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Sneaking peeks at the personals

by Greg Swann

When we finally get 500-channel TV, there will be a Swimsuit Issue channel--all swimsuits, all the time. Until then, I'll satisfy my voyeurism sneaking peeks at the personals.

It's a failure of focus, I think, like worrying at a popcorn hull trapped between molars. It's not a priority, but it's there, naggingly, at the threshold of conscious thought. Flipping through this freebie publication or that one, absently looking for something I'm all but certain isn't there, I'll wake up to find myself skimming the personals, tripping over row after row of best-feet-forward for the worst of all reasons, no reason at all.

"I got it! I got it!" Tommy Tutone shouts from the half-remembered halls of high school. "I got your number off the wa-all!" When I was topped-off on testosterone, all a girl had to do was smell right. That was plenty. "For a good time, for a good time call!" An overwhelming thirst and not a drop to drink. The words of the false prophets were written on the phone booth walls and bathroom stalls, and at the edge of sardonic bemusement there was always that sad hope that this one--"867-5309!"--might be for real.

None of them ever were, I guess, not that I ever had the guts to check. But the irony is that the personals are all real, page after page of lonely people--where do they all come from?--putting best-feet-forward, looking for someone they hadn't given a second glance to in the half-remembered halls of high school. Friends first, leading-to-romance, marriage-minded only, must love kids, willing to travel. Searching for soulmate. Desperate for another chance.

It is my happy fate to see the universe in every stray raindrop, and I find more than I want to think about in carefully crafted forty-word autobiographies. We never reveal so blatantly as when we conceal, and my first serious interest in the personals was to make fun of all the clumsy euphemisms. Buxom, full-figured, weight-proportionate and Rubenesque all say the same thing, and it's something women think men won't want to hear. They're probably right, but the phone will ring off the hook for a woman who says, "Moist in the right places, I think you're a hero, and I love to bake."

At that point in my personals odyssey, I thought I could cut and run, just whip off one fast story about funny euphemisms and be done with it. But I kept reading, reading, reading, and I kept seeing these poor hungry souls--where do they all belong?--and I ended up with a much more somber story to tell. And I'd read the personals in the weekly counter-culture paper. And I'd read the low-brow, lowered expectations personals in the Pennysaver. And I'd read the personals in the Singles newsletters, elderly women bucking the actuary's odds week after week.

And I started hunting out the personals sites on the World Wide Web, a searchable voyeurism. I spent about a week reading the personals newsgroups on Usenet, which was eye-opening--to speak only of that most family-oriented of orifices. And I began to pay a particular kind of attention to the personals as a source of income.

Do you see why? The personals combine the two products with the highest conceivable profit-margins: desperation and the intangible. Desperation is the product sold by prostitutes and porn shops and "exotic" bars and romance novelists and women's magazines and cosmetics companies. And the intangible is the most perfect product of all, one-size-fits-all, keeps indefinitely, folds away for easy storage. Sell the sizzle, not the steak? Nah. Just sell the sizzle and keep the steak. There is no customer more satisfied than the one who has traded his hard-won something for a fine and perfect nothing with a gilt-edged guarantee.

Do you doubt this? A magazine subsists by selling the readers to the advertisers and vice-versa. A personals publication (or Web site) sells the readers to the readers. Not even. It sells the potential of a possible relationship, promising nothing and delivering it in abundance. For this, it charges anywhere from nothing to read or send ads to $2.95 per minute for extremely lengthy phone calls. Sellers of intangible desperation count on the fact that you will not do math when fervently pursuing the potentially possible, so I will graciously do the math for you: $177 per hour. Just beyond the personals there are ads placed by quiet, clean, discreet non-Rubenesque persons of both sexes and all persuasions who will relieve desperation quite tangibly for $177 per hour. Something to think about...

But once I'd equated the personals with the porn shops, I was ruined for the business. I could surely use the bucks, and $2.95 a minute for free editorial matter adds up fast, but I didn't want to be in the porno business in even so mild a form.

But I had a much more amusing idea for generating cash with personal ads.

The secret to direct marketing is eliciting a response. Any response is a good response, since the copywriter's enemy is apathy. Writers of successful personal ads know this implicitly; it was that quirky little-something-different that made their ads successful. I had the idea that it might be amusing to make a commission deal with a personals publisher: I write ads that generate lots of phone calls, you cut me in for 15%.

Before anyone begins to doubt the sterling integrity of the honorable characters who sell intangible desperation at three bucks a minute, take note that I have not made a deal like this, nor do I have any reason to believe anyone else has. But it would be a fine and perfect prank to yank those chains most urgently in need of yanking.

For instance:

SWM, Burt Reynolds type, loves Rush, hates Hillary. I think a woman's place is in the laundry room and I have a lot of laundry that needs doing. So get to it.


SWF, blonde, blue, gorgeous, seeks six figures and a Lexus. Age unimportant. No baldies.

Call me and tell me what you don't like about me. My take would come out to a little over 44 cents a minute. Not bad for a fraud...

And even though it is sad and desperate, I can't help laughing at the very latest wrinkle: photo-personals, wherein people who aren't much to look at to begin with are portrayed in badly-scanned black-and-white photos printed on newsprint. "Weight proportionate" loses its deceptive allure, of course, but both men and women lie openly about their weight, their height, and, especially, their ages. Their best feet are forward, but in many of the photos their faces are scarred by doubt and fear and suffering and anger and confusion and defiance. I find the universe in every raindrop, and there is a thunderstorm of tragic stories desperately seeking happy endings in the photo-personals.

And that's both sad and uplifting, I guess. They're down, but not for the count. They don't know quite what hit 'em, but they're not going to let a bloody nose--or a few bloody noses--or a few dozen bloody noses--stop them. Whatever it was that was scrawled in the corner stall, whatever it was written deep down in the pocket of the library book, whatever it was your sister whispered when she thought no one could hear--whatever it was you lost in the roar of the raging hormones of high school--it's still out there, somewhere. Waiting for the right ad or the right call or the right moment, the fine and perfect culmination of destiny's grand devising. With spotlights, rose petals and full orchestration.

In short, all the intangibles money can buy...

But as I laugh at them--at you--I know I must laugh at myself also. I am above the personals, because I merely read them. They elicit no response from me, now do they? Other than that familiar sardonic bemusement, I mean. And yet there is always that sad hope that this one--"867-5309!"--might be for real.

"Jenny, Jenny, who can I turn to?" For three dollars a minute I can always turn to you...

When we finally get 500-channel TV, there will be a Victoria's Secret channel--all lingerie, all the time. Until then, I'll satisfy my voyeurism sneaking peeks at the personals...

Greg Swann is a DWM, 39, 6'2", 175, Brown, Green, single father. Suffers fools badly. Enjoys writing, reading, bicycling, swimming, all while cogitating at a furious pace. Currently working on a comic novel about sex, media and the lonesome death of rock 'n' roll. Willing to travel. Unwilling to budge.

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