He sees her in the produce section. She isn't drop-dead gorgeous, but there's something about her–plus she looks old enough to know that the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn't a rock band. He thinks, "She could grind my coffee anytime."
They pass in dairy and again in dried fruits and nuts. Then they're both in the cereal aisle, reaching for the same box of Kashi. . . .
To meet in a supermarket sounds like the plot of a grade-B romantic comedy. But when you're over 40 and searching for a soul mate, it can be easier to cruise a salad bar than a singles bar. Patricia Parkinson, 52, lives in Alexandria and does a radio show on www.radiodelray.com.
She had just ended a long-distance relationship and decided to lift her spirits one Sunday with a visit to Trader Joe's.
Parkinson recalls, "In the car I prayed: 'Okay, God, all this time I haven't asked to meet anyone. I think it's time.' "
The market was crowded, but Parkinson soon spotted a very handsome man. "You know how it is in the grocery store," she says. "You keep passing the same person." As she reached the checkout, she saw him again. He was at the end of a line, hemmed in by the produce section and a crowd of shoppers.
Parkinson couldn't get behind him easily, so she called out, "Excuse me, but I want you to know that I'm officially behind you in this line." He gave her "the most dazzling smile" and offered her a place ahead of him.
They talked in the checkout line, and then for an hour outside the store. Finally, Parkinson realized that her ice cream was melting faster than she was. She had to go.
"Will you call me?" he asked.
"No," she said, afraid she'd go home and call him right away. "But you can call me." He phoned that night.
Many of the ways young people find each other aren't open to older singles. There are no college mixers. Few bars are playing your song. Blind dates are scarce. And health clubs can be a challenge–how many over-40 bodies can stand up to scrutiny in Spandex?
According to Claritas, a market-research firm, there are 1.4 million adult singles in the Washington area. The District has 303,000 single residents. In Virginia, there are 60,700 in Alexandria, 87,300 in Arlington County, 315,600 in Fairfax County, and 46,000 in Loudoun County. Prince George's County singles outnumber Montgomery County singles 325,400 to 289,600. The numbers aren't broken down by age, but observers say that, thanks to baby boomers, the over-40 component may soon outnumber younger adult singles.
With so many unattached in the area, Washington has become a proving ground for grown-up romance. And if you're serious about finding love, you may have to get creative.
THE LOVE BOAT IN BETHESDA
It's Saturday night at the yacht club of Bethesda, AND Tommy Curtis–a.k.a. Tommy the Matchmaker–is ready.
"I can feel the love in this room," he croons as he squeezes between tables.
The place is jammed–it's the only club around to cater to "the over-30 upscale crowd"–and it's so dark that Tommy carries a flashlight. He calls the inky atmosphere "wrinkle-free lighting."
Tommy wears an earpiece and a tiny mike so he can talk to the doorkeeper and control who gets in. He adds people the way a chef spices a soup.
Meanwhile he keeps up the patter, shining his flashlight on local celebrities, couples he's introduced who are still together, and eligibles he thinks should meet.
Tommy started throwing singles parties in Washington nearly 30 years ago. At heart he's still the social chair of his class at Yale. In the early 1970s, his crowd was under 30. Today he's the maestro of mature dating, hosting up to four singles events a week.
The matchmaker is still single himself. He's in a long-term relationship with a "lady friend," he says, but working until 3 AM doesn't make it easy.
"Hello, congressman," Tommy shouts as he snakes through the crowd. "And over here we have one of the top diplomats from the Egyptian embassy." The light shines on a dark-haired man near the bar.
In Tommy's world, every military guy is a general, every male staffer on Capitol Hill a congressman.
The Yacht Club makes some singles–particularly women–uncomfortable. It's no place for subtlety.
Deborah Malone-Good went to the Yacht Club once. The 44-year-old telecom executive is no stranger to admiring glances, but she found the club unnerving. "It's uncomfortable to walk through and feel like you're meat on a hook," she says.
Couples who have met through Tommy have no such qualms.
When the lyrics "Oh, what a night . . ." waft out of the sound system, Richard and Joyce head for the dance floor. Tommy introduced them eight months ago. Richard's wife died of cancer a year ago; Joyce lost her husband around the same time.
"You wouldn't believe how old she is," Richard says proudly. Joyce has been going to a health club for years and is in good shape, but, he says, "if she heard that I told her age, she'd lock me out."
His own black ponytail shows no gray. "I dye my hair," he later confesses to a new silver-haired male friend. "Maybe you should, too."
