by Derek Green
In many ways Kelly Fisher has the ideal Ann Arbor life. She’s attractive, highly educated, and upwarly mobile. A recent transplant from out of state, she holds a high-tech job at a salary pushing six figures. She reads, travels, and shares a recently purchased condo on the city’s southwest side with her cat, Arlo. At twenty-eight, she seems to have time very much on her side. Yet she admits that something’s missing—“some form of a serious relationship,” she calls it.
“I’m not necessarily talking about getting married or living with someone,” she says. “But it would be nice to have a guy to go out to dinner with.”
Kelly Fisher is one of thousands of single men and women in Ann Arbor hoping to find Mr. or Ms. Right—“though sometimes,” Kelly says with a laugh, “you’re willing to settle for Mr. Right Now.” If you meet her and she introduces herself as “Kelly Fisher,” however, you’re neither. It’s an alias that she asked me to use—and that she herself uses if a too persistent or “just plain scary” male wants to know more than she’s comfortable telling him.
I met Kelly on my recent wholly unscientific exploration of the local singles scene. Many of the men and women I met were not willing to talk with me at all. Others, like Kelly, were willing to talk as long as I promised to never, ever reveal their true identities. Some were surprisingly open and thoughtful about the state of singledom at the start of the new millennium.
SANGRIA AND SINGLES
Dave Polkowski is thirty, single, and proud of it. He works full time as a bar- tender at Cooker off Plymouth Road, a job he says he loves “because it fits my lifestyle and lets me see the whole human parade.” Gregarious and obsessively out- going, Dave’s a disarming and generous talker who isn’t afraid to move fast and take chances when it comes to meeting people. After we’re introduced by the friend of a friend, he immediately invites me on a “guys’ night out” with him and his constant companion on the local singles scene, his younger brother, Tim.
“Let’s meet tomorrow night at Dominick’s at seven,” he says with a jaunty smile and a clap on the shoulder.
Should I schedule in anything particular after that?
“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll drink a little sangria. We’ll chat and relax a little bit and see where the night takes us. It’s all about spontaneity, dude.”
Dominick’s does a roaring business on a warm Tuesday evening, and from the look of things, Dave, Tim and I are not the only people at the beginning of a week- night out. Entering the open-air courtyard out back, the brothers have hands to shake and waves to return. We grab the close end of a picnic table; the other end is al- ready occupied by a group of women none of us know.
￼￼Over a rapidly disappearing half gallon of sangria, we discuss life and the single guy in Ann Arbor. According to the brothers, there’s a certain protocol to a successful night on the town. “First of all,” Tim says, “you don’t go out looking for a woman. You go out to have a good time, to meet new people.”
Dave agrees. “I love women,” he says, “I love meeting them. But that’s not why I go out on a night like tonight. If I meet a woman, well, that’s a great bonus. But if that’s your goal, then you’re gonna end up disappointed.”
When it comes to singles scenes in general, both brothers know whereof they speak. Each spent the better part of a year at hard-to-come-by bartending jobs in St. Maarten. (“Now that was an awesome singles scene,” Dave says.) Both have traveled widely—Dave all over the United States and Tim, through Europe, Russia, and Central America. By their lights, the Ann Arbor singles scene rates somewhat above average, though by no means stellar when compared to some places they’ve seen.
“There’s a lot of students here,” Dave says, “and a sort of snobbishness in general. The first thing a lot of women want to know is how much you make, how big your house is, what kind of car you drive. That’s a normal thing to want to know. But it can be a big turnoff when that’s all that matters.”
Do they ever want to get married? “I almost did!” Dave recalls with a smile. “When I was in college. We were dating for two years. We started looking for rings. I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing? This isn’t for me.’” So I took off and moved to Arizona. When I called back a few weeks later, my ex-girlfriend was al- ready dating someone else!”
Another half gallon of sangria arrives, and soon enough Dave and his brother have struck up a conversation with the women at the other end of our table. The brothers are masters of small talk, all winning smiles and breezy gestures. It’s not long before everyone’s laughing and, I must admit, having a pretty good time. The topic turns to our next stop, which the women insist should be Conor O’Neill’s on Main Street.
“Now that’s what we’re talking about,” Dave says, after the women have left. “We’ve struck up this conversation. We’ve met these cool people. Now we’re going to Conor O’Neill’s, and you know what? I bet they won’t be there when we get there. That’s okay. They’re having a good time, we’re having a good time, and if we see them, we see them, and if we don’t, we don’t.”
Dave turns out to be right—the women from Dominick’s are nowhere to be seen at Conor O’Neill’s. It doesn’t matter, because the place is packed.
