These days, every year a newspaper survives seems like reason enough to celebrate. And the past 21 years of the New York Press certainly have been filled with plenty of growing pains. We’ve been eager and stupid. We’ve been juvenile and radical. We’ve been spoiled and churlish. We’ve been asinine and charming. But throughout it all, we’ve had fun. So we thought it would be great to have some of our writers, readers and favorite people tell us about a truly American rite of passage: the 21st birthday. It’s when boys and girls are considered adult enough to drink legally—and prove that they have plenty more growing up to do.
Boys Make Girls Do Stupid Things
My 21st birthday was awkward. Really awkward. It happened my senior year at NYU. I’d been dating one of the guys from The Alternate Routes all year, but I’d just broken up with him before my birthday. He was very sweet, but I wanted to enjoy being young and date other boys and all that stuff. He was more into me than I was into him, but he came to my birthday party, which in retrospect was a terrible idea. Meanwhile, I had been interning at this now-defunct men’s fashion magazine called Vitals. I met the guy who had brought me on (his dad owns the magazine where I’d interned the semester before) at a party thrown by another young writer.
But when I quit the internship, he took me aside and told me he was rather annoyed. I invited his friend to my 21st birthday anyway, and he arrived at St. Dymphna’s with my internship boss in tow—a complete surprise.
I also had a crush on this other guy at my party, Andreas, from the NYU student newspaper. It was so awkward because my ex-boyfriend was tagging along, and I couldn’t really flirt with any of the guys I thought I liked. I just remember, after St. Dymphna’s, we all drunkenly stumbled to a diner and Andreas, who was super cute, played footsie with me under the table. And I was, like, “Oh, please, please, please, don’t do that, this is such a bad time to do that.” The ex-boyfriend needed to crash in my NYU dorm room so he didn’t have to schlep back to Connecticut in the middle of the night. But I didn’t want to sleep in the same bed as him because I didn’t want to lead him on, so I slept in my roommate’s bed alongside my male best friend. This best friend and I didn’t fool around, but it was still awkward because my ex-boyfriend woke up in my bed alone with me five feet away with another guy. To top it all off, I woke up hungover the next day with raging pinkeye. Somehow I’d contracted it in the course of the night before—and my ex-boyfriend was sweet enough to put my halfblind ass in a cab so I could go to the doctor.
Thanks, Sweet Geeks
I wish I had an awesome 21st birthday story. I honestly can’t even remember what I did; it was so uneventful. I do have a sweet little story about my 19th though, where one of my friends set up a scavenger hunt for me all around the NYU campus. Basically, the scavenger hunt started when I got to my dorm room after my last class that day and was presented with a card that had the
first clue in it. They were all rhymed couplets (my friend was an English major). Each friend that I found in a different location on campus had the next clue waiting for me. After I collected about five or six of my close friends, the final clue took us all to Serendipity 3 for ice cream sundaes. It was the sweetest and most memorable birthday gift I have ever received. —Lyssa, Williamsburg
Queer and Trembling
I spent my 21st birthday in Los Angeles where I was living at the time. I was in love with a “straight” guy that I worked with at Hugo’s restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. He was 26, handsome, an actor and he had an easy, affable charm.
We’d hang out all the time together. He’d make dinner for me, and we’d eat by candlelight listening to Billie Holiday. In the evenings, we’d walk his dog together, and once he even sang a song to me that he had written based on James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room! (You can see why I persisted in believing my love for him would prevail over his avowed heterosexuality.)
On the eve of my 21st birthday, he suggested driving to Las Vegas. Eventually the plan winnowed down to having Mexican food in Silverlake and drinking several margaritas. Sleeping together in his bed, my present was a night of trembling in wait… hoping he’d do something that could be read as a clear invitation to jump his bones. It was a desire that remained unrequited, but it did establish a template for relationships that persisted for several years… a gift that kept on giving!
I don’t remember my 21st birthday; don’t think it was all that exciting to tell you the truth. But some friends and I did decide to give our friend Jacob a great 21st a few years back. We took him out to a bar and made up a new drink: a “free radical.” It was something bitter and nasty, like bourbon mixed with Jagermeister. He got sick, but he didn’t forget that night.
