Love in the Time of Grindr

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul welcomes Gay.com readers with a taste of Alphabet City: My So-Called Sitcom Life, adapted from Episode 14: Happy Soul.  If you like what you read—purchase the book!

Because my partner and I “met cute” online at Gay.com nearly ten years, I’ve always been a fan of technology’s romantic possibilities.  My current sex-tual infatuation is with an iPhone hook-up app called Grindr.  For many gay boys, Grindr is a cruising dream come true—a GPS-based service that locates nearby men nearby who are ready for action, serving up provocative pictures with a note of proximity—usually just feet away.

Grindr Screenshot - I'm not here...

With Grindr, you cannot only find Mr. Right Now, but Mr. Right Next Door.  As much as I marvel at the app’s clever name, niche and possibilities, I know that if today I were using it to find love, I would never have met my boyfriend.  My problem is simple: I’m geographically narrow-minded.  In 1999, I was a transplanted Texan posing as an East Village snob, and lucky that rudimentary Internet dating protocols withheld a key fact about my future lover—he lived on Wall Street.

At the time, as I write in Alphabet City: My So-Called Sitcom Life, I thought of myself as a gay Mary Tyler Moore looking for a fresh start—and a new boyfriend—in the big city.  But my globetrotting job as a publicist for Condé Nast Traveler left me exhausted at the thought of spending precious free time in bars on the prowl.  A few years on the other side of 30, and the loneliness was wearing on me.  So when the Internet as hook up engine burst onto the gay scene at the turn of the century, I signed up enthusiastically hoping that online matchmaking would prove superior to suggestive winks in disco infernos.  Convinced that Gay.com might expand my dating horizons, I fished in its online pond as NYCBUCKY.

At first, real time meetings with online flirtations didn’t go well.  It took several painful dinner first-dates to learn that chances were good the guy in real life would be the opposite of his description.  DowntownHUNG was actually from the suburbs and had a widely inflated sense of himself.  STUDMuffin69 needed to lay off the pastries.  Hard4U spoke about his member non-stop—two hours of dirty talk over noodles proved too hard for me.

Some guys would have given up on the online thing altogether.  But I couldn’t resist the Internet temptation—the gigantic desktop computer in my basement living room stared me down with the possibility that Prince Charming was waiting for my charming banter in the NYC chat room.  The sound of static as the modem connected always sent a shiver of anticipation through me—Pavlov’s gay dog.

One night, as I scanned through the typical assortment of evocative screen names, one caught my eye—STARBSTRD.  Nothing particularly sexual about that.  Bastard?  A little bit off putting really.  Was that some kind of kinky sexual thing?  But his description was tantalizing, endearing and funny: “Happy soul, well endowed.” STARBSTRD seemed different.  I fretted over a good opening line for at least 30 seconds—an online eternity.  He could be deeply involved with someone else by the time I finally messaged him.

NYCBUCKY: Are you a happy soul because you’re well endowed?

Few second pause.  No reply.  I must have lost him.  Then POP—a reply.

STARBSTRD: Funny 😉  I never connected the 2.

NYCBUCKY: Really?  Most gay boys would!

And we were off.  Over the course of the next 73 chat screens, I uncovered that he was:

30 years old—finally a boy my age!

Worked as an economist—I’d never dated a banker!

From Mexico City—I loved Latinos!

Enjoyed dancing, food, yoga, rollerblading—I loved two of those things!

STARBSTRD: What’s ur name?

NYCBUCKY: Jon Paul

STARBSTRD: That’s funny!

Why was that funny?  People making jokes about my name exhausted me.  The next line was usually, “Oh, like John Paul Jones?”  Or John Paul Sartre.  While John Paul Stevens was one thing, I cringed at John Paul George and Ringo.  Or God forbid, the Pope.  It’s just one of those things I’ve heard my whole life and am prickly about.  The chat had derailed and I was ready to end it over the name game.

STARBSTRD: Wanna come over and cuddle?

NYCBUCKY: Gimme a break.

Cuddle?  What self-pronounced well-endowed gay guy thinks I’m going to believe that?  Besides, if I did drag myself all the way to his apartment, I certainly hoped we would do more than just cuddle if he lived up to proclamations.

STABRSTRD: Want to go on a date, then?

NYCBUCKY: Not really.  I don’t even know your name.

STARBSTRD: Juan Pablo.

NYCBUCKY: Not funny.

On the one hand, I gave him points for being clever—translating my name into Spanish.  English Jon Paul became Spanish Juan Pablo.  On the other, he had taken the name thing too far, and was living up to his screen name, acting like a bastard.  I was tiring of this seemingly endless banter; it was hard to stay witty and disinterested at the same time.  I was thinking of a nice way to shut down the chat, and then Pop Pop Pop—three screens in a row.

