Friday night at the Alano Club, the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting hall in Fairfax County. The teen-age alcoholics and "dopers" settle into a huge drab room so cold they don't usually remove their coats. They have come, about 45 of them, to hear scratchy rock 'n' roll records, meet new friends and recharge their resolve for the week ahead.
Grouped around a long, narrow table, in the presence of an encouraging counselor, they talk of old lives and new beginnings. And when they speak of struggling to stay "straight," each has his or her own success story.
"I hated myself, and when I was high, it was an escape," says Katie, her little-girl voice rushing to make a grown-up observation. "But I wasn't dealing with why I hated myself. Now, I don't walk around in fear of myself and the world around me like I used to. I can be alone with myself and be happy and not depressed."
Katie, who loves to talk, says she now has "a big interest in me, and before I didn't care. I didn't want to care. But I did care or else I wouldn't have gotten high. It was a facade of not caring."
A mustached youth introduces himself as "Michael, and I'm an alcoholic." He calls the program "a gift from God" and warns of the dangers of back-sliding.
"You people who keep slipping up, well, you might not make it back here," he says, letting others reflect on all the times the highway ahead was blurry and threatening.
There is applause, always applause. The alcoholic gets an ovation for staying sober for a month. The drug addict reports he has been clean for 447 days, and the room erupts in cheers.
"I had 20 bad days, but they really weren't bad because I didn't do drugs," he says.
Alano Club regulars talk easily, boasting of plans for jobs or college, of making choices instead of having them made for them. Newcomers choke in front of strangers. Throwing out the terms of their drug subculture, they speak of footballs, acid, coke, bowls of marijuana or hash, red hearts and speed. A kid in a baseball cap promises to come back "because I think this is going to turn me around."
When he couldn't find any good reasons to come to the meetings, says another youth, "I came for the bad ones. I mean, there's some pretty women here. I'm a human alcoholic."
Amid the sad stories of young lives gone awry, there is much laughter, especially at less painful reminders of how it was.
"I got so high," giggles one girl. Another youth, Tony, is embarrassed to report that he gave a ride to a friend "and the girl starts cleaning her dope in my car. I didn't smoke it, but I could smell it, and all of a sudden I got real hungry."
But, Tony assures his chuckling audience, "I'm a hell of a lot more responsible than I used to be."
One youngster, coming up on his first anniversay of sobriety, is worried because he keeps hearing Led Zeppelin music in his head. But Susan, an alcoholic and drug addict, tells him, "I just celebrated my first year and I feel great."
It was "ecstasy," another youth recalls, "getting high and listening to my favorite music. But that never lasted more than half an hour."
It's going on 10:30 p.m. when a young woman, an A.A. regular, closes the meeting with an upbeat update on her life.
"I used to love to sing," she tells them, "and I'd have to get high to have the nerve. So I'd get high and I'd start to sing, and people would leave the room. And do you know that now people ask me to sing?"