Personal Failures | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Personal Failures 

SWF, 40+, Educated and Interested in Psychology, Seeks SBM for Meaningful Relationship. Learns Lesson.

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Never again. I've quit this time. I'm kicking the habit. I have placed my last personal ad. It is an addiction, I'm convinced, sort of like playing Lotto: each time, I think this will be the one.

Particularly for those of us who have unusual circumstances--with children, handicaps, offbeat hobbies or tastes--and who therefore have special requirements in a mate, it's easy to believe the current magazine articles that tout this as the progressive, no-nonsense, almost foolproof method--if we can just word that ad right. For instance, my Mr. Right happens to be black, and I'm not. So, on top of the usual tall, sensitive person capable of commitment, etc, I am looking for a black man over 40, educated, not too religious, liberated, at least tolerant of pets, interested in psychology, and open to interracial relationships.

So how might I find this needle in a haystack? Why, in the ads, of course. I have always contended that the man of my dreams is out there, and that by advertising I could roust him out of obscurity. It was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and really only the ad had to be there. It seemed almost like catalog shopping: I specified type, size, and color, and sat back and waited for delivery. Or I could answer someone else's ad--a "hot one," as I grew to call them--costing me no more than a postage stamp, then sit back and wait for a letter or phone call.

If all this sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. I found this method of meeting people fraught with even more problems and disappointments than the others. First and foremost was the fact that most respondents paid no attention to what I'd written. Seldom did anyone bear the slightest resemblance to the man I said I wanted. I had to conclude either that they couldn't read (and some were barely literate), or that they thought I didn't know what I wanted. The small number who did fit the bill were so afraid of commitment that they couldn't keep a date or make a follow-up phone call. There was one exception--a man I dated for three months; it took that long for his fear of intimacy to become obvious.

I began this venture by answering an ad placed by a tall, shy, middle-aged single black male seeking a lasting relationship with a sincere, affectionate single female, race unimportant. When an SBM social worker appeared in the ads the following week, I decided not to pass him up; a social worker would fit right into my life. When a third promising ad appeared the same week, I began to feel that there were lots of men to choose from. I was on a roll. Number four was much too interesting to pass up; he was an SBM from England, highly educated, and living in my neighborhood.

I wrote awkwardly at first, revising my letters over and over. I included my address rather than my phone number, which was not as safe but gave me a feeling of distance. I'd already suppressed the normal big-city paranoia in order to respond at all, and the thought of some unwanted, persistent man pestering me over the phone was more than I could bear. Besides, I wanted the additional information a letter would provide--some perception of his personality. Anyone can say he's smart and sensitive in a 25-word ad.

Within two weeks I'd received replies from ads number one, two, and three. The only one who told me anything about himself was Mr. Shy. He said he was 50 and semiretired. I wasn't terribly excited about him, but since he sounded like a nice person I wrote back, mentioning that I was seeking someone who was not totally materialistic and admitting that I was not a woman of means. I enclosed my telephone number.

But instead of a phone call, I received another letter. He had attempted to dial my number, he told me, but had been unable to complete the call. Wondering if my line had been busy or he'd broken his finger, I read on. I shouldn't worry, he continued; money meant nothing to him. I was worried--that far exceeded my definition of nonmaterialistic. I was even more worried when he described himself as someone who'd been pushed around, particularly by black women, which didn't seem a well-reasoned complaint. I moved on to number two.

Mr. Social Worker's response was a scrawly note saying only that he preferred speaking directly, and he gave his home and work phone numbers. The phone company's name-and-address service told me that work was a suburban public-aid office. A caseworker, no doubt. Dialing his home number during working hours told me he was gruff and country and gave me a new appreciation for answering machines.

Number three sent only a nonpublished home number and no personal information. Number four never responded.

Weeks later I received a greeting card from number one, which I opened as I came in the door. Inside was a snapshot. Mr. Shy looked like a dead body propped up in a plastic-covered chair in front of a window losing its curtain in a room that looked like 1950. Gasping, without removing my coat, I sat down and scribbled a note informing him that I'd reunited with a former boyfriend and was no longer available.

