In Search Of…

pumpkin.jpg

Halloween. Seventy-some degrees, tornado warning, driving sheets of rain. When Susan picked me up from work, she told me they cancelled Halloween. No, I don’t know who ‘they’ are. And I don’t know how they can cancel an international holiday. “Great,” I said, “are they going to cancel Christmas if it snows?”

Suddenly I have a night to myself. No Spidermans and princesses at my door. Eli and I had a plan. We carved our pumpkins last night. Tonight, we would pour kerosene in them and torch them on the driveway. A flaming gauntlet for the kiddies to pass through. Uncomfortable looks from parents. Eli in his gas mask, trench coat and army helmet. He’s gaming, I’m writing. Halloween is now Saturday.

The Halloween blog is a tradition. Yearly, I write about candy and pumpkins and trick-or-treaters and drug dealers. But I expected to blow it off this year; I just haven’t been in the spirit. Other bloggers made a month of it. L Stevens at Everyday Strange posted daily on the Halloween theme all October.

When Susan and I got home, Eli hung around looking dejected “They cancelled Halloween. Do you think they’ll cancel Christmas if it snows?” Yes, he said that. And I might as well jump straight into it: When Sophie came in from a friend’s house, she said “I heard they cancelled Halloween. They’ll probably cancel Christmas if it snows.” We spend a lot of time together.

I owe you an update on my college friend Mike. He’s been on life support. His lungs are failing, and he couldn’t breathe. Doctors hooked him up to a machine to oxygenate his blood. I keep stalking his wife’s Facebook page looking for information. The news I read today is he’s breathing on his own, but through a tracheotomy. He’s queued up for a lung transplant. It’s hard for me to reconcile the fact that we’re the exact same age. I’m planning an eleven-mile run on Saturday.

Today, I read a blog post called Adventures in Online Dating. I’ve recently recognized a terrible trait in myself. *Every* time I read a blog post, it reminds me of something I’ve written. It makes me want to leave a link. My way of saying “Yeah, Me too.” Typically, I don’t leave links, not anymore. Not after someone told me to stop “whoring” my blog. He later wrote and apologized, but he had a point. I now ask first before dropping a link. Although I welcome links in my comments if it’s truly to a related post. There were so many similarities between the post I read and the one I wrote, I thought, hmm, maybe I should just post my own story tonight.

I wrote In Search Of on a retreat. I rented a cabin near the Appalachian Trail. For two days in a row, I ran through the woods for a couple of hours and then spent the rest of the day writing. In Search Of is in my book Fragments, a memoir which is available in eBook or paperback format. Incidentally, the decision to create Fragments also came to me on this retreat.

* * * * *

In search of: Mountain-biking babe. Single male, 30, seeks single female, 25 – 35, for quiet afternoons hopping over rocks and logs. Must like running, micro-brews, red wine and strong coffee.

This line got two bites.

What you just read isn’t complete. There was more to it: Something about the bands I liked, Nirvana, the Pixies, X; and my favorite Washington Post opinion writer, William Raspberry, whose progressive beliefs matched many of my own. I mentioned my favorite hangouts, the Crow Bar, the Big Hunt, craft-beer bars that appealed to the “alternative” crowd. I was looking for the perfect woman. One who was exactly like me.

Before the possibility of Internet dating, many newspapers had a section of “personal ads.” Small advertisements intended to accurately describe yourself and your perfect match. Because personal ads were priced by the number of words, the idea was to cram as much wit, hipness, charm and raw information into as short a paragraph as possible. Similar to speed dating, or flash fiction, or tweets today. Well-composed brevity was the goal. The ad didn’t need to make the sale, just encourage an inquiry. The rest of the job could be done on the phone. Or over drinks.

The City Paper was Washington, D.C.’s premier source for weekend planning among the hipster crowd – street festivals, live music, movies. It included articles, restaurant reviews, and some sarcastic commentary. And it was free. The City Paper was mandatory reading for my friends and me. And tucked in the back of the paper: personal ads. Pages of them.

