NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON — During a highly unscientific survey in front of the Papaya Dog, where the special is "2 eggs, potatoes and toast, 99 cents," New Yorkers revealed that they are, in fact, hopeless romantics.
Days after President Obama took his wife for a pricey night out on this town, the orchestrated whining about taxpayers footing the $81,000 tab was getting a big Bronx cheer all week.
"Eighty-one thousand dollars or 81 cents, that's what keeps a relationship going," said David Slurff, a construction worker who spent the last 17 days straight pulling out the seats of the old Yankee Stadium. He firmly believes a little time with your sweetheart is how relationships survive the insanity of 21st century life.
It turns out "date night" -- along with text messaging, Swiffer mops and frozen Hot Pockets -- is now an official staple of modern marriage. Experts say a night out -- or in, whatever works, as long as it's just the two of you -- is one easy cure for the inevitable marital drift that sets in when the BlackBerry won't stop buzzing and the kids suck all the oxygen out of the house.
"It's the thing that grounds us, makes us sit across the table from one another and say, 'Hey, I remember you,' " said Pepper Schwartz, chief relationships expert for Perfectmatch.com.
Our parents did some version of it, cards and cocktails with the neighbors, but our generation had to elevate it to a term of art. And now the impossibly elegant Obamas -- he was sleek and tie-less, she wore black -- have only raised the bar with a third date night since Inauguration Day.
They flew to John F. Kennedy International Airport in a mini Air Force One, (who knew it came in mini?) helicoptered into Manhattan, ate organic in a chic Greenwich Village restaurant (known to elicit "ecstatic whispering about the quality of summer peas") and saw a play that didn't even have show tunes.
This opened a floodgate for detractors, mostly Republicans, who squawked that the First Couple's motorcade had inconvenienced much of New York and blown a wad of taxpayer money just as General Motors was going belly up.
"Oh, please," said Chaya Kennedy, a 31-year-old office manager who is divorced, but ever hopeful. "Would we rather he'd be like other politicians and spend it on a prostitute? At least he spent it on his wife."
Even some (cranky) Democrats of the male persuasion took off on the debonair president as a bit of a "rate buster" who was making the rest of the guys look bad.
"Take it down a notch, dude . . . " the Daily Show's Jon Stewart bellyached. "By the end of your term, you're having NASA write her name on the moon in laser."
If all this blather about one Saturday night feels like last week's jelly doughnuts when everyone else has moved on to Obama's speech to the world's Muslims, then why were the tabloids still honking about "President Obama and Michelle's Picture Perfect Marriage" even as he was en route to Saudi Arabia?
Everyone from marriage counselors to suddenly sentimental New Yorkers getting a cheap breakfast across from the Empire State Building would say it's because the president is on to something.
"Behind every great man is a strong woman, and she needs to be appreciated," said Lenny Renny, 49, who married shortly after arriving in New York 20 years ago from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and treats his own strong woman "like a morning flower." The night the Obamas were out on the town he was home in Brooklyn, cooking his wife a birthday dinner of chicken and rice.
As much as we hate to admit it, the more the Obamas date, the greater the national fascination: How do they do it?
For a lot of us, a date night generally means a burger down the block and, maybe, a deftly timed movie if three more hours doesn't mean the sitter ends up costing more than dinner. Women's magazines love to think up imaginative ways for married people to reconnect. As in: Get a fondue pot and have a feast! Add a French movie and French kiss all night! Make a finger-foods-only dinner and feed each other!
Such contortions fatigue us. Wasn't the whole point supposed to be that we wouldn't have to feed anybody?
Perhaps, as the Republicans insist, the Obamas were "putting on a show" winging it to the Big Apple. But this isn't about partisan politics. These public displays of a wedded White House bliss are increasingly compared to the Reagans', except the Obamas are managing to make time for each other with two kids and a puppy.
Seeing the First Couple out once in a while or holding hands just might be something for us to aspire to: a table set for two, sport coat, high heels, a real conversation.
We can do that.
Yes we can.