University Underground

Wendy began her Christmas break from school in Boston last year knowing she would have to get a job to pay the rent. Like many university and college students, she looked through the help-wanted ads, came across an interesting sounding job, and went in for an interview. A few days later, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts junior who grew up, as she puts it, “waaaaay out in the woods” in Vermont began work — as a dominatrix for an escort service.

Wendy — whose name has been changed in this story at her request — rented a hotel room on the weekends and waited for the phone to ring. She trafficked in sexual fetish, including light bondage and hand jobs.

She says nearly half the women she met in her line of work were college students in the same boat: They needed money for expenses and tuition. Wendy made $150 for a session and says she had appointments lined up one after another. If business was slow, she'd do her homework.

Across town, Jack takes a jar out of the kitchen in the apartment he shares with five fellow college students. The mushroom colonies he's been storing in his refrigerator have bloomed again and, sure enough, two powerful hallucinogenic mushrooms press against the glass. He unscrews the lid, picks up the mushrooms gently at the base, and weighs them in at 12 grams, which makes them worth about $30. Jack debates whether or not to eat them right away but, remembering that he owes his neighbor a favor, puts them in another jar, seals it with tinfoil, and puts it back in the refrigerator. He takes a joint and sits outside to list the drugs he's tried. “Marijuana, Ritalin, mushrooms, 2-CI, OxyContin, acid, opium, hash,” he recounts slowly, counting them on his fingers. “I've been lucky that I'm not an addictive personality.”

Jack — his name, too, has been changed in this story — estimates that he and his friends, who go to Boston University, Northeastern, Berklee, and Bunker Hill Community College, spend $50 a month just on weed. One in five college students smokes pot, a study shows. About 2.4 percent use cocaine. One former coke dealer at Tufts says “eight balls” — or eighths of an ounce of coke — are particularly popular with groups of friends there who divide the $140 to $175 cost. The study shows that about 5 percent of students take amphetamines and other stimulants, including Ritalin and Adderall. Three percent take drugs like ecstasy. Dealers say they get $5 to $7 for a dose of Ritalin — especially in demand around midterms and final exams — and $25 to $30 a pop for ecstasy.

A Boston student's variation on the old Buddhist koan might go something like this: If a beer bottle shatters on the sidewalk and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Because in the deafening silence of campus libraries, behind the cinderblock walls of dormitories, drowned out by the monotone lectures in a thousand classrooms every day, the upper-class, suburban-bred university and college students at Boston's most elite universities are noiselessly contributing to a massive underground economy.

This economy expands every time Jack pays $60 for a quarter of an ounce of marijuana, UMass Boston senior Ellen (her name has been changed, too) gets $15 a page to write someone else's paper, and a student from Wentworth Institute collects his $80 for a fake ID. It's fueled by the $5 BU senior Mike charges underage students for admission to a keg party and the $150 Wendy makes to spank submissive men. There are 65 colleges in greater Boston, with a quarter of a million students, who make up 7 percent of the area's total population. But students contribute an estimated $364 million to Boston's underground economy every year, most of it through illegal sex, drugs, and alcohol — about $150 million more than the entire police department budget. It's become so bad, city councilors have proposed making universities turn over registries of where their students live.

The numbers are not scientific because they attempt to quantify things people try their best to hide. But every once in a while, the underground surfaces, and not just in the guise of fatal postgame riots like the ones that followed the Patriots' victory in the Super Bowl and the Red Sox win over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. It surfaces in the form of Jimmy Cassidy, the Northeastern honor student shot in his apartment who was reportedly running a drug ring. Or the Mount Ida students arrested and charged with making counterfeit money. (Their trials are set to begin this month.) Or Douglas Boudreau, the BC student who hacked into the university's computer system and rang up about $2,000 in food and services. Or Robert Schaffer, the Harvard undergrad charged with keeping hallucinogenic mushrooms and marijuana in his room — he has pleaded innocent and his case is pending. The sheer size of university enrollments in Boston suggests that these students are the exceptions only because they got caught. The law of averages, as the saying goes, is a bitch.

Walk down Brighton Avenue on a Saturday night, and the same scene repeats itself block after raucous block. Groups of college-aged friends walk together in packs down the sidewalks, hooting at students in the balconies above, who, in turn, toss beer bottles that shatter in the street. An ambulance, its lights piercing the apartment windows, idles near a curb on Price Road, and a young man sleeps in the flowerbeds on Linden Street.

A couple of policemen break up a house party on one street, then walk door-to-door down the block. They disappear into one house, and a few minutes later, dozens of college-aged men and women emerge. By the time they reach the sidewalk, word has spread about where to go next, where the other house parties are that night. You don't need a registry to figure that out.