At this point I thought I might have better luck if I placed an ad of my own. My first effort wasn't terribly creative--I just used a formula similar to what I'd been reading for many weeks. I said I was a single white female seeking an educated single black male about my own age, with the same recreational tastes as my own, a few of which I listed.

I was growing impatient by the time my first batch of letters arrived two weeks later. Surely a few of them, I told myself, would present viable prospects. I'd assumed that the responses to my ads would contain the same percentage of jerks as the general population. Halfway through these letters, I realized that if that were true, the general population was in trouble. This was my introduction to dating through the personals:

"Hi my lovely. My name is Eric the Great. I was reading the paper and I had to write you because I know Im the man for you. . . . Let me tell you a few wonderful things about myself I'm 6'2 195 lbs Black and very handsome. My dream is to have a White woman because to me they were a gift from heaven. . . ."

Mr. Great ended his letter by assuring me that he was a good lover and writing "Kiss kiss" on the bottom of the page. Respondent number two, exhibiting the same level of maturity, wrote "Run Mailman Run" on the outside of the envelope. Respondent number three was a chef from Michigan who could "burn Baby burn":

"I love sports. and boy can I play. I drive an Electra 225.and what soft seats! I not sad too say I can go! for it all. . . . I'm a good love maker and I would love too check you out.!"

My next letter was a rather graphic two-page dissertation, from a 31-year-old suburban white man, on the benefits of swinging. As with every ad I placed thereafter, I heard from a convict who finally, toward the end of his letter, admitted he was incarcerated without mentioning the offense.

To prove he was educated, another respondent began his letter this way:

"I enjoy all of the things you have mentioned. . . . Blues and Hitchcock are two elements that are galaxies apart but deal with the same subject. The human condition. Aesthetics is considered the branch of philosophy that provides a theory of the beautiful and of the fine arts and ethics is the moral quality of a course of action."

This was followed with a few facts about yin and yang and this summation: "In other words, I like to have fun, play, and treat my fellow humans with respect, honesty, and gentility."

About to conclude that this venture was a total waste of hope and money, I came across two letters containing legible sentences and pertinent information. One was from Jesse, a divorced 48-year-old art teacher living on the north side in his newly purchased home. "I'm settled now and looking for someone to share the rest of my life with," he told me during a two-hour phone conversation. Fortified by a lot of background information and a good impression, I agreed that we should meet the following day. He had some workers coming in the morning, he told me, and needed to spend an hour with them; I should call him when I got up. I did, and a sleepy-sounding woman answered. She took my message cheerfully, allowing me to assume that she was his sister or someone else who wouldn't mind a woman calling. When I'd heard nothing by afternoon, I tried again; she was still sleeping and he still wasn't home. He finally called me later that afternoon, saying he was supervising the repairs and he'd call me in another hour. He never did.

Then there was Marty, an articulate, educated single parent who had put aside his career as a musician to create a stable environment for his son. He was working full-time and beginning graduate school. We met for coffee and planned a date, contingent upon a confirming phone call from him. It never came. I eventually called to see why, and was encouraged when he said that my voice was the best thing that had happened to him that day. I agreed when he suggested we try again. Again he failed to follow through, even after a very enthusiastic note in which he explained he'd been working long hours but wanted us to get together. "I believe there's a conspiracy keeping us apart and we can't let them do that to us," he wrote, asking me to call him. I did, wondering why this was so complicated, and we repeated the pattern. I thought I should move on.

The remaining letters gave me nothing to move on to, however. Then another ad in the personals caught my eye. "Almost perfect SBM," it read. He was seeking a single female, race unimportant, for a meaningful relationship. I found his wit irresistible.

"I've been searching for a perfect SBM for 20 years," I wrote in the note describing myself. He wrote back: "I said I was almost perfect, not absolutely." He was large, which I like, professional and articulate, and lived on my side of the city. "Unfortunately," he wrote, after giving me a litany of fine attributes, "I'm immodest, opinionated, and have a rapidly receding hairline. . . . Perhaps your 20-year search is over. Call me." He signed it Lew.

