Pushing 40, Step by (Anxiety- and Dread-Inducing) Step

The sprint to 40 may be loathsome for this old kid, but at least the soundtrack features plenty of New Kids.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

My running sneakers are slapping the sidewalk, and “Hangin’ Tough” is pumping through my Apple earbuds. It’s not one of my favorite New Kids on the Block songs, if I’m being honest, but the beat has a sort of cocky pound-pound cadence to it, the kind that reminds me of clapping hands and stomping bleachers at a Friday-night high school pep rally. It’s a good soundtrack for a workout.

On this particular jogging route, past picket fences and well-manicured lawns in the suburb of Milton, it’s also the perfect musical accompaniment to my destination: the home of Jordan Knight, the New Kids singer who was generally pegged as the boy band’s leading heartthrob back in their late-’80s heyday. He was the Justin Timberlake (or Bieber?) of his time, a face that launched a thousand teenybopper magazine covers, toured the world, played the Super Bowl halftime show, and dominated pop radio and the golden era of MTV.

Back then, the New Kids’ multiplatinum-selling cassettes spooled around and around inside my Sony Walkman. Now, years later, after discovering Knight lives only a few streets away from me, I’m streaming one of their hit songs on an iPhone as my pavement-pounding heels bring me ever closer to the pop prince’s castle.

As I turn the final corner, though, it occurs to me that it’s more than mere run-of-the-mill celebrity-spotting curiosity that brought me on this mad dash, as though I were a one-man TMZ crew. I also happen to be nearing my 40th birthday, and I find myself fueled by newly aching nostalgia as that milepost approaches. What’s more, even if it’s only fleeting and from afar, I’m yearning for a glimpse of glitter and a brush with excitement in the snoozy suburbs, where I (gulp) live now—and where I am already going more than a little bit stir-crazy.

Only a few weeks earlier, spurred by a desperate need for more square footage in the post-pandemic work-from-home era, my fiancé, Edward, and I fled the cage of our cramped Boston apartment to a cottage-like house just south of the city. I grew up in a small town, so I already knew that I would love the extra room to roam, the simple pleasure of hanging a hammock in a grassy backyard, and the restfully dark and silent nights, free of car horns and streetlights peering through window blinds like nosy paparazzi. What I didn’t anticipate was the accompanying rush of anxiety and fear that I might suddenly become a very bored adult—or worse, a boring one.

Making matters more difficult, I’ve never been a fan of my birthday. Even as a toddler, according to family lore, I’d burst into tears with Pavlovian reflex as soon as the cake and candles were served. And more recently, alongside the inexorable creep toward my fifth decade, I found myself throwing quite a few private pity parties over what I hadn’t accomplished, despite being a man in constant motion. I didn’t own my home. I hadn’t become a father. I was sick of saying “as soon as things slow down” when family and friends asked me when “engaged” would change to “married.”

I soon diagnosed myself with having an early midlife crisis, sprinting down the same path as so many of my fellow elder millennials. I decided I needed a role model—someone to show me the way. But who? Sure, I had Madonna, forever my personal patron saint of growing older with attitude and sex appeal. But I needed a male muse, too, and someone with moxie—not one of those bloodless ’60s rock ’n’ rollers picking up congrats-you’re-not-dead awards at the Grammys and growing old gracefully. Gag.

Then he appeared to me in leather pants, in between paid advertisements on social media and FOMO posts: Jordan Knight and the rest of the not-so-New Kids, leveraging Internet tools unavailable in the ’80s to plug their new single, current city-hopping tour, and upcoming Bahamas-bound “NKOTB Cruise” aboard a Carnival luxury liner. I hadn’t thought of the band in a while, but I admired their resolve enough to follow their #content in my feeds. Then I ate it up. I know some people probably snicker at grown men who are still out there swiveling their hips like a Magic Mike striptease act in between falsetto serenades of “ooh-yeah-girl-baby-baby,” but I loved it. They were fit, they were having fun, and even if there were a few more miles on the tires, the engines hadn’t aged a bit.

In no time, New Kids was at the top of my playlist for the first time in years, powering me through trail runs in the Blue Hills and putting a little pep in my gas tank when I was running errands in our SUV. And all of this occurred before I happened to read Milton’s Wikipedia page and saw that Knight lived in the very same town where I had just moved. It was cosmic. Maybe, I thought, if there was a New Kid nearly on my block, there was still hope for me yet. So I had to do it—I had to check out his home. Not in a stalker-ish way; I wasn’t going to leave on his doorstep a creepy fan-note written in a pastiche of scissored letters. I just wanted to see with my own eyes proof of LIFE—capital letters like the Hollywood sign with neon-lit fireworks bursting behind it—in a place and at a time when my spirit was losing its spark.

