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PRIVATE LIVES

Collapse of the Meet Market : Forget Going Dutch and Seeing a Movie; Modern Romance Is Dating for Dollars

January 06, 1991|MARGO KAUFMAN

IS IT MY imagination, or has the singles scene gotten a lot worse? I've been married for a few years, so I don't speak from firsthand experience. But I've been getting some pretty grim reports.

It's not simply a matter of deadly diseases putting a damper on flings. The age-old skirmish between the sexes seems to have degenerated into trench warfare. Maybe it's because my single friends are getting older and the field is getting smaller. But I listen to them and think: It can't be that bad. And then I wonder: Can it be that bad?

Last week, I met a friend--let's call her Barbie--for lunch at Angeli Mare. Barbie is a woman with everything going for her--looks, brains, personality, successful career. Still, she tells me it's getting harder and harder to find a date.

"Barbie's having trouble?" my husband, Duke, marveled later, his ears perking up.

"Not that much trouble," I assured him. But actually, I lied.

Recently, Barbie met an attractive attorney--let's call him Ken--on a plane. "We hit it off and he wasn't married, so I agreed to go out with him," she said. "We went for a bike ride, and then to dinner. We're in the restaurant, we've been together a total of maybe three hours and he says, 'I have a favor to ask of you.' I said, 'What? Already?'

"He asked if I'd ever heard of bachelor auctions," Barbie said. Blessedly, I wasn't familiar with the concept, but she explained that it was a cattle call of "fairly good-looking men, in tuxedos with name tags and numbers," who are auctioned off for a worthy cause. In Ken's case, it was the March of Dimes. He asked Barbie to bid on his "package," a five-day ski trip with him to Park City, Utah.

This request struck me as the nadir of modern courtship, even before Barbie told me that the prize included five nights in a one-bedroom condominium. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the good old days when Rhett Butler paid $150 in gold for one waltz with Scarlett O'Hara. Or even the so-so old days when you went to the movies together, Dutch treat.

Still, I don't know why I was shocked. Recently, I saw "Love Connection," a television program that epitomizes the current dating scene. I'm probably the last person in America to have discovered this show, but I was riveted by its sheer awfulness. In comparison, its predecessor, "The Dating Game," with its sophomoric but all-in-good-fun questions ("If I was a block of wood and you were a power tool, would you buff me, sand me or saw me?"), seemed as tame as a romance novel.

On "The Dating Game," the lucky couple (and a chaperon) won a free trip to someplace memorable--a beautiful holiday south of the border, in downtown Tijuana. But the big prize on "Love Connection" is the chance to go back on the show and find fault with each other, in embarrassingly explicit detail.

I guess it's not that much different from going out with someone you met at a party and then calling every friend in your Rolodex for a neurosis-by-neurosis, postdate post-mortem--group analysis being an intrinsic part of every modern romance.

"It's a jungle out there," Duke said, dragging me from the TV.

Barbie agreed. "Today, you have to be aggressive," she declared. So she bid on Ken. "He offered to put up half. Of course, it was left up to me to decide how much I wanted to spend on him." To my amazement, Barbie set a $1,000--"Hey, he's a tax write-off"--limit. She couldn't attend the auction, but ever-gallant Ken provided a proxy.

In a moment, the results. But first, a word from an eligible bachelor. "I guess I'm a romantic," says my friend Jon. "But I think you should meet Ms. Right cute, the way they do in the movies. Back into her car, stare at each other's bumpers and fall in love at the body shop, instead of putting yourself up for sale at the meat market."

Jon may be sentimental, but like many single men, he's very set in his ways. "Dating requires doing things I don't ordinarily do," he says. "I won't go to a restaurant after 5 o'clock. Could I get a date to meet me at 4:30 with the early-bird coupon?"

Suddenly I understand the difficulties of Barbie's search for Mr. Right. Speaking of which: "Ken called the day after the auction," she revealed over dessert. "He said, 'You lost. I went for $2,750 to a legal secretary named Taffy. And it didn't cost her a penny because she got donations from the people she does business with.' " Barbie wondered if Ken will call after he and Taffy get back from their trip.

Then her eyes twinkled. "Oh, look!" she exclaimed. "The cute guy in the corner just went to the bathroom. Maybe I can bump into him." Barbie freshened her lipstick and prepared to reconnoiter the ladies' room. "I have to time it just right. Men are so quick."

Is it my imagination, or has the singles scene gotten a lot worse?

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