I met my husband through a personal ad I placed in New York Magazine in the 80s. I was tired of meeting unavailable men at bars, parties, and summer shares. Not only was I looking for a long-term romance, I wanted to be in charge for a change.
The personals seemed ideal. How wonderful to pick and choose, rather than to be picked and chosen. How delightful to receive letters from dozens of men, all begging to go out with me.
But although I’m a copywriter, writing an ad for myself didn’t come easily. A friend fine-tuned my all-too-modest first draft to read: Spirited lady writer (30’s, 5’4”). Attractive, fun, resourceful. Seeks friendship and romance with unafraid man, 28-40, who possesses intelligence, warmth, confidence, and wit. Note/phone. Photo optional.
These words translated into six printed lines (cost: $153). My ad would run in one issue, and the magazine would forward responses for six weeks.
The morning the magazine hit the stands, I found my ad, “Spirited Lady Writer” sandwiched between “Voluptuous Blond Blue-Eyed Exec” and “Shapely, Super, Petite.”
Despite the competition, I felt hopeful.
A week later—success! Four letters arrived in a narrow manila envelope. The second week, a thicker envelope brought 15 letters. Ten letters showed up the third week. Eventually, I received 40 responses.
I divided them into three categories. The first, “Barf,” consisted of communications best chucked straight into the trash. Thankfully, there were just two of these. The first writer wrote—in oversized, Son-of-Sam handwriting—that he had a doctorate in lust and would love to help me get my advanced degree. The second writer observed that it was a shame people had lost their prehensile tails because tails would be incredibly kinky in bed.
My second category, “Boring,” were letters that were nice, but dull; very dull. “Hi, my name is Bill,” a typical “Boring” letter read. “I’m an accountant /lawyer /computer programmer. I work for ABC/EFG/XYZ Company. I live in Brooklyn /Queens /New Jersey. In my spare time, I enjoy playing baseball /basketball /tennis. I liked your ad and I’d love to meet you.”
One such writer, an insurance broker, sent a photo of himself standing in front of a garage. My roommate, Sara, said: “He’s not bad looking and he has a car. Call him!” But imagining a dry-as-dust date discussing actuary tables, I declined.
My third category, “Best,” consisted of letters that were intriguing. Intelligent. Thoughtful. Funny. There were about ten of these, including Allen’s. One read simply: “I’d like to have a few more attractive, fun, resourceful people in my life. Please call me.” I would have, but the writer’s picture showed him to be more than twenty years my senior, and I felt uncomfortable with the age gap.
Instead I called “Jack,” a computer programmer who lived in Chelsea. We met for a drink. The evening went well until Jack mentioned that he answered the personals every week. That bothered me a bit, but not too much. After all, I read the personals each week. Before placing my ad, I’d answered a few. (The result: one lukewarm date.)
What troubled me was Jack’s admission that he replied to twenty ads at once. “With my computer,” he boasted, “I can turn out hundreds of copies of the same letter.” (PCs had recently arrived on the scene.)
So much for Jack.
Allen’s letter had also arrived the first week. It was warm and funny: I am a college‑grad, which helps me a lot when I play Trivial Pursuit, and that’s about it…I’m well‑read, literate—I think I’m going to blush; no, I’m not. Loyal, brave, trustworthy….
“You’ve got to call this one,” Sara said. I agreed.
Allen’s picture showed him leaning against a door in his apartment, dressed in jeans, a white shirt, a vest and a fedora. I decided he had warm eyes.
Sara had a different take on Allen’s picture.
“He’s wearing a hat,” she said. “That means he’s bald.”
I called Allen that night. After chatting for fifteen minutes, we arranged to meet for a drink that Sunday. I chose a restaurant across the street from my apartment. As Sara and I watched out a window, we’d see Allen arrive and size him up.
Sure enough, at 8:30 p.m., a man stopped in front of the restaurant. He looked around, shrugged, and began reading a book he drew out of the pocket of his blazer. He wasn’t wearing a hat.
“He has hair!” Sara exclaimed.
I hurried outside and across the street.
Allen gave me a not-so-subtle once over and pulled a long face. A test had taken place—and I’d failed. I later learned that it consisted of a single (and, Allen insisted, unconscious) comparison: Does she look like Leslie Caron in Gigi? Allen’s ideal woman was a dark-haired gamin-type. My red hair and freckles hadn’t made the grade.
I pulled my own long face in response. Allen was okay looking (his dark hair was starting to recede a bit) but he was no Michael Douglas. I almost ended the evening right then, but I was in a new “three dates and you’re out” mode. Still, seeing Allen’s downcast expression, the quiet, romantic restaurant I’d chosen seemed too quiet and too romantic. I suggested a noisier, brightly lit bar.
Once there, to my relieved surprise, we chatted easily for an hour. Then Allen abruptly pushed back his chair. “It’s late,” he said. “You probably want to go home and relax, since you have to work tomorrow.”
Uh-oh, my first impression had been right. I’d definitely never hear from this one again.
I walked Allen to the cross-town bus stop and wrote him off.
Two nights later, to my surprise, he called to ask for a second date. I figured he was also in a “three dates and you’re out” frame of mind. If he could give me another chance, I could do the same for him. We made plans for that Friday night—a movie in Greenwich Village.
While waiting for the film to begin, Allen mentioned that he answered the personals every single week. “I have a strategy,” he said, as I shot up straight in my chair, remembering Jack, the computer programmer. “I answer the ads I like the day they come out. Otherwise, the woman I’m writing to might be involved by the time she gets my letter. With my computer,” he added, “I can answer lots of letters each week.”
I leaned as far away from Allen as I could without falling over into the next seat.
Allen continued, oblivious to my sudden chill, “But I write variations on each letter—I respond to what each woman says in her ad. I like to have fun with my letters. And I’ve gone out with some really nice people through the ads. My last relationship with someone I met through the personals lasted six months.”
I moved back to the middle of my chair.
After the movie, we ate dessert at a nearby café. We talked for hours about art, politics, the theater, ourselves, our families. Allen liked to talk, but he also listened attentively. (And he never mentioned the word “turtle” once.)
We headed uptown at midnight. I worried that the subway would be deserted and creepy, so we walked to a nearby bus stop. The night had turned blustery. I shivered under my lightweight coat and wool dress.
“Let’s warm up over that subway grate,” I suggested. We hurried over to it. Ah, yes, mild air. That was better.
Allen later told me he thought there was something sensitive and sexy about my wanting us to warm up over the grate.
“That moment,” he said, “I knew you were down to earth and considerate, and I wanted to see you again.”
I didn’t take his point. The wind was frigid; subway grates are warm. What woman would have parked her date on the sidewalk while she unfroze her toes alone?
The bus arrived. By the end of that ride, Allen was begging me to go out with him again. That’s how I remember it.
“There will be a third date, won’t there?” he said. “Promise me we’ll get together again. Promise me before we reach your stop.”
I could get used to this, I thought, and agreed to a date the next week.
Allen recalls none of this. “I remember feeling good when you said you wanted to see me again,” he says now. “But I don’t remember begging.”
A few days later, we attended a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y. Allen and I held hands, and barely listened to the performance. Out on the street afterward, we shared a passionate kiss.
Eight months later, Allen proposed.
Six weeks after I’d placed my ad, one last letter arrived, from the owner of a small antiques store. This too, was a warm, intelligent letter. I almost called the writer—to tell him that he might have better luck if he answered the personals promptly each week, as Allen had.
Somehow, I never got around to it.
© Anita Salzberg 2012. All Rights Reserved.