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BY KATE WALTER | I felt anxious before the Speed Dating event at the Gay Center. I meditated, drank a glass of wine, took a bath and got dressed. I put on tan jeans and my expensive black loafers with zippers and patent leather stripes. I donned my neo-hippie shirt, a tight black top with glittery silver-colored Indian embroidery around the V-neck. I threw several strands of prayer beads around my wrist, added some gel to my brown hair, grabbed a jacket and walked to the Center on W. 13th St., thinking I looked like a cool urban yogini.
After being dumped by my partner of 26 years, I was struggling to get back out there. Ironically, one reason I stayed in a difficult relationship was to avoid dating at my age. Now I was on the scene, trying to meet someone new as I approached 60. At first, I volunteered at gay events and attended fundraisers, but I didn’t meet anyone special. Had I forgotten how to flirt?
As I entered the former classroom, the host put on some music as everyone nervously checked out everyone else. This was the time when we needed alcohol; instead, we got name tags and were assigned to sides as we set up two rows with folding chairs facing each other. One row stayed put while the other moved when the host blew a whistle every five minutes.
The first woman I met was a body builder who taught gym and played guitar. I enjoyed talking to her, but she lived Upstate.
Next I was chatting with a woman from Westchester who’d arrived with a group of local friends, reminding me of a high school clique. A short, stocky woman, who worked for a nonprofit, she complimented my shoes and beads. She also did yoga and greeted me, “Namaste.” I liked her energy, but I was not attracted to her and she lived too far away.
The third woman was from Manhattan. She was tall, thin and pretty, a dancer whose company produced old musicals. She liked the classical concerts in Central Park. I’m into the rock and funk of Summerstage. As a former music journalist who loves soul and Afro pop, I could not imagine being with someone who preferred Beethoven to Fela.
As we rotated again, I was finally sitting across from this hip-looking woman who had caught my eye the second she walked into the room. She was sultry, just my type: thick black hair, dark eyes, chin-length haircut that framed a pretty face, nice figure and boho clothes. But I feared she was 20 years younger than me.
She was curious about how Downtown had changed and we got into discussing the East Village in the ’80s. She was awed that I’d attended performances at the Wow Café in its early years.
“Actually, I covered that scene for The Advocate,” I said. “I’m a journalist.”
“That is so cool,” she said, impressed. “I was in high school then, but over the years, I saw a lot of those performers, like The Five Lesbian Brothers and the group that does the fairy tales — what’s their name?”
“Split Britches,” I said, realizing she was a teenager when I was an adult living in the East Village. “Yeah, the Wow Café was an incubator for many actors who moved to bigger venues, even Broadway.”
I liked this woman. She was cute and had a cool job — sign language interpreter. But she lived on the West Coast and was too young. The event was geared for women ages 40 and up. She was one of the youngest and I was one of the oldest. My hair stylist, Heather, who gave me dating advice, and “cut the love” into my hair, said I looked 52 and could date someone 40. Really?
As I continued to make the rounds, I met two aspiring writers. One woman, who had grown up in Mali, was writing a book and had attended a bunch of workshops and retreats. She was a large femme with interesting jewelry. I told her I was writing a memoir about the breakup of my 26-year relationship and my recovery.
She seemed dedicated to her project but had not published anything. So I suggested she try to sell part of her book as an essay or article to get exposure.
“Someone else told me that,” she said. “Thanks for the tip.”
“Keep writing,” I said as the signal indicated I should move to the next chair.
A matronly looking woman, who reminded me of my friend’s Italian grandmother, was enthused about a short-story class she was taking at the local community college. Her main goal in life was to publish something, anything. Once she discovered I taught writing, she peppered me with questions about the process.
“I hope we can talk more about this at the break,” she said, as I quickly escaped.
I did not come here to give advice. I wanted to meet a sexy, creative woman to inspire me.
Another cluster of friends were from the far reaches of Queens. Now I felt brave. I had come alone. One woman, who worked for the city as a housing inspector, talked about rats and roaches. I switched the subject and discovered she enjoyed the gay beach at Riis Park.
“I usually go to the Jersey Shore,” I said. “Ever been to Asbury Park? It’s a cool scene — a gay beach and nightlife, easy to get to from the city.”
“Heard of it, but I’ve never gone there,” she said. It made sense she’d go to Riis Park if she lived way out in Queens and had a car. I reverted to my Jersey roots in summertime.
Some women were shy and I had to pull details from them. I was good at getting quiet people to speak — a skill I acquired in the classroom — but this meant I was doing all the questioning and not getting to talk about myself.
This rotating on the chairs went on for about an hour. Then we took a break for soft drinks, chips and pretzels, and resumed with everyone in a circle answering short one-liners the organizer presented, such as, “If people could describe you with one adjective, what would it be?” I said, “Quirky.”
“What’s your favorite movie set in New York City?”
“ ‘Annie Hall’,” I said, realizing my instant reply aged me. When the popular film debuted in 1977, I was starting my lifelong love affair with Manhattan, now my longest relationship.
At the end of the night we were encouraged to exchange cards or numbers with anyone we clicked with. This format made me uncomfortable because it put too much burden on the attendees. But I wanted to prove to myself I could do this, so I gave my card to the body builder and the dancer. I initiated this. No one rushed to ask for my number, so I had no real idea how they felt about me. After I got home, I knew I was not going to contact someone living Upstate. I might e-mail the dancer who lived Uptown.
I should have gotten the number of the sign language interpreter who was into performance art. So what if she was 20 years younger and only visiting? What if she liked older women or had cool gay friends who lived here? Maybe her mother was a lesbian.
I walked home knowing I was a Manhattan chauvinist, a Village intellectual who didn’t want to date working-class women from the outer boroughs, or people outside New York City. I was instantly turned off to anyone who said, “I could never live here,” as I thought to myself that I could never live anywhere else.
When I analyzed this evening with my shrink, she noted that I was too critical.
“You need to be careful with your baddar,” Dr. R declared.
“Baddar? Never heard of that expression. Did you make that term up?”
“Yes, I did,” Dr. R said proudly. “I made it up right now, just for you. Baddar means you are looking for things to dislike. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps you at a distance.”
“So it’s like gaydar,” I said, “where you’re sniffing around to see if someone is gay, except now I’m sniffing around with my antennae up looking for bad things.”
“That’s right. You can be judgmental as a culture critic,” said my therapist, “but it works against you in person. Baddar means you have mixed feelings about getting closer to someone new.”
I felt special my shrink had coined a phrase just for me. I have been working on that concept when meeting women, and I have improved. I even dated an attorney from New Jersey for three months who kept saying, “You’re a real New Yorker.”
I just bought a ticket for this Pride event at the Strand, “Queer Ladies Speed Dating.” It’s geared for book lovers, like me. I plan to switch off the baddar, turn on the charm.
Kate Walter has just finished writing a memoir, “Looking for a Kiss: A Sapphic Search for Sex and Serenity”