STARBSTRD: No, I’m not kidding.

STARBSTRD: We have the same name.

STARBSTRD: That’s why I thought you were kidding.

What were the chances? We had the same name—my Texan Jon Paul to his Mexican Juan Pablo. Of all the horny gay boy gin joint chat rooms in the world he had to log on to this one.

How could I not go out on a date with someone who had my same name?  So I gave him my number and he phoned immediately to make plans for the next day.  His voice was a surprise—no rolled “R’s” or deep Latin baritone; instead his speech was slightly high pitched with an odd Pan-European accent we’ve come to associate with Madonna.

“How about a stroll around Wall Street?” he asked.

As an Alphabet City hipster, I thought of the Financial District as a wasteland located across the DMZ of Canal Street.  Had he revealed his geographically undesirable locale any earlier, love on the information superhighway might have hit a speed bump.  But now, he already had me hooked, and despite my distaste for Wall Street, I was intrigued.  Besides, “a stroll?”  He sounded positively Parisian, a flaneur.  In the hustle of New York City, I rarely just wandered aimlessly, but Happy Soul (well-endowed) sounded like he had a plan.  And so I agreed to expand my neighborhood boundaries.

The next day, ten minutes before the appointed hour, I sat on a bench in the World Financial Center filled with Chinese brides in wedding dresses with bright pumps trailed by photographers.  I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize Juan Pablo from the picture he had emailed.  He said it was of him on a recent trip to Thailand, which I expected would be him in a Speedo on a sandy beach.  But the jpeg was a close shot of his sweaty smiling face next to a plate of glassy noodles with red peppers. What an odd choice.  As his publicist, I’d counsel him to get a more flattering headshot.

“Hey Bucky, sorry, yoga ran long.”

STARBSTRD was 15 minutes late, glistening from his workout.  He was dressed in some last season baggy clam diggers from the GAP, an ill-fitting graphic t-shirt from French Connection, and an orange fisherman’s hat from God knows where.  I tried shaking off my snobby Condé Nast fashion sense.

“Oh hey, that’s fine.  I just got here, really,” I lied.

I stood up and we smiled at each other, relieved that our real selves lived up to the online potential we advertised.  As I looked past the clothes, he was handsome in an offbeat way, with brown eyes and an oversize nose punctuating a broad smile that bared his happy soul—think sweet face of Sean Astin with the sexy spirit of Gael Garcia Bernal.  I was pretty charmed.

We hugged hello in that awkward way that comes when you have never met a guy in person but nonetheless know a little too much about him—like his preference for top or bottom.  Truthfully, I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t the darker skinned Latino that I imagined.

“You’re whiter than I am.  How are you from Mexico?” I blurted out.

“Thanks.  I work at this color.  My religion is sun block.”

I laughed, not knowing if he was intentionally cracking a joke, or if English as a Second Language was going to be more of a problem—or benefit—than I bargained for.  We strolled and chatted and teased about all the things you over-share on a first date in New York City—your job, your apartment, your previous life discarded to live in the center ring of the Big Apple circus.  We ambled for two hours on a walk that should have taken twenty minutes.  Proud of myself for overcoming my geographic xenophobia, I suddenly felt something funny inside—a sense that this online dating possibility was about to become an important co-star in my life.

Ten years later, I am still the Tex to his Mex, and we continue to push each other’s buttons—and boundaries.  Like many long-term partners, we face the challenge of keeping the bedroom rocking long after the novelty wears off.  Perhaps because we met under such provocative circumstances, we have always been open to exploration.  Which must be why Juan Pablo encourages my use of sex toys like Grindr.  At dull parties in Chelsea, he laughs when I pull it out, log on, and pass it around—soon even the most boring guests are transformed into tantalized voyeurs.  During flight delays at Newark, we’ve amused ourselves with surreptitious glances at Grindr.  In a romantic Montreal bistro, we challenged each other to a Grindr Duel: seeing whose iPhone pulled up the hunkier guys—there’s a quirk in the system that doesn’t necessarily duplicate the same hotties.

Despite all the titillating fun and groundbreaking advances in dating technology, I am still glad Juan Pablo and I met in simpler online times—back when screen names were mysterious and your location was closeted.  Today, I might not be adventurous enough to venture outside my comfort zone and find out if STARBSTRD comes as advertised—happy soul and all.

Click here to purchase Alphabet City: My So-Called Sitcom Life.

Below is a flipcam video of JP reading from this chapter at a book party at Kimpton’s Nine Zero hotel in Boston:

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