruise the strip, strolling in groups as big as ten or as small as two. They check their cell phones, stop for ice cream at Maggie Moo’s, pump tokens into the video games at Jillian’s, and duck into the theater to catch films like Halloween: Resurrection. Boys sporting do-rags and oversized basketball jerseys introduce themselves to groups of girls dressed in low-riding baggy jeans. A pair of spindly limbed, baby-skinned brunettes flash their braces at a boy wearing XXXL clothes and a puka shell choker. Some kids dress like athletes, some like hard-core punkers. Clusters of both genders discuss their sexual exploits. A punk store-clerk recalled overhearing one twelve-year-old girl tell another twelve-year-old girl, “You think he’s cute? I had sex with him; he’s cool. You should do him.”

I joined the promenade, trying to catch snatches of conversation. A group of eight preppy, black sixteen-year-old girls dared a member of their pack to gather the phone numbers of boys of different ethnicities. She wrote on a piece of paper the letters B (for black), W (for white), M (for Mexican), C (for Chinese), and I (for Indian). Within fifteen minutes, she had collected numbers for all but the Indian. Not willing to give up, she tried to charm Hispanic boys into helping her cause, saying with a wink as her girlfriends giggled and the boys blushed, “Come on. Are you sure you’re not Indian?”

Scene: Still at the bar at Jillian’s, an hour later. TAMI, PATTI, ANGEL, and RYAN have decided they want to bowl, and they wait for a lane to become available.

TAMI: Okay. So Ryan had asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I said, “White roses with pink trim,” and Ryan brought them to me! [She bats her eyes at RYAN.] That was downstairs at Jillian’s. We stayed there for a while and then went to Maggie Moo’s. He did all that for me and then cheated on me. See, Ryan has a friend John—some guy, John. And John was hanging around with this French guy named Fred. But John told Ryan he had been going out with me himself, and then Ryan got mad and started going with a girl named Carrie. He didn’t meet her here at the mall. But I found out and got her number from Roberto.

RYAN: Me and Roberto are still friends.

TAMI: I got this girl’s number and called—she’s exactly like me but preppy. Same waist size—everything. And so we both called Ryan and broke up with him, and then Ryan and Carrie got into a huge fight.

RYAN: It was about a bunch of little shit.

TAMI: Right. So me and Ryan didn’t talk for two months afterward. We got together in September and broke up this past February—the twenty-third or twenty-fourth—and then I called his stepbrother and found out he was in Austin at the Oaks.

RYAN: The Oaks is a treatment facility. I was taking ‘shrooms, weed, X, and coke, which led to depression, which led to suicide—

TAMI: He did it because of me.

RYAN: Let’s see. That was three weeks ago. What’d I do? Uh, I hung myself in my bedroom. [Laughs] I stood on a chair and kicked it out from underneath me. My brother found me and lifted me up and started yelling. Then my mom came in and my stepdad came in. I was passed out for a couple of hours and woke up in the hospital. Stayed there for three weeks.

TAMI: He loves me.

RYAN: Nah, I did it because I was depressed. I didn’t do it because of her. I don’t know. So anyway, a few days after I got home, I snuck out of the house and went to a party. I popped too many tabs of X and, ya know, blacked out. Ooh! Our lane’s ready. We’ve gotta bowl.

TAMI: That pretty much brings you up to date. Then he kissed me on the balcony and we’re back together! Isn’t it great?

I WATCHED THEM BOWL FOR a while. They laced up their shoes in the semi-private lounge at the end of the bowling lane. Instead of the usual plastic or wooden benches, they sat on leather art deco couches that surrounded a small den with leopard-print carpeting and a vintage-style table. A fifties-style chandelier with blue bulbs hung above the seating area. (Some of the dens have red bulbs, but Angel insisted on a den with blue light.) At the front end of the lanes, six televisions broadcast a variety of sports shows: auto racing, soccer, volleyball, and so on. When a Britney Spears song came on the radio, Angel threatened to leave. Then Eminem’s “Without Me” played, and Patti and Tami started dancing. “This is our song!” Tami said. The group bowled for several hours, teasing each other with names such as “movie star,” “rock star,” and “loser.” They punched each other playfully and placed each other in headlocks.

Scene: Late afternoon at Jillian’s bar. Finished with bowling, TAMI sits alone and waits for her friends to return from downstairs, where they have gone to play a video game.

TAMI: Okay, so you were gone for an hour and totally missed it. Ryan and I like totally got back together. Isn’t that great? We were all walking around and we all got ice cream at Maggie Moo’s and then we came back to Jillian’s and Patti and Angel went somewhere and Ryan looked at me across the table and said, “I love you!” And he says, “Will you go out with me?” And I didn’t even say anything. I just walked around the table and kissed him [Sighs]. So, it’s official. He had to go. His mom came to pick him up. I love him. I’m so happy. Eee! Isn’t it great? You came here, got a love story, and you got a happy ending [Bats her eyes]. Do you want a tour of the mall?

[ANGEL and PATTI return, and the trio head downstairs. They stop to say hello to the doormen, two blond brothers around twenty who have just started working at Jillian’s for the summer.]