When I called, I liked him as much on the phone as I had on paper. Whether he liked me was another question. Foolishly I'd chosen to call his home during working hours on a day when I was preoccupied with a family crisis--I'd hoped simply to hear his voice on the answering machine and hadn't planned what I'd say. Stunned when he answered, I came across like Dull Dora, allowing him to do most of the talking and stumbling over the few words I did say. He'd call me when he returned from an upcoming business trip, he told me. I knew he wouldn't. He didn't.

"I blew it," I moaned to my girlfriend every day after that for weeks. He'd been so desirable, we decided, that he'd probably found the woman of his dreams and was on his honeymoon. Imagine my surprise when he answered my next ad.

I was much more creative the second time, certain that by pointing out the contradictions in my personality I would ferret out that special guy. "Like fine things," I wrote, "but not materialistic; ethical but not religious; monogamous but not puritanical; white but drawn to black men; liberated with traditional values; human but fond of animals."

Many respondents seemed fascinated with the wording; some mimicked it:

"I'm not a millionaire, but enjoy doing business; not white, but drawn to white women; motivated with traditional values; not Japanese, but speak a little; ethical, monogamous, human, open minded, friendly, finer things, music, travel, health conscious, and much more."

Another wrote: ". . . am Black and have friends of all races; macho but respectful of the rights of others; ethical but not religious; loyal in friendship and possessor of several scruples; sensitive, warm, affectionate, humorous, and a damn nice guy. I am seeking a neat, sensuous, lovely, and sincere lady who's interested in building a beautiful friendship."

Had I been seeking a much younger man, my creativity might have paid off: both of these gentlemen were in their 20s. A third, who was 25 and rather desperate-sounding, said he was drawn to me because I understood:

"Girls my age don't understand when I tell them, I want a companion, someone just like me. I have so much love inside, that I feel like I going to explode, I need someone who is real and doesn't toy with the person who wants to be close to them." "This is not a game," he added emphatically. "I'm for real!!" Then a postscript: "I think you do understand."

A 53-year-old white man, addressing me as "Ms. Paradox," said my "arresting ad" made his body tingle:

"We who spark to Gestalt love paradox, for we find it powerful to pacify the internal struggle, and express the contradictions which usually turn out to be only verbal ones, anyway."

Another particularly annoying respondent fancied himself a philosopher:

"I 'feel' I would like to meet you. Intuition is essential for existential living and 'feeling' is the essence of intuition; I am 'educated' but not likely to confuse knowledge with wisdom; spiritual but not consciously mystical; not white, but drawn to white women; a gentle man, but a sexual animal; nine months ago my lover was a married Swiss social worker/women's counselor visiting the U.S. on a religious pilgrimage, I became her Adam and she was Eve; after sharing my bed for three nights without sharing carnal knowledge, my bed became our bed, as barriers melted and trust evolved and a healing rebirthing began.

"As I read your words, I smiled inside; the energy behind your words vibrates in my heart and that vibration stirs the gentle man in me. I like that gentle man."

I didn't.

I hadn't requested photographs, but one man sent one of himself reclining on a sofa wearing what looked like long underwear. He wrote down the name and number of his favorite bar and told me that I should call and ask for Chip. Another respondent, after describing himself, asked me to send him my measurements. His page-long letter was all one sentence.

The most interesting--and frightening--response came on a small piece of lined paper, folded inside another, no more than 2 inches by 2 inches, serving as an envelope. It had only my assigned box number on it, indicating that he had hand delivered it. It reminded me of the notes we used to pass to each other in grade school. Mr. Lloyd had scribbled his name and address on side one, which he had so numbered, and the following:

Not marrie

Nogirl Fr

Nondr

Nonsm

Verylone

some

Want to

Fall in

Love, love

A

Forever

Side two read:

Relation

ship, S,Love

L, L, walk down

town, lake Front,

hug hold hands

Love m walking

talk kiss.

S-music TVradio

Quiet. S, Jogging

S-Sports W or

Play. S, news

papers r. ors books

r. S, Love Movies,

Love lady w

Make up

Nice

hairdo

What remained were a letter from a convict, one from a married man, and three from decent, intelligent, interesting men about my age who were looking for someone much like myself. One was Jesse, one was Marty, and one was Lew.

