As the sun sets and the daily crush of traffic thins, Ritchie Highway looks dead. "What night life?" most people say to questions about possible after-hours action along the commercial highway.
Most businesses appear dark, security guards conspicuously circle the malls and "no loitering" signs posted in parking lots threaten incarceration for those who socialize. Ritchie Highway lacks the most obvious symbols of night life -- clubs -- as much as it does sidewalks for the clubs' drunks to stumble home on.
Yet, on a Friday night, from behind the snack shops and fast food restaurants, life slowly emerges. Clusters of teens pull out of lots to cruise the strip, and ad hoc bands plug amplifiers into outdoor outlets.
Next door to Sam's Bagels in Glen Burnie, two dozen people set up lawn chairs in a gas station parking lot just after sundown.
An 11-year-old boy dressed in black strums his guitar and belts out the lyrics to an apparently original country song.
"I ran away from home when I was only 3," he sings, far off key.
While customers stop to fill up at the nearby gas pumps, half a dozen other people mill around, guitars in hand, practicing before their performances.
"This is really strange, ain't it?" Jason LeBaron, 16, of Glen Burnie says to his neighborhood friend Tyler Dagenhart, 14.
The two had been cruising along the highway on their dirt bikes when they heard the noise.
"Yeah, this belongs on 'Candid Camera' or something," Dagenhart says, watching the driver of a hot pink, 1937 hot rod pull a lawn chair out of the trunk and join the audience.
One of a number of musical groups setting up shop along the highway, this group has gathered here since June, when six regulars proposed the idea to Sam's Bagels Manager Shirley Hilton.
"One day they asked if they could come and play music," Hilton says, shrugging. "Now they come every Friday night."
Down the street, a different group gathers in the parking lot of McDonald's in Glen Burnie. Their interest is not music but cars. Fast cars. Cars that glow neon blue. Cars with custom parts. Cars with hydraulics that pump them up and down.
On one side of the parking lot, 10 teen-agers and adults in their early 20s gather in a circle. They own pickup trucks.
On the other side stand a dozen others. They own Mustangs.
In an act of showmanship, the truck owners turn on their hydraulics so that their side of the parking lot erupts in the wheezing cough of trucks bobbing haphazardly.
A Mustang owner retaliates by peeling out of the lot.
"They all try to race us from light to light," says truck owner Melvin Rolland, 21, of Glen Burnie, as the Mustang accelerates down the highway. "But they've got eight cylinders, and we've only got four or six. So of course they're going to beat us. They're always trying to outdo you."
Every known car gets a nightly examination, and every stranger's car gets a comment.
A green Ford Escort pulls into the drive-through lane, and many sneer. The Escort owner has used stickers to decorate the back windshield.
"What a hooptie," says 23-year-old Rob Davis from Glen Burnie. "See, that's really bad because he didn't actually take pride in his work and do it right. He just went and bought a sticker and stuck it on the back. Those are the people that get laughed at."
As the night wears on, many head straight to a handful of "locals only" bars, where they remain until closing.
Others make pit stops to grab a case of beer or bottle of vodka at the dozens of liquor stores that line the highway. Their parking lots grow more crowded with each passing hour.
Late on this summer night, the Ferris wheel from the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Department Carnival is still going strong.
Six teen-agers and young adults from Annapolis sit on the curb behind the 7-Eleven in Severna Park and drink beer. They have not found Ritchie Highway as fulfilling as the car crews and country music fans. Most of their friends have gone home.
"Yeah, we've just been partying it up all night long here," one of the teen-agers says with a sigh. He pulls a bottle of Mad Dog out of the 12-pack.
"There are no girls out here," adds Charlie Simms, 21.
He throws his arms in the air as if to ask for mercy. "I mean, where are the girls?"
By 1: 30 a.m., the bartenders have issued last call, the liquor stores have turned out their lights, and the Denny's restaurant in Pasadena is about the last open attraction.
Even the Ferris wheel has stopped spinning.
Michael Tasker, 19, of Annapolis is one of the last to leave the carnival.
"Ritchie Highway?" he says. "It's just another route to get somewhere else. Tonight it was a way to get to the carnival."
Pub Date: 9/04/97