Come Sit By Me: A Literary Alternative to Missed Connections
I’m single again—for the first time since I moved to New York City—and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to meet people. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to meet interesting guys.
Sometimes I fantasize that I’ll be doing two weeks’ worth of laundry and collide with the love of my life while moving my whites from the washer to the dryer, but that hasn’t happened yet. And I’m not opposed to online dating per se, but I’ve tried it before, when I lived in Washington, DC, a few years ago. One K Street lawyer, upon introducing himself to me at the sleazily lit subterranean wine bar he’d chosen for our meeting, groped me plain as day while “helping me with my scarf.” Cue my quick break for the exit. And the bike mechanic/librarian/grad student I actually liked disappeared without so much as a text message. I wouldn’t deem it a success.
Where did I end up meeting my most recent boyfriend? In a book club.
So I’ve been asking myself some basic questions: What do I like? Reading. What am I looking for in a date? Someone who enjoys books and talking about them, and who can strike up good conversations with strangers. An idea started to gel. Maybe if I’m choosy about what I read on my longish interborough commute, the right guy—one with superlative taste who’s curious enough to make a move—will be drawn to me by the tractor beam the open book in my hands emits.
I ran this idea by my therapist, and she started nodding excitedly. “Books are such a great crutch,” she said. “I think of them like props.”
So this strategy’s been clinically endorsed. I’ve reviewed my journals, made a list of the most attractive qualities of potential soul mates past (setting aside their less desirable traits—e.g., substance addiction, monomaniacal narcissism, commitment phobia), and distilled it into archetypes of the charming men I hope to meet, if fate wills it, somewhere in the New York City public transit system. Here they are—along with the books that will compel them to engage me (or you!) instead of their iPhone.
1. The I’d-Rather-Be-Outdoorsman
Book Bait: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
My friends still talk about Daniel.* (Any reference to him is accompanied by the gesture of holding one’s hands up more than a foot apart.) My friendship with him morphed into something physical during his senior year and my junior year of college. He spent his summers fly-fishing in Idaho and his spring break volunteering on farms in Nicaragua. And he could be romantic: He once drove me up to a mountain overlook to polish off a box of wine. Daniel didn’t have a very good memory, but if he forgot his key card, he was strong enough to climb to the second-story balcony of his apartment to let himself in through the sliding-glass door. Enough said.
Do men like this exist in New York City? And if so, do they read? (The only book I remember Daniel cracking was I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, by Tucker Max.) Surveying my bookshelves for appropriate material, my gaze fell on Desert Solitaire. It ranks alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the eco-lit canon; anyone who loves nature and being in it will appreciate Abbey’s detailed descriptions of pristine Utah, before paved roads and RVs. Plus, it’s about a season spent drinking beers alone at Arches National Park, a dream job from a bygone time for anyone who’s ever plotted an escape from the city. Hey, you, with the Chacos and sexy calves! Take me camping upstate?
2. The Highbrow Lawyer
Book Bait: Herzog, by Saul Bellow
Confession: I’ve never read Saul Bellow. And I’m fairly certain that’s why my relationships with men who profess to adore his writing never have worked out. One such Bellow superfan, a former fellow writing tutor (now a lawyer) struck me as a great catch: He was Ivy League smart, Southern, a Tom Waits enthusiast (I can still remember listening to Closing Time in his bed), and a New York Review of Books subscriber, and we wore the same size bluejeans. That might’ve been convenient if it had lasted into the winter. He insisted that I read Saul Bellow. Maybe there’s something I’m missing?
Katie Roiphe, writing for Slate on the occasion of Bellow’s death in 2005, characterized the totemic Bellow woman as, “infinitely generous, colorful, voluptuous, pliable, passionate, beautiful, full of appetite, slightly exotic, or actually foreign, with a great appreciation of the intellect, and a penchant for lingerie.”
OK… I could be that woman. In an effort to channel her, I’m going to start with 1964’s Herzog, widely considered Bellow’s masterpiece. The book critic Julian Moynahan wrote that in it, Bellow’s protagonist finds balance, incredibly, in instability. Funny, that’s just what I need to discover for myself. Hello, fellow straphanger in the skinny jeans and the Gillian Welch concert T-shirt. Is that what you’re looking for too?