I waited a year before placing another ad. Amid the usual assortment of replies from illiterates, jive dudes, philosophers, and convicts was another alluring letter from Lew, one from Jesse, an update on Marty's academic progress, and more fascinating scrawls from Mr. Lloyd. But there were also two that temporarily reinforced my faith in the personals. Both men appeared to have ample reason for seeking new ways of meeting people: Tom was a public-relations executive new to Chicago, and Eddie lived in a small town outside the city. This is how these ads are supposed to work, I thought, after meeting and liking them both. Trying to choose between them felt like real dating for a change.

I chose Eddie, and we dated for a while. We shared many of the same opinions, were sexually compatible, and had a lot of fun. But as the newness wore off, Eddie's demeanor, which was usually quiet, made a subtle change and became withdrawn. I found myself being apologetic and solicitous to draw him out. My attempts to be demonstrative in a movie or to hold his hand in the car were met with a physical rigidity that made me wonder if I'd offended him. He dealt with my attempt to discuss this by declaring, "I don't walk on water," and since that hadn't been my request, I decided we weren't relating very well. I ended the relationship, concluding that he had felt threatened by the expectation of intimacy and was probably greatly relieved.

I brazenly sent a note to Tom; I'd wondered many times whether I might have been smarter to choose him in the first place. "Yes, you do have nerve," he agreed good-naturedly over cocktails. "And you made the wrong choice," he added in mock admonishment. He was aggressive and snappy, and I welcomed the change. This would be fun.

But Tom was not fun. Though he wasn't a poor man, his idea of dinner was a tuna sandwich in his apartment--except for our first date, for which he promised "a nice dinner." I dressed up for our meeting on North Michigan Avenue, where he lived and worked, assuming he'd be in his executive attire. I was sorely disappointed when he showed up in slacks and deck shoes, saying he'd already eaten. Subsequent dates seldom materialized; he failed to call as planned. The few times we did meet resulted from his phoning, out of the blue, for a spur-of-the-moment get-together, no plans, just his place or mine. I was bored and realized that there was nothing in this for me.

I've placed one ad since then. Jesse was still hoping to share his home, Mr. Lloyd had graduated to an envelope, and Marty was graduating from school. There was no other respondent I wouldn't have been afraid to call.

But what if, I pondered, Marty's past inability to follow through had really been due to his hectic schedule? He might be less harassed now, and I'd liked him well enough to take a chance before. Not wanting to put him on the spot, I sent a note instead of calling him, letting him know that it was my ad he'd answered and that, if he were at all interested, I'd like to hear from him. He called me immediately. "I don't want to let you get away this time," he told me. I'd been right, I thought, it had been his schedule. He was studying for his last final, he continued; he'd call me the minute it was over. He didn't.

Funny thing is, I still look at the ads. And I fear, too, that reading just the right adjectives, the right arrangement of words, could entice me to take pen in hand. But the adult, the realist in me, has been forced to raise some questions about the men in the ads, mainly: Why are they there?

We've all read the numbers; we all know that women outnumber men by as much as ten to one in some areas. Add to that fact the ease with which men choose younger women and not vice versa, which is changing but not fast enough, and you see that there's a field that expands for men with each passing year and dwindles for women. For those men not limiting themselves to one racial group, the field expands even further.

Moreover, men's desirability increases with their tangible assets: height, financial security, full heads of hair. Why then, my logical, reluctantly grown-up self inquires, are gems such as Lew, Eddie, and Jesse repeatedly gracing the personals and my mailbox? (I see ads from time to time that I'm certain are theirs.) Women must be flocking to them, it would seem, at cocktail parties and sports events, in elevators and laundromats, not to mention the workplace or their own apartment buildings. Surely, out of the grand assortment at their disposal, they could find the suitable mates they purport to seek--and in less than the ten-plus years they'd each been divorced.

Perhaps the personals provide not the means to locate that unique someone but a last-ditch resource for the commitment-shy man who wants to find that special girl he thinks he's seeking, the one who's eluded him for so long. With that in mind, I will approach these men as I have learned to approach men in other situations--with a little bit of hope and a lot of skepticism.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Pater Hannan.

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