Everyone I knew read the personals, but no one ever admitted to answering any. To some degree, I thought they were made up, or wildly embellished. Just for entertainment. Like Penthouse Forum, fun to read, but not taken seriously. Until I read a first-person essay in the Washington Post by a guy who gave the personal ads a try. Sick of looking for a lasting relationship in bars, he thought this might be a better way to connect with a woman who shared his interests. He posted an advertisement, went on a few dates, then eloquently wrote about his series of misses. And one hit.

That was enough for me. He seemed like a normal guy. Based on his writing, maybe even a high-achieving guy. Like me, he was bored and searching. His experience was as much anthropological as it was fun. It was the sort of thing I’d try. And if women were going to respond, why not test the waters? I crafted my ad, watched it run in The City Paper, and got two calls. Two dates. Well, initially one date and a bunch of phone conversations. The second date took a while to materialize.

This was twenty years ago. I met each woman only one time. I can’t possibly remember their names, but I remember where they lived, and for the purposes of this story that’s more important. In a youthful urban environment, where you live is supposed to say a lot about who you are. A theory I accepted at the time. I liked simple identifiers. Runner, partier, mountain biker. A person’s character defined by their actions and interests – or even their neighborhood.

My neighborhood was Glover Park. In Northwest D.C., nestled between swanky Georgetown and the upscale neighborhood surrounding American University. Glover Park was a moderately priced neighborhood that blended college students with adults who wanted to be urbanites but still relied heavily on their cars. Back then, Glover Park was just a handful of neighborhood restaurants and a bazillion low-rise ’40s-era apartment buildings. Lots of trees and even a large swath of woods separating it from the next section of D.C. Urban-lite. A cheap cab-ride, a short bike trip away from the real city.

The first woman to call was from Takoma Park, Maryland: a nearby suburb. A place where the hip, city people moved when they decided they were too mature to be hip, city people. Takoma Park was all business. She saw my ad, thought a bike ride was a good idea, maybe a beer afterward. If she was interested in William Raspberry or the Pixies, if she spent any time at the Crow Bar, she kept it to herself. We set a date a week out. We’d ride the hiking trails adjoining Great Falls Park. Illegal riding in a park – my sort of girl. Legal mountain biking was out past the suburbs. A brutal drive. More time in the car than on the trail. Great Falls was a few miles from my apartment.

The other woman, from Fairfax, Virginia, was friendlier. She seemed more promising as a potential girlfriend. She called one evening, and we spent forty-five minutes on the phone. She’d just bought a bike – not a mountain bike, but a hybrid. If we were going to ride together, there would be no hopping over logs and tree stumps.

Regardless, she gushed about the time spent riding the hard dirt path adjoining the C&O Canal – a 184-mile trail terminating in the heart of D.C. We talked about cycling, jobs, hometowns. Fairfax wanted to know who William Raspberry was. She didn’t read the Post’s Op-Ed page. She had never been to my bars. She didn’t mention anything about the music I liked. But we really connected. Lounging on the couch, chatting with a girl on the phone. I hadn’t done this since high school. We made plans to go for a ride and out to dinner.

In truth, I had hoped for more interest in my ad. Two calls was somewhat disappointing. The guy in the paper got four or five. And neither of these women seemed that much like me. Neither of them gushed about William Raspberry or punk music. Neither of them lived nearby. And only one of them owned a mountain bike.

I met Takoma Park at Great Falls on a hot summer evening after work. The park was lively and crowded. Folks squeezing in a bike ride, a run or a hike before dark, just like us. As we fiddled with our bikes, we spent a few minutes getting to know one another. She was a couple years older than me, a home owner, a self-employed architect. She was sort of pretty, but it was clear she didn’t waste any time working at it. A simple haircut, no makeup, ratty riding clothes and functional glasses. She seemed too mature for me. Too evolved, too adult. This was apparent in those few minutes.

As I was making this assessment, thunder rumbled from miles away. Not unusual for a summer evening in D.C. Sometimes a storm materialized, but not always. Scanning the distant clouds low over the tree-tops, she asked “What do you think?”

Before the Internet and smart phones, weather forecasts came from the newspaper or from TV news. Hard to get and notoriously inaccurate, they were mostly ignored. I really wanted to ride. I wanted to get on with my date. “I think we’ll be OK.” (Because of this story, the phrase “I think we’ll be OK” has become a big joke in my house).

