I have been married for so long that to me a "meat market" is a place to pick up pork chops, not people.

But the more I listened to the titillating tales my single friends told about singles bars, the more curious I became. As a reporter, of course.

Surely if George Plimpton could take on football tacklers, I could brave the bar scene, where romance may be only a bar stool away.

My guides were a divorced friend who approaches singles bars the way matadors approach bulls and her married friend who views the singles scene as a spectator sport.

We arrived at a downtown "in-spot" right after work -- the early bird gets the bar stool. Securing a bar stool is a key strategic move, since it is hard to balance a drink, balance on your high heels and look inviting at the same time.

The bar had a nautical name, but its wall was adorned with a water buffalo head, an appropriate hunting emblem, lest anyone mistake the true purpose of this establishment.

Ordering drinks, I learned a prime singles bar lesson: never drink anything potent. The big favorites were light beers and wine spritzers, heavy on spritz. You can't be sure how long it will take to score and if you see the person of your dreams, you don't want to fall over your own feet approaching him.

Staying sober also helps you to keep smiling. In singles bars, everyone smiles. The only place likely to display more dental dazzle is an annual orthodonists' convention.

We had been at the bar for an hour when a familiar face suddenly loomed into view: my bachelor cousin Glen. Seeing thoroughly married me at the bar rendered him speechless. Finally, he sidled up and whispered, "What name are you using?"

I blew my cover. "I'm using my own name," I said, and pulled out my notebook to prove I was there in a professional capacity before he could phone the family about my impending divorce.

Meanwhile, my two companions were ignoring the family drama and admiring the family bachelor. They looked at him like he was a chocolate eclair. Thereafter, they conducted research on Cousin Glen and I conducted research on the singles scene -- but strictly as an outsider.

I met a lot of people who need people but also need to pretend they don't.

I met a congressional aide who explained, "Everyone you meet is a special assistant to the special something, and none of them are special."

I met unwinding stock brokers. Very few wound up alone.

I met a married midwestern lobbyist "killing time until his wife got home." It seemed doubtful he could even remember his home address.

I met men more interested in a cheap dinner than a cheap date. Singles bars all serve something for sustenance and for the price of a beer you can fill up on tacos or chicken wings.

I met a woman with a blouse open to her appendectomy scar who said, "This is the only place you can get a massage standing up."

And I met a real live chicken: myself. Plimpton never would have blown his cover over cousin Glen. I have to believe that I wasn't quite ready to find out how I would fare on the open market.

My cousin and my companions ended the evening going off together. I went home with my face aching from all that smiling. Being single may be many things, but mostly it is exhausting.

My daughter met me at the door with a question. "Did anyone try to pick you up, Mommy?"'