Becoming an Adult in New York City

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our reader note about New Yorkers becoming adults made me think of a New York magazine essay by the late humorist David Rakoff, one of my favorite writers, about coming of age in New York City. He arrived there from Toronto as a college freshman in 1982:

It was what I took away from most every encounter: an almost obliterating desire to “pass” as a New Yorker, to authentically resemble one of the denizens of the movie Manhattan. More than the Deco penthouse aeries of characters in old musicals, more than the moral elasticity and heartless grit of backstage Broadway in All That Jazz, perhaps on par with the gin-swilling savagery of All About Eve, it was the city as embodied in Manhattan I ached for. The high-strung friends with terrible problems, the casual infidelities, the rarefied bohemianism—ERA fund-raisers in the garden at MoMA, gallery-hopping followed by filling one’s simple grocery list at Dean & DeLuca.

There was no one specific moment when the rigorous self-consciousness gave way to authenticity. It was more of a dim realization that the very act of playing the “Are we a New Yorker yet?” game means you aren’t one yet.

But it eventually happens, dawning on you after the fact, tapping you on the shoulder after you’ve passed it. It comes from an accretion of shitty jobs, deeply felt friendships that last, deeply felt friendships that end, funerals, marriages, divorces, births, and betrayals, and you wake up one day to realize that you passed the eight-year mark decades prior; that you are older than all of the characters in Manhattan, with the possible exception of Bella Abzug; that you have been to a party in the garden at MoMA and watched the sun come up over Sutton Place and the 59th Street Bridge and decided that, in the end, you’d rather stay home; that only a rich moron would buy his groceries at Dean & DeLuca; and that, as fun and Margo Channing as it might seem to be drunk and witty and cutting, it’s probably better in the long run to be kind.

These are all realizations endemic to aging anywhere, I am sure. It must happen in other cities, but I’ve really only ever been a grown-up here.

I was, like Rakoff, a transplant when I moved to New York in 2011. I spent four years there on the same college campus he had walked 30 years earlier. Now I live in Washington, D.C., and I’m unsure if I will ever cross his eight-year milestone in New York. But half that time was enough for me to understand what he meant.

I revisit Rakoff’s essay several times a year (in addition to this lovely tribute to his life), and its subtle brilliance is something I have only recently begun to untangle, perhaps with 200 miles of distance from his subject. He was writing as much about becoming a New Yorker as he was about becoming an adult. (These are all realizations endemic to aging anywhere. I’ve really only ever been a grown-up here.) Substitute “New Yorker” for “adult” and you’ll see what I mean:

[T]he very act of playing the “Are we an adult yet?” game means you aren’t one yet. But it eventually happens, dawning on you after the fact, tapping you on the shoulder after you’ve passed it. It comes from an accretion of shitty jobs, deeply felt friendships that last, deeply felt friendships that end, funerals, marriages, divorces, births, and betrayals.

I perform the material rites of adulthood now more than I did in college: I found my own housing, I pay bills, I cook meals, I go to work. It is tempting to locate “adulthood” in these activities, but I have come to believe that, as ambiguous a concept as adulthood is, and as imprecise as it is to try to sketch its features, to me adulthood means “rigorous self-consciousness giving way to authenticity.” And to a greater extent: “As fun and Margo Channing as it might seem to be drunk and witty and cutting, it’s probably better in the long run to be kind.”

I had countless New York moments to realize this, but here’s the one that stands out: One night I chose to meet two friends at a fancy bar on a rooftop in Manhattan rather than spend time with my childhood best friend visiting from the West Coast during the last few hours of his trip. He left hurt and angry. Around 3 in the morning, I took an uptown train back to campus. There were only four other people in the subway car, one of whom was playing the saxophone with a sense of manic joy I have not witnessed since. The five of us bonded over it, but a few stops later the car had emptied until I was alone, and I began to think regretfully about what I’d done.