—Duane C., NY
40s on Fourth
“Quieres un paseo?” The short, fat man stood on the sidewalk in front of a stretch limo. I squinted at him to bring him into focus and stumbled from the doorway of the Red Lion. “No, pero gracias,” I said. What else we talked about, I couldn’t tell you, but witnesses say that this conversation went on for about 15 minutes, all in Spanish, a language in which I could claim borderline proficiency. It appeared that the numerous shots of gin friends had forced upon me had given me the ability to speak in tongues—or else it was just a little 21st birthday magic.
I turned 21 in the summer of 2005. I had ditched a hometown summer in Baltimore for the first time ever in favor of interning in New York and living in the NYU dorms with some friends. The big birthday struck after I’d been a New York resident for a mere week, and I spent the midnight of my 21st standing in the rain on the corner of East Fourth Street and Broadway, passing out stickers and CDs to strangers as part of my internship, before venturing back to the dorm and typing out a review of the Futureheads in my closet while my roommates slept.
To make up for the lameness of my first few hours as a legal drinker, I immediately went out after my internship ended the next afternoon and bought a 40. I then bought a new dress, had crepes in Washington Square Park with a couple of friends and ventured back up to the dorm to pre-party before we set off for B Bar. The short and sassy doorman at B Bar raised his eyebrows at our group of five girls and two guys. “Sorry,” he said, barring the entrance. “It’s gay night.” So, we were forced to take our femaleheavy ratio elsewhere and made it as far as Swift, the Irish bar next door, where the bartender made us all shots of something pink that tasted like watermelon and was hidden under a twoinch layer of whipped cream. It was around this time that a high school friend named Jojo switched into peer-pressure drinking mode. “Drink!” she commanded, placing a gin and tonic in front of me, then a beer, then another gin and tonic.
Red Lion was our next stop. When we arrived, I insisted that the bouncer card me. “It’s my birthday!!!” I squealed obnoxiously, waving my ID. I remember the first hour at the bar, which included more beer and some drunken phone calls, but then sorority Jojo decided it was time for shots. And since I was in no place to come up with a creative drink choice, I suggested we take shots of gin. Judging by photos that surfaced after this evening, it appears that I was the only one taking these shots. By 1 a.m., I was out on the street, talking to the fat man. We had become so chummy that he said he would give me and my friends a ride home for five bucks each, a deal I thought sounded great until my friends told me we were three blocks from the dorm and marched me home. Back at the dorm room, I asked if anyone needed to use the bathroom, then shut the door behind me and locked it.
—Christine W., Fort Greene
The Prince of King Cobra
was a long, hot summer of sloth. Instead of spending the months
following my junior year interning at magazines or newspapers, I
instead remained in sleepy Athens, Ohio, sharing my vermin-infested
flophouse with my two best friends, Aaron and Andrew.
all unemployed, living on our savings’ fumes. We spent the days playing
dusty Atari or swimming in the local lakes, then the evening were taken
over by two pursuits: Drinking malt liquor and playing Laser Tag, or
hitting our local microbrewery, O’Hooley’s, for Power Hour. From 8 to 9
nightly, O’Hooley’s high-butane beers cost just a buck. Our Three
Musketeers of intoxication competed to see how many brews we could
slurp in an hour—four pints was my record, achieved before I turned 21.
Thanks, trusting bartender.
Then, one sweltering July eve, the
thinkable happened: I became legal tender. “Let’s celebrate,” Aaron
said. “At O’Hooley’s,” Andrew added. As if there were any alternative
for broke drunkards in Athens, Ohio. We wobbled to the bar, a few
sheets to the wind thanks to heavy jolts of King Cobra.
didn’t tell the bearded bartender it was my birthday—that would’ve
ruined our wink-wink charade—and instead set about drinking with
missionary zeal. Two pints turned to four, choked down out of duty, not
deliciousness. “I shink a’hm done,” I said. “Not yet, birthday boy,”
Andrew said, lining up No. 5, a brutish IPA. “This ishn’t such a good
idea,” I said, lifting the effervescent liquid to my lips, erasing the
rest of the evening’s memories and leaving the question of how I ended
up in bed—shirt off, pizza on my chest, black glasses in the toilet—
21 shots of Tequila on the Wall!