With that in mind, I laced up, grabbed my earbuds, and hit the road. On the last stretch of my run, I advanced my play-list to the New Kids’ throwback jam “Step by Step.” Foot followed foot, closer and closer to finding out if one of Boston’s most famous former teen idols could still be one to me today.

Exactly 10 years to the month before I made my mad dash to Knight’s front door, I briefly met him. It didn’t go the way anyone might have expected.

It happened in the VIP lounge at the Estate, a downtown Boston nightclub since converted to dorm rooms for Emerson College students. At the time, though, it was a thumping dancehall where twentysomethings went to slosh Red Bull-and-vodkas and dance to hip-hop-pop beats by the likes of Usher, Ne-Yo, and Jason Derulo. Knight, at least a decade older than those current chart-toppers, had returned to town to perform at a fundraiser held by a poverty-fighting nonprofit based in his native Dorchester. I was there to interview him.

At the time, I also happened to be riding high on recently revived appreciation for the New Kids. A year earlier, I saw them co-headline a concert with the Backstreet Boys at Fenway Park, where they moved sharper, sounded better, and looked fresher than the latter warmed-over quintet that was closer to my own age. The New Kids positively slayed—and in a downpour, no less, tearing open their shirts to splash around wet and wild in the rain, as though it were a music video come to life. (Mother Nature, evidently, is a New Kids fan.) I think I can trace my chronic tinnitus back to hearing—hearing, not seeing—the New Kids undulate their glistening, ripped abs for a hometown crowd hopped up on Sammys and Dunkies.

At the Estate, I waited patiently by myself for Knight to show up, sipping a drink and wondering what my first up-close impression of him would be. I doubted I would need to fan myself to keep from fainting, but was my stomach heading toward a giddy somersault? Alas, no. Instead, I restrained an eye-roll when Knight finally arrived, looking every bit, I thought, as though he was on his way to a birthday party for Bubbles the chimp at Neverland Ranch. I remember he wore sunglasses (inside!), a jumble of silver chain necklaces draped down his chest, tight pants, and a fitted leather-like jacket. It was standard pop-star costumery. But without the roar of a crowd, and un-surrounded by his fellow now-grown New Kids, 41-year-old Knight suddenly reminded me of a dad hitting the klerb solo in his teenage son’s trendiest outfit.

Harsh? Sure, but at the time I was a few months shy of 30 and felt entitled to render judgments on the age-appropriateness of my elders. And so, while the thrilled hometown crowd wailing Knight’s name during the show clearly remained under his sway, I left the Estate with my image of his coolness shattered. The thing is, I wasn’t disenchanted. Rather, I felt haughty about it. Smug. Pfft. What a lame old man.

I’m not proud of that reaction. Now that I’m nearly as old as Knight when I turned up my nose at him, I realize that I, too, have no desire to go gently into the afternoon of life. I don’t want to change who I am. I still like to go out dancing, even if the floors are mostly packed with people in their twenties. I might be an encyclopedia of ’80s and ’90s pop references, but I also like following music, fashion, and art produced by today’s up-and-comers—not to seem cool, but to feel energized and inspired. I’m grateful for my steady employment and committed relationship, but contentment has an evil cousin named complacency, and I never want to lose the striving ambition and adventurousness that make me a hard worker and fun-loving partner in the first place.

Somewhere along the way, though, I’d felt my mojo start to wane. It’s hard enough to stay motivated when you’re already asking yourself the big existential questions that inevitably accompany encroaching middle age. Doing it against the backdrop of the past few years—a public health disaster, the frightening mainstreaming of fascist ideology in America’s body politic, all of those melting icebergs—made it impossible for me for a while. So by the time I rediscovered the New Kids, their man-band flair and upbeat music were just the tonic and tunes I needed to help me turn things back around—or, better yet, rediscover what was still inside. I once again started jogging (later adding yoga and shadow boxing), and I rekindled my love for creative writing, something I’d long ago abandoned for work that produces paychecks, but gleefully picked back up again by tap-tap-tapping on an old-fashioned typewriter, which was an encouraging gift from my fiancé.

