WASHINGTON — Melissa Lipton was sitting in her office when her computer chimed its friendly tone to announce an e-mail.
She opened it. It was a personal letter, written by a man she didn't know to a woman she didn't know but who had passed it on to a female friend who passed it on to another.
The story is oh so familiar.
"You seem like a nice person, and I don't mean this as badly as it might sound, but . . . I immediately rule out women who put up too many barriers. I do this simply to economize on time. Now, maybe you'll find someone who's so taken by a single dance with you that he's willing to negotiate by e-mail for a chance to trek to your suburban hide-out to plead his case. . . ."
It went on from there, an astonishingly blunt brushoff, signed "Bryan Winter."
How typically D.C., thought Lipton, 31.
She forwarded it to 12 friends.
For countless thousands of young women in Washington, this e-mail has become a crucial bit of intercepted intelligence from the battlefields of dating. It was a confirmation of their worst fears about singlehood--that it really is that bad out there, that eligible women really do outnumber eligible men, and that, yes, the men all know it. And it was a warning: Watch out for this one. And so they passed it on, from co-worker to fellow bridesmaid to soccer teammate, in an ad hoc sisterhood of strangers that could have come together only through the Internet.
Bryan Winter's letter seems to have gone everywhere. Within days it has breezed through Capitol Hill offices, tripped through PR agencies, blitzed almost every nonprofit and law firm.
Meanwhile, in a house on MacArthur Boulevard, the telephone rings. Then stops. Then rings. And rings. And keeps ringing.
This is the house where Bryan Winter lives. No, not that Bryan Winter. Another one. Not that it matters much by now.
Who is Bryan Winter?
Three weeks after his words exploded through the District of Columbia, his identity is still a mystery.
The Washington Post tried to trace the e-mail backward to its original author or original recipient by contacting previous senders, but the trail went cold. The Post also contacted various Bryan Winters listed in the public record.
This Bryan Winter is not the Wisconsin-based Web site manager who is married with a child but nonetheless has received dozens of scolding e-mails from strangers who find his name on the Internet and assume he's the guy.
"I'm hoping my 15 minutes will end soon," he frets.
He's not Brian Winter the soon-to-graduate Georgetown medical student, even though he fits the suspect profile as a single 27-year-old--please note it's an "i" not a "y" in his name, he says quickly.
"It's a good thing I have a girlfriend, otherwise I'd be persona non grata around this town," he said.
And he's definitely not Bryan Winter the 40-year-old Georgetown stylist. As the only same-spelling Bryan Winter in the District phone book, he seems to have born the brunt of the outrage.
In the first two weeks of May, he and his wife received "hundreds" of harassing phone calls at their home. One caller stayed on the line, not speaking, just playing some kind of music. It was a scene out of "Play Misty for Me." Creepy.
"It's gone from funny," says this Bryan Winter, "to pretty scary."
The truth is, there's no proof that the Bryan Winter in question actually lives anywhere in the D.C. area--if he exists at all. The e-mail has swept through New York and Los Angeles, where many of the senders and readers are convinced that Bryan Winter walks among them, not us.
Only one thing is certain about "Bryan Winter": He's sure got a way with words.
The e-mail begins with a preamble by an unknown author:
"This is an e-mail that a friend of mine received the other day from a guy she knows nothing at all about. She met him while out dancing and gave him her e-mail address. When he e-mailed her, she e-mailed him back with a few get-to-know-you questions . . . like 'what's your last name?' This is how he responded:
"I am at a stage in my life where I'm looking seriously and systematically for someone I can share my life with. You seem like a nice person, and I don't mean this as badly as it might sound, but I don't have time for 20 questions by e-mail. I met five girls Saturday night, have already booked a first coffee with three of them, and meet more every time I go dancing.
"I immediately rule out women who put up too many barriers. I don't do this because I think there's anything wrong with them, nor do I do it because I'm arrogant. I do this simply to economize on time.
"I know that dating in this city is difficult and scary for women. But keep in mind it's that way for the guys, too. Most of all, remember that you're competing with thousands of other women who don't insist that the man do all of the work of establishing a connection. And they live closer.