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Great Expectations

Pondering our perfectionist standards

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Recently, I walked past a group of young hip-hop boys sitting on a stoop, and one of them called out, “Hey, baby, you look good in that dress.” A pause. “But the shoes are all wrong.” As citizens of the mecca of marketing, we New Yorkers understand -- above all else -- what goes with what. And, where dating is concerned, who goes with whom.

There have always been reasons quite apart from love to choose a long-term partner: keeping the bloodlines pure, ensuring suitable heirs for property, and whelping more farmhands. In New York, it’s more about how a mate enhances one’s image -- as much in others’ eyes as in our own. People of this city have obscenely advanced cultural radar -- feed in data about where people live, what they wear, and how they get to work, and the socially attuned New Yorker can tell you what they do for a living, where they went to school, and what they eat for breakfast. In such a status-conscious milieu, the best mate is one who shows the world that you indeed “have it all.”

So the trouble with dating in New York isn’t that it’s hard to meet someone but rather that it’s hard to meet someone who resembles your idea of the Mate an Attractive, Intelligent, Successful New Yorker Like Yourself should have. New Yorkers are persnickety about potential partners in ways that would be laughable in other places. People here seem convinced that dating within their league means hooking up with a young Ph.D. from Cornell who worked his way through school as a model and is employed in corporate law yet is occasionally also known to tootle a bit on the oboe after hours with a jazz trio at a low-key East Side boîte. That is, when he’s not working on that novel. Such is love on the home turf of the overclass.

These inflated standards create an ugly scenario in which dating is pursued peremptorily, and with creepy, often subconscious calculation. We’ve all had those dates where you can hear the wheels clicking as the person assesses if, where, and how well you fit into the Big Love Plan. You spend the evening wondering whether you’re being courted or auditioned. One late night at Odeon, a man deep in the throes of a first-date performance gesticulated broadly with his utensils and said to his companion, “I’m young, I’m handsome, and I’m rich.” Looks: 10; tact: 3. But who could fault the guy for his approach?

One might argue that we New Yorkers should be more realistic in our search for partners, but that’s counterintuitive to a Gotham-dweller. New York is about the hyper-real, the stratospheric heights, the infinite opportunity. Our aspirations trace the topography -- it’s all up, up, up! Seemingly impossible standards are the logical companion to dreaming impossible dreams, and both come with the territory. If we wanted to be realistic, we’d live in Dubuque. New York is, if nothing else, not about “settling.”

You know you’ve been bitten by the nasty bug when you find yourself on a fifth date, gazing absently at your companion and wondering not -- as people elsewhere might -- whether the two of you will have sex later on, but whether the two of you have enough combined social heft to land a spot on the Times wedding page. And losing interest when you realize you probably don’t.

But certain factors will force a female New Yorker’s mating hand. To wit, the humbled-girly spectacle known as the Pushin’ 30 Scramble, which sounds like a bad country-western dance but is merely a two-step to the biological call and a do-si-do around the fact that your friends are all à deux and you’re still dunking Oreos alone. And many women panic, having envisioned marriage’s being crossed off the list by now way back when they were school-age sprouts laying out their twenties like a battle plan. They want to get the matrimonial thing over with somehow, lest they stay in the dating game long enough to be seen as stale goods in destiny’s bake sale.

Men in New York face their own pressures. Making friendly eye contact or initiating conversation on the street usually gets a guy bumped off the list right away, and it’s never fun to feel downgraded by the admission that you summer on the wrong side of the highway. But some men harbor truly fearsome dating criteria. No one denies the sweetness inherent in the bloom of youth, but some take the principle too far. Once, in an attempt at waxing philosophical, a male acquaintance said, “A woman’s sexual attractiveness is reduced by half after she turns 30.” Perhaps it is in such thinking that we New Yorkers get the loneliness we so deserve. Of course, despite the stringent standards and long odds, now and again love conquers in Gotham. It’s a corny little miracle, a pearl beyond price. You can see it out there: couples picking up the Sunday papers and bagels late Saturday night, tumbling with dogs and babies on a crisp Central Park afternoon, mooning over the brightly lit cases in the nuptial swarm of Tiffany’s. It speaks to the irascible, acid charm of New Yorkers that despite our ugliness, we find people to love and are loved in return. And those who are without love often believe -- rightfully so -- that there are princes and princesses to be found under our warty pretenses. If we’re monsters in our mating, we are at least hopeful ones.


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