If you’ve ever packed up your life and moved to a new city, you know the difference between physically arriving in a place and feeling like you’ve arrived.

I can clearly recall the first night I spent in my shoebox-size studio in downtown Portland, Ore., nearly four years ago. The arms of wrinkled button-up shirts dangled out of my suitcase and boxes of Ikea furniture parts leaned against the walls. I plugged in my new modem, sat cross-legged on the floor and huddled over my MacBook to email friends back east, letting them know I’d finally settled in.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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