Richard and Joyce are one of the matches made at the Yacht Club who return to the club regularly. Tommy shines his light on Irina and Martin, who have come to celebrate their sixth anniversary. They met at the Yacht Club eight years ago while waiting for drinks at the bar. They discovered they had a lot in common–he has a PhD in physics; she has onein mathematics.
The night they met, Martin gave his card to both Irina and her girlfriend. The women argued over who would call him. "I didn't speak to her for six months," says Irina.
LET'S CHA-CHA ALL NIGHT LONG
It's Friday night at the Hollywood Ballroom in Silver Spring. This crowd is older than the Yacht Club crew and more serious about dancing. Many change shoes as soon as they come in.
The evening starts with a dance lesson–men line up on one side of the instructor, women on the other. After both groups try a few steps on their own, the teacher tells the men to approach the women and pick a partner. It's junior high all over again.
Soon the men are moving toward the ladies of their choice, and it becomes clear there aren't enough men. A septuagenarian starts thinking he's Harrison Ford.
There aren't many wallflowers at the Hollywood Ballroom. The dancing is paramount. White, black, Asian, getting old or already there, they all find partners for most of the dances. Regulars know the cha-cha, the merengue, the tango, the hustle.
Vivian is in her mid-fifties. She was dragged to the ballroom by a friend, but she's glad she came. Her ex-husband wouldn't dance. She was in a relationship after that with a man who wasn't willing to commit to more than one dance at a time.
In the decade since her divorce, Vivian has been to dozens of singles dances. She's been to the annual Jewish Singles Expo in Rockville and to Parents Without Partners (nicknamed Parents Without Children because so many attendees no longer have kids at home). She's met plenty of men but no partner material off the dance floor.
It's time for a "round robin." The men form an outer circle, the women another inside it. Each man dances with the woman opposite him, and when the music stops everybody changes partners.
Vivian wishes the Hollywood Ballroom had more "ladies' choice." Frankly, she wishes life had more ladies' choices. At least tonight she gets to dance.
LOVE AT ALMOST FIRST SIGHT
It's seven o'clock on a Wednesday night at Phillips Seafood Grill in Tysons Corner, and 24 adults are ready to sell themselves to what they hope will be perfect strangers.
Their challenge is to beat the clock–to intrigue and entice in a few minutes. "Speed dating" is the hottest innovation on the singles scene since happy hour.
Renée Fisher and Susan Cohen run Brief Encounters, a speed-dating operation. Theirs is a six-minute version. It costs $40 and includes a light buffet dinner. Most people who come are too nervous to eat.
Speed dating was begun by a Jewish group in Los Angeles as a way to introduce Jewish singles and, it was hoped, to stem the tide of marriage outside the faith. The concept caught on. Like Brief Encounters, most Washington speed-dating programs are nondenominational.
Here's how it works: An equal number of men and women get together in a room. The women are seated at tables; the men circulate among them, spending six minutes with each. At the end of the conversation, both parties check off whether they would be willing to see each other again. A few days later, participants receive the phone numbers of the men or women they "matched"–people they wanted to see who also wanted to see them.
Fisher advises: "Ask yourself, 'What can I do to make this the best six minutes of this person's life?' "
Men tend to use their time to gather data, as if there's going to be a quiz. Women learn that, as Fisher puts it, "the way to a man's heart is not by asking how much money he makes or what kind of car he drives."
According to Joel Pomerantz, a midlevel bureaucrat at the National Institutes of Health, many Washington women do equate love with money and status. Pomerantz has found that he isn't successful enough to interest many of the women.
Deborah Malone-Good has had the opposite problem. "Some guys look at my position and see a cash opportunity," she says.
Malone-Good isn't looking to meet her match in the executive suite. "I'd prefer a contractor, a musician–anyone who is successful and happy in what he does."
WHO WROTE THE E-MAIL OF LOVE?
It's Sunday afternoon, and Doug Gould is in the mood for love. He boots up his computer, signs on to American Online's "love" section, and clicks on "Maryland." This is only one of his online haunts. He's a frequent visitor to Match.com, Americansingles.com, and Starmatch.com.
Gould, 58, both places ads and responds to them. He uses his picture in every ad. You don't have to be a hunk to attract women on the Web, he says. The picture just shows you're a normal guy, not an ax murderer. Recently Gould grew a mustache. He's run ads with and without it. The clean-shaven look is getting a better response.
A while back, Gould felt he had moved beyond e-mail with two women. He arranged to meet them at Fedora Cafe in Tysons Corner–one at 2 PM and one at 6. Nothing clicked with the two-o'clock woman. Gould had hours to kill before his next rendezvous. At 4:30, he went to the Olive Garden for an early dinner.
Four women sat at the table next to Gould. The redhead caught his eye. Heart pounding, he asked the waiter for a piece of paper and wrote a note to her: "If you're single and free, please e-mail me and mention the Olive Garden."
