A writer tries to make new friends and finds that meeting people isn't what it used to be
by Robert David Sullivan
Shortly after moving to the northern tip of Manhattan, a 45-minute subway ride
from the gay ghettos of Chelsea and the Village, I was overjoyed to find a
newspaper listing for a gay social group in my neighborhood. I left a message
at the contact number, and a friendly-sounding, 50-ish man returned my call
late one Friday night, telling me in great detail all the wonderful activities
the group had planned for the next month. One highlight was participating in a
medieval fair in the local park, but since I couldn't get a word in edgewise, I
didn't get the chance to ask whether we'd be playing Inquisition victims. I
couldn't make that weekend's outing, but the guy called me the next Friday
night to deliver an equally long-winded sales pitch for his group. He called
the next week, too, and a few Fridays after that, always at about 10 p.m.
I stopped answering the phone on Friday nights.
I never did meet anyone in the neighborhood group. To put it bluntly, I
thought of my telephone pal as a loser. Why was he always home on Friday night?
It did not escape my attention that I was always home on Friday night as
well, but this unfortunate coincidence only brought home the meaning of Groucho
Marx's famous line: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as
Other distractions, and there are plenty of them in New York, made me forget
about joining any clubs for a while. But then I moved back to Boston and began
working at home, a career shift that turned out to be lonelier than I expected.
I had long heard about the friendly hunks in UPS uniforms, but my UPS man
turned out to be a gum-snapping woman with bleached-blond hair. And my FedEx
man has the disconcerting habit of ringing my doorbell, dropping my packages on
the porch, and running back to his truck before I can get a good look at him.
Perhaps this is what the FBI does with participants in the Witness Protection
The last straw came when my bank informed me that it will now cost $6 each
time I do any business with the cute teller -- late 20s, dark curly hair, nerdy
glasses -- who used to accept all my meager deposits with a mildly flirtatious
smile. My bank prefers that I use the servants' entrance, off to the side, and
conduct all my business with the ATM, which doesn't demand health benefits from
its employer but could sure use some Windex. I thought about continuing the
visits to my financial-services boy toy, but they suddenly seemed dirty, as if
I should hide my face under my baseball cap and pay the $6 in quarters through
a slot in the Plexiglas. For this kind of money, I should at least be able to
squeeze the teller's hand as he takes my deposit slip, but I suspect that my
mega-bank has destroyed people's credit ratings over less serious
Clearly, the business world views human contact as unforgivably inefficient.
This attitude is doubly disturbing because Americans love to apply business
principles to their personal lives. I'm as guilty as anyone. I telecommute, and
I've bought clothes, drugs, groceries, and, yes, even books over the Internet
(despite living a mile from Harvard Square).
When I first grew alarmed at the slow disappearance of human contact, I gave
thanks for being gay, for gay men and lesbians have embraced the concept of
"community" as tightly as other Americans cling to God and capitalism. On the
surface, at least, we queers seem to be resisting the "bowling alone"
phenomenon -- a phrase coined in the mid '90s to describe the declining
membership in social organizations. In Boston, there are at least three
different gay bowling leagues advertising for new members, and while I'm sure
there are straight ones as well, I can't find them listed in any newspaper
(unless there's a secret publication that gays don't know about). Nationally,
the latest Gayellow Pages contains a stupefying variety of
organizations, including the Gay & Lesbian Statisticians' Caucus, Passing
Twice: Gay & Lesbian Stutterers
(http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/3323), the Foot Fraternity
(http://www.footfraternity.com), and the Phoebe Snow Society (for "gay rail
Glancing through these listings recently, I became nostalgic for high school
and college, when I was quite promiscuous as a joiner. Political clubs, amateur
theater, bowling leagues . . . I dropped in on everything
but the gay and lesbian groups. (All the trouble I could have saved myself!) I
found some new friends this way, but I also discovered -- in the same
slow-witted manner that I finally realized I liked boys -- that most social
organizations are like Potemkin villages. They've got impressive-sounding names
and meeting halls and notices in the newspaper, but they don't have enough
members to fill a minivan.
Many people claim to join clubs because they improve society, but this goal
is never entrusted to amateurs anymore. Any charity group worth its tax-exempt
status gives most of its money to professional telemarketers and direct-mail
wizards who help extract more donations from the group's "members." As for
political activism, all elections are settled by television advertising, so
there's really no need for flesh-and-blood voters to assemble outside
$1000-a-plate dinners. Have you ever received a letter from the Human Rights
Campaign asking for your time instead of your money? No, and this raises the
question of what happens at the twice-a-month meeting of the Log Cabin
Republicans here in Boston. We know that they're not organizing rallies, at
least not ones that anyone has ever heard of.
