When Doris swears she can tell you the precise moment she met her boyfriend Ted, she means it. “4:08 pm on September 8, 2003,” she declares, before outlining the courtship’s timeline in startling detail. Date number one unfolded on September 18, at North Brunswick’s Omega Diner on Route 1. They met next on October 4 and 8, and again on the 22nd. “That’s when we knew we were a couple,” recalls Doris, a 71-year-old retired teacher. Doris’s memory may be good, but it’s not that good. It turns out that Ted saved every e-mail the pair exchanged during those early weeks, including the first note she sent after reading his personal profile on jdate.com.
If you haven’t heard of JDate, you may know names like eHarmony, nerve.com, or match.com. All are popular dating Web sites, and if you’re single, you may have visited them once or twice or even hundreds of times. Finding a date through the Internet is still a relatively new idea, and statistics documenting its popularity are sketchy at best. The phenomenon, after all, is sometimes closeted; most of the sources in this story asked that only their first names or, like Doris, a pseudonym be used. So consider the numbers proffered by match.com, the world’s largest online dating outfit. The personal profiles posted on the site are collectively viewed an average of 4.5 million times a day. Since its inception ten years ago, the company has amassed 15 million members internationally, nearly 55,000 of them in New Jersey. For such a tiny state, we have a lot of love to give.
The notion that anyone in New Jersey would require a computer to meet another human being seems absurd. This is, after all, the nation’s most densely populated state, where during a single morning run to Starbucks you typically press up against more warm bodies than you care to count. Alas, this isn’t the kind of intimacy most of us have in mind. It’s hard to pluck a compatible mate from a sea of strangers whom you’re trying to avoid. New Jersey, after all, is marked by sprawling suburbs, to which overworked denizens retreat at the end of each day. “In the old days, the community is how we met and married the boy or girl next door,” says Michael Aaron Rockland, an American Studies professor at Rutgers University. “Take that community away, and you suddenly have a very lonely society.”
It gets even lonelier for the older, single-again crowd. Divorcees find themselves suddenly adrift in a sea of intact families. Those adjusting to single-parenthood don’t always have the time, the nerve, or the desire to troll the bars for a new mate. For someone like Doris, whose husband of 45 years died in 2001 after a long illness, being alone seemed to be the only option. “I would never have gone to a singles event,” she says, “though I would have gone on a blind date if someone offered to fix me up”—which, in a sense, is what happened when her grown children all but forced her to join JDate.
But online dating is a remarkably solitary approach to being social. More likely than not, you’re seated at your home or office computer when you meet a potential Mr. or Ms. Right—only you’re not really meeting him or her. You’re meeting a personal profile, a sort of romantic and often romanticized résumé—photo optional—detailing everything from his height to his salary to his preferred vices to why you should choose him over all the other profiles in the sea. Many disgruntled online daters point out that, as with any résumé, what looks good in print doesn’t always translate in person. In other words, people lie, posting photos that are 20 years or 50 pounds out of date or checking the “single” box when they’re, um, not. A woman we’ll call Jasmine, who says that her cast of Internet characters “ranged from the very awkward to the downright bizarre,” once drove an hour from her Hoboken apartment to meet a man she made contact with on match.com. A few minutes into their date, he admitted that he hoped to reconnect with his old girlfriend. Then he offered a nugget of information even more intriguing. “He told me very frankly that he had a bunch of friends, some of them married, who go on these Web sites just for the sex,” Jasmine says. In her case, it was not a winning pickup line. The 41-year-old filmmaker is now married to a guy she met through mutual friends.
Joe, another Hobokenite, is not one of those just-for-the-sex kind of guys. The 42-year-old first posted his profile, heavily edited by female friends, on nerve.com more than a year ago, in search of an honest-to-goodness girlfriend. Since then, he’s spotted his ex’s photo, not to mention those of people he’s passed on the street for years, on the same site, but he has yet to get a single date out of the deal. “I guess I prefer talking to people and hearing their voice,” he says. “Years ago, I tracked down a woman I saw on the PATH train through a rainstorm. We ended up being a couple for quite awhile.”
Can fill-in-the-blank answers on a computer screen ever hold the same knee-buckling powers as a flirty glance across a crowded PATH train? Actually, yes. “There is something a little unromantic about weeding through twenty pictures and profiles,” concedes Rutgers University anthropology professor Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (Henry Holt, 2004). “You do lose a certain serendipity there. But when you finally do meet the right person, it will be just as romantic as if you met him on the beach.”
Just ask Valeri Larko, a prominent artist who realized several years ago that her hometown of Summit, lovely as it was, didn’t offer the most fertile ground for husband hunting. “There I was, a single woman living in this bedroom community of families with children,” she says. “I was going to Hoboken and Manhattan to meet guys. But I wasn’t in my twenties anymore. I wanted someone I shared common traits with, who I could make a life partnership with.”
Spurred on by a close friend, an Internet-dating veteran, Larko posted her profile on match.com the day before her 42nd birthday. “When I wrote it, I was clear that I wasn’t looking for a fling,” she says. “I said I wanted to be with someone who appreciates art. I was pretty strong about the fact that I’m a liberal Democrat.” More than 50 enthusiastic responses rolled in the first week, including one from Greenwich, Connecticut, a sincere, thoughtful letter that ended with a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Valeri and Peter were married on New Year’s Eve 2004 at a friend’s house in Summit. And despite the courtship’s rather pragmatic beginnings, Larko says there’s an unconventional serendipity to the whole affair. “When my parents asked how I met Peter,” she says, “I told them he was my birthday present from the universe.”
(* Seeking great one to give me a big wet kiss on the lips, keep me rolling on the floor laughing out loud, and make me smile.)
Cara Birnbaum is a freelance writer who lives in Hoboken.Click here to leave a comment