By the time the waiter delivered the note, Gould was on his way out the door to meet Ms. Six O'Clock.
"Did you see him?" the redhead asked her friends when she read the note. "What did he look like?"
For three weeks, Gould watched for a message from her. Finally, the woman–her name was Peggy–responded. First she didn't have a computer, she explained, and then she had to wait until her son set it up.
Peggy and Doug dated for a while, but that was it.
Doug Gould is no amateur. He publishes a newsletter called Singles Today out of his Gaithersburg home, and nobody knows the over-40 singles scene better than he does. Twice divorced, he has no desire to marry again. But he's hoping to find that special someone. "Compatibility and chemistry equals Ms. Right," he says.
He's started a new venture: First Impressions, an eight-minute version of speed dating. The first session is on June 8 at the Silver Spring Knights of Columbus Hall. For $30, participants can speed date and attend the dance that follows.
But Gould won't stop placing or answering personal ads. He still believes Ms. Right may be only a click away.
IN SEARCH OF LOVE
Many of those Interviewed for this story had placed or answered "in search of" ads in The Washingtonian and on the Internet's many singles sites. Personal ads are particularly popular for mature singles. About three-quarters of the singles placing ISO ads in The Washingtonian are over 40.
Capitol Hill staffer Jane Simpson placed one in October 1998:
ARE YOU MY SOUL MATE?
I am a 43 yo attractive sensuous SWF, thin (5'8") fun-loving professional with no children. I am seeking a dark-featured, tall, fit passionate (non-smoker) decent SWM (43–49) with traditional values. Someone who is mentally and financially secure, has good looks & a great sense of humor. A special person who, like myself, has a romantic heart of gold. A man who likes to travel, enjoys movies/theatre, taking long bike rides and likes antiques. If this sounds like you and you are ready to settle down and might still want a family, I look forward to hearing from you. A letter and a photo are a MUST. No broken hearts please.
Jane had ended a serious relationship a few years before. She felt she finally knew who she was and what she wanted in life. Her conclusion: "I'm ready to get married."
Roger Simpson had moved to Washington in 1996 to start a telecommunications business. Simpson was divorced, burned out on dating, and tired of going through life alone.
"When I went to a bar, I couldn't buy a date," he says. "It was frustrating because women don't go to bars alone." It's hard for a man to approach even two women together. Three women together? Forget it.
"I decided to answer two personal ads a month," he says. Jane's was one of the first.
For weeks they exchanged letters and phone calls. By the time they met at Café Parisien Express in Arlington, he was seeing someone else.
Roger remembers thinking Jane was too thin. The way she played with her food made him wonder if she was neurotic.
"I'm at least going to get a kiss out of this deal," he decided. When he gave her one, he thought, "Man, this woman can kiss."
Still, he had no plans to call her when her thank-you note arrived: "I hope the time you spent with me lingers as much as the time I spent with you."
Roger called, and they began a relationship that had more dips than the Dow Jones. Jane thought things had fizzled when, one Saturday in March 1999, he asked her to spend the day with him. They had lunch, looked at model houses, and went to a boat show.
"This was the final interview," Roger says. He wanted to be sure Jane liked the same things he did.
Later, they went back to his house. When he proposed, Jane didn't believe him. She didn't tell her friends and family for two days.
Roger and Jane were married on October 24, 1999.
Personal ads appeal to mature singles who can get so consumed with their work and family life that they have little time for social life.
Deborah Malone-Good is an admitted workaholic with little time to devote to soul-mate searching. She lives in Centreville and has been divorced for nine years.
"Being a good Catholic girl, a military brat, I got married when I was 20," Malone-Good says. She ended the marriage after 20 stifling years. After the divorce, she changed her life. A part-time Kennedy Center volunteer, she built a career to support herself and her children. Now she sets high standards for potential mates. "I compromised too much in the past," she says.
Malone-Good has learned to read between the lines in personal ads. She answered one placed by a CEO and business owner only to learn that he had a tiny at-home enterprise. "He worked all day in his bathrobe," she says.
LOVE BY THE NUMBERS
Marc, 51, is waiting to pick up his son after Sunday school. Among the knot of waiting parents is a woman Marc met on a singles hiking-club outing a few weeks ago. "Why don't you take me out to dinner?" she says to him.
Marc has decided that the woman, in her forties, is too old for him, so he dodges the question. He recently met a stunning 35-year-old woman at a dinner party. She was already spoken for–engaged to a 59-year-old. Marc did the math and told himself, "At that rate, I can get a 27-year-old."
