"Two and a half months ago, me and Russell Simmons went out to dinner," Guest No. 1 is telling Guest No. 2. "He says he wants to fund his own thing."
"Uh-huh," says Guest No. 2, lighting a cigarette.
"He knows that he's gotta hit a triple or a double, though—not a single. He's Russell Simmons." Guest No. 1 leans in to whisper: "Russell Simmons can't bunt."
It's a Friday night in downtown New York, and more than a thousand people—including (supposedly) Kerry Washington, Moby, and Michel Gondry—are packed into a playground for kids. Actually, it used to be a playground, but then enrollment at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral School withered to 129 students and had to close. Now the playground is hosting parties like this one, called Re:Form School, to which Shepard Fairey and others have contributed artwork on themes such as "Knowledge Is Power" and "Teachers Inspire." (One of the paintings on display is a painting of books. "Oh look, books. I love books," says a woman. "I'm so annoyed," her boyfriend responds. "Everyone here has better shoes than me.") A banner in kiddie handwriting hangs above the crowd, spelling out the night's theme: EDUCATE ME.
The air smells like cigarettes and Red Bull. The soundtrack is a drone interrupted by the sound of things breaking. The waxy-looking artist Terence Koh arrives at the playground wearing a toothpaste-colored polyester suit and mirrored sunglasses. He's swinging a sack of lavender buds behind him.
"The lavender is to make the air smell nice," he says.
Asked for his thoughts on education reform, Koh wrinkles the area where his eyebrows used to be. "I think all public schools should be equal," he decides.
"One in three kids do not graduate, and those who do are underprepared in science and technology," the narrator of a three-minute video that no one is watching says. The young artist Lucien Smith wanders in, spots a piano in the corner, and heads over to noodle on it. "This party sucks," he says absently. "What's upstairs?"
Upstairs is a model approaching a side-braided woman and asking to buy a cigarette.
"Sure," she obliges in accented English, retrieving one from her breast pocket. "These cigarettes come all the way from South Africa."
"Cool," says the model as she lights it up. "That dollar came all the way from my boyfriend's wallet."
Clearly many of tonight's guests don't consider the party a form of activism, and this provokes a question (what's the point?) for which only a curly-haired streetwear designer in a newsboy cap, seems to have the answer. In fact, Marc Ecko cares deeply about a lot of things: democracy, Star Wars, fitness, baby rhinos, Ukrainian orphans, and sardines on wheat toast. Also, school reform.
"I grew up in a town called Lakewood, New Jersey," Ecko says. "The political wherewithal in the community was low, so the public schools were bent out of shape. Today, 20 states of this union allow corporal punishment in their schools, and those are schools that receive federal funding. This"—he gestures at the party crowd—"isn't about charter schools or public schools. It's about the fact that between Brazil, India, Russia, and China, we've been dormant in innovating our school system." When the DJ starts playing Wu Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M.," Ecko nods along to the lyrics: Life as a shorty shouldn't be so rough.
Ecko's passion is not contagious. Outside the party, on tree-lined Mott Street, the truants are in assembly. One of them blunders into a nearby convenience store and tries to buy two packs of Winstons with a credit card that the store doesn't accept. "Oh, I see," he says politely in a British accent when declined. The truant is James Jagger (Mick and Jerry's son), and waiting outside for him, wearing a scowl and a bunny hat, is Theodora Richards. She is not happy about her companion's failure to fetch the cigarettes. She is not happy at all.