The two of them, standing by the bus stop on North Avenue near Charles, are sharing a package of gooey cupcakes guaranteed to produce cholesterol levels which could stop the heart of a rhino.
"Nice breakfast," somebody says.
"Hmmm," the first one declares.
"Ain't my breakfast," says the second. "Already had breakfast."
"What was that?"
"Pizza," he says.
It's 8:30 yesterday morning. In front of the remains of the artsy old Seven East movie theater, there are now shredded political posters on a bricked-over wall. One asks, "Are You Stuck in Neutral?" Another, extolling the convicted political maverick Lyndon LaRouche, calls him "the only opponent George Bush feared enough to put in prison."
The two kids, late in their teens, do not notice. Around here, Lyndon LaRouche and the president of the United States carry about the same political credibility, which means the first poster's message should have some meaning: These kids are definitely stuck in neutral.
"Got a job this summer?"
"I looked," one of them says, drinking from a can of Dr. Pepper between bites on the gooey cupcake.
It's left unsaid that nothing has come through. He says it's tough to take the bus to a series of job interviews. His buddy, in a Georgetown basketball sweat shirt and high-top sneakers, nods his head in agreement: No job, and no particular prospects.
Multiply their responses by the tens of thousands and understand why cities everywhere tremble.
The schools continue to produce equal numbers of graduates and dropouts. The job market holds little promise for either. The kids coming out of the great universities today complain of doors slammed in their faces, but at least they've got hope that eludes those with limited schooling.
Some day, surely, the economy will shake itself out and those who have made it through college will get their employment payoff.
But the dropouts will not, nor will the ones who slip through high school with nothing more promising than a decent attendance record. In this city, the dropout rate is quadruple Baltimore County's. Only one-third of those who graduate move on to college, and many enter with board scores that are breathtakingly low.
The dropout rate, and the alienation, are particularly bad in the poor black neighborhoods. The kids not only feel cut off from mainstream America, but we now have evidence that absolutely nobody knows how to communicate with them.
The latest bad news comes from a private study by a black-owned market-research firm, MEE Productions in Philadelphia, operating with financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest health-care philanthropy.
The study is called "Reaching the Hip-Hop Generation," and it says nobody connects with these kids: not white politicians, naturally, who deliver empty platitudes from some distant culture, but also not black athletes or entertainers, either.
By triumphing in the marketplace of talent, these personalities are admired. But, by attempting to lecture the aimless, they are automatically perceived as having sold out. A wall comes down.
The personalities speak of hope but the kids, swallowed up by lives of rejection, figure they know better. Hope may be more powerful than fear, but anger and alienation are more realistic.
"Inner city teens would be delighted to meet their favorite NBA star if he came to their school to speak against drugs," the study says. "But they would discount the appearance as 'playing the game' -- performing one of the obligations of celebrity."
"You go to school?" the two guys on North Avenue are asked.
"Not no more."
"How far did you go?"
"Tenth grade," the first one says. That was last year, he declares. When he was 18. The second one, 17, says he's in the 10th grade now but might not have time to make class today owing to a doctor's appointment.
They both look healthy and strong. By the bus stop now, there's an old man pushing a metal walker in front of him. He has no teeth in his head. The great thing about youth is that it never seems to connect with the infirmities of old age. The kids pay him no mind. His fate could never be theirs.
The new study on poor black kids says they reject black mainstream culture as thoroughly as they reject white mainstream culture. Talk to them of school? A lot of them simply block it out. Talk of safe sex or drug abuse? It isn't sinking in. For evidence, simply check the latest AIDS figures, showing black cases in the state of Maryland now running nearly 3-to-1 over white cases.
The men who run this country, now finding themselves in a great presidential campaign, naturally offer veiled, code-word references to all of this. They're entitled to point out problems.
But, instead of a series of healing gestures, instead of accepting responsibility for any of this, there is barely disguised contempt which only widens the gap. The us vs. them mentality is cemented.
And the wall separating inner city black kids from the American mainstream, and from the sound of all role models' voices reaching them, gets ever more impenetrable.