He says younger women approach him regularly. "Why should I go out of my way to date someone my own age or older?" he asks. "There's nothing like young flesh."
Neal Zarin is 50, divorced, and a submarine program coordinator for the Navy. He has a ten-year rule about dating. "I won't date a woman who isn't at least ten years older than my daughter," he explains. His daughter is 19.
Zarin dates younger women because, he says, women his own age don't have the stamina to keep up with him. He does Western swing dancing three or four nights a week and works out.
Men aren't the only ones who think they're too young for their contemporaries. Renée Fisher of Brief Encounters finds that many participants of both sexes object to being in sessions dedicated to the 38-to-50 group, even though they fit chronologically.
"People in their forties and fifties all say something like, 'I know I'm 47, but I don't look it, I don't act it, I always date people younger than me,' " Fisher says.
One man who came to Brief Encounters wanted to leave as soon as he arrived because "these women are too old for me." He stayed and met a woman who is now the love of his life.
His story is the exception. In the game of love over 40, men are generally the ones who play the numbers game. Last year, a prominent Maryland attorney became a father and a grandfather almost simultaneously when his young wife and his daughter gave birth within weeks of each other.
Women aren't the only ones to be dismissed because they're on the shady side of 40. Mature gay men feel the sting in a culture that stresses the young and the buff. Some older men have been hooted out of gay bars by younger patrons.
So far, that hasn't happened to Tim Rogers, 45. He really does look like he's in his thirties, and he doesn't go to bars. Although he feels he has more to offer a partner than he did when he was younger, finding the right guy isn't easy.
Rogers, a massage therapist, won't date clients. He feels he's at a disadvantage because he doesn't have professional status in a town dominated by lawyers, lobbyists, and techies. He's answered a few ads in the Washington Blade, but nothing clicked.
Rogers's best meeting ground is Results, a gym on U Street, Northwest, with a lot of gay members. Lust is in the air at Results, he says. Even if he doesn't meet anyone, he says, "it helps me with my workout."
Rogers admits he's attracted to younger men. "A lot of the men my age are coupled, they own homes," he says. "A lot of men my age have died of AIDS."
ALL THE GOOD ONES AREN'T TAKEN
Many singles over 40 aren't playing the game of love at all. "All the good ones are taken," they say.
That's not really true. What is true is that mature singles often have lifestyles, histories, or expectations that make it harder to connect.
Alan Eckersley, a West Point graduate working for a federal agency, is the kind of guy who inspires women to say, "I can't believe some girl hasn't grabbed you up."
Good-looking and trim, Eckersley is just shy of 40, owns a house in Falls Church, and has never married. He says he's seeking "a soul mate to do things with."
Eckersley's lifestyle isn't conducive to romance. His job requires extensive travel, and when he's here, his favorite pursuits are skydiving and riding his motorcycle. You won't find Eckersley perched on a barstool: Like several of those interviewed, he doesn't drink and dislikes the atmosphere of most bars.
Eckersley won't date women at work, and he's sworn off any on the rebound. He learned his lesson from a woman he dated a while back. He soon discovered she wasn't interested in a relationship. "She just wanted to see if she still had it," Eckersley says.
Ken, 51, is a writer and an outdoorsman. He can cook, and he loves children. Newly divorced, Ken isn't ready to make a commitment. He'll be a great catch a few years from now but finds that women don't want to wait that long.
The women he's met say they understand, but by the third date they start talking about intimacy. "Intimacy is a stalking horse for commitment," Ken says.
Casual dating is hard to come by, he's found. "What ever happened to courtship?" he says.
Donna's marriage fell apart three years ago, when she was 50. Like many women of her generation, she married young. She lost more than a husband in the divorce; she lost her identity.
Soon after that, she was swept off her feet by a never-married man in his fifties who shared her interest in music. Then he told her he wanted her to be "the one until the right one comes along." Until that moment, she'd thought he was the right one.
Donna bears little resemblance to the circumscribed lawyer's wife she used to be. She has studied acting at the Shakespeare Theatre and gone to blues camp in West Virginia to practice guitar and banjo.
"You can't be looking for someone to complete you," Donna says. "You should be complete beforehand. That's what I'm working on now."
A 1972 article about Tommy "the Matchmaker" Curtis and single life in Washington gave this definition of being unattached: "A single is a person who must explore strange terrain to find a partner–and to set out on that search requires chutzpah and the ability to withstand a thousand humiliations."
Donna rejects that approach. "It's really important to be happy single," she's decided. "I'm going to keep doing the things I love, and hopefully interesting people will follow."
On the other hand, she may put on a clean shirt and comb her hair before heading off to the grocery store. It couldn't hurt.