Saturday, August 26, 2006

8-Cylinder Teenage Mating Dance


ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- IT sounded like a classic rebel yell, but it was hard to tell, since the unholy sound, somewhere between a shriek and a whoop, was quickly drowned out by the roar of a small-block V-8 in full revving mode.

Moments later, the sources of the screech — a couple of burly, whiskered country boys in their mid-20’s, one with a Confederate battle flag tattoo on his bulging bicep — had chugged off in the opposite direction down Patton Avenue in a mud-spattered white pickup. They were swallowed into a seemingly endless queue of gurgling Camaros, fume-spewing 70’s muscle cars and tidy Japanese econoboxes (some likely borrowed from mom), cruising along this wide suburban boulevard.

“Those are ‘high school hangouts,’ ” Will Thompson, 17, said dismissively about the older guys, as his own black Chevrolet pickup crept in the opposite direction. “They graduated from high school like five years ago,” explained Will, who wore a “Sanford and Son” T-shirt and a camouflage hunting cap. “It’s like, ‘You graduated, come on!’ ”

“I won’t come down after high school,” he added resolutely.

Will, a polite, soft-spoken high school senior who hopes to parlay a talent running the longer sprints on the school track team into a scholarship at Western Carolina University, understands that on weekend nights, Patton Avenue belongs to the young. And indeed, two Saturdays ago, as usual, four of the six lanes of Asheville’s main commercial thoroughfare had congealed to a virtual standstill, as dozens, if not hundreds, of cars and pickup trucks, some stuffed with five or seven or even nine hollering teenagers, circled a ceaseless loop past the Kmart and the Krispy Kreme.

Leering boys leaned out driver’s windows and dangled Mardi Gras beads at passing teenage girls wearing latte-colored late-summer suntans and low-cut tops.

An enormous pickup with a polished-chrome smokestack exhaust lurched to a halt. Its driver, a whiskered Edward Norton look-alike in a well-worn baseball cap, threw the shifter into neutral, stomped on the gas and let out an alpha male whoop as plumes of black diesel smoke curled the moist August air. The curly haired peroxide-blonde in his passenger seat looked on proudly, as if she had been crowned queen of the strip.

“You’ll see adults with little kids, they’ll get caught up in all this and they’ll get so mad,” Will said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Go to the Interstate, man!’ ”

As a cruising mecca, Asheville remains a stubborn holdout. Over the last decade or so, countless municipalities across America, citing very modern concerns like traffic, gang violence and drugs, have declared war on cruising. Due to the broad crackdown by police departments — and also, undoubtedly, to changing teenage tastes in an era of PlayStations, MySpace-enabled hookups and self-produced video blogs — cruising scenes that recall the 50’s are slowly being suffocated across the American landscape, from Miami Beach to Omaha to Modesto, Calif., a scene that inspired “American Graffiti.”

But not in Asheville. Here, cruising — a perfect synthesis of three traditional teenage passions: cars, sex and most especially, aimlessness — is not only hanging on, but thriving. On weekend nights, teenagers descend on Asheville from as far off as South Carolina or eastern Tennessee, at least an hour’s drive. The jeans get baggier, the chrome rims get bigger. But the spirit remains the same.

Here, cruising’s appeal lies in its simplicity. As practiced on Patton Avenue, cruising is about the mating dance between boys with big engines and girls in small tops in a quiet corner of the South where teenagers have few places to turn for glimmering lights, booming sounds and Spring Break-style abandon.

“Just go out and have fun, scope out chicks,” said Karl Mueller, a senior at nearby Enka High School, explaining his cruising philosophy. Karl met up in the Kmart parking lot with some buddies from the football team, including Will. (During cruising hours, the parking lots of the fast-food joints and big-box retailers lining the strip are jammed. Kmart is self-proclaimed redneck territory, for locals only. At the opposite end of the strip, the Sav-Mor lot is for out-of-towners; black and Hispanic teenagers congregate there, too, each group in distinct cliques.)

As Will and Karl talked, a giant silver Dodge rolled by, its engine rumbling like an incoming B-17.

“Mmm, that’s a Big Horn edition,” Will said admiringly.

“That’s cool, man,” added Shane Pope, 19.

“Got the big stacks coming off the back,” observed Chris Burleson, a burly Enka senior, almost dreamily.

“Does it come stock like that?” Karl asked.

Anti-cruising ordinances continue to tumble forward, just as they did throughout the 90’s in cities like Louisville, Ky.; Fargo, N.D.; Orlando, Fla.; and Tempe, Ariz. Last month, Milwaukee leaders, citing cruising-related violence, signed into law a strict ordinance that allows police to seize cars repeatedly used for cruising. In 2002, police in Westminster, Colo., started using handheld computers to track the number of times a car passed a certain location.