The truth is that people join clubs to meet other people who will flatter them
with attention. That is why so many clubs have more officers than regular
members; everyone gets a chance to vote for everyone else, illustrating the
term "mutual admiration society." It is why my high-school bowling league was
able to keep me paying dues for years, just by giving me a "most improved"
trophy for three consecutive summers. (How bad could I have been to be worthy
of that?) I'm sure it explains the existence of the Brookline-based Gaylactic
Network (http://www.gaylaxians.org/GNetwork), a group for gay science-fiction
buffs. There's just no other way to find someone who will appreciate your
learning the name of the UPS hunk who delivers fan mail to the cast of Star
When I finally came out of the closet, I recognized social clubs as an
effective way to find sexual partners. (I also recognized daily weightlifting
as an effective way to stop looking like a pear, but I didn't take full
advantage of that knowledge either.) This kept me interested in gay
organizations -- like writers' groups and AIDS support organizations -- for a
while, but then I found excuses for staying late at work, especially when my
office occupied the same space as my bedroom. Then the Internet beckoned, as it
often does, as a quick and easy way to get something without leaving the house.
When I first signed on to America Online, I jumped into all the M2M chat rooms
I could find, marveling at how I could rejuvenate my social life despite a lack
of clean shirts. I even met a few online pals in person, but there was
something bizarre about introducing myself to someone who already knew things
about me that I'd never told my best friend. (When you're trying to get
someone's attention over a computer modem, it's hard to resist dirty language.)
None of these relationships survived the shock of the first live encounter,
when each of us decided that it wouldn't be such a good idea to see the other
person demonstrate the special skills listed in his last e-mail.
These disappointments made organized social groups look pretty good again.
Unfortunately, it's not so easy to move back from cyberspace to the real world.
I'm out of practice at making small talk, and my ability to write an
attention-grabbing headline for an e-mail wouldn't get me very far at a
meeting of the Triangle Scuba Dive Club
(http://www.tiac.net/users/jmcbride/triangledivers.htm). It would hardly
compensate for my looking like a pork sausage tainted by botulin each time I
put on a wet suit.
It's just easier in college. You can show up at a meeting full of strangers and
be assured that nobody is more than three years younger than you. You don't
have to worry about having the worst job of anyone in the room, or the smallest
apartment, or the longest trail of broken relationships. When you're past 30,
you can't help but think about such things when a moderator asks, "Why don't
you tell everyone in the group a little bit about yourself?"
Despite these fears, I began to check out some of the gay organizations I had
long wondered about. I called a social group that was advertised as being open
to gay men "from 20 to 32." I'm 35, but I thought I could pass. Also, I
suspected that this might be one of those groups whose age requirements creep
upward every year so that the original members won't be asked to leave. That's
the only explanation for Gen-X Bears Boston
(http://www.genxbears.org/~Boston), which is open to "younger bears from 18
to 35+". I'm always going to have that plus sign, so I guess I'll always be
"younger" in the eyes of what may eventually become Geriatric Bears Boston.
When the leader of this other group returned my phone call, he immediately
asked my age. I hesitated and said, "I'm near the top of your range."
"Oh, if you're older, that's all right," he reassured me. "We have some
members over 32."
I then confessed my real age, which proves that I have learned nothing from
six years of watching NYPD Blue.
He asked a few more questions that all seemed designed to catch me in another
lie. It probably didn't help that I was cagey about what I do for work, and I
shouldn't have let the word "drifter" pass my lips, even as a joke.
"I'm very careful about who I let into the group," my interrogator said,
before saying he would get back to me with details about upcoming activities.
That was about three months ago, and I haven't even been invited to a potluck.
And I can't go to the college dean with a complaint of discrimination.
Next I called a leather club on the theory that if I had to deal with a
control queen, perhaps it would be better if he were more up-front about it. I
also thought such a group might help me get over my fears of meeting new
people. If I chickened out of a meeting, for example, someone might come to my
house and forcibly drag me out. Also, if I looked stupid at a meeting, I could
blame it on the club's strict dress code instead of my inability to figure out
which colors make me look less like a cadaver.
I had to rethink my plans when the leather liaison returned my call. He was so
soft-spoken that I had to ask him -- nay, order him -- to repeat
everything he said. I had the horrible thought that such assertive behavior
would result in my being drafted as president of the club at the first meeting
I attended. This was not an attractive prospect, particularly because the
leather guy indicated that the club had frequent "business meetings" to plan
charitable events and the like. I didn't want to be forced to take down the
minutes of these meetings; that would be real torture.
After that, I called the Long Yang Club (http://www.longyangclub.org/Boston),
which is "for gay Asian men and their friends." I figured that I was as
friendly toward Asian men as the next person, but, more important, the LYC
seems to be the most active social group in the city. They have a couple of
events a week, including movie nights and, of course, potlucks, and it didn't
seem possible that they had enough members to go around.
In fact, the Boston chapter of Long Yang has more than 100 dues-paying
members, only about half of whom are Asian. At least, this is what the
president told me when he called me back. "We try not to be extremely
exclusive," he said. "We're just a social club for people with similar
interests." Given that the activities range from poetry readings to in-line
skating, I figured that the only interest similar to all the members is getting
out of the house once in a while. Sounds okay to me.
Of course, making a few phone calls is just a tiny step toward real human
contact, and I haven't actually been to any club events of any kind this
summer. It's easier to keep surfing the Net and leafing through newspapers to
find the perfect group -- much like circling personal ads and then crossing
them out one by one. Certainly, both activities can use up a Friday night, and
I have to be home just in case my friend from New York tracks me down to tell
me just what went on at that medieval fair.
Robert David Sullivan wrote about gay history for the July issue of One
in Ten. He can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.
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