Aida, who was suspended from high school last fall after she threatened to kill her reading teacher, is known as the toughest girl in her neighborhood on the Lower East Side.
She's the one her friends seek out when they need somebody who "really knows how to fight." Like almost all her girlfriends, Aida, 17, always carries a razor blade and can get a gun when she needs it. But thanks to her older brothers, she can handle herself with her fists, too.
Aida is now enrolled in a special, year-round school for troubled students in Manhattan. She wants to be a lawyer. But she still gets into street fights with both other girls and boys near her home.
The teen-ager chewed thoughtfully on ketchup-soaked french fries at a McDonald's, pausing occasionally to wash them down with a large-size Coke, as she described how it feels to stab someone in a fight.
"It's like cutting meat," said Aida, a pretty, stocky girl who wears bright red lipstick and distinctive smudges of eyeliner on her top lids.
"It's like you start in and you want to keep on stabbing them."
Aida is not an isolated case in the inner-city neighborhoods of New York. Crime and violence, long the province of males, is becoming increasingly common among girls. Police statistics show felony arrests of girls has almost doubled over the past five years.
In 1986, 690 girls 17 and under were arrested for felonies, according to New York police. For the first 11 months of 1991, the figure jumped to 1,100.
Aida says the counselors at her new city-funded school program "always ask me how I feel after I hit someone or cut them. I tell them I feel good!"
"When you're upset it just feels good to get a whole lot of anger out of your system," she added. "I always carry a blade with me. I usually fight clean but if I see a girl is beating me, I pull it out and cut her."
In recent months, headlines about juvenile mayhem on New York streets have come with a twist: girl gangs, girls jumping each other and girls attacking boys.
Last September, a pack of girls surrounded Maribel Feliciano, 15, on a subway train and demanded her gold hoop earrings. When she refused, one of them stabbed her to death.
In December, a 14-year-old girl from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn fatally stabbed her 15-year-old boyfriend in the heart with a kitchen knife during a fight.
In January, a group of black girls kicked and punched a Latino social worker in the Bronx in what police called a bias attack. Mercedes Liz, who is 4-foot-11, told police she had stopped to phone home after leaving her job at Phoenix House when the gang attacked without provocation, yelling racial epithets.
In 1990, a gang of teen-age girls roamed the Upper West Side of Manhattan, scaring women in a series of pin-prick attacks.
Experts blame the disintegrating family and the escalation of drugs and violence in poor neighborhoods for the increasing toughness of girls. They say more girls have become involved in selling drugs and, like boys, they often want the kind of material possessions only drug money--or robbery--will get them.
"These girls are troubled, neglected, abused and reared in violent neighborhoods," said Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, a professor of clinical psychology at UC Berkeley, where she studies urban teen-age girls. "The girls who are true antisocial delinquents usually come from a background of such abuse that they grow up feeling no one loves them. The only way they can get back at the world is by aggressive behavior."
Aida lives at her father's apartment on the Lower East Side during the week and her mother's place in the South Bronx on the weekends. She says she is not particularly close to either of her parents, both of whom are on welfare. Two of her brothers are in jail.
"My father's hard to talk to," she said. "My mother's kind of like in her own world."
Her parents know about her street fights and expulsion from school but have little to say about it, she says.
"I've always been like this," she said. "I was a bully when I was real little. They know I got an attitude and I ain't going to change."
Even on winter nights during the week, Aida stays out late on the street with her friends. During the February school vacation, she stayed in the South Bronx with a gang of girlfriends.
Her weekend turf is a rough corner in the South Bronx ringed by abandoned buildings, liquor stores, and competing drug dealers. Skeletal crack addicts pace nervously down the crumbling sidewalks alongside young mothers pushing strollers.
None of this bothers Aida or her friends. There is no phone at her mother's apartment, nor at her friends' homes, so she keeps in touch with her friends and family in the Lower East Side via beeper, also used for dealing drugs.
The fights they frequently get into have a jargon of their own. When someone has a "beef," Aida said, she and her friends will either go "head up," or yell "let's shoot five!" to each other. Both phrases mean punching someone out--shooting "five," refers to the five knuckles you make with a fist.
"We're pretty much troublemakers," she said. "We have a lot of fun in the Bronx. I might move back here full time someday. But I also like my friends on the Lower East Side."
Experts cite a number of reasons why urban girls are becoming more violence-prone. Federal funding, after all the ambitious programs of the 1960s, has evaporated in the inner city. The loss of much of the city's manufacturing base, and with it thousands of working-class jobs, has further hastened the breakdown of inner-city families.
"Funding was virtually dismantled in the 1970s and '80s and that left a tremendous void," said Deborah Baskin, a sociologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who specializes in the study of girls charged with violent crime. "Neighborhoods have lost jobs and role models. Drugs took over. These girls see violence ever present in a way it wasn't in the past."
