Sex and the Suburbs

Open bar: At bars like Liquid, above, there's less crowd segmentation than in the city.Photo: Brian Finke

A few nights after Christmas, around 11:30 P.M., a sleek brunette named Sylvia seats herself strategically on a lizard-skinned banquette toward the back of a club. Sylvia looks a lot like Sandra Bullock, only with a Sophia Loren voluptuousness. She’s wearing a low-cut black V-neck that draws all eyes to an impressive cliff of a chest. Where she’s sitting is cozy, and even better, it’s not too far from the bathroom. There’s a long line for that, but it’s not access Sylvia wants; it’s a showcase. Every man checks her out as he goes by. And what’s particularly appealing about this line, for Sylvia, who comes from Yonkers and is recently divorced, is that it’s longer than the line for women. This club is swarming with men, who outnumber women two to one. And that’s because this bar is not a martini lounge in TriBeCa but a martini lounge in South Norwalk, known as SoNo to the Connecticut and Westchester singles who flock there for its nightlife.

Dating in the suburbs – it’s like a variation on some cocktail you’ve had a million times: The ingredients are familiar, but the proportions are skewed and the whole thing just tastes different. I’ve been thinking a lot about the suburbs ever since September, when my married friends started fantasizing about the house in Cold Spring or a place on the North Fork. All well and good for them – but what about single New Yorkers? What would dating be like if we actually picked up and moved someplace simpler, cleaner, more marriage-friendly?

South Norwalk has one of the densest concentrations of swank bars and clubs beyond the boroughs, places with names like The Loft, Liquid, Amberjacks and Ego. Outside, the town is all Currier & Ives, with lights strung in the trees, sweet storefronts, and snow on the ground; but inside, it’s all action. Sylvia, a 31-year-old physical therapist, is intently scoping out a good-looking, square-shouldered guy in a white button-down, but she thinks maybe he’s with someone: He’s talking to a bunch of blonde girls in the corner. Tony, it turns out, is single, and a cop from Stamford; the girls he’s talking to come from Westport and are just figuring out that he doesn’t have the bucks, though he’s hot. The fact that Westport country-clubbers are there with Stamford cops suggests one key difference between the suburbs and the city: In the suburbs, there aren’t enough bars to accommodate different socioeconomic niches; there’s no Limelight-versus-Lot 61 divide. As a result, the nightlife scene is more of a melting pot.

“In the end, all the guys here are the same,” complains a blonde girl wearing an asymmetrical black halter top, black boots, and a Tiffany heart-tag charm bracelet. “They’ve all got the khaki pants, black belt, silver buckle, and the Banana Republic turtleneck.” I look around at her five or six girlfriends; most of them have on the asymmetrical black halter; every one of them has black boots and the Tiffany heart-tag charm bracelet.

Just before the bar closes, Tony the Cop and Sylvia figure out their mutual interest. No more than ten minutes go by before they’re hand in hand, cruising intently for the door. I still don’t understand dating in the suburbs: To start, what does she do with her car?

Some people move to the suburbs for the schools, some for the space. Scott, a single 27-year-old psychologist, moved here for his car. “I’m a big car guy,” he explains. “And I had such a sweet deal on this Ford Expedition, I couldn’t say no. But I couldn’t really afford to have the car and live in the city.” Although Scott lives in New Rochelle, tonight he’s come to Larchmont, to the Baja Grill, which he’s heard has a friendly bar scene. Scott’s handsome, but not a pretty boy, and buff, almost too much so. So far, his social life is working out all right for him. “I date a ridiculous amount,” he says.

The first thing you’re going to notice, he explains, is that the girls aren’t as hot as in New York. Also, “there’s the girl-with-the-crappy-job” stereotype: “Why is she always the assistant teacher at a preschool? Why isn’t she the teacher? How skilled do you have to be to be the teacher at a preschool?”

On the upside, when you do see someone you’re interested in, the competition isn’t as daunting. “If someone’s single and a top-quality lawyer, doctor, investment banker, they live in the city,” he says.

By eleven, the bar adjacent to the restaurant has filled up, and I strike up a conversation with Chris, a tall, thin 25-year-old with a bit of stubble on his chin that matches the crew cut he has on top. Chris lives with his roommate in Pelham; they’re both bankers but still couldn’t afford to live the way they’d want to in Manhattan. “The girl I want to meet doesn’t exist,” insists Chris, who says (more than once) he’s “single as a dollar bill!” So who is the girl he does meet? “She makes $20,000 a year but lives in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side her mommy and daddy pay for. She can’t afford to go out in the city on the weekend. So she comes home on the weekend, and Mommy and Daddy give her $100 to go out.”

Chris heads off to grab his buddies a few more beers, and Scott starts entering the number of a blonde into his cell phone. Chris’s Pelham roommate, Matthew, strikes me as the biggest catch in the bar. He’s good-looking, and he lives in the suburbs, he says, because he’s a triathlete and needs access to open roads – all very appealing. But Matthew already has a serious girlfriend, a tall, scowling blonde who hovers nearby. It turns out she’s actually a city girl, up for the weekend. It figures.

