Finding Ourselves in the Era of the Cryptic Personal Ad

The world was a very different place in the year 2001. The internet was still a very mysterious and inefficient tool. There was as yet no such thing as Facebook, let alone Instagram, Grindr, Scruff, or any of the other apps where we meet men these days or slide into their DMs.

Above: author Robert O’Brien renting DVDs at a library circa 2001.

When I turned eighteen in 2000 and shortly thereafter matriculated at a small private liberal arts college in Philadelphia I often spent bored and dreary afternoons between classes perusing the closest thing that we had, namely the mishmash of personals and business advertisements that adorned the back pages of the city weeklies like seedy types lingering in back alleys. 

At that time there were three such papers in Philly: the Philadelphia Weekly, where the sexual gatekeeper Dan Savage wrote his eye-opening column Savage Love. City Paper, which offered the delicious Schadenfreude of “I Love You/I Hate You,” and last and perhaps most relevant for a young man inching out of the closet the Philadelphia Gay News.

The Gay News, or the “PGN” as we called it, was not available on the campus of my small school. I had to seek that paper out actively downtown, cruising for ink, looking for the lavender boxes on street corners in order to grab a free copy. It was for this reason that I most often found myself struggling to stay awake there in the musty stacks with the other weeklies on my lap, and it was in one of them, though I cannot recall which, where I found the cryptic little ad that launched my own personal sexual revolution. 

I wasn’t yet out of the closet and it was already the second month of my freshman year, but I wasn’t quite in the closet either. I was nineteen—owing to a summer birthday —and hovering in some sexual gray zone that I would label looking for a chance. I was incredibly close to bursting out of the closet and eager to find a way to do so. I didn’t know what to do; I had limited resources, such as a vague knowledge of where the gay bars were, a handful of gay friends, and a (probably) supportive cast of friends who I then presumed to be straight and still do. But my gay friends were too tame, too academic, and I wanted to be bad. I wanted to be curious and bad. I guess you could say I wanted to find the boys and the booze. But I didn’t know how to walk through the door. I knew where to find the bars but I didn’t know how to open those doors. It was too intimidating, I suspect, because it was too unimaginable. I had no idea what lay inside. My sexuality, which was somehow external of me, lay behind an opaque barrier that I could not seem to pierce. 

The personal ads always intrigued me. I didn’t care about the alleged orientation, something about the longing, the desire, and the loneliness stirred something in me akin to curiosity. So one gray October afternoon, half asleep, I came across one that caught my attention more than the rest, quite possibly because it was so enigmatic. The author specified outright that he was lonely, that he was twenty-two, that he wanted to make friends now that he had moved to the area, and supplied his AIM screen name, publicly no less. I slid the paper in my bag and ran to class, like a good student. 

I don’t know why I queried the dark. I don’t know why I messaged the guy. I didn’t have to, because even without the internet we had options, not least simply going to one of the bars and being friendly, crushing my own intimidation. I think part of it was my usual rabid curiosity, those four lines stirring something elemental in me. I knew before I even sent a hello that this would not end in sex. I knew somehow I would not find him attractive. I knew somehow that attractive men rarely place cryptic personals. I considered myself attractive; I was nineteen, well-built, dabbled in modeling, though it seemed as if every twink dabbled in modeling in the early 21st century. But something had intrigued me, hadn’t it? Some loose ends needed cinched, and I had nothing really to lose. If he turned out to be a lunatic I could simply block him. ** 

After arranging to meet at a shopping mall in a part of Philly where I had never been, I head out.

Something about this mission felt dirty and furtive, as if I had decided on a whim to start injecting heroin and was going to score. He’d suggested this shopping mall, the Russian, if that was what he was. He’d told me many things: he had been a resident assistant at a state university, fallen in love with a lettered wrestler (hadn’t we all?), moved back to the area, his best friend was a vengeful Versace model, he wanted to meet near the Northeast Philly Russian community—did I know the Franklin Mills Mall? I did not, but I could look it up on my family’s computer. (And no, we didn’t have the internet. We had an offline map program. Imagine that, kiddies!) I ruminated as I drove as to why I was meeting this young man. I decided at this point it was more curiosity than anything else, a newfound curiosity that revolved around the fact that he was evidently a bit nuts. It was for this reason that I had insisted on a public meeting spot. I arrived early, ducked inside, ordered a soda at a food court that reeked of artificial cheese with the scent of burnt rubber and used gym socks, and went to wait outside Value City, where we had agreed to meet. 

A guy pulled up in a non-descript car. I’m sorry if you wanted more, but that’s all I have to give, at least as far as description. I have a vague approximation of a memory. He was short, unremarkable, and indeterminate of age, with a bland face, dark hair, and a pebbled complexion. I struggled to decide if he was twenty-two or forty. I didn’t know what I had walked into, but he seemed harmless and I just wanted to talk. And I wanted to talk too. I wanted someone to tell me who and what I was, and though I ascertained after a bit of conversation that this guy wouldn’t be able to give me that information I thought that he could at least orient me in the direction to find it. 

I agreed to go for a short drive with him. I guess I felt safe. I guess maybe I cased him with my eyes and determined he was likely harmless, and he was, or from what I saw he was. He drove to a leafy park that I could never find again and parked, and there we sat. He continued with his nonsense stories about six-figure Versace models and I continued to try to see myself around the periphery of this situation, perhaps caught in reflection, looking back—who am I? What am I? Later he dropped me back at the mall. I don’t remember if he expressed or showed any chagrin. Years later, once I had sloughed my naïveté, I realized he wasn’t some absolutist loner on a quest to meet one friend, but likely some dude merely looking for a hook up and who ended up with a lost kid with a lot of questions. 

We agreed to meet downtown to go to Woody’s, then the most popular bar in the city.

So regardless of his fulfillment I inadvertently got what I wanted, which was this stranger to escort me into my new life.

I once more drove further from my former suburban life. I parked and met him outside the bar, so mysterious with its lack of windows, with the shuddering bass creeping out, commingled with laughter and elevated voices, so tantalizing and yet so terrifying. I wanted to be inside—didn’t  you at one point too? Wanted to be inside so bad and had no idea how to get there?

We walked inside. The doorman didn’t card me, didn’t know I was nineteen. I ordered a martini because I didn’t know what else to drink and I had seen them in movies. At a certain point a gap-toothed young man, a student, came over and tugged on my arm and told me that I was handsome. I smiled back, said hello, thanked him, asked him how his night was going. 

The stranger tugged insistently on my arm. He wanted to leave. I said I want to talk to this young man. He all but told me that he didn’t want me talking to this guy, said we should leave. I told him I’d love to hang out again, call me and we’ll go out, but for now I am staying right here. Suddenly he stormed off in a huff. I never saw him again, never heard from him again. I think in the end we were just lost in each others’ nights,unsure of how we were going to get where we wanted to be, though I had begun to figure it out; it wasn’t here, in a bar, or there in a bar, but rather it was somewhere other than the suburban cul-de-sacs and narrow avenues and narrower minds that I had just now left behind on my way out of one door and into another, out of the closet and into this bar on that night in 2001. 

Author Robert O’Brien (photo below) lives in Philadelphia.

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