In just a few months, Teen Spirit will turn 18. That’s the end of childhood, right? It’s the age when a boy can become a soldier and vote in a general election. He still can’t drink (legally, that is), but he can buy cigarettes and start working at the Park Slope Food Co-op as an adult member of the household.
It’s weird to have a child who is at the end of childhood. That means he’s close to completing that idyllic stage of life that he will discuss again and again in bars, on first dates, in marital counseling and in memoir writing workshops.
His childhood may well be blamed for everything that goes right and wrong in his life, in his relationships and in his career. It will also be idealized and exaggerated. Events will be inflated; deprivations and high points will be exaggerated; parents and sibling will be demonized and glorified (though not always in equal measure).
For now, Smartmom is eschewing the “seems like yesterday” clichés about Teen Spirit’s ascent to full manhood. That said, she is allowing herself a few looks back. How is it possible, she has asked herself a few times this week, that it was nearly 18 years ago when she was wheeled into a delivery room to have her emergency C-section at Lenox Hill Hospital? To this day, she remembers singing, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” as she lay in the recovery area.
Smartmom can remember the day they moved to Park Slope when Teen Spirit was a tiny 3-month-old. He was cute as a button — she and Hepcat called him their Maurice Sendak baby, thanks to his perfectly round face and his halo of blonde hair.
Truth be told, Teen Spirit was the cutest baby ever. No kidding. People used to stop them on the street to compliment their little boy. They were even asked on a few occasions if they were interested in having him model. Teen Spirit is actually on the cover of a corporation annual report wearing only a cloth diaper.
It’s funny to think back to that time. It’s like the Garden of Eden of Smartmom and Hepcat’s life together — before high school, middle age, and the realities of a 20-year marriage.
A lot of things didn’t turn out as they expected. For one thing, Smartmom and Hepcat never planned to stay in their small three-bedroom apartment this long. They didn’t think Teen Spirit’s tiny bedroom would be big enough for a 5-year-old.
Now at 17, Teen Spirit sleeps with his head touching one wall and his feet touching the other. Smartmom and Hepcat can hear his foot taps in their room, which is right next door.
But Teen Spirit never complained or went through that phase where he compared his life to the more-opulent lifestyles of his friends, who live in Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights brownstones. He’s always been comfortable in his own economic skin and doesn’t pine for material possessions or name-brand clothing. Quite the contrary, Teen Spirit dresses in clothing he finds on the street (washed first, most of the time).
Teen Spirit has always been very attached to their building on Third Street, especially when a boy named Eddie moved in downstairs when Teen Spirit was 3. The two quickly became best friends. For years, “I’m going down Eddie’s” was a constant refrain as the boys played non-stop in one or the other’s apartment.
The other refrain? “I’ll chain myself to a lamppost,” Teen Spirit would say whenever Smartmom and Hepcat were looking for a new home in whatever affordable neighborhood they were considering at the time.
Sadly, Eddie and his family moved away when he was 14, and it was a sad day for Teen Spirit. Smartmom always expected to follow their lead and move to a small town somewhere where they would have a big Victorian house with lots of space for everyone.
But Smartmom could never wrap her head around living anywhere else but Brooklyn. But she never even got around to moving the family to Ditmas Park or Kensington, where she could give Teen Spirit a backyard and at least a small piece of that childhood idyll: watching the flowers grow, the dogwood tree bloom or the neighbor’s weird chain link fence.
Smartmom and Hepcat aspired to the American Dream, but Teen Spirit got the Brooklyn Dream instead. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
How cool was it to have his best friend living right downstairs? There’s a special closeness that develops between childhood neighbors in a New York apartment building. Smartmom knows — her oldest friend in the world, Margaret, still finishes her sentences.
Teen Spirit got to play on the sidewalks of Park Slope. Those summer nights were fun. Especially when the parents barbecued on the street and the kids made ’smores.
Teen Spirit never had to depend on his parents to drive him around except when he needed band equipment schlepped all the way to Red Hook. And he never had to worry about getting into a car with a drunk teenage driver.
From a young age, he had the freedom to walk wherever he wanted. Seventh Avenue. Prospect Park. Fifth Avenue. At the age of 14, he was riding the subway all over the city.
He got to watch his freelancer father agonize over work in his office (a.k.a. the living room). He got to see his mother sweat over a hot computer in her office (a.k.a. the dining room).
And think of the food. The cuisines of the world are available 24/7. Hey, what do you feel like tonight: Indian, Chinese, Thai, Grand Canyon?
Finally, he absorbed that worldly vibe that comes from living in New York City, which includes a comfort level with a diverse cast of characters, an interest in how people who are different, and appreciation for the colorful and the unusual side of things.
So with the end of Teen Spirit’s childhood right around the corner, Smartmom is pretty sure that she and Hepcat gave Teen Spirit a childhood to remember. It may not be the pastoral childhood that Smartmom imagined, but it was a childhood Brooklyn-style.
And that makes him ready to be a man (whether he can drink or not).