At some point in my life, I fell from ahead to behind. In most of school from elementary through early college, I was the youngest kid in class, and for whatever reason, the last to hit a growth spurt. Which meant I was the runty pipsqueak that got knocked out of the way on the playground while others ran up the jungle gym, looking down at me from a giant perch and calling me “kid” as they didn’t even bother to say “watch out.” I can’t explain the growth spurt (I’m a happily lanky 5’10″ish now) but the age thing came by a manner of birth circumstance: the cut-off date to enter school in our area of NJ was Oct. 1; and I was born at night on Sept. 30, just a few hours shy of midnight. So that made me usually the youngest kid in the entire grade, which meant I was also the last among our friends to get a license senior year (thanks for all the rides, guys). It meant that when I went off to college I was still a meager 17, for the first month or so, which was fine because at GW all the freshman just went out to clubs because DC is a swampy wasteland after 5pm and there was crap else to do.
So I made one good-faith effort to Make Friends and Go Out with my neighbors from the third floor of the dorm, only to be (expectedly) turned away at the door of the over-18 club (which was maybe The Spot? All the DC clubs run together in my brain like diseases in your roommate’s medical textbook you scanned once out of boredom). I put up no fight, turned on my heel and headed back with the few other not-yet-18s, feigning disappointment that I couldn’t make it past the door. We went back and watched Saturday Night Live and I never attempted to visit a club again.
But then I stayed back a year in college. I guess “stayed back” isn’t an actual term outside of K-12 education, but that’s what it felt like: I decided to transfer out of GW in the middle of the summer, too late to do anything for fall, so I took a semester off, lived in Raleigh, and returned to school at Maryland that spring. That would have only put me back one semester from where I should have been, but in a final kick in the ass out the door, I found out GW’s J school wasn’t accredited so none of my two years’ worth of journalism classes counted at the much more well-regarded Maryland school. So there I was, back in Jour 101 (the class the university admits helps “weed out” the people who don’t really want to do journalism), feeling like a freshman when I’d already had tons of clips/classes/all-nighters at the newspaper under my belt.
It’s a small price to pay for rebooting your college path to where it should have been in the first place, so I fell in with the crowd at the Diamondback who were slightly younger than me — although the divide between class of 1999 and class of 2000 seems like a chasm of time, the crude and awkward asymmetry of “1999″ vs. the fresh and sleek digital roundness of “2000″ — and ended up graduating alongside most of them.
Then I got a job, moved to Hilton Head, a land of retirees where I managed to feel like the young upstart again. I reported on the town government there for four years, a job which if done right means you not only get to know the community upside and down, but you soak in it, speak its languages, understand its rhythms. One night, at a dinner when my then-gf’s dad, he introduced me to a friend as the town reporter, and she recognized my byline. “Oh my goodness!” she said. “I thought you were an old man!” I take that as a comment on my professionalism, and not that my writing voice belonged in a rocking chair giving whittlin’ lessons.
Then I wiped the slate clean again. I gave up trying to climb the traditional newspaper ladder and moved to New York at age 27, throwing myself into the scrum of much younger wide-eyed do somethings who move here after college, often buoyed by a raft of parental funding (which I did not have). I found myself stocking dried fruit and nuts at 1am in a grocery store in an old bank, next to people who ranged from 16-50, but were largely somewhere around their early 20s. We’d pack out the shelves and then go close down the nearby bar, sleep until 2 and do it all again. And I wondered the whole time if I should be doing this, as a guy who had a Real Job just months before that didn’t involve wearing a uniform and a name tag. I’d go to parties with friends from J school, where their friends were already bored of jobs at Spin, at CollegeHumor, already working on their second blog-to-book deals.
Eventually I started writing for Brokelyn, the oldest guy in the room full of young 20-somethings just looking for a place to write. I couldn’t really be mad about being the elder, because even if I did have a regular newspaper job the year before, I too was roaming the journalistic desert, just looking for a place to write. I took over editing the site and instead of being among the young writers, I was in a position to impart some sort of Wisdom to them, which to my surprise I actually had some sort of abundance of, a natural by product of spending years toiling the the acrid salt mines of daily newspaper reporting, which also surprisingly had not been erased by the bottle-smashing drunkenness that goes along with that kind of job.
The freelance writing picked up from there and suddenly, improbably, I got offered a job back at a daily newspaper, a big one too. And in the features department at the Post, I’m not the youngest, but I’m on the young spectrum: maybe the fourth youngest of the lot.
Through all this, my social circle in New York now skews a bit younger by a year or two, and as my friends careen toward the psychological boundary that is age 30, I’ve found myself acting the part of post-30 sherpa, a sort of spirit guide to life after the death of the 20s. Because for me, 30 was when I hit a stride: something about being past the wall of the 20s, when everyone expects you to be cool and wild and so very 20-something, while still being in New York City, where people don’t age and fellow Peter Pans live happily well into what people call middle age, made the gears finally catch. People expect you to be young and interesting in your 20s; when you’re still being free and fun and slightly careless in your 30s, it shakes up the norm.
Marc Maron said something not too long ago to the effect of “I feel like I was always meant to be this age.” For him that meant that after decades of struggling throughout his career, he finally hit a stride in his late 40s and found an audience, by just being himself (not to mention a flannel-thick-glasses-salt-and-pepper-facial-hair aesthetic that is a vast improvement over his neurotic 80s appearance, a look all of us dudes would be so lucky to grow into). In Brooklyn, the land of meek 20-something dudes and barely functional man children, being a fairly confident 30 something without being a Murray Hill cumsock makes you stand out in the right ways.
And then I look back on those days of wearing the grocery store name tag, or even before that when I threw the lot of experience away and moved to New York without knowing what would happen, and I don’t feel shame or worry that I was rapidly ripening 30-something to be mixing amid the 20 some odds of the city. You only missed your chance to be great if you think you only had once chance.
Here then, for my friends who are approaching the 3-0 with unnecessary trepidation, I present a list of things I did for the first (as in, first-ever) time in my 30s. Barring sudden death (see “skiing” entries), you can expect this list to only grow exponentially:
Took up rock climbing
Painted a bedroom
Purchased 2 plants of my own (1/2 of which are still alive)
Competed in a competitive punning event
Capitalized on heretofore unacknowledged skill at competitive punning
Got verified on Twitter
Sprained a thumb while skiing
Went skiing one more time
Decided that “garage rock” was the name of the music I was really into
Got a tattoo
Got a job at a major metropolitan daily newspaper
Got another tattoo (or three)
Rode a Jet Ski
Actually gave a wedding gift (well, one I made, but still)
Went to some legitimate theater
Biked a serious distance (Boerum Hill to Rockaway Beach)
[REDACTED SEX STUFF]
Participated in a one of those “reading” things
Cooked a parsnip
Wrote one of my favorite stories of all time
Got kicked out of a dive bar in Brooklyn