Conor’s is ground zero of the Ann Ar-bor bar scene. The atmosphere couldn’t be more different from the hippie-dippie mood at Dominick’s. Here the age is more uniform—mid-thirties with a smattering of forty-somethings—and the dress code registers several ticks higher on the sophistication meter. These people are likely to have the right sizes of incomes, houses, and cars. You feel a smoky buzz walking in as people coolly check each other out. When I mention this to the brothers, they smile and reply with a single phrase: “meat market.”
Though they say they’re not trying to “pick chicks up,” Dave and Tim definitely seem intent on meeting as many as possible. While Tim cruises the room, Dave leans against one of the tall tables on the floor and gives me an Ann Arborite’s run- down of the Ann Arbor bar scene. “This is where medical residents come to party,” he says. “There’s a bunch over there. The medical students go to Rick’s.” He pauses for a moment. “I don’t know where the real doctors go.”
In short order we’ve downed a couple beers and a shot each. It registers with me how much of the singles life, at least this version of it, is fueled by alcohol. I start scribbling more quickly, while I can still see straight enough to read my notes.
Tim reappears to tell me he’s found a whole group of single ladies for me to write about. I follow him to a table where he introduces me as “that reporter friend I was talking about.”
Three middle-aged women regard me ￼￼with sincere distrust. But they seem single, so I explain what I’m doing. Uneasy glances are exchanged. “Sure you’re a re- porter,” says their spokeswoman finally. “Like we’re gonna believe that line.”
As I retreat, Tim drops his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, man. I al- ready got shot down a couple times tonight myself.”
The hour has swung to nearly one o’clock, but the night isn’t quite over yet. As we walk out into the warm spring air, Dave announces that we have one more stop.
The drink of choice at Mitch’s, a second-floor student hangout at the corner of South University and Forest, is the Long Island iced tea, served in a plastic cup. Entering the crowded, smoky space around the main bar, you see a lot of empty plastic cups lying around. After a glance at the crowd on the dance floor, I suspect the reason I was asked for my ID (and three of my bucks) at the door was to make sure I was young enough to get in.
If Conor O’Neill’s suggests sex, Mitch’s is awash in it. It appears that only two people over twenty-five are there be- sides me: Dave, and the singer–guitar player banging away on stage. A sort of yuppie-Goth style predominates: students bound for law schools and M.B.A. pro- grams dressed up in leather and moody, dark makeup.
Word gets out there’s a reporter in the crowd. Weaned on reality TV and nourished by shows like The Real World and The Osbournes, the college crowd isn’t shy around the media, even in the dubious form of me. They practically line up to be interviewed. (“Hey, I wanna be in your article,” says one young woman with a leather push-up bra and a purple stud in her tongue. “Who’s gonna play me in the movie?”)
Closing time is at hand, so I just dis- tribute my card to a handful of prospective interviewees and head downstairs and out into fresh air with Dave and Tim.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Tim asks.
I consider the question and have to nod. “More and then some. How about you guys?”
￼￼Dave smiles and holds his arms open as if to embrace the empty street. The hour is approaching three o’clock. “We didn’t meet our future wives,” he says. “But we sure did have a good time.”
Celeste B. and her friend from work, Allison R., are both twenty-one, recently graduated from the U-M, and, in their words, “totally” single. Both are willing to meet and chat. It’s the morning after my night out with the brothers Polkowski; sangria fumes and lack of sleep have left me with a nasty little headache. On the phone I give Celeste my standard research line: I’ll meet her and her friends wherever they normally meet and follow them doing whatever they normally do.
“Great,” Celeste says. “We usually meet up at Dominick’s for sangria, and after that we’ll take you with us to a couple bars.”
Arriving later at Dominick’s, that singles-scene launching pad, I find Celeste and Allison seated with a large group. (Men tend to barhop in twos and threes, but young women seem to find sanctuary in numbers.) Their dress is stylishly casual. Both wear a dusting of makeup, and both have plenty to say about how it feels to be young, single, and a few months out of college.
Celeste points out that one result of the sexual revolution begun in the decades be- fore she was born (in 1981) is that women her age are no longer passive agents in the sexual arena. “If I meet a guy I like and I want to sleep with him, I can do it. It might end up in a ‘committed’ relation- ship, as you call it. It might just be for fun. And if someone has a problem with that, then screw them.”
Allison agrees and believes that young men are different these days as well. “Guys are more fearful. It’s not so clear cut what they’re expected or supposed to do [in dating situations]. So do I give a guy my phone number? Do I ask him out? A lot of men are intimidated nowadays, so women have to take the initiative. But when you approach them, they can find that intimidating.”