Every few years, the D.C. area gets a thunderstorm so severe that neighborhood skylines change. Trees fall or split in half from high winds and lightning strikes. Any tree that has seen some rough days since the last major storm is in danger of being uprooted or breaking. Houses get crushed, cars get destroyed and everyone loses power for two or three days. Twenty minutes into the woods, we were in this storm. Winds gusted and lightning slashed the sky. Rushing streams replaced the trails. And branches overhead – branches as large around as fireplace logs – popped, cracked, and plunged to the ground. We could hear them crashing through the lower branches in the murky gloom.

Neither of us knew exactly where we were. But with a river to our west and a road to our east, finding a way out of the woods seemed easy. We just needed to find a path that went in the right direction. Something we hoped to do before getting killed by a falling tree. My mind racing to any statistics I knew about the probability of being hit by lightning. All the while knowing that riding a steel bike in the center of a maelstrom sways the odds.

I can’t remember how long we rode, but by the time we found our way out of the woods, the storm had passed. We hit a road a few miles from the parking lot. With the sun already peeking out of the retreating thunderheads, we had an easy ride back to our cars.

The parking lot looked like a war zone.

Trees were everywhere, crushing cars and blocking exits. My car was free. Takoma Park’s car was uninjured but trapped – a giant oak blocked her exit from the parking lot. I gave her and her bike a ride home. Lost in our thoughts, feeling like we had just cheated death, we exchanged a bit of awkward conversation. But no talk of a second date.

Recovered enough as I dropped her off, I could see that her house was amazing. Beautifully trimmed and brightly painted. Three tidy stories, small but grand. On the edge of a retail area of restaurants and shops. As we said a quick goodbye, I made mental comparisons to my small, dark apartment decorated with cast-off furnishings from estate sales.

That was my first date.

Fairfax called the next night. She wanted to break our date. She’d just lost her job, and she was in a spiraling panic. She’d already returned her bike to the shop where she got it. She “cleaned it up with Windex and Q-Tips,” and begged the shop owner to take it back. We talked about her plans, her fears, her failures. Another long session on the phone. I do empathy well: the call calmed her down. Conversation flowed like talking with an old friend. I was excited at how well we hit it off.

Our date was postponed, but not canceled. We talked many more times before we finally got together. She found a place-holder job. Her confidence returned. She planned to re-buy her bike. For weeks, I was part of her support network. A guy she’d never met. The man of promise. Lots of talk about fitness. We both liked weight lifting and running, and outdoor vacations. She was excited about our future bike rides. Excited to finally meet me.

The plan was to meet at Faccia Luna. If Glover Park had a neighborhood hangout, this was it. Micro-brews and gourmet pizza. A long wooden bar, a pool table and a friendly staff. I was excited to show off my situation – my neighborhood, my home. Excited to welcome this friend into my life.

In the hours we spent on the phone, we never once got into physical descriptions. You can make a lot of assumptions about a person from their tone, their activities, their confidence. Fairfax was pretty, no doubt about it. But pretty in a coiffed, suburban way. Her hairstyle, her clothing, even her glasses, all seemed out-of-date. Maybe fine in Fairfax, but conspicuously out of place in D.C. Over the weeks, I’d painted a mental picture of her, and this was not my friend from the phone. This woman looked pedestrian. And while this reaction may be shallow, it was nothing compared to hers. Her let-down was visible, obvious. She immediately started working to lessen my expectations of the night. She knew me as a runner, a mountain-biker, a soccer player, a weightlifter. She expected a beefcake, a stud. The tall, muscular, all-American guy so popular in teenage movies. Maybe Keanu Reeves.

That’s not me. At five-nine, 150 even, wiry is the most flattering description I can hope for. Muscular, sure, but more like a marathoner than a baseball player. In baggie shorts and a tee-shirt, I’m certain that all she saw was small and skinny.

In Faccia Luna, often lauded as one of the best pizza joints in D.C, Fairfax ordered a Caesar salad. In a city deep into the micro-beer revolution, she ordered a screwdriver. She bore no resemblance to the woman described in my personal advertisement. She was nothing like me at all. The only intersection was the word bike, and at that point, she didn’t even own one. Our date ended quickly, and I walked home disappointed. Already crafting the bitter story I would write about my experience with the personal ads. The story I wouldn’t write until today.

