Man Hunt

After her husband of 46 years died, my grandmother bravely hurled herself into the dating game. She’s a catch. But the odds are not in her favor.

Standing at her kitchen counter, my grandmother is sorting coupons and perusing the classifieds in the latest edition of The Jewish State. Suddenly she spies the ad: “I have my own hair, my own teeth, and I drive at night. Call me.”

Wow, she thinks, a man my age who still drives at night. She grabs the phone in a flash of red nail polish and presses each button with a perfectly manicured thumb.

Two rings, and a mature-sounding gentleman answers. They chat. He seems coherent, she thinks, maybe even intelligent. The following weekend, they meet for dinner at a restaurant near my grandmother’s Edison apartment. She’s impressed that he manages to stay conscious throughout the meal. He even walks her to her car. Definitely a keeper.

He calls her four times that week, and they agree to have brunch at the Sheraton in Woodbridge the following Saturday. He brings her two loaves of homemade banana-nut bread, plus a box of chocolates. He’s nice looking, she thinks, and invites him back to her apartment for coffee and dessert. They make small talk while the coffee brews.

Suddenly his tone turns coy. “How did your husband leave you?” he asks.

She looks at him quizzically.

“Money wise…”

My grandmother’s face turns as red as her nail polish. You leech! She looks him in the eye and retorts, “He left me in a box!”

“He may have had his own hair and teeth,” my grandmother reflects, “but he turned out to be a real schlep.” It doesn’t take much for an elderly, unattached male to be a hot commodity in the dating pool. There are roughly twice as many eligible women over 65 as there are men. My grandmother, Arlene, (who stopped counting birthdays after she reached 69, and didn’t want her last name used in this article), became part of that statistic in September 1999, when her husband of 46 years, Irving, passed away from acute myeloid leukemia. He was 73.

Two years went by before she felt ready to date. Truth be told, I was more concerned for the men she’d be seeing than I was for her. A 5’-tall blonde bombshell from Brooklyn, my Jewish grandmother tends to be brutally uncompromising. When she told me she was ready to wade in, I recalled a story about a date she had in her youth. The poor man—I think his name was Harold—took her to the movies. She was so appalled by his slovenly dress and poor hygiene that she excused herself to go to the ladies’ room and never returned. For all we know, Harold is still sitting there.

Her first adventure in senior dating was a dance for widows and widowers at the Woodbridge Elks Club. Her girlfriend, Elaine, who had lost her husband in a car accident three years prior, had found a
flier for the dance in her doctor’s office and suggested they go. My grandmother read it and stopped at the last line:

“We have to bring the death certificates?” she asked in disbelief.

So it goes. On a Saturday night in mid-March, my grandmother put on her nicest pantsuit and rhinestone broach, and waited for Elaine to pick her up. “As you paid your $8,” she says, “you had to show them the death certificate.”

Amid ballads from the 1960s, they sat alone at a table munching pretzels. The deejay announced it was time for the men to choose a dance partner, so all the women, my grandmother included, dutifully formed a line in the middle of the room. An elderly man about 4-feet-2-inches tall shuffled up to her and held out his thickly veined hand. His name was Saul, and as they shambled across the dance floor he informed her that his “woman” was outside smoking a cigarette and that they would need to stop when she came in.

“It was a hell of a way to spend a Saturday,” my grandmother says. “Never again.”

She began answering ads in the newspaper, meeting potential suitors in the restaurant of the Clarion Hotel in Edison. “They must’ve thought I was a madame because I came in with so many different men,” she says. “I wonder if my name was on the bathroom wall.”

Most of the men who court my grandmother are widowers tired of doing their own laundry or just tired of being alone. I asked her if that crowd still goes in for cheesy pick-up lines. “They’re so old, they don’t even know what a line is,” she responded. “They think it’s the distance between two points.”

A typical ice-breaker is, “What do you like to make?” Now, this is a woman who long ago perfected chopped liver and matzoh ball soup, but no suitor asking that question is going to get off easy. Her answer: “Reservations.”

“They’re looking for a cheap date,” she says. At dinner once, she ordered a sandwich, and the guy raised an eyebrow. “You’re pushing your luck,” he said.

My aunt Beth set up accounts for my grandmother on and E-mails flew back and forth, and occasionally my grandmother agreed to meet for dinner. There was the retired gambler from Elizabeth who abandoned her at the Sands in Atlantic City when he found a hot table.

“He was such a degenerate,” she says. “He called eight hours later, after I had taken a bus home, to tell me he was up $300. I thought, You should drop dead. I should have known. He had empty sardine tins and fruit cans all over his station wagon.”

A year ago, my grandmother found a steady beau. While they see each other almost every weekend and travel to the Caribbean together, they are no more than platonic companions.

“If I found the right person I wouldn’t be averse to more,” she says. “But whether you’re eighteen or 80, the men are the same, just more intensified, more stubborn, and less well dressed.” One man propositioned her this way: “So far we’ve gone to the movies, to the theater, and to concerts. Now what?”

“How about a museum?” she shot back. He never called again.

She grows quiet when I ask about my grandfather. “Neither one of us was worldly when we got married, but we grew up together,” she answers after a moment. “He was the love of my life.” When they were dating, Irving would drive from Newark to Brooklyn every weekend to take her out, no matter the weather or his fatigue from work. “I always came first and foremost, and that was a good feeling,” she says. “Irving was so dependable. It was good to know there was somebody in your corner, right or wrong.”

No one will ever replace Irving, but a “retro Romeo,” as she puts it, would be nice. “I’d like a companion, a friend, an intellectual. Someone who makes a date and keeps it. Someone who will keep me interested, who is willing to try something new,” she says. “I don’t want a stick in the mud.”

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