(Story originally appeared in the 'Generation NeXt' section on May 19, 1996)
It's Friday night at Panama City Mall — the perfect time and place to observe the peculiar courtship rituals of the human teenager.
They circulate through mall corridors, falling in and out of gravitational alignment as heavenly bodies of varying attractions pass through their orbits.
At the archway entrance to the Pocket Change arcade, starry-eyed girls form a globular cluster. There's hair to note, belts to touch, fingers to point, whispers and squeals to share. It's a scene repeated in various forms throughout the mall tonight.
But when it comes down to basics, they're at the mall for only two reasons: phone numbers and guys.
OK, maybe that's only one reason.
"What are we doing tonight?" says Cindy Jacobson, 14. "Life!"
Cindy, a student at Merritt Brown Middle School, is going to Miracle Strip Amusement Park tomorrow. Fellow Brown Bear Kelly Heflin, 14, plans to lay out on the beach, as does Christina Jacobson, 15, a Mosley High School student. Stephanie Barfield, 17, "don't go to school," and she doesn't have any plans to speak of.
But tonight, they are of one mind.
"We come here every Friday," says Cindy. "To walk around, get phones numbers ..."
"Meet guys ..." says Stephanie.
"Play games, buy food, buy clothes, eat food ... " says Kelly.
"And spend money," says Christina.
Like test animals in a B.F. Skinner maze, these mall rats know their way around — and where to find their particular cheese.
They like the mall. Plenty to see, if you get their meaning.
But if they had their druthers, they'd be at a teen nightclub "like Club La Vela, except, like, for kids," Cindy says.
It's a common enough request.
Bay High School student Lisa Moses, 17, says she would like to find and frequent a teen dance club. Since the last one closed down some unknown time ago, she has had to hang out with her younger brothers — which is not altogether cool.
Ask some teenagers and they'll tell you: Bay County is a boring place to grow up.
(Just like everywhere else, but that's beside the point.)
"There's got to be some nighttime activities that are safe, fun and don't require a fake ID," groused a Mosley High School student recently. "And I mean fun — not bowling. All we've got is parking lots or the clay pits. There's nowhere to go."
Nowhere, that is, once you eliminate any number of team sports, Goofy Golf, go-cart tracks, Skeeball, bungee-jumping, the beach and related water activities. And we won't even go into the myriad of church-organized time-killers.
But that's not what she meant, of course. She wants a place to hang, to schmooze, to socialize. To network, gossip, dis. To be or not to be.
And all of it out of the glaring electric lights and watchful eyes of disapproving adults. That's what they do in the parking lots. And, perhaps with more freedom to abuse alcohol, that's what goes on at the clay pits.
But that's not for everybody.
Some older teens frequent the downtown streets of Panama City on Tuesday and Thursday nights — skateboarding on the sidewalks of McKenzie Park, kicking hackey-sack in the street across from Panama Java, and smoking on the steps of the gazebo.
"You gotta be a freak to hang out there. Alternative," says Janna, 16, flashing green eyes and even greener fingernails.
But even they would rather be someplace else — just about any place else.
"If you build it, they will come," says Raymond Moses, 16, a Bay High student and Lisa Moses' brother.
Originally from Newark, N.J., Raymond found Panama City "hard to adapt to." But don't get him wrong: He now says P.C. is a "nice small town." He feels safer here, less worried about the hardships of city life.
Raymond would like somebody to build a go-cart track in town (the one in Springfield was torn down, and Lisa says it's hard to get a ride to the beach sometimes). Raymond says he'd be happy to cruise the halls of a mall closer to his home in Callaway, too.
"I go out to the mall sometimes to chill out, play games, stay out of trouble, get away from the whole school-and-homework thing," Raymond says. "Plus, I have an after-school job, so it's nice to relax."
As the evening wears on at the mall, trolling for boys continues — and the bait is still fresh.
Lisa Bellamy, 14, and her friend Jordan Dunleavy, 13, both attend Merritt Brown Middle School. Lisa's mom and dad dropped them off at the mall to spend "the whole day" — or at least a few hours. So what will they do all that time?
"Try to pick up guys, and see how many phone numbers we can get," Lisa says.
"She got one already," says Jordan. "Well — she gave one out.
As they talk, a trio of boys walk past, dangerously close behind them. Lisa's eyes grow suddenly large and she arches forward when one of the guys pokes her spine with a finger. Jordan playfully shoves her off balance.
Jordan says the two often play arcade games — but "just to flirt."
Flirt — while blasting aliens and radioactive zombies in Area 51?
Charm eligible guys — while kick-boxing Street Fighters?
"Yes," says Lisa — all eyes and innocence. "It's a way to meet guys."
Courtship is, after all, purportedly the be-all and end-all of teenagerdom. It certainly dominates these girls' plans for the rest of the evening — at least, until Mom and Dad return.
Their mission, spoken in unison:
"Go follow those guys that just went by."
(Posting this to put my upcoming Sunday column in perspective.)