Celeste holds up her phone to under- score the point. “Matt, the guy I met last
￼night, told me he’d give me a call today. Of course he hasn’t called. Now I don’t re- ally care if he does—he’s the one who said he would. But if he doesn’t, is he blowing me off? Is he chickening out? Who knows!”
To describe Celeste and Allison as liberated is to put it mildly. Neither is currently in a serious relationship. Both de- scribe themselves as sexually active though not promiscuous. When asked about the future, they describe graduate school and career plans in great detail. The names of places they plan to visit figure prominently. Men are mentioned only vaguely, or not mentioned at all.
“I’m just not into ‘finding’ a husband,” Celeste says. She points out that gender roles have changed over the last two decades and that women her age no longer are locked into the role of “finding a man that will make me not single. I hope never to have that kind of life. For some women, that’s great. Personally, I would find it de- grading.”
Does she believe her attitude might change in years to come?
“Are you asking me if I think this way just because I’m young?” she asks with a canny smile. “I don’t know. Check with me in fifteen years. It’s pretty hard to ‘have it all,’ and I value my independence. If it’s a choice between that and some man, or getting married—well, the choice is pretty obvious.”
Allison believes she’ll get married someday but not anytime soon. “I know some girls who have it all planned out—a husband in two years, two children in five. And they haven’t even met a guy yet!”
“I wouldn’t mind having a kid one day,” Celeste says. “It’s the husband I see no need for.” Allison counters that she could see having a husband but would rather do without the kids.
Both women say they’ve been in serious relationships in the past, and both have dated men considerably older than them- selves. Allison dated a man ten years her senior, describing the experience as “a li tle weird, but not because of his age. He was a little weird.”
Celeste admits to having “dated” two of her teachers at the U-M. “One broke my heart,” she says with a shrug, “and one didn’t. You live and learn.”
Her cell phone rings and she takes a call. It’s the better-late-than-never Matt. She chats for a minute and then hangs up. “It looks like he didn’t chicken out,” she says. “He’s going to meet up with us later at Rick’s.”
When we get to Rick’s the scene is reminiscent of Mitch’s the night before. In fact, some of the faces are familiar. I feel a bit like Dave and Tim, waving as I cross the floor. The drinking-dancing-dating scene, at least on campus, is something of a nightly affair.
The bar quickly fills up. Soon it be- comes evident to me why so many singles spots in town—from the lowly Rick’s to the high-end Studio 4—offer ladies’ nights during which women are admitted for a reduced cover charge or for free. Men, even those as outgoing and carefree as Dave and Tim, are peripheral figures in the bar scene—the “ladies” are the main attraction.
From out of the maelstrom of faces twirls a convivial young woman named Jackie. “So you wanna know what twenty- one-year-old single girls do? You get drunk, then you go to the bar, you find a cute guy to buy you drinks, you dance with him, and you take him home and you do him.” She disappears back into the crowd, presumably in search of Mr. Right This Second.
“Great,” groans one of Celeste’s friends. “Now everybody in Ann Arbor’s gonna think that’s what we do.”
Soon enough, Celeste hooks up with Matt, and Allison runs into a guy friend she knows from college. They disappear onto the crowded dance floor. Here, as at Mitch’s, the youngish crowd is carrying on a certain sort of exhibitionism. On the dance floor more than one pair of young women are making out, not with their smooth-faced dates, but with each other, bumping and grinding, cheered on by sur- rounding groups of young men. According to the bartender, who declines to give her name, it’s a pretty common sight.
“The little lipstick lesbians?” she says “They’re just having a good time. They’re kids. They’re drunk.”
She laughs at the thought that they might be gay.
“Hell, no!” she says. “They’re just showing off for the boys.”
I catch a glimpse of Celeste and Matt on the dance floor. Judging by their smiles and proximity, things are going well. Allison is nowhere to be seen. I strike up a conversation with the couple next to me, friends of Allison and Celeste, who’ve tagged along for the night. Juanita and Hector (as they wish to be called) are both twenty-six. They’ve been dating for three years and living together for two and thus represent yet another facet of the Ann Arbor singles world.
“We’re in a committed, monogamous relationship,” Juanita explains. “I won’t violate that. But I also think of myself as a single woman.”
With a sly smile, Hector declines to comment. “I like to keep my cards close to my chest,” he says.
Juanita continues. “I don’t know exactly how to explain it. It’s an important distinction to being married. I guess it’s about staying individuals. We’re not married. We’re not looking. But we are single.”