make up for the lameness of my 21st noncelebration birthday, five
fabulous divas and I headed downtown for my friend’s birthday bash. We
started our evening of shame by throwing our boobies at the buff
bouncer, who let us in for free. We then pushed our way to the bar
where 21 shots of tequila awaited us. Four hours—and 40 new
friends—later, my gal pal found herself on the floor.
her to get some food at Around the Clock diner, but had to stop the cab
so she could leave a present in front of Bloomies in Soho. We make it
to the diner, where the very sympathetic hostess said, “You no sit till
all you party here.” I picked my friend up from the curb, walked her
into the restaurant, leaned her against a wall and asked, “Can you sit
us now?” “You friend, she drunk,” the hostess muttered and then sat us
at the table closest to the door. Just as the smell of fresh pancakes
wafted through the hair, my friend puked. That was the last time we
drank more than eight shots of tequila in one sitting.
The Break Room Birthday
was one of the small percentage of American teens that never drank
until after their 21st birthday, and it wasn’t even one of those, “I’m
legal now, so hand me a beer!” moments, since I had just moved 3,000
miles away from my parents for an internship at a broadcast design
studio in Atlanta.
I didn’t know anyone except for a
conservative relative and the distant, but good hearted people I saw in
the office three times a week. The 60-year-old production manager asked
me that morning when I’d be leaving, “There’s something I’d like to
talk to you about before you leave today.” It didn’t even dawn on me
that he had brought in a homemade cake for my birthday and, within six
hours, I’d be blowing out a candle in the break room with six people
from my department. Rather than a plate, the cake was transported and
served on a layer of aluminum foil—something I had heard of, but never
actually seen—and was yellow with chocolate icing and one candle. The
whole bash lasted approximately 15 minutes from the intentionally goofy
rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song to the rolling up and disposing
of the goopy chocolate leftovers.
When it was all over, I went
to the production manager, not realizing that his need to catch me
before the end of the day was so that he could throw me this charming
birthday celebration, and said, “So, what did you want to talk to me
—C. Edwards, Harlem
G&T leads to T&A
didn’t have my first drink until the night I turned 21. I wish I could
tell you where we’d gone, what we’d done and who I might have done it
with. We hit up a few spots in the East Village, though much of the
rest of the night remains a glorious blur. Because the best bits of my
memory were reserved for my first real drink, one which seemed to
materialize from nowhere. There it sat, clear and clean around the ice,
sweat beading on the outside of the glass, pooling on the table
I gave it the once-over once, slid it across the
table, inhaled its aroma: slightly bitter, but cool. I asked a few of
my friends who the drink belonged to. What was in the glass? Would it
kill me? No one would say for sure. I took a first tentative sip. It
felt good on my tongue, then burned my throat. I took a gulp: gin &
A sophisticated libation, gin and tonic is the sort of
drink one might imagine held in the slender fingers of an aristocrat on
Masterpiece Theatre. If there were an embargo on vodka and vermouth,
one might imagine James Bond settling for a G&T. This is how I
tried to picture myself as I finished my first alcoholic beverage.
I quickly ordered another. I learned that first night that I am a happy
drunk. A fun drunk. Yes, I was a bit amorous. But on the plus side, two
of my five random wedding proposals that night were answered in the
affirmative. And one of them even kissed me! And she was hot! And a
girl! With boobs! As young people, we often find ourselves pushed to
the limits of excess. Whether it’s the subconscious attempting to
establish where the line will eventually be drawn, or something less
noble, like wanting to get good and fucked up, I don’t know. Sometimes
people cross that line, never to return. Fortunately, I was not one of
those tragic cases. I was reckless, but my behavior was ultimately
innocent and fun. It’s been said all one needs to do to destroy an
otherwise chaste and sheltered culture is to show up with a bottle of
Mad Dog 20/20. But I don’t see the harm in keeping things civilized,
even if it took some wildly uncivilized behavior on my part to figure
out what any of that means. Wildly uncivilized behavior that just
happened to start on my 21st birthday.