Age Is a Number

On my eighteenth birthday, I visited Chicago with my family. My family was going to visit Navy Pier and the downtown business area. I wanted to take advantage of the trip, however, to visit an ex-girlfriend at the University of Chicago. Jenny was the first girl who’d ever been my “girlfriend” for more than a couple of weeks. We met when we studied together at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois. She grew up in Chicago, and I grew up in Paxton, a small town one hundred twenty miles south of the city. I left the academy while we were together, though, and we tried to maintain the relationship long distance. We’d thought that we would last forever, and I’d even given her a “promise” ring for Christmas in 1997. We’d been together for nearly four months by that time, but we wouldn’t last through the fifth, as the distance failed to make her heart grow fonder. I was still friendly with her, though, so I let her know that I would be in town on my birthday, and we made plans to meet for a cup of coffee.

At the time, I lived alone with my father, who’d been divorced from my mother for thirteen or fourteen years. My father and I had for a long time related to each other as equals, for the most part, so it was not too strange for me that he’d gone to California for the month of December and trusted me to handle myself fairly well. We were almost more like roommates than father and son, oftentimes, and I’d felt a fairly strong sense of independence living with him for the year prior to my eighteenth birthday.

Before living with my father, I’d attended the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois for a little more than a year. This academy was a residential facility that was structured much like a college campus, and students were largely responsible for themselves, though they would always be held accountable to the rules of the institution, academic and residential. I managed to get into some trouble while I was studying there. My friends and I were caught a couple of times with alcohol. Some people think that the drinking age should be lowered. “American teens, unlike their European peers, don’t learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation.” (Newsweek, May 29, 1995 v125 n22 p14). This was certainly true of my friends and me. A big part of our urge to party had to do with our excitement about doing something forbidden. We felt as though we could become more adult, more grown-up by smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. I would like to think that, if such age restrictions weren’t so rigid, I might not have felt so inclined to jeopardize my educational opportunities simply for the chance to feel a little older.

Ultimately, I was put into a position in which I had to choose between studying at the academy or smoking cigarettes, so I moved in with my father. Before the academy, I’d spent nearly all of my life living with my mother, the single parent of six children. Mom spent most of her time when we were children working to provide for us, so often we were responsible for each other. So, even before living alone for the month of December in 1998, I’d always been fairly independent.

On the drive to Chicago that morning, we stopped at the Cracker Barrel for breakfast. We sat in the smoking section, and I smoked a cigarette in front of my mother for the first time in my life. I’d been smoking fairly regularly for two or three years by that time, but I’d always been very careful to hide this fact from my mother, a reformed smoker and a registered nurse. No longer did I have to hide, though. I could legally purchase the cigarettes, and though my mother could certainly disapprove of my choice to smoke, she would no longer attempt to prevent me from doing so.

When we arrived in Chicago, we parked the car in an all-day lot, so I wouldn’t be able to use it to drive down to my ex-girlfriend’s campus without paying the all-day rate. I was a big boy now, though, so I’d just have to learn to use the Chicago Transit Authority’s means of transportation. I made plans with my family to meet for dinner at 6 o’clock and walked up the stairs to the el train. I’d only been on the el once before, when I was significantly younger, and I had been with my family at the time. I approached the ticket booth by myself, and it seemed to have a dark, dirty, and lonely feel to it. I asked the woman in the booth what the best way to reach the University of Chicago would be. She wasn’t very friendly when she told me where I should get off the train, so I didn’t ask her to repeat it though I wasn’t entirely sure what she had said. I thought that I had a general feel for the way it sounded, so I’d probably know it when I heard it. I boarded the next train and rode until we approached a stop that sounded vaguely familiar.

The doors slid shut behind me when I stepped off the train, and the train pulled away just as quickly as it had stopped. I walked down the stairs to the street and tried to figure out how I was going to find out how to get to where I needed to go. I looked down the street in either direction and saw only the barrenness of the inner city. I could only surmise that I was no longer downtown and not yet near campus. I noticed after a moment, though, an office for the Chicago Transit Authority. Perhaps whoever was working would be more polite or helpful than the woman who took my fare for the el. It couldn’t hurt to find out, anyway.

I opened the heavy green door and walked into the dingy transit office. Behind a thick pane of glass sat a couple of obese women who looked like they may be in their late forties. I approached the glass in front of one of the women. She finished what she was saying to her coworker before turning and asking me how she could help me. I asked her how I might get to campus, so she handed me a bus schedule. She tried to explain to me the general vicinity in which the campus was located and told me that I might be able to catch a bus soon out front. She was slightly more helpful, but she still spoke quickly, assuming that I knew more than I did about the city. I thanked her and stepped out of the office.

I looked eagerly up and down the same barren street hoping to see a bus. Among the things she’d told me, I understood, at the very least, that I would catch my bus on that same side of the street, so when I saw a bus coming, I didn’t bother trying to figure out whether or not it was the right one, I just boarded. The bus didn’t have many passengers on board, just a few young black kids in the back and an older Asian man and woman sitting near the middle of the bus. I took a seat halfway back to the Asian couple and frantically studied the bus schedule, hoping to figure out when I should get off the bus. Just as I’d done with the train, I just got off the bus when it felt like a good time to do so.

