Three O’Clock High



47th Street and Avenue of the Americas, 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

It is 3pm on a weekday, and I have left the office to caffeinate. As I step through the revolving doors and out into the day, I note that summer has seamlessly turned into fall. I gather this not from any change in the weather, but because the kids are back.

I work in Midtown in a monolithic glass tower, one in a forest of same. In the mornings when I arrive and in the evenings when I leave, people in suits and tourists swarm the base of the building. But there must be a school nearby because at 3pm on any given weekday September through May, there is also a smattering of teens.

They gather on the sidewalk between a subway station and the vendors who line 47th Street hawking knockoff purses, watches, selling gyros. I look forward to walking past those kids in the afternoons. They remind me of the ones I used to tutor at an after-school program in Harlem. And those kids had always reminded me of myself. With cupped hands they whisper conspiratorially in ears, form alliances, test boundaries. The girls bat eyes, and smile at the boys who lope and blush. They are figuring it out, life. It’s exciting.

Today there are more kids than usual, 30 or 40 if I had to guess. Most days they sit scattershot on the concrete benches, steps, deep sidewalk but today they all stand huddled close together, focused on two of their cohort. In fact, their group is so big, I have to arc wide into the smoke of the Korean barbeque cart in order to get around them.

I glance back before sneaking into the coffee shop, and as I do, feel a strange tension in the air.

When I step back out into the high sun, drink in hand, I see that a few adults have stopped mid-mission and are staring at the nest of children. I look myself, and see two boys in the center of the mass. They are slinging words I can’t hear, small chests puffed out.

I walk past, consider stepping in to take control like I would when things got out of hand at the after-school program, act the teacher, wag a finger, but I hold no authority here.

Suddenly, as if a pot finally come to boil, one boy lunges at the other. The crowd of children surges, moving to maintain proximity. The passersby back up, clap hands over open mouths, but do not turn away.

The bigger boy forces the littler one back, back, back, across the sidewalk and toward the street, until they both fall against a vendor’s sheeted folding table, which collapses like a trick chair with one bad leg under their weight. Sunglasses and purses, brilliantly colored scarves, compacts all spill out into the street. Traffic stops. More stop to gape, old men crowded around a cockfight.

The boys roll around on top of the now flat folding table, throwing tiny punches. Their friends surround them. There is yelling. The vendor stares down at his livelihood now scattered across 47th street.

I am standing in the crosswalk, trying hard not to cry. Furious with the men who stand and gawk. DO something! I think to myself. And do nothing.

All of a sudden, from behind me two cops shoot through the street on foot. Who has called them, I have no idea. A wet mist precedes them and I am confused until the boys roll apart, clutch their eyes, and I realize that the mist is mace.

I look around to see if others are as appalled as I am. Wonder if we should call the cops on the cops. But no one makes a move.

When they get close enough, the policemen holster their mace and jump onto the kids’ backs, hold them down cheek to pavement.

I think about the suburbs of Kansas City where I was raised. How one wronged boy would push a finger against his aggressor’s sternum, “Meet me on the soccer fields after school.”

I remember, how we would all show up, wait with an excitement I couldn’t recognize as perverse at the time, but was. How the boys would show or not. How if they did, and if they began to tussle, inevitably someone would step in, probably more for their own ego than for the sake of stopping the fight, but they would step in nonetheless. That or the boys would simply get tired, collapse on top of one another, call a truce. And everyone would stand there and then someone would say something like, “You guys want to go to Circle K?”

And the boys would end up holding slurpees, not in handcuffs like these two boys sitting on the curb, heads down.

They look ashamed. They look like nice boys.

Midtown makes an awful soccer field.


Katherine Dykstra is a New York-based writer. Her essays have appeared in Poets and Writers magazine,, and in the anthology 20 Something Essays by 20 Something Writers.

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