Michelle's typical Saturday night starts with calls to her cell phone between 7 and 9 p.m. Her friends will ask: "Hey, did you hear about the party tonight? Are you coming?"
Party news travels fast among Michelle and her Berkeley High School classmates. "Generally, someone posts on their Facebook that there's a party at this address," she said. "Then everyone who's friends with that person knows about it, and tells everyone about it."
Some hosts don't even provide their whole address, to deter the uninvited guests who can turn parties into problems. A location might be no more specific than "near the corner of Grant and Ward" or "Cedar and Juanita." But even without an address or publicity on Facebook, it can take as little as an hour or two for a couple hundred kids to congregate at the home of whoever's parents went skiing. And with students so networked, it's hard to avoid unwanted guests.
Take the recent party at the tony Claremont home of Michelle's friend, Sarah. It wasn't even supposed to be a party. In today's high school taxonomy, Sarah's affair was merely supposed to be a "kick-it" — a couple levels below a bona fide party. At most, it would be a "get-together" — a baby party. Sarah's parents were out of town, and she was hoping to re-create a successful soiree at which she'd carefully orchestrated all the details and even encouraged folks to eat kosher. "She personally called to invite me," Michelle said. "But I think people who don't like her and don't really respect her invited a ton of more people."
Michelle usually rolls up to parties with four friends. The Berkeley High sophomore describes herself as someone who goes to parties regularly but responsibly. They stay in a pack and look out for one another. They make sure nobody gets too drunk, and even have a system for warding off lecherous boys. "At a lot of parties, guys will come up and start grinding on you," she explained. "If you're dancing, you flick your finger up. They'll give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down, or a medium thumb which is like, 'If you're really bored, well, okay.' Then you make a fist and pull your five fingers out if the guy's, like, getting too handsy while you're dancing."
Sarah tried hard to maintain order at her party. She cleared the furniture out of the living room and piled it all over the staircase, making it clear that upstairs was off-limits. Michelle and a couple friends hid their jackets in the dryer, hoping no one would steal their stuff. Sarah asked two girlfriends to man the door, but they weren't nearly as effective as the hulking male bouncers people usually hire. "There was supposed to be a list but anyone just got in," recalled Max, a popular Berkeley High junior who gets invited to most every party worth mentioning. "She didn't have any friends that are, like, guys, so it was just, like, two girls, like: 'No, you guys can't come in.' Everyone just, like, went in anyways."
Max was on the guest list even though he had no idea who Sarah was. Max is permanently on the guest list for everything. He typically brings a crew three-to-six-kids deep, and puts them all on the list as well. He is a charming seventeen year old who hangs with both the rich kids from the hills and the dropouts who live near his South Berkeley home. His typical uniform includes an Abercrombie T-shirt, a black and white baseball cap, and baggy jeans. He loves pushing limits. His Facebook page includes photos of himself popping skateboard ollies and lying in bed with a nearly empty bottle of Jose Cuervo. At one point, he even posted a photo in which he and several friends posed with bandanas, knives, and guns. He also loves sharing salacious details from parties — for instance, about a friend who goes around hitting people with baseball bats.
Max and five friends got to Sarah's party at 7:30 p.m. "At every party, Max is the most punctual person," Michelle explained. "He talks to the host or hostess and helps them organize." By 8 p.m., other groups started showing up. Then the party started getting rowdy. Max brought a camcorder and stood on the couch videotaping everyone. Two people threw up. One made it to the bathroom but not the toilet, and another threw up right by the door. Someone else spilled stuff all over the couch. A sophomore girl was play-fighting everyone. By 8:45, Sarah wasn't having fun. Max said she unplugged the stereo, but Michelle said someone actually blew out the sound system. "We couldn't figure out how to plug it back in," Max recalled. "Like, it wouldn't turn on."
Shortly after that, Sarah ordered everyone out of her house. She said the police were coming, and herded everyone outside. But many people just continued partying on the street, and hella drama ensued.
"My friend tried to, like, fight someone and started some big drama," Max recalled. "Because there was some fool outside that was, like, talking shit, like, 'let me get in.' He's, like, 'No you can't get in, fuck you.'"
Michelle said her friend panicked. "Sarah called the police and said 'There's just a bunch of people standing outside my house.'"
Before leaving, Michelle went back to the dryer for her jacket, but when she reached into the pocket, her phone was gone. "All my friends who had been there that night had been texting me, and the people that stole it texted them back saying bad shit. They went through my phone book and started texting back. They said, 'You want to have sex?' or 'You're fat.' It's all very frustrating. ... Then they called Sarah and said 'Hey, this is Michelle.' But it was obviously boys."
Within 24 hours, a thread went up on Facebook. Kids who'd been at the party posted bulletins about "people who steal shit." Mary wrote, "JUST so everyone knows last night you were all acting hella stupid: for everyone who fucking wouldnt listen to the girl nice enough to open her house to you, your such losers. sarah and her actual friends are so pissed at anyone who would stay at a party who wasnt wanted. come on now, also whoever stole my fucking shit, i swear i'll pay you to give it back, its really valueable to me but since you dont have the cord it aint worth shit to you. i think anyone who showed up last night acting a fool and basically fucking up some girls house who probably thinks your a bop anyways needs a reality check."
Soon thereafter, Sarah set her Facebook profile to private.
February 10, 2006, 772 Contra Costa Ave., Berkeley
High school partying is certainly nothing new. In many ways, today's teenagers are simply carrying on traditions pioneered by their parents and grandparents. But now that students are so wired — with cell phones, instant messaging, and online communities — there's a new element of menace at the party. In this day and age, it doesn't take much sleuthing to find out where the next party is. Nor does it matter whether you're invited.
Kids get on their cell phones as soon as they arrive, and call or text other friends to come join them. On a recent Saturday night, Michelle's parents picked her up from a party that shut down about 10:45 p.m. "As they're coming, another car pulls up, and eight guys get out — and two pop out of the trunk," Michelle recalled. "I could maybe recognize one of these guys."
People who aren't invited simply come as part of someone else's entourage. "Several groups of people come together in a place that they never would have come together," said El Cerrito police officer Brian Elder, who has seen plenty of parties working Friday and Saturday nights. "You have these blendings of social groups that probably have no business being together."
When young strangers congregate, gnarly shit can happen. "Even if you do a good job and have enough chaperones guarding the front and back doors, the people you don't let in have a party on the street," said one North Oakland parent, who asked not to be named so as not to embarrass his daughter. "You try to get people to move, but they don't. Then there's some kid who needs to impress somebody by driving his car forty miles per hour down the street. You have people drinking, doing drugs, and once it gets to that stage you have a problem — even if you have a moat around the house."
Michelle has been exposed to everything from iPod theft to drunken car accidents. She has had friends lose three cell phones a year due to theft. Sometimes people steal stuff and try to hawk it on Craigslist, but other times they just sell it back to the people from whom they stole it — albeit at an inflated rate. Michelle said that when one of her friends was recently planning a party, people were asking around to find out what kind of TV she had and whether or not she had an Xbox game controller, just so they could figure out if there was anything worth stealing.