Those who follow me on any social network know that I’ve been job hunting for several months. This week I’m up for a host position at a semi-upscale restaurant in a swanky Manhattan neighborhood. Today I trailed the regular host as a sort of audition for the job. Our first and largest challenge of the day (until twenty hungry jurors from the nearby courthouse requested a table, that is) was handling a reservation for fourteen at the beginning of the lunch rush – a teenage girl’s birthday celebration. She and all of her friends were uniformly tall, thin, and trendily dressed. My hosting sensei dared me to guess their age, reminding me, “This is Manhattan. My twelve-year-old niece goes out for lunches with her friends. One of them is a model and another is in The Lion King. Remember to subtract at least two years from your guess.” I couldn’t pin down their age. “Fourteen? Fifteen?” I mean, they all actually looked like college freshmen from the Gossip Girl universe, but they behaved like seventh graders, so one guess was as good as any other.
As I watched them out of the corner of my eye, several wistful and pathetic thoughts passed my mind, as they always do when I am confronted with people richer, more privileged, and infinitely prettier than I: “I wish I dressed that well at that age.” “I wish I was that tall at that age. Or at this age.” But the one thought I found most indicative of the state of my grade school friendships was this one: “I wish I could see my friends that easily at that age.” Living in Manhattan, time and geography are no object. Any schmuck can take the subway to see their friends. There are fifteen minutes between a “let’s get together” text message and an in-person hello. These girls in particular don’t even have that much stopping them, I’m sure. From the state of their appearances, their families make enough money to hire a driver or a car service to take them wherever they please.
In contrast, my rural upbringing mandated that I (or someone else) drive at least a half an hour to reach most of my closest friends’ houses. Meeting up was an ordeal. First you had to have someone to drive you, a license, or a learner’s permit and an adult willing to ride alongside you. If you had a license, you had to have a car of your own or a car to borrow from someone else. Then you had to hope that the weather was good enough for you to drive because your friend lived on a road that was not even gravel, it was just clay and dirt, and the county sure as hell didn’t plow there. And did I mention that this was Pennsylvania, the state with the highest incidence of deer/car collisions?
Also, we had to walk to school uphill both ways. And there were wolves. And skinheads. All old lady posturing aside, the contrast between my teenage socializing and my customers’ points to some interesting habits bred by geography and finance. The contrast becomes even more pointed when we consider the spaces teenagers will socialize in once they get all the travel arrangements taken care of. In rural areas and suburban areas like the one Sky grew up in, there are hardly any social spaces for teenagers. If you’re not willing to spend quite a bit of money, drain your gas tank, listen to an evangelist, or sit under the soul-sucking fluorescents of Burger King in exchange for a social space, then you’re out of luck. I know for a fact that much of Sky’s high school friendships were formed by sitting in various parking lots in his parents’ minivan because there was no place else to go. Wealthy teenagers are not subject to such inconveniences in New York and are thus capable of socializing much like adults. There are many free events, public spaces, and parks available for use at almost all hours. Even more conveniently for teens like my customers, the spending money provided by your parents can buy you a couple of hours in a classy restaurant. Just think how much comparable infrastructure and social services, not to mention personal wealth, would change social habits for teenagers in rural and suburban areas.
I think that this is what made these girls seem so much older to me – their freedom to socialize in a way that I associate with adulthood. Having never had the opportunity to interact with my grade school friends in such a setting, these girls seemed to be behaving in a very precocious manner. It’s even more useful to consider this in the context of our ideas of Manhattan teenagers. In the popular mind they’re glamorous, precocious, and independent, and it’s possible that their increased freedom, made possible by finance and geography, helps to shape that discourse. And finally, it never hurts to reiterate that, though we all view ourselves as being equally capable of success here in the United States, simple differences such as how we socialize as teenagers can be indicative of much larger contrasts in class privilege.