I leave the apartment at midnight. It is colder than I remember and I thrust my hands deep into my pockets. At the corner, the two teenagers still stand waiting in front of the convenience store, stepping and leaning around the shopfront tentatively, like children. Their cheeks are red and the girl’s nose drips. She is completely silent, and she scurries to and fro, crossing my path several times and never even making eye contact. Perhaps she is searching for a very specific aspect, perhaps she is only passing the time.
The boy is wearing a thick black parka with a bluish-grey bandanna tied underneath a sideways ballcap in Raiders colours. He isn’t short, but he’s thick and his features are vaguely Latin. A thin black beard describes his lower jaw. He coughs nervously and speaks out of the side of his mouth. He obviously doesn’t remember me from before.
“Hey, uh, do you want to buy us bud?”
I still don’t know what he means, but I shake my head no. I’m embarrassed for him. They’ve been here for hours. “No, sorry,” I say. My tone is polite and, I think, understanding. It’s first nature, though it feels awkward for this situation. Should I be aggressive? Condescending? Should I threaten to call the police? And what’s he asking for, anyway? Does he want me to buy him some papers, or schlep my way over to his drug dealer? The latter idea seems ridiculous, but what enterprising teenager could be so desperate over papers? Even I know there are other ways to smoke marijuana, and no shopkeeper is going to turn down a purchase of a 600ml pop bottle and a ballpoint pen. The boy looks disappointed. Broken, though because of his clothing I expect him to be belligerent. I have two hundred dollars in cash in my wallet, which feels dangerous. I make a mental note to conceal it while I’m paying, in case the shopkeeper is in league with the teenager, or the teenager is more industrious than he appears.
The door to the convenience store is wide open. The proprietor leans on the counter like a griffin, his face long and serious. His eyes are sharp, and he eyes me coldly, then speaks a few words in Chinese to the man behind him, who is shy, acne-riddled, and buried behind a mop haircut and John Lennon glasses. He is standing and arranging stock behind the counter. The proprietor’s focus is pulled, briefly, by another entreaty made to a passerbyer.
I wonder who would agree to help the two teenagers. I decide it must be one of two types: some kind of early-twenties stoner who does drugs because it improves his social life; or a mid-thirties, mid-forties bachelor with a paunch and a shit-eating grin, who asks, as he investigates the girl, what he could get in return, or wonders aloud why they don’t just go back to his place, where he’s got things much more potent than marijuana. In the latter scenario the two teens gather together to discuss their options. The boy mentions that they’ve been there for hours. He suggests it might be worth going with the man to see what he has. Covertly he pulls a switchblade from his jacket pocket. They’ll be alright if the man tries anything, he says. “You’ll see, we’ll be fine.” The girl is unsure but willing to go along with the plan. In some ways she is almost eager. She goes where men take her: not because she is desperate, but because she allows herself to trust their motives, to believe them in a way that suggests she has little regard for her person.
The man with the shit-eating grin laughs and says “Alright then, let’s get going.” He’s got a Hustler and few other recently purchased pornographic magazines rolled up underneath his arm. The teenagers follow a couple of steps behind. The man unrolls and presents the boy with the Hustler. “You like that, don’t you?” The boy nods. The man laughs and pats the boy on the back several times as the boy flips through the pages idly, out of politeness. The girl lifts her head up and watches the magazine pages turn as if they were very far away and she was only vaguely curious.