TAMI: That’s Daniel. Say “Hi,” Daniel.

[DANIEL waves at TAMI and gives PATTI a hug. TAMI talks to DANIEL‘s brother JOSEPH for a little while. ANGEL stands alone, chewing her thumb.]

PATTI: I can’t believe he hugged me! Did you see that? He’s so my boyfriend.

TAMI: Let’s look for Zach.

[They walk through Vans, where at least fifty boys and a handful of girls are dressed in knee pads and helmets, to in-line skate and skateboard on the playground of concrete hills and empty pools. TAMI points to one of the Vans employees.]

TAMI: Hi, Chris! Chris is having a bad day. No Zach here. Let’s walk around the mall. Okay: That’s Hot Topic on the right—they sell goth clothes. And that’s Morning Glory, where they have the little Japanese girls’ toys. That’s Just Sports—I’ve only been in there once. That’s Café Adobe—they’re supposed to have good Mexican food; I’m going to eat there when I’m rich. [She stops suddenly and turns to PATTI] Oh, my God! I forgot to tell you! Do you know what Daniel just told me back there? He said he wants to be in our band!

PATTI: Shut up!

TAMI: No, really! Isn’t that great? We’re going to have a metal band. I’m going to sing and Patti’s going to sing, but Angel is going to be in it too. We’re going to be called Twisted Halo. It’s to be like No Doubt but harder. Like this new girl, Avril Lavigne? But softer. [She resumes the tour] See that guy who runs the phone kiosk? With the wall of all the different cell phone covers? That’s John. I know him. And this is the psychic lady. She’s nice, but psychics tell lies. Hey! There’s my sixth-grade English teacher! Hi! Hi!

[TAMI and PATTI wave at a man in his mid-thirties who is leaving Edwards Cinemas. The man awkwardly waves back and continues walking.]

PATTI: I love him. He always let me talk in class. He didn’t care.

TAMI: Yeah, me too. We always thought he was gay until he started dating one of the female teachers. So anyway, I’ve made out with one, three, five guys who I met here. That’s since we started coming.

PATTI: Last year. I’ve only made out with two or three guys here.

ANGEL: I haven’t done any of that.

TAMI: She’s tall. Guys are afraid of her.

PATTI: We’ve got to get her a tall guy. I know someone who she might like, but— [ANGEL puts her hand up in PATTI‘s direction like a crossing guard stopping traffic. All three girls giggle.]

TAMI: I made out with this one guy—everyone gets a nickname, right? Well, he wore a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, so he was the Tommy Guy, and I made out with him right here once. He was just leaving and I wanted to show him something in the hall and he kissed me! Let’s turn around—that’s the tour. I’m going to go back to Jillian’s. You guys want to come? Okay, let’s go. This is the fountain. Sometimes we just sit here and watch bands. One time the guys from Surfers Paradise were giving hula lessons out here, and I got up and did the hula.

PATTI: And I yelled, “Tami, you rock!” and everyone stared. It was so cool.

TAMI: It was cool!

THE MARQ*E ATTEMPTS TO SOLVE a few problems batted around by the modern philosophers of retail—namely, how to put new life into the somewhat stale concept of the mall, just as the Galleria did three decades ago. First, they ask themselves, how do we make a mall feel like more than a mall? Answer: Make it a theme park, with bright colors and elaborate sets. Surfers Paradise, for example, houses small huts inside, where visitors can watch real hula dancers perform to live Hawaiian music. Café Adobe has a patio and balcony outside; inside, it resembles a Mexican courtyard, complete with pink, green, and brown windows that have been fitted with flower boxes. The second question: How to get more people into the mall? Answer: Market to families. The outcome is a retail spin on Disneyland. What the retailers may not have foreseen—and what is ultimately out of their control—is the extent to which this mall would become Teenland.

Scene: Around 7:30 p.m. The sun draws long shadows of palm trees on the pavement as the three girls stumble out of Jillian’s.

TAMI: This is Joseph, the twenty-year-old doorman. Oh, my God! I think I’m having a caffeine fit! I just had one, two, three—I just had another Coke. I need to sit down. Are my eyes glassy? Somebody get me a mint. Patti’s mom is going to be here in a little while to pick us up.

[JOSEPH the doorman hands PATTI a mint.]

PATTI: Here.

[PATTI backs away from Jillian’s doors, into the outdoor courtyard. TAMI stumbles trying to pry the mint out of PATTI‘s hand, then the three girls wander across the space between Jillian’s and the skate park, staggering in front of a security guard.]

TAMI: Hey, let’s dance!

[TAMI and ANGEL do the hula, then they walk over to a stool and sit hunched over with their heads down, giggling as they wait for PATTI‘s parents to arrive. PATTI rolls her eyes and sighs.]

PATTI: They’re giving me a headache.

PATTI PRESSES HER TEMPLES WITH her two index fingers. I tell her with as much confidence as I can manage that things will get better in a few years, when she’s older. She doesn’t appear depressed, just unconvinced. We’re standing at the entrance of the mall together, and behind me she can see the entire 350-pace, canopy-covered strip. It’s just a short walk, but to a thirteen-year-old, it must look like a long way to the end of the tunnel.