The atmosphere last Friday night on the streets off South Tel Aviv's Rehov Hamasger was, in a word, predatory. Hundreds upon hundreds of youths as young as 16 were hanging around outside the dance clubs, drinking vodka and beer, getting drunker and louder and more aggressive by the hour. The boys, trendily unshaven and dressed in polo shirts, jeans and sneakers, filled the humid air with shouts of "Bo!" ("Come on!"), crudely hitting on passing groups of heavily-made-up girls wearing revealing tops and tight slacks.
About 10 square blocks behind Hamasger were nearly empty of cars; police close the area off on weekend nights to prevent it from being gridlocked with jumpy, drunken young drivers. The clopping of the huge horses ridden by riot police in the streets mixed with the shouts and shrieks of the revelers and the loud Mizrahi and techno music coming out of the clubs - Zeta, Eve, City Tel Aviv and about a dozen others. (The brightly-lit sign over the "Golda" club shows the dour visage of the country's fourth prime minister, with the "A" in her name done in the graffiti symbol for "anarchy.")
As packed with drunken, adrenaline-pumped, horny youths as the one-time industrial zone was last Friday, it'll be much more so this weekend and in the months to come: School just let out - summer vacation has started. High school kids will be leaving the house at 10 or 11 at night, piling into cars and taxis and heading for the dance clubs in the cities, there to hang out with soldiers on furlough and other young adults getting drunk or drugged, hooking up, getting into fights, then coming home at 4 in the morning and waking up the neighborhood with their last, triumphant shouts.
No wonder Golda looked so grim.
Every so often a boy gets badly cut up or even killed outside one of the clubs and the whole country, led by the media, expresses shock, wonders what we've come to and issues action plans on how to solve the problem: more parental supervision, more after-school activities, stronger police presence, stricter liquor laws.
A COUPLE of weeks ago Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai vowed to pass a city law barring liquor sales to anyone, no matter his age, after 9 p.m., to keep it out of the hands of adolescents. He's got his work cut out for him. Behind Hamasger, the sidewalks, benches and ledges were piled with empty vodka and beer bottles and used plastic cups. High school boys and girls were huddled on the corners, drinking alcohol they'd either bought themselves or gotten an adult to buy for them. The cops on horseback and standing by their vans didn't say a word to them; they were only there to prevent fights.
We went up to a trio of guys leaning against a parked car and asked what they planned to do for summer vacation.
"Get laid!" crowed Lidor, who was there from Holon with his friends Ilan and Baruch. At first they claimed to be 17, then admitted they were 16 or, in Ilan's case, "16-and-a-half."
"If the girls are really drunk and crazy, you can screw them in the bathroom of the club," said Lidor, whose voice kept getting louder. Legally, the clubs, which serve alcohol, aren't supposed to let in anyone under 18, but the high school kids use their wits - faking admission stamps, faking ID cards or wheedling a good-natured security guard into submission.
"This summer we'll go to Eilat, get a little vodka, take the girls to a hotel room," said Ilan, smiling conspiratorially. They sounded like they were exaggerating about the sex, but there's no reason to think they were about the drinking. It's right there, out in the open. They don't drink in the clubs because drinks cost about NIS 40; instead, they get drunk on the street and then work their way past the security guards.
"But we don't fight," said Ilan. "You see those cops over there? They're scary. And there are Arabs coming around here who if you look at them, they'll stab you."
Asked what his parents think of his leisure habits, Ilan said, "They let me go - all the kids my age do it. They tell me I can drink, just not too much. And that I shouldn't get into trouble."
The carousers off Hamasger are not a cross-section of Israeli youth. Mainly, they are working-class, badly-educated Mizrahi kids who hang together, go out looking for action and are loyal to God, country, family, their soccer team and each other. In Tel Aviv, they're also known as "Hobatim" - weekend invaders from Holon and Bat Yam.
"They're a problematic population," said Ezra, who works at City Tel Aviv. "At about 3 in the morning, they start emptying out of the bars, drunk, and they get into fights. They're starting to drink now," he said at around midnight, pointing to a couple of youngsters walking by with a vodka bottle in a bag. He led us past the brawny, aggressive security guards into the club, which was filled with blue, hazy light, and about half-full with people - most sitting sullenly at the bar or on couches, a few dancing self-consciously.
OUTSIDE ON the sidewalk, a girl was sleeping on an abandoned couch, her shoes and empty bottles lying nearby. This is a seedy part of town - in the middle of the strip, in front of the Nissan dealership, a homeless man was sleeping on a cardboard box with a cup set out for donations. Some of the young people put a coin in, others stared at him and commented; there's a tremendous amount of aimlessness and restlessness in these kids, and the homeless guy was an attraction. Elsewhere an old man pushed a shopping cart up the sidewalk, collecting plastic bags and bottles.
