It’s here — 2021. And not before time, you might say. I know I do. There are going to be a lot of reasons to love the year ahead, and not just because the last one was so crummy. Twenty-one, you see, is a special number. True, it doesn’t have symmetry and isn’t palindromic, nor is it a prime number, which is really the ultimate kudo for a number. (We don’t say we are in our prime for nothing.)
But it does have a special power all its own. Granted, it may not have the clout it once did — it’s almost 50 years since the voting age was lowered to 18 and who now needs to wait until they turn 21 to be given the key of the door — but reaching the magic age holds other rewards, other prizes.
First up, for thirsty young Americans, boys and girls who have spent all their teenage years and then some waiting in the wings to drink, there is booze — and lots of it, for preference. No more chicanery and carding, no more lying and conniving. Age 21, American youths can drink all they want more or less where they want and pretty much when they want. Liquor-store owners and bartenders will turn as if by magic from Enemy No. 1 into your dearest friends on the stroke of midnight of your 21st birthday, although parents may still need to lock up their liquor cabinets as the newly legal become emboldened around the house.
Alcohol is a curious thing, as is our attitude toward it. Along with the USA, only a handful of countries, Mongolia and the Solomon Islands among them, insist on a 21-year minimum age to consume it. In the vast majority, though, the minimum legal age is 18, and in some, including Spain and Germany, it is only 16. In Antigua and Barbuda, you can drink hard liquor at 10, while in Syria, Cambodia, Cameroon and China there is no minimum age at all. What many just-turned-21-year-olds do discover quite quickly, however, is that wine and liquor can be expensive, and paying for it must now be factored into the 20-something budget. By happy coincidence, at 21 you have also reached the required minimum age to become an Uber driver. Just don’t drink and drive.
It is often remarked upon that you can serve in the military, start a family and do goodness knows what other marvelous things before a drop of the hard stuff can legally pass your lips. The law, of course, is an ass, too, often opposed to common sense, but anomalies — which even so-called adults cannot explain — are part of the rich fabric of youth, adding to its age-old sense of frustration. At 21, in New York or Connecticut you can get a handgun and the permit to go with it. And you can legally enter casinos across the nation, although like drinking and driving you should not do both simultaneously (unless you answer to the name of Bond, James Bond and are thoroughly well-acquainted with the rules of baccarat.)
The number 21 has class; it has cachet. When it comes to cards, at least if you’re a Blackjack player, is there any sight more beautiful than an ace and a 10 or royal, snapped smartly down on the baize by an inscrutable croupier, unbeatable, untrumpable?
At 21, you can marry in all states without parental permission. You can adopt a child. (Yet again, some advice from an elder: Don’t attempt both simultaneously.) You can be elected to public office, get instant decisions on credit applications and book a hotel room in Michigan, Miami or New York — places where under-21s, in a gray area of the law, are often turned away. A 21-year-old woman may sell her own eggs.
Yes, at 21, the world is truly your oyster and so long as the activity itself is legal, you are now free to pursue it to your heart’s, or liver’s, content. On the other hand, remember that seven out of the Ten Commandments are negative injunctions. So, equally as valuable as a checklist of things kids can do when they turn 21, might be a list of things they should definitely not do, or no longer do, once the magic milestone is reached. These might include wearing baseball caps backwards, using the expression “my bad,” putting ketchup on a good steak… I could go on.
Age, they say, is merely a number. Although a quick look in the mirror each morning leaves me in no real doubt, I can never quite believe how old I am. Of course, no one ever can believe how old he is. My father used to tell me that he only felt “grownup” after his own father had passed away. But when he himself passed away, over 20 years ago now, no such grownup-ness, no heightened sense of responsibility, no sudden change in attitude or jettisoning of childish things took hold over me. Unfortunately. Irrespective of my actual years, never mind 21, some days I feel barely 18, an impression loaned substance by the fact that my wife refers to me, along with our two 16-year olds, as her third teenager. It is not usually expressed as a compliment.
But oh, to really be 21 again — footloose, more or less debt and fancy free, happy go lucky. And speaking of luck, what do the numbers on the dice add up to? Why 21, of course, that magic number again. Plus, let’s not forget, it was the 21st Amendment that repealed the 18th, thereby ending Prohibition. Now — providing we’re 21— that’s something we can all drink to.