Unexpectedly, Celeste reappears, no Matt in tow. “I’ve got to work early in the morning,” she says. “I’m ready to go. Will you walk me to my car?”
What about Allison? What about Matt?
She shrugs. Allison is safe with other friends. “Matt’s turning out actually to be a nice guy, sort of sweet and sincere. We’re planning to see each other next week for dinner.”
We head for the stairs. Outside the air is warm and humid, filled with the promise of summer. On the way to the parking lot, I ask Celeste whether tonight was typical for her corner of the singles scene.
“Sure it is, in most ways,” she says with a shrug. “I don’t always meet nice guys, though,” she adds, smiling. “Maybe it’s good luck to have a reporter follow you around!”
Debbie K. recently troopered through a “really odd period” of dating during which she met, more or less in order, a business consultant, a cardiologist, and a construction worker. The business consultant was intimidated when she offered to take him out and pay for dates, so when that connection ended, she decided to let the cardiologist take her out. But he became of- fended on their second date when he realized she was willing to let him pay for dinner and a movie. So after that, when the construction worker started hinting around that he’d like to see her, she decided she’d take the initiative and ask him out to a hockey game. He agreed but then began to hem and haw. Not long afterward she dis- covered it wasn’t shyness that made him hesitate—he was living with another woman.
“I mean, you can’t figure out what the hell to do nowadays,” she says. “Dating is just really strange.”
Thirty-nine and the owner of her own personal training and fitness company, Debbie is one of the many professionals in town who, in the middle stages of successful careers, find themselves still single and looking. She’s thoughtful and good-humored about the puzzlement of being a modern-day single. When I meet her at a local sporting event (not at a bar), she laughs at the prospect of putting her thoughts about singledom on the record and even volunteers to invite a friend along.
I meet Debbie and her friend Andrea, thirty-four, at a local restaurant a couple days later. Like Debbie, Andrea is financially secure (she’s a rep for a drug company), owns her own home, and feels satisfied in her career. Also like Debbie, Andrea has never gotten married or had children, though she says she would like to do both.
“I personally don’t mind being single,” Debbie says over a glass of red wine. “I definitely wouldn’t mind getting into a longer-term relationship than the ones I’ve been in lately, though. You get pretty tired of the bar scene.”
“I do mind being single,” Andrea says. “If you have to be, I suppose Ann Arbor is a good place to do it in. But who really wants to be?”
Both say that their jobs take up a lot of time—time that in their twenties might have been spent looking for people to meet and date. Both tend to go out less now than they did when they were younger.
“I think there’s so much to do around town, and I mean to get out and do more things,” Debbie explains. “But then there’s work, or you’re busy or tired.” It’s the Catch-22 of being single: to meet new people you need to get out and about—but doing so is much a more attractive prospect when you have someone to get out and about with.
Andrea believes it’s harder for a professional woman to be single than for a professional man. “There’s more pressure on a woman,” she says. “You have to have a good job and a marriage and kids. Men can stay single and it’s cool, or they can let a woman take care of the home and that’s cool.”
“Now that I disagree with,” Debbie says. “I know plenty of men who find it very difficult to be single, too. Some are much less comfortable about it than I am.”
One thing the women do agree on is that the dating scene is hopelessly fraught with confusion. Debbie points out that men and women are equally at a loss. “No one’s sure who’s supposed to ask who out for a first date. Then no one’s sure who’s supposed to ask for a second date. Do you call him, does he call you?” Debbie laughs. “And then there’s sex.”
“Right,” says Andrea. “So who initiates that? Some men are willing to say any- thing to get laid. Other men won’t even bring the subject up.”
Both women find singles terminology less than helpful. “Dating” someone seems to be more advanced than simply “seeing” someone, though not quite as significant as being someone’s “significant other.” At what point does a casual relationship cross the line into a serious one? That’s any- body’s guess.
“Let me ask you another question,” Andrea says. “Who’s supposed to pay for the first date? Can anyone answer that one?”
I respond by outlining a theory I’ve been hatching. Much of the confusion surrounding dating, I propose, stems from the fact that there’s no longer any clear proto- col. The old patriarchal system was straightforward: when a boy liked a girl he asked permission to court her, which he did under the watchful eye of a chaperon. Later, people dated, perhaps got “pinned,” and then became engaged. As for sex, if you wanted that, you were expected to take the final step and get married—or at least be prepared to go there if pregnancy resulted.