I examined the map in the bus schedule and looked at my surroundings, and I deduced that I was somewhere near Hyde Park. I trekked through the park and into a business district. I saw a well-dressed man standing on a corner and thought maybe he would be able to help me to find my way, so I approached him. He began talking before I could, and he asked me if I was registered to vote yet. I said that I wasn’t and he began telling me that he was running for office. He was running for some sort of local office, and though I tried to explain to him that I lived more than a hundred miles away, he still insisted that I fill out whatever form it was that he was having people fill out.

Though I liked to consider myself to be fairly well-educated for my age and aware of current events, I really felt a bit of disregard at the time for politics. “18-34 year-olds are most interested in practical solutions to society’s problems.” (US Newswire, Dec 5, 2000 p1008340n0132). I really felt at the time that the state of our society was pretty sad, but I didn’t have a lot of faith in government or politicians to do anything about it. Turning eighteen didn’t make meany more interested in the idea of voting, but I bec ame able overnight to do so. In the five years since then, I feel slightly more inclined to participate in the process, but I actually feel like I have an understanding now of the problems that stand in the way of my comfort levels with voting. In order to be more comfortable participating in the process, I would have to feel as though I knew much more about what is actually going on. Throughout my education as a minor, I was bombarded with the rhetoric of “every vote counts” and “vote early, vote often.” We were instructed as to the importance of involvement in the democratic process, but we were not greatly exposed to the issues. If we were instructed more thoroughly in current events, I think that we’d be much more prepared to take part in our own government when the time came. It seems silly that we deny so many young people the right to vote when such a significant portion of the adult citizenship has the right and ignores it. I shook my head and filled out the form that the politician asked me to fill out as I asked him for directions. He gave me a vague idea of how to get to the campus, so I thanked him and continued my journey.

The neighborhood that I was in didn’t seem too bad, but I was pretty worried that my nervousness about being lost would be mistaken for naïve small-town worry about being accosted in “the big city,” so I tried to walk as brazenly as I could. After walking for what seemed like forever, I started to feel like I was heading in the right direction. I was through Hyde Park, and there were some streets with businesses and such, so I was feeling much more comfortable. I’d seen all sorts of “street people,” homeless folks and the like, walking through Hyde Park. I saw them sitting on park benches, smoking cigarettes, and walking down the sidewalk or in the street carrying 120-proof brown-bag lunches. None of these men were minors, and yet they didn’t seem to have the ability to handle their rights to drink and smoke. They didn’t seem to be very responsible. I had only just turned eighteen and had already decided that I did not want the consumption of alcohol to be a very big part, or a part at all, of my life, and it would be three years still before I would earn the legal right to drink. These men had obviously been old enough for some time to drink, and it seemed as though that was just about all that they had in their lives.

Before long I reached the dorm for which I’d been searching, and Jenny and I made our way to a small restaurant where we had a light meal and coffee. We talked about how life had been for each of us in the last year. She was in the midst of her first year in college and I in my last year of high school. We compared notes and discussed ideas about what we might do with our lives, and I soon realized that I should head back downtown quickly so as to only be two hours late meeting my family. I walked with Jenny back to her dorm and found a bus that was headed downtown with her help.

It was dark when I made it back downtown, but I was able to find the restaurant in which we were supposed to meet without too much trouble. Unfortunately, though, my family was not there. The restaurant we’d chosen had more of a bar atmosphere than I’d expected, and when I went in to try to find them, I felt almost drunk just being there. It was dimly lit and very smoky. There was little walking room between the bar seating on the right and the booths along the wall on the left. The seats in the booths had high backs to keep things private, and there were light fixtures hanging from the ceiling above each booth. The lights were fairly bright inside each booth, and walking down the cramped aisle, looking into each booth, I had to adjust my eyes in each booth to try to see if the people sitting there were the people for whom I’d been looking. All of these efforts were to no avail, and it occurred to me that because some of my younger cousins were with us, my family had probably opted for a more family-oriented atmosphere. I left the restaurant wondering where I might go from there.

I stopped into a gas station at one point to stock up on cigarettes. While I was in there, I realized that I could buy a lottery ticket if I wanted to. That had never happened before. I plopped down a dollar on the counter and showed my ID to the clerk, who almost smiled when he realized that it was my birthday. He didn’t, though, and he tore one of the scratch-off tickets from the long roll. I scratched it right there at the counter and didn’t win anything. I was a bit confused. I didn’t know for sure whether I had been protected until that day from being taken by the gambling industry, or if I had been protected from the possibility that I might win and have no idea what to do with the money. I took solace in the fact that I hadn’t won, as my youthful naiveté would not be strained by the responsibilities of handling such a great financial influx.

I wandered around downtown in search of the parking lot in which we’d left the cars, but I soon found that each back-street had three or four dimly-lit parking lots in as many blocks, nearly all of them looking like the one in which we’d parked. Becoming somewhat desperate as I pondered sleeping on a park bench like the many homeless men that I passed in my hike, I decided to call Jenny to see if she might be able to offer me any assistance. Amazingly enough, when I called her she explained that my mother had just called minutes before I did. Jenny told me the names of the streets near where Mom was waiting. I made my way to that general area and found my family waiting anxiously. For all of my independence, I imagined that it might be a while before I grew into the rights and responsibilities that I’d inherited overnight.

I didn’t smoke any cigarettes in the car on the ride home. I was relieved to be surrounded, once again, by the people whom I love and care about. Turning eighteen allowed me certain “adult” privileges, but my experience seemed to say that independence—adulthood—need not mean living without the help or support from others. Becoming an adult allows me greater freedom and responsibility, and learning to handle either didn’t come overnight.

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