“Guys in New York – they’re so much more aggressive, it’s crazy,” says Vanda (rhymes with Wanda), a 29-year-old waiting on line for the bathroom at the Loft in South Norwalk. It’s not surprising that men are all over her even before they know her name: She’s tan, thin, blonde, a physical trainer in a black sleeveless top. “The guys in New York …” She struggles for the right way to put this. “It’s like they’re immune to no.” Another young woman, standing by the stairway in a red halter top, agrees: “Guys from the city are much more obvious about just wanting sex. They call me up at two in the morning and ask if I’m in the city, if I’ll come sleep over. It’s pretty obvious.” So much for urban sophistication.

But the downsides of suburban dating can’t be discounted, either. Consider, for example, the dampening effect that the logistics of a car can impose on a one-night stand. You’re nuzzling at the bar, you’ve had a few drinks, and you decide it’s finally time to leave – and then instead of snuggling into a warm taxi, there’s an awkward few minutes when you get directions (okay, it’s not a sharp left; you just bear left), or decide to follow the guy home in your car. “It’s ridiculous,” says a friend of mine who lives in Darien. She’s sitting at a table at the River Cat Grill, an area hangout, polishing off a Macallan. “You’re trying to play hard to get, but then you’re like, ‘Well, I’ll follow you.’ That’s just not that hard to get.”

A 29-year-old friend of Scott’s – I’ll call her Meg, because she looks like a petite Meg Ryan – moved to White Plains from Albany a few years ago. A social worker, she’s both outgoing and exceptionally pretty, and gets asked out all the time: at the gym, at local bars, at Rye beach – she’s even met people through a Christian singles group. But for some reason, it never works out. “Maybe it’s because I keep meeting men with baggage,” she says. Baggage: It means something different in the suburbs. In the city, if a woman in her late twenties or thirties says “He’s got baggage,” it could mean any number of things: He’s still in love with that heroin-addicted model, he’s struggling to salvage his ambition from crushing trust-fund-induced ennui, that problem with his meds still hasn’t been resolved. In the suburbs, if a woman in her late twenties tells you her latest guy’s got baggage, it means one thing, more often than not: He’s divorced with kids. “There’s already something there that comes first,” Meg explains. “This one guy was always canceling because his ex-wife would call at the last minute and say she was going out with the girls and he had to take care of the kids.” She thinks for a second. “Or at least that’s what he told me.”

And there’s another phenomenon that every single girl has to watch out for when dating single suburbanites: the guy with the problem housemate, otherwise known as his mom. “Somehow it never comes up on the first date,” says Meg, sighing. “Or the second. It’s usually on the third. I finally ask, ‘So what kind of a place do you live in?’ ” She knows what’s coming when they start hemming and hawing, changing the topic. “This 24-year-old salesguy who lived at home would come over to my place, but he’d never sleep over,” she says. “That was fine, because I wasn’t that into him anyway. But I did always feel like I had to get him back reasonably early. I didn’t want him to get into trouble with his mother.”

It seems like about a third of the single people you’re likely to meet in Westchester live with their parents, and without thinking too hard, Meg names two she dated (one of them being a double whammy: He was divorced and lived with his mother), and then comes up with a third: her tap instructor. The tap instructor, who’s in his early forties, has never had a serious relationship, and lives at home with his mother.

“Your tap instructor hit on you?” I ask, a bit confused.

“Well, he told me he was very interested, but he would never touch me because he was so religious. Besides, he was really into musical theater, and I’d rather be with someone who didn’t have such an unstable career.”

“And also,” I say, “who’s not a totally closeted gay man.”

“You think?” she asks.

Scott and Meg are friends through work, and they decide one night to head out to South Norwalk to check out a dance club they’ve heard about called Ego. This is what they’ve heard about it: It’s cool – the décor’s all white. They pay the $5 cover and walk in, and sure enough, it’s all white: It’s true of the couches. It’s true of the brick walls. And it’s true of the crowd (bouncers excepted). Straining to overhear conversations, you mostly hear people saying one thing: “It’s cool – it’s all white!”

When the two of them show up, the D.J. is playing Joan Jett. The clusters of women writhing around in twos and threes and fours (lesbian chic is apparently still chic in South Norwalk) are all singing along, pointing their fingers in the air in rhythm with the words (“I love rock and roll …”). From there, the lineup segues from Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” to a string of Madonna hits (“What is this, the soundtrack from Fast Times at Ridgemont High?” Scott mutters). Finally, Meg approaches the D.J. and asks if he’ll play a little hip-hop. “No,” he says. She dances with Scott for a little while until they both get fed up: Meg gets hip-checked off her feet and onto the couches; Scott complains some guy was bumping up against his butt (“He’s clearly more secure in his sexuality than I am”).

The evening’s pretty much a bust, although Meg met one prospect a few hours back. He’d grabbed her as she walked by and said, “Are you single?” When she said yes, he kept his arm around her waist and started talking to her, looking like he’d fallen madly in love. He was too forward, she said, but not bad-looking (in a turtleneck sweater, of course), 31, and outdoorsy, one of the reliable characteristics of the suburban guy. He wanted to take her ice skating. He was funny, a mechanical engineer. “Are you always this aggressive?” she asked. “Hey, when I see something I like, I go for it,” he answered, all slick confidence. There was only one problem, which she gleaned about ten minutes into the conversation: His problem housemate. “It’s just temporary,” he swore up and down.

Meg sighs, then confesses. She gave him her number anyway.

Sex and the Suburbs