Whether the rules were actually followed is another matter; at least the culture offered some norms from which to deviate. But that’s no longer the case. The patriarchal protocol came under attack in the 1970s, died in the 1980s, and was buried in the 1990s. Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with a new one.
There’s a moment of silence while we all sit, surprised at my soliloquy. “So,” Andrea asks finally, “who pays for the first date?”
“THE DEFINITION OF THE SWINGING SINGLE”
As Terry McClymonds points out, it’s technically not possible for a gay man to be anything other than single in the state of Michigan—unless for some reason he wants to marry a woman. “Of course, it’s sort of ridiculous to say there’s no such thing as gay marriage,” he says, “because there is, in every but the most technical sense. Still, as a gay person you’re often seen as the definition of the swinging single.”
I met up with Terry on a recent Thurs- day evening at the \aut\ Bar, where he tends bar part time after finishing his day job at Borders. Fifty-three, he’s a polished and engaging conversationalist, an incisive observer with a keen wit. Terry was born and raised in Pennsylvania and graduated from Yale. (“The same class as George W.,” he says with a laugh. “I have the picture to prove it.”) He arrived in Ann Arbor intending to stay “for about six months. That was almost twenty-two years ago.”
Though Terry has had what he de- scribes as “longish” committed relation- ships—including a live-in boyfriend—he admits to being something of a lifelong single.
“When I arrived Ann Arbor was the town that time forgot,” he remembers. “There were still men in hippie beads. There were the last of the hippie bakeries and hippie cafes. There was a thriving youth culture and it was still sort of a dope-smoking, rock ’n’ roll town.”
In those days, Terry recalls, there were more places that catered to singles of all stripes, including gays. “Main Street had a sort of nexus of singles spots. There was the Flame Bar, the Rubaiyat, Mr. Flood’s Party. You had all the facets, the wide spectrum of the gay social scene—the Flame was a neighborhood bar, the Rubaiyat played disco. Then the Nectarine Ballroom opened, going for the flashy sort of Studio 54 thing. It was a great time.”
Most of those places are long gone. Did the thriving singles scene of the late 1970s just dry up and blow away? To Terry’s mind the situation is more complex than that.
“A lot of things in the culture at large have become fragmented” in recent decades, he says, pointing out that there’s no reason to think the singles scene should be different. “The AIDS crisis certainly put a damper on the swinging singles life, in gay and straight culture, and made promisuity a less-than-valid lifestyle. There’s also been a sort of yuppification of Ann Arbor across the board. People drive Porsches instead of VW buses nowadays.”
Even events as recent as September 11 make their effect felt. “Maybe it’s just the people I know, but it seems like people in the gay and straight community long for seriousness. Suddenly it seems important to be ‘less single.’ There’s more of a premium on leading a more settled life, even in the gay community.”
Same-sex marriage is a subject of controversy not only in the straight world but in the gay world as well. I ask Terry his thoughts on the question. “Lots of people [in the gay community] oppose it because it’s like gay culture or the gay lifestyle is somehow being co-opted by the main- stream culture,” Terry says. “I suppose I can see the purity of the logic.”
Still, he believes that most people, deep inside, dream of settling down with some- one. One valuable contribution from gay culture to straight culture, Terry points out, has been an expanded definition of family. “A lot of gay people, both gay men and lesbians, are adopting children,” he says, “and there’s this notion of the ex- tended family, the idea that your friends are part of your family and they’ll be there for you. It’s not this rigid Eisenhower-era family unit.”
As his middle years play out, Terry says he feels the same pressures and concerns as any other single person. “Who’s going to take care of you when you get old?” he asks with a laugh. “I’m fifty- three, and after a certain point you ask yourself whether you’re going to find someone. It can be difficult, especially for a gay man.”
Terry disappears to do some work. A man standing at the bar waiting for a drink tells me he couldn’t help overhearing our conversation. “I suppose,” he says, “that you’ve noticed there’s not too many single women here.”
I had sort of noticed. I ask why he thinks that is.
“Know what lesbians do on their second date?” he asks. “They move in together. What do gay men do on their second date?” he chuckles. “What second date?” He howls with laughter as he disappears into the bar’s busy outdoor seats.
When Terry returns, I ask what he feels about Ann Arbor and the singles life, having lived here all these years. He considers the question. “I think what I’ve always thought. It’s always been a very healthy community—diverse and respectful of diversity. It’s a very family-friendly town, and it’s a very yuppie town. But it’s also single friendly. The two do coexist, I think.”
He pauses before going on. “It’s the kind of place where no one thinks you’re nuts if you believe you can be single, you can have a sex life, and still lead a valuable and productive life.”