Some Israeli Arabs come to the Hamasger clubs, as well as some African foreign workers. On the equally gritty side streets further up, a crowd of young Russians was congregated outside a couple of dance clubs, while nearby a crowd of young Ethiopians waited to get into their clubs. The richer, generally Ashkenazi, kids go to the north side of town, to the clubs at the Tel Aviv Port, one of the trendiest entertainment and shopping venues in the country.
By 2 a.m., the young folks near Hamasger were getting a little ratty. Some of the boys had a kind of smoldering look in their eyes, as if they'd struck out with one too many girls or been blocked at the entrance of one too many dance clubs. It was getting hard to approach these kids for interviews - their speech was slurred, they couldn't be bothered to concentrate, they didn't have the patience or they immediately started putting us on, answering in English that didn't go much beyond, "Hey, man, what's up?" or demanding that we stop and take their photos. With one or two exceptions, they weren't threatening, but if we'd looked at them the wrong way, the atmosphere immediately could have turned bad. There was a lot of aggression in the air. The riot police weren't there on their horses for nothing.
"Last night there were a lot of fights. They were even fighting with the security guards," said a border policeman standing by his van and watching the crowd across the street outside City Tel Aviv and Eve. "There are fights here almost every night."
We asked if there are many arrests, and the policeman said no, because the fights are usually over by the time they get there, and the losers rarely press charges.
IN FRONT of the Zeta club was an ad for the wet T-shirt contest inside. In front of the Rival 9, two girls in hot pink miniskirts were dancing on platforms, blowing bubbles to the crowd. We stood at the entrance of another club trying to look in, and the big security guard, suspicious of a pair of middle-age men dressed like shlubs, came up to us in a fairly menacing way and said, "Are you looking for something special? You better try a different club."
A policeman said a father whose daughter comes here regularly with her friends dropped by by recently to get an idea of where the girl goes all night. "The poor guy had this look of shock on his face, like he couldn't believe it," said the cop. "I had the feeling that girl wouldn't be coming back here for awhile."
Here and there, kids were walking by who clearly looked out of place. We stopped a pair of girls, Shirli, "16-and-a-half" with braces, and Sivan, 17, both from Rishon Lezion, and asked them about their plans for the summer vacation. "Coca-Cola Village!" said an enthusiastic Sivan, referring to some squeaky-clean jamboree to be held up North.
Neither of them was wearing makeup or suggestive clothes. Do they drink, do they get into fights? Of course not, they replied. They're straight-arrows, well-behaved girls. So why were they there? Weren't they a little intimidated? Pointing to a couple of older, sober, serious-looking boys nearby, Sivan said, "They look out for us." Added Shirli, "It's fun. We like to dance. Yeah, some of the clubs let us in."
The entrance to the Tommy club is roped off, with two male security guards in black T-shirts frisking the people coming in, who are "selected" by an awfully imposing, square-jawed woman named Revital, who, by the looks of her, lifts weights and takes steroids. Some of the guys in the crowd at the entrance are speaking Arabic; it's remarkable that this doesn't cause fights.
"Revital, sweetheart, let me in. Revital, Revital, cutie-pie, what's the matter, let me in," call the guys, and Revital, scanning the crowd and pivoting, absolutely in control, takes her time and finally points to a lucky two or three, and they go through the ropes and head up the stairs.
IT'S 3 O'CLOCK in the morning. Huldai wants a law forcing the city's dance clubs to close by this hour; as things stand, they stay open as long as they like. We left about 3:30 without seeing any fights. Before, in front of the Golda club, we asked a security guard what causes them, and he said these weren't gang fights, nor fights between Arabs and Jews, but rather "spontaneous, one on one. It's always about kavod, honor. One guy curses another guy, or starts up with his girl, and they get into it. It's usually over in a matter of seconds."
We went up to a girl sitting on a curb who looked 16, but she turned out to be a 19-year-old off-duty soldier named Keren, who was there with four other young women soldiers she knew from Rehovot. One, who will go nameless here, was very drunk and happy, shaking our hands repeatedly.
"We never went to places like this when we were in high school. My father would have killed me," said Keren.
"We hung around outside the house. The most we would do was smoke a nargila - with just tobacco," said Hila.
A few richer, older people were drinking at a sidewalk bar. A few restaurants were closing down, the countermen hosing down the sidewalks in front. The crowd was thinning out. There seemed to be empty bottles and cups on every level surface. The kids were too wasted to talk. A boy, possibly on the way to his car, was showing his girlfriend how to pass a sobriety test, stretching out his arm, then bringing his index finger to the tip of his nose, over and over, as his girlfriend tried to do the same. Satisfied, he put his arm around her, she hiccupped, draped herself over his shoulder and let him half-drag her away.
This was the last weekend of the school semester. For the next two-and-a-half months, there won't be any classes to wake up for in the morning; huge masses kids all over the country will be hanging around the clubs every night of the week.