According to data Baskin gathered, the number of robberies committed by girls 15 and under jumped 161% between 1987 and 1990.
"They need lots of fancy clothes and jewelry and they're not going to get it sitting in a classroom," Baskin said. "They'll go out and rob someone, just like boys."
But many of the girls themselves do not regard their violent young lives as tragic. Even allowing for ghetto bravado, many of them act as though they sometimes relish it. They speak freely and in detail to a visiting reporter.
Standing outside the high school she attends in Manhattan's gritty Hell's Kitchen, Charmaine rolls up the sleeve of her black leather jacket and displays the scar from an old bullet wound as proudly if it were an engagement ring.
At 18, she giggles with her two friends as she talks about getting shot near her Brooklyn apartment in 1988. All three are wearing makeup, their hair is carefully coiffed and they are sporting expensive, trendy clothes.
"I was just standing around and these friends of mine were shooting at each other. The bullet hit me," Charmaine said. "It was no big deal. I went to the hospital and then I came out."
But most of the time, Charmaine and her friends make sure that they are not the victims. They rarely leave their homes without a weapon--razor blades are the most popular, but they all own guns--and they can handle themselves in fights.
"If you make trouble for me, I'm going to go all out," said Charmaine's friend, Yani, 17, of Brooklyn, recalling a fight she, Charmaine and their friend, Tyisha, 17, had on the subway several years ago.
"There were only three of us and seven of them. This one girl, she was jealous of us. She says, 'You wanna fight?' and Charmaine hit her. The girl fell and Tyisha grabbed her. Then I hit her with a combination lock. I hit her on her face, back, anywhere that was available. She had two knives, Mace and a blade. All I had was a lock."
Charmaine and Yani, who has a 2-year-old daughter, were arrested after the incident. Tyisha, who stands just a little over 5 feet, was arrested last year for assaulting a police officer near the high school.
"These boys were playing dice on the corner. This cop starts messing with them and then he says to me: 'Get in school.' I got mad and pushed him and he fell back. He arrested me. But he didn't press charges. Him and me ended up good friends."
Charmaine, Yani and Tyisha all carry Mace in their bras at school and razor blades, but not guns. "I only carry a .22-automatic when I go out to a party or a movie," Yani said.
Despite the turbulence in their lives, Charmaine maintains a C-plus average in school and Yani and Tyisha both have B averages.
"We're nothin'," Charmaine said. "If you want hard-core girls who'll kill you, go to Brownsville."
Standing on a corner in Brownsville, deep within one of the bleakest sections of Brooklyn, Ivelisse, 13, and her friend, Marja, 15, agree with that assessment.
Ivelisse has a black eye, which she says she got in a fight with a boy that ended up as a fight with a girl. She was just suspended from school for a week.
She says she only fights "when someone picks on me." But she says it's hard to avoid, particularly with some girls.
"These girls who are in (foster) homes, they aren't with their parents and they'll do anything," said Ivelisse, who has spent her whole life in Brownsville. "They don't have people who care about them. Some of the girls in my school will go up to you and say, 'I hear you was talking about my mother' and start beating up on you for nothing."
Marja says she always carries a razor "and my boyfriend supplies me with his .32 when I need it.
"I'll use it. If someone's bothering me, I just take it and carry it in my side pocket. I wait for the other person to do what they gotta do and then I do what I gotta do. I hate doing it. But I have to protect myself. I'm not going to let anybody walk over me."
But you remember Marja is only a 15-year-old girl when she tells of one incident involving guns.
"This girl I'd had a fight with in the street came back to my house with a gun," she recalled. "I went and got my gun from the bedroom. I tried to shoot. I was crying. Then she says, 'I'm sorry' and she didn't shoot either. I was shaking. I couldn't even hold the gun in my hand right."
Crime and violence among girls often begins early, in the first years of elementary school.
Michelle, 12, seated outside a fast-food restaurant in nearby Flatbush with her friend, Sjovyt, 13, pulls back some of her hair to reveal a bald patch, the result of a school fight in which a girl sliced off some of her hair with a knife.
"Everyone carries knives," said Sjovyt, an eighth-grader. "They have these big ponytails and they hide knives in them."
Many of the girls seemed philosophical about growing up tough.
Christine, a heavyset 14-year-old from the Bronx, talks happily about how she can rely on her friends to help her in major scrapes.
"If it's just one person and they have a beef, I'll go head to head with them," she said. "But if it's more than that, I just make a phone call and I get three carloads of friends to show up with bats and guns."
But Christine just laughs when asked if she finds her life difficult and violent and if she wished she lived in an affluent community.
"I like it here," she said. "If you're in the suburbs it's boring. This gives you some action."