Then there was the night I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, razor in hand, ready to slice off the salt-and-pepper beard I’d worn for nearly a decade. I wanted to see myself, all of me, one more time in my thirties. I was still a little nervous that I might not recognize who was underneath. A sink full of whiskers and a few satisfied inspecting glances later, I suddenly remembered something I’d heard during the New Kids episode of VH1’s rebooted Behind the Music series: “Everybody has a child inside, everybody has an inner teenager,” Jordan Knight had told the camera, sitting in what looked like it could be his living room a stone’s throw from mine.

“We get a little older,” he continued, “but the feelings never, ever die.”

Jordan Knight makes an appearance at Novara, the Italian restaurant he’s an investor in. It’s just a few miles from his home in Milton. / Photo by Anna Ivanova

“Does he come here often?” I ask the bartender. Just in case the “he” in question is not clear, I raise my “New Fig on the Block” cocktail—bourbon infused with black cherry and, what else, fig—back in the barman’s direction.

“He’s an investor; he’s here a lot,” responds the bearded liquor man brusquely. He cocks one eyebrow and then scrams, likely convinced that I’m carrying a dog-eared vintage issue of Tiger Beat and a Sharpie for signing it in my back pocket.

It’s a typically lively Saturday night at Novara, Knight’s glitzy-modern Italian restaurant in Milton. When the place first started plating salmon piccata and pouring espresso martinis in 2016, much ado was made of the fact that a New Kid was one of its investors: In step, the falsetto pop crooner gamely hopped on local news and cable shows to promote the joint. It’s only a few miles from his home, inside a former single-screen cinema on a short suburban block of businesses: a Starbucks, a barber shop, and a “brow boutique.” If you have trouble finding it, look for the place with red velvet ropes on stanchions out front.

Inside, the promise of a potential star-sighting goes unfulfilled, at least tonight. Clubby dance music is playing overhead, albeit at a responsible decibel level that still lets you hear a conversation. The place is mostly packed—especially around the big, four-sided marble bar—with chatty couples and groups of app-tapping singles in their thirties, forties, and fifties. They all look positively tickled to have left the kid with a baby-sitter for the night (or with their ex-spouse for the weekend). There is no glimpse, though, of the pop Godot I’m waiting for. No Jordan Knight holding court—Ray-Bans on, as I like to imagine in the endearingly campy caricature I’ve invented in my mind, and always a heartbeat away from an impromptu breakdance to wow his less lithe neighbors.

I wasn’t surprised that Knight wasn’t there—he has arenas to play, after all. At least that’s what I tell myself on my run through the neighborhood, as my clomping sneakers finally take me smack-dab in front of his home. I slow down and then pace back and forth on the sidewalk for a short minute or so, catching my breath just long enough to be a looky-loo. I don’t know what I expected a grown-up teen-pop idol’s house to look like. Maybe some leashed pet lions in diamond chokers on the lawn? Or a water fountain in the shape of a peeing cherub, eyes smirking behind black Wayfarers and hoisting a neon boombox on one shoulder? None of the above. Instead, there’s a Little Free Library out front, inviting area speed-walkers to take a novel. Some shrubs. An empty driveway. A tall white fence that looks like it probably hides a pool. It’s a very nice house, but entirely—what is the word?—normal. It blends right into suburbia. It’s only the life inside that does not.

As I turn back toward my own home, I feel comforted by having seen this. It’s the reassurance I needed: that the mere act of turning a certain age, changing your ZIP code, or spending more time in the self-checkout line at Home Depot doesn’t mean you can’t have a full, even wild and adventure-filled, life. In fact, I think, it means I can do anything I like at whatever age I happen to be. I can take the plunge and accept a new job offer that rolled my way. I can start the podcast I’ve been dreaming of launching. I can even start sharing some of the probably-bad song lyrics I’ve been too embarrassed to let people read. (I mean, they can’t be any cheesier than “Please Don’t Go Girl.”)

And why the hell not? I say to myself, strutting through my front door. Waiting for me is my not-yet-husband, holding out a shoebox. He bought me a new pair, he says, while shopping for a present for my sneaker-head nephew’s upcoming 18th birthday. I open the box and, at first glance, what’s inside would seem destined for a teenager and not for me: two very loud high-tops, bright white laces snaking up a stiff shell of red and silver paint splotches covered in light-catching glitter. I can imagine Knight kicking them up to “You Got It (The Right Stuff).” More important, I can imagine myself wearing them on a fun night on the town—or, hey, just a Sunday stroll around the block.

I kick off my sensible cross-trainers, and try them on. We smile. Perfect fit.