Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Out on a Limb: Unlikely Paths to Love

Desperation to avoid big city loneliness, social anxieties, general malaise and those irritating questions from aunts, uncles and teasing older brothers has led to the inevitable craigslist cure. Talented, intriguing and probably at least mildly attractive people are inquiring within the internet specifically for holiday girlfriends and boyfriends; beards of a sort, these people will act as a companion only for the time of year when everything is merry and bright, because, as one ad reads, like some haunted voice of Christmas past, ‘deep down inside, you don’t want to be alone for the holidays’.

As the shivers settle, people are scrambling to find their ‘holidates’. Two determined San Francisco ladies posted for a double romance that would conclude with being dumped the day after New Years. The women began their ad declaring ‘Holidays are the worst time to be single’. They continue to promise that they are indeed ‘really hot chicks. Like you could have picked us out of a lineup for a CW teen drama’. They hope the men that answer their ad own at least one suit and have a sweater collection. They demand that they’re funny. And they guarantee a New Years Eve kiss— but nothing else. Is this the modern solution for holiday loneliness? It seems so, similar ads have been popping up since, unfortunately all are promptly taken down, and inexplicably; they tend to be more cleverly and cleanly written than the average hook-up request.

Before I moved to New York City I did a lot of sitting around and thinking about moving to New York City. I was simultaneously freshly single after a marathon relationship and fresh off the boat back to the United States from a year abroad. From my mother’s porch, my dating future looked grim. From my perch behind my computer screen, it looked impressively worse. While New York offered the most possibilities for my career, I worried about the likelihood of finding someone in the cold, congested, mess of a town that is arguably the greatest city on earth. It was this time last year; nothing like the holidays to breed romantic hopelessness and surrender.

New York is so notoriously difficult a city to date in that it feels cliché to even mention it. All the literature declaring it is backed up by cold, hard facts, not to mention cold, lonely hearts. It’s too tempting to savor the bits in writing that are unmistakably recognizable from tales of friends and movies and TV series— veritas! further supporting my conjecture that I should stop off in the Midwest somewhere and pick up a nice gentleman on my way. My guess though, is that the fear incited in me and so inherent in all the literature surrounding the topic is that much more greatly ignited by the fact that more than being a difficult place to find and nurture love, New York is also a famously lonely place, thus the drive to find companionship is stronger, and even more necessary.

In the midst of crowded squares and bars spilling onto sidewalks, there is a loneliness unlike its sister, true solitude. In my humble opinion it hasn’t been said much better than J.D. Salinger, a man who knew a thing or two about seclusion. In his “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” from Nine Stories, the eccentric protagonist voices the New Yorker’s riddle: “I prayed for the city to be cleared of people, for the gift of being alone, A-L-O-N-E: which is the one New York prayer that rarely gets lost or delayed in channels, and in no time at all, everything I touched turned into solid loneliness.

It seems the holiday season is just an exacerbated version of the big city specific loneliness. Amongst twinkling lights and gatherings of happy people, you roll your eyes and pine after less offensive scenes and then poof! you’re an eternal scrooge. While apparently the media is to blame for the association between the holiday season and increased suicide rates (no proven correlation) studies connecting the holidays with stress, depression and loneliness come out like clockwork this time of year, and it is not exactly hard to believe that Christmas carols and spinning dreidels, or the idea that these things should occur, (or rhymes like that) could cause someone to go over the edge.

A somewhat alarming study popular a few years ago led by University of Chicago’s John Cacioppo and scientists from UCSD and Harvard the possibility that loneliness can be contagious, which means, with every work party, cocktail event, and family gathering, your chances of catching that hollow bug increases. The study proposes that lonely feelings are easily passed and absorbed by innocent bystanders, or friends of friends, and that the feeling is largely a reflection of the society we live in. Misery loves company, but what about when company won’t call? Meanwhile, there are countless rituals surrounding the holidays that seem to encourage coupling and exclude those whom are not. Mistletoe and midnight kisses on New Years Eve are two acts that could possibly unite two forlorn souls, or more likely, make the notion of cohabitating with polar bears on the North Pole seem appealing.

My experience in New York has not quite confirmed my initial fears. While I have certainly had my moments; waiting for Godot on a bench in Madison Square Park or crying beneath my sunglasses in public, more often I’m on some extended travel adventure; watching the sunrise, singing with subway musicians and having those moments of connection that feel so rare in this world but really are not. Yet the pace of life here also means that months go by where I can’t coordinate a simple meal with a close friend. It’s the life I wanted, although it’s no surprise people have trouble settling down when years are lived at this fleeting pace.

With the invention of ‘holidates’, things seem less dire in the dating pool once you can outline and interview your specifications for a partner. Taking the unlikely route of optimism, I suggest that the city can be remarkably fertile as a dating ground. Because of some unnatural holiday glow, I too have been touched by the essence of the season, and feel compelled to share a particularly poignant story. I first encountered ‘Lonely Guy Jeff’ a couple of weeks prior to the writing of this piece; his flyer was on a street pole in busy Union Square. It read functionally, ‘call me to talk about anything’, signed ‘one lonely guy Jeff’ with his number cut into fringe at the bottom of the flyer. It struck me immediately as incredible that any rational human would leave their contact info in the middle of the mayhem of Union Square, so I tore off his number and like an antique Nancy Drew, decided I must investigate.

Carly: Hi Jeff, I found your number on a poster in Union Square a few weeks ago and have been meaning to call you.

Jeff: Well, it’s nice to talk to you, how’s everything going?