But just try to ban it in Asheville.

“The kids ain’t gonna leave, I don’t care how many tickets the cops write,” said Laura Strother, 22, who had driven from Waynesville, a tiny outlying town with an odoriferous paper mill, she said. She was trolling Patton that weekend in her 2001 black Mustang — nicknamed Bullitt, after a favorite movie. Her cruising companion, Kelly Edwards, 17, also of Waynesville, who wore a tiny rhinestone stud in her nose, agreed: “If you take this away, then nobody has anything to do.”

The truth is, Asheville did try to snuff out cruising, said Lt. Rae Ferguson of the Asheville Police Department, about five years ago, because of increasing reports by local businesses of fights and property damage. “We tried everything,” Lieutenant Ferguson recalled. “We tried saturation patrols. One night we wrote 190 tickets.” The police department even tried to create other activities for teenagers, sponsoring car shows and dances. But nothing could keep them off Patton.

“The fact is, this is just a cultural thing,” Lieutenant Ferguson said. “I did it when I was a kid.”

So they come, in the hundreds, every Friday and Saturday, more in warm months. Despite the thudding stereos and skimpy outfits, the actual act of cruising has become strangely contained. Though cruising is not technically forbidden, it is monitored. The police write tickets for impeding traffic, racing and the occasional drunken driving, and flush out the parking lots precisely at midnight. Given that no self-respecting teenager would turn out before 9 p.m., that leaves exactly three hours for cruising.

It’s not exactly an unbridled expression of teenage rebellion, but a sort of automotive Kabuki, a slow-motion line dance performed by dozens of cars creeping in a tightly choreographed circle between Florida Avenue on the east end and Louisiana Avenue on the west — a stretch only a third of a mile long. Cruising is less a phenomenon of the city’s picturesque, historical downtown, nestled high in the lush Blue Ridge Mountains and dotted with high-end bookshops and fusion bistros, than of the more countrified western end.

For some teenagers on this side of town, cruising becomes a chance to explore, and define, their budding identities. Will Thompson and his friends proudly fly Confederate battle flags — “They say ‘Heritage, Not Hate,’ ” Will emphasized — and crank up old Conway Twitty albums on the car stereo while cruising Patton. Most nights, they set up lawn chairs that teeter in the bed of their pickups.

“We’re not rednecks,” Will joked. “We’re Appalachian-Americans.”

The Dixie vibe is readily apparent on Patton Avenue in the form of rebel-flag bumper stickers and decals. Still, it’s hardly universal. Many of the teenagers would not seem out of place in Santa Monica, Calif., with their Abercrombie & Fitch meets “The O.C.” look — baggy jeans, flip-flops, oversize surfer-style shirts.

Mating rituals along Patton have certain codes. Boys don’t cruise alone. “You come in here one guy, unless you’re like Mr. GQ, girls are going to laugh at you,” Will explained. Girls don’t, either. They would be swarmed.

And while girls can get away with creeping around in mom’s sexless Toyota, guys on the prowl “better have game” — that is, serious wheels, said Karl.

Though whoops and yells may turn heads, the quickest way to a lady’s heart is with a little Southern charm, counseled Laura, the Mustang devotee, who was wearing a Hooters T-shirt. A lot of guys just lean out their windows and say “Hi, cutie,” she said. “That’s real redneck.”

The point is just to get the ball rolling, she said. “Just start a conversation — ‘Hey, how y’all doing?’ ” If the chemistry is there, she continued, “Then you pass by a couple of times, say you’re going to meet here whenever it closes. And you meet and talk and whatever.”

Even for teenagers whose traditional views on courtship, or strict parents, forbid certain whatevers, there is still plenty that is alluring on Patton.

“O.K., there’s that truck,” said Jessica Lebetter, 17, hanging out with friends in the Sav-Mor pharmacy parking lot, as the big silver Dodge with the smokestacks crept slowly into view, heard before it was seen.

“The big one?” asked a friend, Joanie Jenkins, 18.


Both suddenly hooted in approval, arms thrust skyward like Nascar fans celebrating Jeff Gordon in victory lane. The giant silver Dodge with the smokestack exhaust — that weekend’s Best in Show, it would seem — had just taken a preening lap in front of Sav-Mor.

“The bigger the better,” Jessica explained.

“And the bigger tires,” Joanie added, sounding a bit smitten. She gazed at the silver truck, and added, in an tone of awe, “That’s an unusual vehicle there, with 27’s”— 27-inch rims, that is. “Hey, let’s go cruise,” said a female voice from behind them. Soon enough, Joanie and Jessica headed off toward a waiting S.U.V.

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