From the confirmation, bat mitzvah and Sweet 16 party to the first date, driver's license and college boards, the teen years are marked by rites of passage that announce the advent of adulthood.
For teens in our area, there's another popular way to say "You're growing up!" -- a birthday trip to New York.
Washington has its museums, Philadelphia the Liberty Bell, San Francisco the Golden Gate Bridge. But New York has, well, everything.
When Sinatra belts out, "I want to wake up in the city that doesn't sleep," he's speaking for everyone who ever dreamed of shaking off their little-town blues and having their eyes opened wide.
New York is a city famous for being grown-up -- for the major-league temptations of every kind that give the Big Apple its name. But we dare not send our little darlings off to fend for themselves in this City for Mature Audiences. This is not a trip to the mall, after all. No, it's up to us parents to play Eve and Jeeves, serving up New York's many enticements -- theater, shopping, people-watching, restaurants, the street scene -- in just the right amounts.
Here's an account of one such journey, undertaken on the occasion of my stepdaughter Emma's 13th birthday. It was exhausting, educational, exciting, entertaining -- in short, about as much fun as you can have in 36 hours and still have the strength to get home. And in the process, I discovered Three Timeless Truths for traveling with teens.
The Internet made planning the trip -- which was to include Emma's best friend Asya, dad Crispin, and baby sister Jane as well as Emma and me -- fun.
We bought our train tickets at the Amtrak Web site and our tickets for a planetarium show at the Rose Center for Earth and Science from the center's home page. There were just a few glitches: no cheap hotels in the city (you knew that), no discount tickets to "Rent," in fact no discount theater tickets to speak of on the Web.
But my childhood best friend lives in Brooklyn with her husband and baby in a one-room apartment. Surely they would put us up. And for theater tickets, we'd hit the TKTS kiosk in Times Square, where you can get half-price Broadway tickets the day of the show.
The first crimp in the plan came the morning of the trip, when we learned that a very unpleasant microbe had taken up residence in the digestive system of Emma's father. Having spent the entire night draped over the plumbing fixtures, he had lost all interest in travel, theater or anything outside the perimeter of our bedroom. We'd have to postpone the trip. I called Emma at her mother's house and told her that.
"Why?" she asked. "Can't you take us?"
"Oh, no, honey," said Emma's mom in the background. "That would be too much for her."
"Why?" asked Emma.
It turned out there was no reason why. "Sure, let's just go," I said.
We left Daddy in a very quiet house with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, and the positions of valet, bodyguard, Sherpa and party coordinator became mine alone.
Emma's mom, Rachael, brought Emma and Asya to Penn Station. She was a little concerned. "I can handle it!" I said. "Jane's in her baby backpack, we don't have much luggage -- no problem."
"My mom took me to New York when I was 16," Rachael remembered nostalgically. "All I really remember is that I bought a Who album. For some reason, buying a Who album in New York City was much, much better than buying it at the mall."
I didn't know it yet, but Rachael had uttered the First Timeless Truth.
View from the train
"Where are you girls going?" I asked. Jane had fallen asleep in my lap to the train's gentle rocking, so I wasn't going anywhere.
"We're getting something to eat."
"You just got back from the dining car."
"Well, we're looking for something."
Dark-haired, dark-eyed Emma and her tiny tornado friend, Asya, a blue-eyed blond, eyed each other questioningly.
"We're looking for college hotties," they admitted.
"College hotties. Really."
"Our math teacher, Mr. Mike, told us the trains to New York are full of college hotties," said Emma.
"Yeah," chimed in Asya, "but there aren't any!"
"Girls. What would you do if there were any college hotties?"
"Tell them we're 17," they shrieked, and erupted into hysterical giggles.
I wasn't too worried.
New York at last
I had lived in the city, and therefore considered myself an expert guide to the subway system. But that didn't stop us from taking a few wrong trains. The girls didn't mind at all. They loved looking at the people in the city of a million fashion statements. They loved buying subway MetroCards from the vending machine; Asya, born in Russia, read us the Russian version of the instructions off the monitor. Rushing from platform to platform was fine by them, and I was still doing all right with the baby and most of the luggage.
Along the way, we found plenty of free entertainment -- from a lone violinist to a full-scale breakdance crew performing a choreographed show, their enormous boom box strapped to a baby stroller.