The night starts where it always does, at a gas station in an affluent Montgomery County suburb where about a dozen teenagers hang out. Many neither work nor go to school. A few haven't been home for months. They drink, talk, smoke dope.

A large white Cadillac skids into the parking lot behind the station. It is Jesse. (Names and other identifying characteristics have been changed.)

"Jesse, you got any pot?" asks Josh, 15, son of a government official. Josh always carries a bong -- a waterpipe for smoking hashish.

Jesse, 20, is one of the oldest, and a mainstay. He's been coming to the station for six years. Tonight, he and several others pile into the Cadillac and take off. "When we're not at the gas station," Jesse says, "we cruise."

The car moves slowly in an apparently aimless course through block after darkened block of expensive houses. Jesse parks in front of a four-story, one-family brick house. Kathy volunteers to buy dope from the dealer who lives inside. "Everybody knows him," she says. "He's been around forever. He's 23."

Kathy hasn't gone to school for two years. She hangs out at the gas station instead. "People party around here," she says, "and everybody's close and takes care of one another." When she was 12, she was sent to a girl's home. She ran away many times, but, "They kept on taking me back." Kathy says she's "been through a lot. I've been on my own. I'm only 16, but I feel 20."

The dealer isn't home, and it takes two more Georgian-style houses before they "score" a half-ounce of marijuana. Jesse parks in front of the local elementary school, another hangout, and passes around the joints he rolls.

A car passes slowly, stops, then drives on. Moments later, it returns.

"What are you doing here?" a woman's voice asks.

"We're sitting here," Jesse snaps. "What are you doing?"

"I happen to live here."

"I live up the block too," Jesse says. His face twists into a bitter snarl. "We're sitting here waiting to rob every house on the block!" he shouts.

"That's not so strange, you know," the woman says.

"Let's go," Jesse says, disgusted, and revs up the engine. Jesse often boasts of the many burglaries his former gang committed. "We're real amateurs," he says. "That's why we never got caught."

They cruise for two more hours, listening to the radio, bopping to pop tunes with lyrics like "We wanna play just a little bit longer," and "Are we really happy here with this lonely game we play."

Jerry pops a big black pill into his mouth -- Dexedrine. "Another night," he says.

Jerry doesn't speak often. He lives with his parents, but he says he hasn't talked with them for years. They don't trust each other.

The group has become quiet. It's after 1 a.m., but nobody talks of leaving. Jesse drives through the winding roads of the National Institutes of Health. Two sharp pin-lights appear ahead.

Suddenly, the lights grow larger. A car is rushing head-on in the wrong lane.

A squeal of rubber, a burst on the horn, a jumbled flash of light and a sudden jerk jolts everybody awake as Jesse swerves the Cadillac deftly into the left lane. The other car whines past.

"My God!" Josh cries. "What happened?"

"The car," Jesse says, shaken. "A Volkswagen. Jesus." He drives on for a few seconds, as the others look at him. "I might get f---ed up," he says. "But I wouldn't kill anybody."

The close call has made everybody alert and wide-eyed, and they utter some adolescent exclamations of relief.Jesse reminisces about the time he drove a stolen car into a ditch. "That was when I was a bad boy," he says.

"What are you now?" Jerry asks simply.

"I don't know."

They ride on in silence, wandering through a maze of sidestreets, until they reach the main drag, which will take they back to the gas station.

"Right now," Jesse says finally, "I'm aimless."