But as much as the leafy streets of this drizzly Pacific Northwest city charmed me, I didn’t feel like I belonged. A strapped journalist just out of grad school with at least a decade’s worth of student-loan payments looming, I had come to the West Coast for practical reasons. Portland’s hip status had little influence on the decision. I’d scored a low-paying job in a volatile economy and considered myself lucky — privileged even — to afford to live alone. I could’ve landed in Wichita, and I would’ve felt the same way.
The only things missing? Dinner guests to invite over for my signature hummus and pita. Someone to meet in a cafe and chat about overbearing mothers and awkward first dates. And let’s not forget: hiking buddies to head to the coast for impromptu day trips.
I sought community, but finding friends in a new place is always more challenging than you imagine. First, I tried dating apps; I used a few different ones to search for other gay men who were new to the city — pretty soon, I hoped, I’d forge deep bonds and meet a group of guys for brunch every Saturday, maybe even produce a Web series about our romantic mishaps. Next, I planned to attend networking events in my industry, where I’d surely impress with dapper style and land my dream job. I even found a Meetup group for hikers.
Reality didn’t quite line up with my fantasies, though. I met a handful of people through various apps, but those dates were often fraught with conflicting expectations. The half-dozen networking events I attended felt rehearsed and disingenuous. The couple I met on a Meetup hike flaked and never texted me back. Even my colleagues felt increasingly distant, with my job’s long hours wearing thin.
I had yet to find my people. I was 3,000 miles from my family in Maryland, and even farther from grad school friends in Europe.
As letters arrived from the Oregon DMV to update my driver’s license, I realized I couldn’t commit to a place that didn’t feel like home. I needed to do something. So I got on Craigslist.
Yes, Craigslist. While I’d arranged almost every aspect of my relocation with it — it’s where I found a job, an apartment and a gently used mattress — those were mostly transactional exchanges. The idea of meeting someone for any other reason still felt sleazy, but I was desperate and needed to try something.
I was hoping to find other musicians to jam with, maybe even start a band. Unimpressed by a slew of listings I read, people looking for Nirvana sound-alikes and ’90s covers, I posted a listing in the community section, indicating that I wanted to meet like-minded musicians.
By the next morning I had a couple dozen responses — plenty I deleted, including one offer to move in with a middle-aged man and get free rent in exchange for “benefits.” But a few messages caught my eye. I sent a handful of emails and arranged to meet some seemingly trustworthy people at a nearby dive bar to talk favorite artists over pitchers of cheap beer.
Sure, these conversations felt a bit awkward. But I was pleasantly surprised that I quickly formed connections with a couple of those musicians. While we didn’t form a band immediately, I felt like I had made real friends. We started hanging out regularly — attending shows together, grabbing drinks and even planning a Lebanese dinner party.
I gained a different view of Craigslist, which I previously regarded as one notch above a cesspool. Soon, I hesitantly explored other parts of the site. Through the activities section, I attended a tea and meditation session and met a crew of aging hippies. On the volunteer pages, I discovered a number of community events needing help. I even carefully clicked around the sketchy personals ads, where I met a guy that turned into a brief but passionate fling.
Rather than the anticipated ax-murders — who are certainly out there — I encountered a largely sane group of real people, who made their intentions refreshingly clear upfront. While many contacts never became more than a fleeting connection, through the site I was able to assemble a ragtag group of friends. I finally felt like I’d arrived.
I don’t think Craigslist is the secret to a fulfilling social life. Just like the real world, it’s a grab bag of creepers, weirdos and people like ourselves. But there’s one thing the site required I do differently: I defined what I wanted and deliberately searched for it.
Years after my move, I use Craigslist much less than I did during my first months in Portland. But that lesson has stuck with me. You don’t need to post online for strangers to find new friends. But clarifying what I want and earnestly looking for it outranks wallowing in solitude and aimlessly swiping through strangers on my phone.