3. The Shy Financier
Book Bait: Still Life With Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins
A sweet I-work-at-a-bank-type guy once asked me if I’d read Tom Robbins. Well. I’d just left my complete Robbins collection (minus Still Life With Woodpecker) on my brownstone’s stoop because my new bookshelves couldn’t accommodate it. I’d sped through all his novels on high school beach trips. Unlike the book my mom gave me in lieu of explaining sex (Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, by Judy Blume), Robbins’ novels—Woodpecker, in particular—made sex sound fun. I might never read Jitterbug Perfume again, but Woodpecker, definitely.
Another reason to hang on to Woodpecker: It contains practical advice for my Brooklyn-based love life: “Who knows how to make love stay?” Robbins writes. Tip number one: “Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.”
By asking my opinion on Robbins, this fellow clearly wanted to hint at the free-spirited sexual hippie-beast inside him that might peek out after another IPA or two. Fast-forward two months—a text! “Enjoyed Jitterbug a lot better.” So much for that.
I still think the methodology is sound. Reading Woodpecker in public is advertising that you believe in the “sudden rush of magic” Robbins writes happens when two people meet and fall in love. Hey, you over there in the tortoiseshell wayfarers. Do you believe in magic?
4. The Conservationist Turned I-Banker
Book Bait: Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder
I met Tyler* at my college bookstore, where I had a work-study job. He had a blond ponytail and blue eyes and story after story about his summer working in Mozambique. At his cabin in the Shenandoah Valley, he showed me Africa photographs and popped open PBRs and danced with me to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Besmitten, loveshot, I e-mailed him an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Questions of Travel”: “And have we room / for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?” Let’s just say we didn’t.
Tyler visited campus once after he graduated. Running into him felt like meeting a new person. The old Tyler had given away all his clothes except for a T-shirt printed with Michelangelo putti and a pin-tucked linen button-down. The new Tyler wore an Hermès silk tie. The new Tyler cut his hair above his ears.
The point is, there may very well be a rock-climbing, “Sweet Thing”–humming, third-world-traveling adventurer sitting next to me, disguised in an expensive dark suit, wishing he were in Mozambique instead. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, a doctor named Paul Farmer travels to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, Russia, evangelizing the NGO-friendly doctrine that “the only real nation is humanity.” It’s powerful enough to tempt a man to reconsider that unlived life—and perhaps take someone else along, if they’re game for it. Reading Kidder suggests just that. Hey, Mr. John Varvatos: My hiking boots are ready when you are.
5. The Migratory Southerner
One October night, I left a party with a friend who put his denim jacket around my shoulders, the way nice Southern boys do. We walked to his house, where sheets of loose-leaf paper covered every surface—the couch, the floor, the desk. He read me part of one of his stories about Appalachia. Jacksonville City Nights played loud. We talked about Eudora Welty. I slept there. To say I had a crush on him after that would be an understatement of biblical proportions. But I never did anything about it—except write a hundred-page-long paper on Eudora Welty.
Welty is a writer’s writer steeped in the South. Because of that, I equate familiarity with her short stories and novels to a certain kind of vetting. More people seem to know Flannery O’Connor; if they’ve read A Good Man Is Hard to Find and can make witty reference to Hulga’s wooden leg, that’s a signifier and a turn-on in its own right. But meeting someone admiring of Welty is like spotting a rare bird.
Any self-respecting Southern writer should recognize her byline. A Curtain of Green and Other Stories is my favorite. It contains her best (in my opinion) stories: “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies,” and “Death of a Traveling Salesman.” They’re full of gossip and turns of phrase that prick up your ears, they’re so lively and specific, not to mention her dark humor. The communities where these stories take place make me feel so lonesome for home that I almost want to move back. Then I remember there aren’t any jobs and sigh. My best hope is finding someone in NYC who’s similarly nostalgic and as appreciative of Welty’s ear for language as I am.
In a twist on the Steel Magnolias aphorism, I offer: “If you have something smart to say, come sit by me.”
Photo via the Underground New York Public Library.
Elyse has written for (published and forthcoming): ELLE, BBC Travel, Creative Nonfiction, and The Daily Beast, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn Heights.