The student parking lot contains a high school’s DNA, the unique code that gives a school its distinct character and defines who it is.
Float through any high school parking lot before the first-period bell and you’ll see a side of the school you can’t experience in the halls or classrooms.
Once inside the school’s halls, a student body is segmented by the institution itself. The kids flow through locker-lined passageways like blood through arteries, dispatched by echoing bells and driven by the school’s agenda, not the students’.
In the parking lot, kids are free to make the kinds of choices that foster a culture. They congregate and colonize based on interests: smokers with other smokers, ballers with ballers, preps with preps, labels with like labels and so it goes until the lot is a discernible patchwork of idiosyncrasies.
But to truly understand a given school, you have to look past the generic labels and consider the particulars of the student parking lot, details that include their time and place in history.
In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew--then the most devastating storm to ever make landfall in US history--ravaged South Dade County in Miami and forced the start of the school year back two weeks to allow the area to gather itself.
By the time the parking lot at Miami Palmetto Senior High was full on day one of the 1992 semester, the community had hardly recovered.
Nestled east of US-1 and west of the Biscayne Bay, Palmetto’s campus stood just north of where Andrew’s north eyewall had passed. Wounds the campus had physically suffered during the storm hadn’t yet healed by the first day of class, but time and life were marching in lockstep.
Much of the student body lived south of Palmetto, closer to Andrew’s eye and destructive epicenter that had leveled Homestead and anything else in its path.
On the first day of school in 1992, nearly 2000 teens rolled into Palmetto’s multiple lots and tried to resume their lives as they were before the roofs of their homes had been ripped to the heavens, before every tree in their once-verdant landscape had been denuded then uprooted, leaving unopposed sky in every direction, before their parents’ mettle had cracked in the wake of a seemingly hopeless situation exacerbated by slow-moving insurance adjusters and a lack of air-conditioning during Miami’s unrelenting dog days.
An invisible cloak of trauma wrapped Palmetto’s parking lot, uniting its denizens in a harrowing experience no one wanted to discuss.
It was easier to be cool, to cut up with friends, to smoke if you had ‘em and bum if you didn’t.
Scattered throughout Palmetto’s student lot, in diverse tribes whose camaraderie eased the pain of the still-open wounds lingering from the storm, were kids that, in little over a decade, would grow to shape America’s culture.
Among those kids on opening day in 1992...a future Hollywood screenwriter, a budding singer destined for American Idol fame, the future Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, a backyard brawler whose name would spread via a yet-to-be-conceived online video platform called YouTube, and the future Surgeon General of the United States.
That’s just a short list of notable alumni that Wikipedia reports. The roll sheet of Palmetto’s eventual stars was much longer.
Future business leaders roamed the sun-soaked asphalt amongst soon-to-be collegiate athletes, politicians, engineers, lawyers, artists, and convicts.
Opening day 1992 in the Palmetto lot even had an eventual porn mogul whose sites would one day climb to the top of the internet’s hit list.
Maybe the asphalt was charmed. A decade earlier, the future founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, had spent his early mornings in Palmetto’s parking lot, en route to graduating as his class's valedictorian.
Most of us came to the lot in jalopies. Some arrived in BMW’s, a few in rolling subwoofers. None of us were yet wild successes, average nobodies, or abysmal failures. We were ordinary teenagers trying to put calamity aside and get on with life.
We were kids, young and free to make choices, not all of them wise and wholesome.
The student handbook for Miami Palmetto Senior High School from 1992-95 was likely explicit about its policy on cigarette smoking, fighting, illicit drug use, and fornication on school grounds, particularly in the school’s parking lot.
Somewhere, in a block typeface smudged on non-recyclable paper, there must have been language outlawing such activities and detailing the punishments associated with being found guilty of each.
There must have been rules. Printed rules. Official rules. But I never saw them. And judging by what a fly on the bumper would have witnessed in the parking from 1992-95, neither did the anyone else at Palmetto, teachers and students included.
The average cost of a pack of cigarettes in 1992 was about $1.85, a far cry from the pint of blood and pinky finger they cost today.
Dollars didn’t factor into kids deciding whether or not the habit made sense back then. Cigarettes were cool and sexy and so were the kids who smoked them.
In the Palmetto parking lot, the smoker’s ritual was on repeat each morning from the moment the gates opened: roll in, park, light up, step out, be cool until the first bell, go to class.
While no-smoking-on-campus rules must have existed, they were never enforced. Teachers looked the other way, outnumbered and perhaps content that the deviance took place on campus instead of off it.
Whatever the administration’s logic, some kids were happy to take the inch and lean deeper into their vice of choice.
Marijuana was a popular pre-class high. Its use was easy to conceal in the confines of cars masked by tinted windows. Its effects were easy to hide with a few drops of Visine before the bell.
Booze was even easier to pound and conceal.
Then there were “ruffies,” the street name for the sedative, Rohypnol--the Quaalude and Oxycontin of the 90s--the easy-to-pop pill that played well alone and ramped previously consumed highs until the user was reduced to a slurring slug.
Illicit consumption tended to spike in popularity on days when the Leo club held student blood drives, the thinking amongst partakers being that blood supply and toxicity held an inverse relationship. The science was sound. The driving prowess of the plastered, not so much.
As for parking lot sex, I can’t say I ever bore personal witness. But rumors have a way of becoming legend. Especially in high-school.
Were we righteous? Not particularly.
Were we innocent? Some were.
We were kids leaning over the rules’ edges, searching for an identity but settling for experience. ‘90s kids. Miami kids. South Dade kids. Palmetto kids.
The parking lot housed our DNA.
If you weren’t there, you may never understand. If you were, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you're from South Dade in the early 90s (like me) and you enjoyed this story, you'll love my debut novel, The Coolest Labels.
It's set in Miami, 1992 and follows a group of high school kids from South Dade trying to put their lives back together in the immediate wake of Hurricane Andrew.
The book will be available on August 24, 2019.
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Fred Smith grew up in Miami in the 1990s. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is about a group of Miami teens trying to find their way after Hurricane Andrew devastates South Florida.
You're on his site. So kick back, have a few rounds on the house, then, you know...buy something.