24 thoughts on “In Search Of…

  1. So relatable, Jeff; no wonder my own post elicited a bit of deja vu! Well told, too. At least you’re no longer “in the market.” Be thankful for that! It took me several awkward blind date fails, but eventually I learned to 1) keep first date expectations extremely low (so much better to be pleasantly surprised); 2) keep the date short, active and public, even if it’s just a stroll through a park; less pressure when talking side-by-side than across a table; and so 3) never, ever agree to a meal on a first date. Now maybe I’ll add a fourth: check the weather forecast before going on that outdoor first date! (I’ll add a link to your post in the comments to mine. Had you asked in your own comment to include a link, I would have gladly agreed because I appreciate your writing and your perspective.)

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    • If I wasn’t married, I’d be a hermit. I have zero capacity to meet people any more. I suppose I’d have lots of coffee and tea dates. The outdoor places around here are too remote to meet up with a stranger.

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  2. I enjoy your writing Jeff. It has such an easy readable quality about it. Glad to hear Mike is rallying – hope it keeps up, certainly a worrying time for his wife and yes it always feels odd when people of our own age have failing health. A good reminder to be grateful I guess. Great post I enjoyed it

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    • Thank you. I’m becoming more grateful of my health year by year. In early summer, I trashed my back moving some boxes of books. (I can still feel twinges of it today.) Since then I’ve been doing daily core workouts. Can’t take this stuff for granted.

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  3. Great dating stories! I met my ex when I was 18 and we were together just shy of 22 years. I’ve been busy helping my daughter raise Ben and dating just doesnt even appeal to me right now. Maybe I’ll be a single hermit the rest of my life. All the online dating stories I’ve heard are perfect for Halloween, horror.
    I cant believe they canceled Halloween? Bizarro! It’s weird though, I noticed here in SoCal that there weren’t as many kids out this year. Is Halloween losing its appeal?🤔

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    • My neighborhood has been under a transformation for the past few years. It used to be that my kids were about the only kids around. Now they’re scattered about like fleas on a dog. Driving has gotten scary. Halloween on Saturday will be a very big deal… or it better, we’ve got a lot of candy.

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  4. I remember this story – very enjoyable. I understand your wanting to share it. When I was reading Debbie’s book the parents in the book were saying things I have said before and I wanted to do the same. Pull my post up and give it to them but of course, that’s not possible. Good idea to do it like this. That’s funny you guys all said the same thing about Christmas. Made me laugh.

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    • We’re all cut very much from the same mold. Sort of sad that I’ve raised a pair of sarcastic outspoken curmudgeons. Often after reading a book I’ll tweet to the author and on rare occasions even send a link. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever hear back but in a couple of occasions I’ve had nice conversations. A highlight was with the artist who draws the thatababy comic strip. He’s a huge ramones fan.

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  5. My favourite part was this pumpkin-torching plan (“Uncomfortable looks from parents”) 😂and the fact that “they” cancelled Halloween. You were seemed in full-on acceptance of the nebulousness of it all, lol

    And I can’t help commenting on what you replied to Rebecca W: “I have zero capacity to meet people any more” — if I can be as bold as you’ve sometimes been, some advice I’m sure you know already: change the language -> change the mind -> change the capacity -> change the reality. If you wanted to, that is, of course. 😉

    But acceptance is awesome too. Seems to work well for your writing output.

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    • Oh god, you sound exactly like my wife. Neuroplasticity- hear about it all the time. Bold or blunt. 2 sides of the same coin. I’m probably on the spectrum, so I feel like I have an excuse. Probably monthly, I make a resolution to make changes. Sometimes I follow through, sometimes I don’t–none of this has changed my habits yet.

      Parents truly look nervous when we expect kids to walk past pumpkins spewing foot-high flames. But I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t relatively safe.

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  6. “If you like pina coladas…” Ah, the age of personal ads. Seems so long ago. I can’t even imagine today’s young people perusing an actual newspaper. Great story, Jeff! Hope you are setting the jack o lanterns out in the driveway as I write this.

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