Carly: I was curious as to why you made the flyer and left your number up in public that way?

Jeff: I went through a difficult breakup a few months ago and I was working on projects which required a lot of solitude and I was relatively new to New York and I wanted a way to just to talk to people. It’s actually worked, the ironic part of it is that New Yorkers started to call me and then it went viral, so I’ve talked to like, over ten thousand people in the past few weeks. It’s just a crazy, wonderful adventure. I’ve got amazing perspectives from people around the world on relationships, family, everything you could ever imagine, on happiness, all these great points of views, it’s just this wonderful journey that basically happened by accident. You know I thought I’d talk to a few people when I put that flyer up and it turned into this worldwide thing.

Carly: When I first saw it, I was thinking, calling this guy is either a great idea, or a horrible one. Who are you, and what kind of people would call you? But you say you’re feeling a lot of support and love, somehow that’s surprising.

Jeff: Absolutely. I thought maybe half the calls would be creepers, freaks, stuff like that, but that’s maybe only fifteen percent of calls. The calls are genuine people offering support. On the other hand, people who are lonely have called, or it’s people that want to get stuff off their chests, they can’t really tell their friends or family because they’re biased. I get a lot of calls like that, people asking ‘what should I do?’ It’s incredible the things people call me for.

Carly: What’s your perspective on loneliness in New York City? Why is it an especially lonely place, or is it not?

Jeff: It is, definitely. Everyone comes here to try and quote make it, therefore it’s an intense person here. Secondly it’s so hard to live here because it’s expensive and it’s so competitive, everyone is going a million miles an hour and they don’t have time for anyone. I’ve had people call me from New York and say ‘there are the most people in the world here but it’s the loneliest place at the same time.’

Carly: Dating in New York is really hard, but when I saw your sign, I realized while it seems really hard to meet people, it’s also incredibly easy.

Jeff: I’ve been on four dates in the past month. Last night I went out with a girl who is unbelievably attractive; I’ve been out with really interesting people, really wonderful girls. I’d say I’ve made about 15 solid friendships that will last. Immediately there was a connection on the phone, they felt me and I felt them, they were calling for the same reason I put the flyer up.

Carly: It’s so inspiring that this is a possibility in the world we live in, to reach out to humanity and have humanity just call you up.

Jeff: Everyday I get like 20 or 30 people calling me, if I’m on the subway and don’t pick up people leave messages saying, ‘Just have a great day, just wanted to say, people care.’ I was very cynical going into this about humanity, but it has definitely opened my eyes. I get calls from Korea, Saudi Arabia, hundreds of Canadians call me.

Carly: I’m not Canadian, but I’m glad I called you, I was really nervous to call actually, I put it off for weeks.

Jeff: Even though it took this orange flyer to get people interested, there’s an underlying tone that people say catches them, it’s true, it comes from a genuine emotion people identify with immediately. A guy in Saudi Arabia called and said, ‘You can be lonely in the desert or at 87th and Lex’.

I had a few ideas about who Jeff may be prior to the call. Most prominently, he loomed as a dangerous stranger who after getting my number would proceed to stalk and torture me through ceaseless calls and texts. After the imaginative route, I guessed that by the time I called, his number would be disconnected due to the high volume of scum he had acquired from leaving his digits in such sore circumstances. Finally, I decided he could be exactly what he claimed to be, one lonely guy that dared to take a strange path toward connecting with his new city.

Jeff’s reality was much more pleasing than any that I had imagined for him. In fact, it’s stories like this that you really can’t make up, at least not if you want people to believe you. When Jeff first answered the phone, he had a drone that could have been robotic, but after I confirmed he was human my reservations disappeared. While he remains somewhat of a conundrum to me, his story is nonetheless touching and there couldn’t be a better moment for reassurance of the existence of humanity to ease the pains of 4:30 PM twilights and the frenzied tinkling of Salvation Army bells. Perhaps Jeff has it all figured out, and the rest of us who pout and hibernate through bad break-ups are missing out on being coddled by our great mother earth and all her children. Doubt rings clear in my words, but in so many ways, I wish I could be different, more like Jeff. Willing to take a risk, to reach out and expect the best in others, and in turn, embrace it.

Maybe the answer to loving in a big city is making yourself available in a unique way. Putting your picture and height on a monitored dating site isn’t going to set you apart from the other millions doing the same thing. Nor is wearing the sparkliest top in the bar unless your future date is a magpie, though admittedly, I appreciate sequins as much as the next girl. When you go so far out on a limb, like Jeff or the ‘holidaters’, anyone who ventures to meet you there is automatically inducted into an inner dating sphere; a realm where acceptance and understanding is previously established. Your possibilities are bound to multiply when you step out of line, out of the bar, from behind the glow of your computer screen and truly liberate yourself from traditionalist expectations. Thanks to OWS, the mighty arena of craigslist and one lonely guy, living on the margins of society has never been trendier, or more worthwhile.


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Born and raised under the Los Angeles sun and smog. At sixteen spent some time in LA County Juvenile Detention Center, although never really learned her lesson. Moved to Boston for the classic college experience. Spray painted graffiti in the Paris Metro during six month stay in the Marais. Survived an ultra fabulous and frightening internship at Vogue Magazine while living at a nunnery in Hell's Kitchen. Lived a year in Seoul, a city which can only be compared to a Disneyland theme park. Written four hundred sixty-four words of an undisclosed masterpiece novel. Currently pondering her next adventure and also the meaning of her memoirs from an artist's loft in dirty Brooklyn.