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The Teenage Economy


It’s ten o’clock on a recent Friday night, and Max is growing itchy. Eighteen years old, pale, diminutive, and shrewd, a senior at a private school, he’s standing inside an enormous industrial loft—a loft that, dammit, should be teeming with kids by now. “I’m always nervous as hell in the beginning,” Max says, glancing at his watch. “I just want to know that my investment’s gonna come through, you know?”

Max promotes parties; it’s what he does. He took it upon himself at the end of last year to be the go-to guy in his school, borrowing $1,000 from his parents to throw his first one. They’re loosely connected to something school-related: homecoming, spring break, end of the year. Tonight’s party was to mark winter break, and to spice things up, Max decided that tonight’s event needed a theme: “business hos and CEOs.” “The guys have to wear suits and suspenders,” he says. “The girls—I don’t know. They need to look sorta like secretaries, sorta like hookers.”

The fiscal logistics to pulling off such a night are impressive. Earlier in the week, Max found the loft through a friend and rented it for $1,500. Through a connection at Columbia, he hired three university football players—$120 each—to work as bouncers. He printed the invitations on clear plastic paper, cutting them into one-inch squares—the better to hide them from teachers—and all week during school he sold kids wristbands for $20. He bought a few cases of Poland Spring bottled water. (It is rare that such events feature alcohol—Max never serves it—but those that do net an extra $1,000.) All in all, parties like this can gross between $3,000 and $19,000 for the kid in charge. Such affairs have become so lucrative that, this past October, an enterprising Horace Mann student printed counterfeit tickets for the homecoming party and did brisk business before the organizers got wind of the hoax.

Fifteen minutes later, the doors of the freight elevator open with a ding and a sea of girls spill out: a blur of carefully torn fishnets, hiked-up pleated skirts, overdone eye makeup. One young lady totters over to Max and opens up her pressed white blouse to reveal the letters CEO written across her breasts just above a black lace bra.

“Do I get a discount?” she asks Max.

“Um, no,” he sternly replies. “You know the deal.”

Within an hour the loft is packed with bodies; there’s a line of kids twenty deep waiting to get in, all reaching into their wallets and handing over $20 to the bouncers, who then hand the money to Max when he checks the door periodically. There are a few girls who by night’s end are crying in corners—standard-issue boy drama—but all in all the evening is a success. From time to time, Max stashes the money in a small safe hidden in a backpack. “It’s funny,” Max says, finally seeming somewhat relaxed, “I want to major in business—to be the boss of something legit one day, you know?—and I was gonna put these parties on my college application. They show that I’m serious, that I know what’s what when it comes to money. But then I thought it wouldn’t look good.”

And what did his parents think?

“Oh, they have no idea how huge these things get,” he says, smiling. Then, a moment later, he adds, “Well, maybe they do, actually. I’m supposed to get a $50-a-week allowance, but ever since I started throwing parties, they’re always asking me for cash.”

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