When you think of personals you think of romance -- SWM, 6'1", green eyes, ISO trim classy lady -- but there are plenty of people out there solely in need of friendship, an end to their loneliness, the disease of modernity. Which is why on Craig's List, the free online classifieds, there are sections called Strictly Platonic and Activity Partners, where people post messages like "Lunch anyone?" and "terminally bored at work, let's IM" and, most plaintively, "Looking for Best Friend."
To read these queries is to realize how needy people are, even if they express it only under a cloak of Internet anonymity. There are people on Craig's List who want to see movies with you, go dancing with you, take trips to Atlantic City with you, if only you will e-mail them. There is a sense that it doesn't really matter who you are, that anyone is better than no one, that no fate is worse than being alone. Imagine the desolation of the guy in Ashburn, who writes, near midnight on a Saturday, "Looking for some conversation to help pass the rest of the night," or the desperation of the woman in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan who posts "help i need valium" at 5:25 a.m.
A 22-year-old guy in Arlington writes a message at 8:18 on a Friday night: "New in town -- anybody out there without plans tonight?"
Anybody at all?
Tennessee Williams wrote that we're all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, but really, there's no need to be so dramatic. Sometimes you're just sick of talking to the bartender. People have formed friendships on the Internet for as long as it's been around, and it doesn't seem that surprising someone might use free classifieds to, say, seek a tennis partner. But there's a painful frankness to many of the requests at Craigslist.org. Many of the messages seem to have been posted hurriedly, in fits of anger or desperation.
"I'm not a loser," writes a guy looking for female friends.
"Whatever happened to loyal friends??" asks a 21-year-old girl on the San Francisco section of the Web site. "Not these catty scenester/hipster bitches who have [had sex with] half of your exes."
"I am in a relationship with someone I love and we have a beautiful little boy," writes a young woman in Silver Spring who is looking for a male friend. "I do not plan on leaving him, I want it to work. But I am not happy. I feel that my man is putting me last. . . . I just want someone who I can have intelligent conversations with from time to time. I cannot talk to my man without him falling asleep."
Scientists have studied loneliness and found it may be bad for you, something about stress and blood pressure. If that's true, then modernity is bad for you, because there's something quintessentially modern about the way we experience loneliness: living alone, orbiting each other in bars, nursing cold coffee in cafes, checking our voice mail and finding it empty. You phone your mother in Fort Lauderdale and she talks about her second husband and her book club, and you realize when she says, "How are you?," that she doesn't really want to know.
And there's something quintessentially urban about this loneliness, maybe even quintessentially Washington, with all the people here who come and go.
"Everybody just moves," says Darlene Macy of Woodbridge, a computer programming teacher who posted a message on Craig's List looking for men and women to hang out with. It said, "I'm 24, in okay shape, love animals, funny, and down to earth -- just don't like going home to an empty house."
All those empty houses! All those apartments kept clean for guests who never arrive. All those wineglasses growing dusty. And that bottle of cabernet sauvignon, bought years ago, sitting in an otherwise empty wine rack, until one day you decide to get drunk watching "Will & Grace."
An inordinate number of Washingtonians who frequent the site (named after founder Craig Newmark) are looking for Strictly Platonic relationships, compared with Craig's List fans in well-trafficked cities such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. What does it mean that so many people here yearn for basic human interaction -- small talk, the pleasure of a stranger's company at lunch?
In D.C. there is "sort of a stern-faced desperation that people have on their faces as they drive to work," says Nicole Franklin-Kern, who is originally from central Ohio, where she says people are friendlier. "I think everybody has this force field that they put up around them." Franklin-Kern is 31, married, bored with her temp job and bored with her social life. She's been in the area for seven months, and she lives in a big apartment complex in Silver Spring, where her neighbors are mostly strangers. "I probably hear more coming through the wall than I would ever hear in a conversation," she says.
Franklin-Kern, who's into Wicca, posts a query on Craig's List -- "Neopagan needs a break" -- looking for friends and job connections. She gets almost 50 responses. Then she engages in the laborious process of getting to know these people by e-mail, figuring out who's normal and who might be into kiddie porn.
"I call it de-freaking," she says.
Just as it's possible to be married and lonely, it's possible to be alone and content. But you can't will yourself into it. The lonelier you are, the lonelier you are. Loneliness clings to you with a slightly sour smell, keeping people at a distance. It feels like confirmation of your worst fears. Remember that girl in seventh grade with thick glasses and lime green sweat pants, the one who always laughed at the wrong moments, and the only time people talked to her was when she brought in cupcakes for her own birthday?
That's you. Drinking ice water in the Italian restaurant, alone, aware that all the couples are looking at you. You smile at another diner and he looks away as if he knows. He knows. The waitress comes up and tells you the specials, and you want to stop her when she gets to the scallops but you let her finish, as if someone else at your table might want them. You get the feeling that she feels bad for you, but not bad enough to ever want to sit with you.
Ryan Hajen, 23, another Craig's Lister, worked as a waiter at a Bennigan's through college and learned to distinguish the people who were content to eat alone from the ones who were embarrassed. Those comfortable with solitude, he noticed, didn't look around worriedly or rush through their meals.
Now that Hajen has taken to eating alone, he's been trying to achieve this Zen-like state. He is new to the area, working in Washington as a government economist and living with his girlfriend in an area of Alexandria where there's little to do. Instead of going straight home after work, he sometimes eats alone in the city, grabbing street literature beforehand so he has something to keep himself occupied. He practices seeming "natural." Recently, while eating alone in a Chinese restaurant near Dupont Circle, he overheard a table of young women discussing World War II, and he briefly joined their conversation. This felt like a triumph.
"The primary goal of it was to not come across as some kind of a stalker," Hajen says.
The lonely guy talking to strangers. We have all seen him, and we fear becoming him. He shows up sometimes on chat lines and park benches. Andre Dickerson sees him sometimes at Stetson's Famous Bar and Grill on U Street. Dickerson, 23, has started frequenting Stetson's every Thursday night at 7:30 by himself, after deciding he needs to get out of the house even if there's no one to get out with. And when he sits there, eating a half-price turkey burger, he often sees this older fellow by himself, talking to everyone. The old guy talks to the bartender even when she's not listening. He talked to Dickerson one time. "He just started rambling on about something," Dickerson says.
We all need friendship, or something like it. Through his Craig's List posting, Dickerson has a regular lunch partner. Hajen was able to meet with a young woman to have dinner, and though it felt strange at first, he was relieved to find that she, too, was just looking for a friend. Franklin-Kern invited a nice couple on a group hike, and has scheduled an interview for a job at a nonprofit she learned about through a Craig's List contact. And a young woman in Alexandria named Michelle Sprecher, who posted a message saying she'd always wanted a gay best friend, received a reply from a bisexual drag queen known as Lola the Fabulous.
He seems nice enough, Sprecher says. She thinks she may wind up meeting with him "in a very public place."