Long, long ago, in an age before Tinder or OKCupid, there were personal ads. This was long before message boards, long before even the personals on line at Nerve.com (is that still a thing?). No web then, no on line world. There were only magazines and newspapers. This may be long enough ago for the newspapers I'm thinking of to have been called "gazettes". In any case, though--- personal ads.
I don't think I saw any of them growing up. It wasn't until I went off to university that I saw personal ads. I can remember sitting in the reading room of the university library when I first discovered such things. The first place I saw them was very probably the Village Voice, back in an era when the Voice still had a certain louche air about it. I was amazed, really. People advertising for sexual services, people searching for romance, people being reasonably open about their needs and tastes and desires. I was impressed by it all. Those ads seemed to promise a whole new world. They promised a city and a world where things I'd read about happened in real life. They made me believe that it was possible to find others who shared my tastes.
The Village Voice... That was the first place I found personals. I didn't quite know how to answer the ads, mind you. I was afraid of expecting too much, of having dreams that could never come true. I was a bit afraid of being found out, of having someone I'd written to realize that I was from someplace that could never be regarded as fashionable. At that age, I was terrified of being thought of as a mere callow provincial boy. I didn't quite know how to present myself; I certainly didn't believe I could dress well enough or look handsome enough to be accepted. I recall poring over personals ads and annotating them and wondering how many responses each ad was getting. I wondered, too, exactly how I'd fail at being good enough for each ad.
Beyond the Village Voice, I came across the NYRB and the LRB. Different ads--- more oblique, more self-consciously literary. I won't use "pretentious", though some of the ads in the book reviews were obviously all about signaling about cultural capital. I haven't seen a hard copy of either journal in a long time; I don't know if the personals ads are still there. I can remember being impressed by some of them, and a bit wary, too. I knew even in my undergraduate days that an ad in the NYRB would be expensive, and that did worry me. I didn't have the money to put an ad in the NYRB, and I did feel more than a little socially overawed by anyone who did. Well, I was very young. I didn't quite get that the people placing the ads were certainly older than I was--- employed somewhere, even if they weren't from a higher social class. I was a bit afraid of whoever might be behind the ads, afraid that even with being at an Ivy wasn't enough to overcome the social disadvantages of not being a New Yorker.
A friend in England tells me that she always loved the ads in Private Eye:
Alongside short sharp strange romance/hookup ads (ranging from wry to bleak in tone), there was a whole section in which people outright asked for money - they'd say something like, 'Impoverished grad student needs urgent support' and then list their bank details. Or 'Desperate and deep in debt. Bless you. [bank info]'. Just these weird one-line sob-stories or outlines of ambition. 'Would-be entrepreneur seeks angel. [bank info]'. I have often wondered if any of these were genuine and whether they received any donations.
Now I've not seen a copy of Private Eye in forever, though I understand that it's still out there. I've no idea if still carries ads like that, though of course I hope it does. Those sound much more like the kind of ads I need to place.
All in all, I do miss actual personal ads, though. They were much less intimidating than, say, a Tinder or OKCupid profile. As long as I'm writing, I can present myself as attractive. I can avoid my age and looks and lead with the things I am good at--- conversation, ideas, the willingness to explore. Personals ads at least stave off the moment of disappointment for a while. And writing an introductory letter is always so much easier and less terrifying than being seen in a photo.
Who knows--- one might even get a good response to a desperate ad in Private Eye seeking help for financial straits.
I have no idea how to do anything for dating-by-app. Online dating is designed to filter out people like me, and there's no point in trying to be anyone who'd merit the correct swipe from anyone attractive. Even in a world where people seem vaguely offended when everything's not on line, I'd have to rely on the written word.
Which leads to a question to anyone reading this. How would you construct an old-school personal ad for yourselves? How would you present yourself to potential partners in a paragraph rather than pixels? What would you write about yourself?
And, well, yes--- if you'd been hired to write a personal ad for me, what would you write?