Boston Police Captain William Evans knows he's trying to stop a river with a plastic cup. Evans heads up the police department's Allston-Brighton district. It's one of the toughest assignments in New England. More than 35,000 students live in Allston and Brighton, which combines with the smaller district D4 to form Area D, incorporating BU, Northeastern, BC, Suffolk, Emerson, and Berklee College of Music. Evans estimates that 135,000 students live in Area D, where an average of 800 crimes are reported to police each month, far and away the most in the city.

Evans's lean, boyish figure contrasts with his hardened jaw and icy blue eyes. His office is quiet and spotless, except for a desk piled with paperwork he flips through absent-mindedly. He paints two portraits of university students: One is a picture of a victim, taken advantage of by landlords and bar owners and thieves looking to make a buck. “They don't lock the doors. They don't take normal precautions,” he says, as if chiding a wayward child. “They have nine people living there — they don't have nine keys.” He gets as many as 15 breaking-and-entering calls a day.

But Evans also gets as many as 30 calls a night from neighbors who complain about all-night keggers and random acts of vandalism committed by the other type of students. “Nobody wants to see kids locked up, fingerprinted, and photographed, but word spreads quickly that certain behavior won't be tolerated,” he says. “They're supposed to be responsible young adults.”

Many don't act it, though, says City Councilor Mike Ross, who has proposed that universities provide addresses of their students' off-campus housing. “We don't know where the students are living,” Ross says. “We know general areas or general streets. This out-of-sight mindset leads to out-of-sight behavior.”

Students scoff at such attempts to regulate them, saying the court system couldn't handle the load of cases it would face if every underaged drinker were arrested. They're right. On any given weekend, an estimated 147,000 underaged students in Boston drink. Evans estimates that each one spends $50 a week on alcohol, which means about $294 million a year in illegal liquor sales. “There's so much money to be made off these kids,” he says.

And plenty of people who profit from them. Like Chris, a junior business management major at Bentley. In true American entrepreneurial spirit, Chris made high-quality, scanner-proof, guaranteed fake IDs. All it took was a photo, a template, a laminator, and Photoshop. Chris estimates that he sold more than 100 fakes at $135 each. He says none of his customers ever got caught.

Chris also did a robust business buying discount cigarettes online and reselling them at about double the cost. “I had people coming to my apartment all the time,” he says. “I felt like a drug dealer.” But fake IDs have an even higher profit margin. He gave discounts to people who got 12 or more friends to go in on package deals and still made $1,200 every time for “doing nothing.” His friends bumped up the price so they could take a cut, as did everyone else down the line. But the students didn't care. “There's no price people won't pay for a fake ID,” Chris says.

If Jack's approximation holds true — that students like him also buy $50 a month worth of pot — that means the estimated 55,000 pot-smoking students in Boston buy some $27.5 million worth of marijuana annually. Another 6,000 student users fuel an estimated $3.6 million cocaine industry. And the 11,250 students who take amphetamines spend another estimated $3.375 million. Students like Wendy who work as escorts account for some $36.5 million a year in the underground economy, and that's based on a proportion far more conservative than Wendy says they represent.

A college student's lifestyle boils down to lots of education and not enough income, a recipe that feeds the underground economy. Students have always chafed against laws that govern how they live their lives. They complain about liquor laws that ban them from drinking if they're under 21, but let them fight a war or vote or hold a steady job at 18. They sense the hypocrisy of a failed war on drugs that outlaws marijuana but prescribes chemicals to hyperactive children and depressed adults. “People don't respect the law,” says Jack. “People have the mindset that they can do whatever they want with their bodies.” Before he started using it recreationally, he says, he took Ritalin for years by prescription.

College is a heady time for experimenting. Wendy rationalizes her work as a prostitute by imagining herself as more of a healthcare provider. “[S]ex is not a disgusting sin to incriminate, but rather a critical part of human experience to be accepted and understood,” she says. “America is naive, squeamish, and puritanical.” She just wanted to make money, Wendy says. “I'm more content to spend time doing something interesting to pay my bills rather than be stuck with some lame gig later because I'm in the hole.”

But Catherine Bath, director of a watchdog group called Security on Campus, says more is at work than experimentation. Media and advertising play a huge role in students' perception that sex, drugs, and alcohol are cool and hip. “On some level, they buy into this bullshit,” she says.

Or, as Evans puts it, “These colleges have some of the sharpest minds in the country. But if you go up to [one of them] on game day, you'd never know it.”