Kids just wanna have fun

Despite curfews and a lack of venues for the underaged, Sacramento’s youth manages to have a good time

Photo by Larry Dalton

The noise level at the Country Club Bowling Lanes is so high that at the entrance there’s a sign for all cell phones to be put on vibrate. Well, actually there isn’t, but there should be.

From outside, the complex on Watt Avenue gives no indication of the madness within. On this particular night, there’s a light mist of rain falling on the parking lot, and the red neon sign above the building seems to burn and crackle under the falling drops.

Despite the silence outside, it seems that nearly every parking spot is taken, with shiny SUVs, beaten-up pickups, expensive cars, small cars … apparently the teens these days get to drive anything. Because this is where a lot of young people go at night, all prepped up for bowling, dancing, socializing or just hanging out. Come summer, these kids are going to have a lot of time on their hands, and finding things to do, legally, can often be a challenge.

Four high-school girls are sitting around a small table inside the bowling club close to the entrance. They’re young—16 and 17 years old—attractive, athletic, all smiles, and munching on McDonald’s. Victoria picks up her cell phone and presses some buttons, checking for messages. With the air of a displeased, high-powered CEO, she carefully places the phone back on the table. Pity the friend who hasn’t called yet.

The other three are talking and craning their heads around to look at a girl who is bowling. Are they talking smack about her? “No, she’s just really pretty,” Trista says seriously. The object of the conversation swishes her long ponytail back over her shoulder, but she’s too far away to hear anything. Even if she were standing behind these girls she’d be lucky to hear them, the noise in this place is so deafening.

Victoria, Trista, Amber and Audra come here at least once a month. Their parents have given them curfews that they must abide by, so they can’t stay out too late. Even if they didn’t have their parents to listen to, they still have to obey the city law, which says that young people under the age of 18 can’t be in a public place without supervision after 10 p.m.

But for now, they’re waiting for their number to be called for the laser game, where two teams in glowing clothes sneak around a maze in the dark, shooting members of the other team with their laser gun when they see them.

Around the corner from where a crowd is milling, choosing their bowling shoes or getting ready for their laser shootout, is a small, low-ceilinged room. It’s the video arcade, and the word of the night—loud—applies here just as well as around the bowling alleys. Music is blaring, lights are flashing, neon carpet with bowling pins is glowing, and noises are beeping.

About 15 people are standing around the center, looking excitedly at what appears to be the most popular game here. At least, it’s the most spectator-friendly. Ryan Goddard, the good-looking young man playing this game, has his eyes focused intently on the screen, where a whirring blitz of arrows is dictating to him how he should move his body in time with the music. And boy, this kid can move. So can his friends.

A cute girl of about 6 years old, standing next to her mother, looks up wide-eyed and says, “They must come here, like, all the time.”

“Yeah, all I ever do anymore is play this machine,” agrees Ryan as he swigs on a water bottle after one of his songs has finished. “This machine” is called Dance Dance Revolution, a video game out of Japan. The player chooses a song to dance to, which is then accompanied by a rolling screen of arrows. The player then has to step on the corresponding arrow situated on a dance mat about 4 feet by 4 feet. Each time you miss an arrow, you lose part of your “lifeline.”

According to the kids who have been pulled under the spell of this game, its addiction risk factor is about as high as that for Solitaire or Tetris, if not higher. Don’t forget, more endorphins flow freely while you’re dancing and sweating than while you’re sitting at the computer, so this would seem to be obvious. With very few clubs in the Sacramento area opening their doors to teens for underage dance nights, DDR offers a chance for young people to get rid of some of their boundless energy while playing video games. Now how about that for smart marketing?

But all of this costs money, especially the bowling, which is about $4 per person per game, not including the price of shoes and food or the entry fee if you get there after 9 p.m. What about those kids who can’t afford such a large amount of money when all they really want to do is hang out together? Because that’s basically what kids want: a place for them to get away from home and school, where they can develop the independence that is often discouraged at home and where they can experiment with their growing personalities. What do those kids do?

“The big thing during summer is just hanging out with your friends,” explains 17-year-old Maddy, a high-school student in Davis. “You get a big group of people together, get in people’s cars and just drive somewhere. Everyone’ll be really busy during the day with jobs or summer school, so night is the time to see and be with your friends.”

But nighttime also comes with huge risks if you’re a young person—drinking, fast driving, drugs, gangs and violence. Sacramento has seen its fair share in the past month of auto- and drug-related deaths involving young people. There are many youth clubs in Sacramento, but not many that stay open late at night, especially on the weekends when the dangers that young people face appear before them in full force.

That’s why Phyllis Casillas has devoted the last 25 years of her life to helping the young people who walk through the doors at the La Familia Counseling Center in South Sacramento. Every Friday night, the center’s buildings stay open until 11 p.m., providing young people under 18 with a safe environment where they can watch videos; play or work on computers; play basketball, pool or volleyball; break dance; or just hang out and talk with adults, volunteers and each other.

“The Center is good,” Casillas says, “because [the kids] can do as they need, do what they want, as long as they abide by the rules. … We let them feel like this is their place. They have ownership here. They’re just kids that need assistance, need time, need patience, like all kids. They’re not different from anybody else.”

Walking into the main hall of the Center is like walking into a young boy’s idea of heaven. Kids are running around playing basketball, yelling over the squeaking of sneakers. In one corner there’s a group of boys with a portable stereo, flying all over the floor practicing their break dancing and preparing for competitions. In another corner, younger boys are circling a pool table, quietly deciding on their next move, while others play video games. There’s not an adult in sight, though volunteers are watching that everything runs smoothly. Despite the number of kids in the Center, they’ve never had any troubles or fights.

The hall is noticeably boy-heavy, so what do the girls do when they come here? The answer is in another building, with the lights off and a video playing. Tonight it’s Harry Potter. A small group of girls around a table in the middle are doing crafts, while the walls are lined with computers. It’s raining so nearly everyone is inside. But sometimes, during the hot summer nights, the Center puts on a barbecue outside and the kids play volleyball.

But La Familia is unique in opening up its doors to young people after hours. “There is very little for the kids to do at night,” says Casillas. “If you peruse the area, there’s not a lot of parks, there’s not a lot of places for them to go. So, you know, where are the places?”

They’re around, somewhere. You just have to look hard to find them.

Environment - Surviving the summer swelter