My nephew just turned 15, and I’m pretty sure that even if I weren’t related to him, I’d be telling you what a great, intelligent, enthusiastic, upbeat kid he is. Whenever I spend time with him, I can’t help marveling at how different he is from the way I was at that age, or, in fact, from the stereotypical way that teenagers are “supposed” to behave.
Isn’t it in the Official Teenage Rule Book that you’re required to be sullen, disrespectful, angst-ridden, hostile, and downright miserable? That’s how I was, and I’m talking about on my better days. Contrast that with a conversation I had with Jackson once when we were traveling. I had just bought some museum tickets for him and myself, and specified “one adult, one child” so I’d get a discount.
As we walked away from the counter, I apologized to him for having had to refer to him as a “child” (he’s taller than I am), and he responded, “Why should that bother me? I am a kid.”
I told him how from the time I was 12 I’d thought – or at least tried to think – of myself as a grownup, and got mightily indignant when anyone, especially authority figures, questioned that status. Jackson thought about that, then sloughed it off the way he generally does when adults say crazy stuff, repeating, “Yeah, but I’m a kid. It’s great being a kid. I’m going to have fun being a kid for as long as I can.”
The other day he posted on his Facebook page about being out all night at a party, and a couple of his older friends replied with, “You only get to do that because you’re not weighed down with responsibilities like we are.” Jackson responded that they were right, but added, “I have no worries right now. For the next five years everything will be awesome.”
That seemed like a curious thing to say. What made him so sure that things would stop being awesome at 20? Granted, as much as I hated my adolescence, nothing could have prepared me for the horrible feeling that greeted me on the morning of my 20th birthday, when, for the first time, I realized I wasn’t a teenager anymore. But in my case, the shock and depression came from the fact that I’d never seen it coming. Strange as it seems, during all the years leading up to 20, I don’t remember considering for a minute what it might mean to reach that milestone. I’d spent my whole childhood wishing I was older, and now that I finally was, I hated it.
Is there something about age 20 that Jackson sees as spelling an end to awesomeness and fun? I’ll get around to asking him one of these days, but not yet, since this story isn’t really about him anyway, even if he’s completely dominated the first seven paragraphs.
Last night a couple of old friends, friends I’ve known going way back to Berkeley and Gilman Street in the 80s. It’s not as though I ever lost touch with either of them, but it might have been the first time in nearly 20 years that the three of us hung out together like that.
And why might that be? Life got in the way, I guess. Families, careers, distances, sometimes just the unspoken assumption that it’s not how it used to be, that you can’t just turn up on somebody’s doorstep at midnight or hang out in front of the Cafe Firenze until they come walking by.
It seemed miraculous enough that we were together at all after so much time, let alone together on the other side of the country, in a corner of Brooklyn that never would have registered on our radar screens back then if someone had said, “Let’s all meet up in the year 2011.” And it was more than that: for a few hours Williamsburg was our 21st century Berkeley. At the pizzeria, at the cafe, running into people one or the other of us knew, whether from last week or years and years before.
When I moved into this apartment, I got some nice – okay, half decent – furniture so that when friends came round we could sit comfortably in the living room, but last night we never made it out of the kitchen and its mismatched street-salvaged chairs. We huddled around the coffee pot and the seltzer bottle, listened to a few tunes on some tiny computer speakers, and then stepped outside for a minute.
A minute that turned into an hour: while we’d been inside, snow had started falling, and not just any old snow, but great big snow globe flakes, floating, not falling, turning the mundane back streets into the sort of soft-focus wonderland you see memorialized in New Yorker covers or Utrillo paintings. Without intending to, without, in fact, saying a word about it, we started walking, and kept walking till we’d circumnavigated the neighborhood. Half the time we were laughing and talking and joking and reminiscing about old times; the other half, we were seduced into silence by the wonder of it all.
Okay, so logically I understand why it can’t always be like that, anymore than it was always – or even more than occasionally – like that when we were younger and freer from those dread “responsibilities.” But, the rebellious teenager in me still wants to know, why not? Of course we can’t – and probably wouldn’t want to – spend most of our days hanging out on street corners or putting up flyers or drinking ten cups of coffee an hour after we needed to go to bed. What I miss is not the actuality, but the possibility, the open-endedness of it all, and it’s that part of being a kid that I hope will always be a part of Jackson’s life, and – what the heck – my own.