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Baltimore Dating for Dummies

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Now that over fifty percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce, there are more single people in their thirties, forties and fifties than ever before. What does this mean? Where will it lead? Is this a problem to be solved, or a phase in the development of a new social order? I have no answer to these questions but I do know this -- there are only two single men in Baltimore and they both have girlfriends.

Let me explain. In 2009, when I arrived in town newly separated, helpful friends pointed out two fellows I'll call Monty and Elliot. Monty was a dashing silver-haired photographer known for his elegant cocktail parties, Elliot a clever bartender in horn-rimmed glasses who was also a sportswriter. I cast my gaze in both directions but didn't end up dating either one of them.

Five years went by. Many more marriages ended. Numbered among the most recent crop of emerging singles is my fetching friend Strawberry Shortcake, a wide-eyed Girl Scout type fifteen years younger than I, hence not as scarred by the dissolution and depravity of the 1970s and 80s. This past Saturday I had the honor of taking Strawberry on her first night on the town as a single woman.

I am sad to report that it started with Monty and ended with Elliot and both Strawberry and I were home in bed by 11.

Plans for the evening were conceived when I received an invitation to one of Monty's famous soirees, an event I assumed would be teeming with romantic possibility. When I asked Strawberry to come along, she readily accepted. In fact, another friend had already suggested she go. Five and half years later, Monty remains one of Baltimore's leading men-about-town.

I suited myself up in black leather pants and boots; Strawberry appeared in one of her usual Little House on the Prairie ensembles, many of which feature gingham and shawls, yet have a weirdly sexy effect. The party was congenial enough, but Monty had a girlfriend in the kitchen. There was at least one other eligible man there, though even from a distance he appeared gloomy and tormented; it turned out he was the "Hot Neighbor" of Lauraville whose very recent marital breakup had already gone out over the wires. I realized this early in our conversation and exclaimed, "Oh, I know who you are! You're the Hot Neighbor!"

He looked confused. When I explained, he brightened for a moment before sinking back into his bitter malaise. "Well, maybe I will be soon," he said.

With the possibilities chez Monty so quickly disposed of, I suggested to Strawberry that we hit the bars and see what might be available. Having recently attempted a similar reconnaissance mission with another cute young divorcee, Rainbow Bright, I decided to skip Hampden and Station North.

Just a few weeks prior, Rainbow Bright and I had hoofed it through 13.5 Wine Bar, the Hon, Fraser's, Holy Frijoles, Joe Squared, Metro Gallery, The Depot, Club Charles, and several no-name spots on Howard Street. We turned up dozens of hipsters barely over their acne, two drag queens named Ellen Degenerate and Miss Construed, a bunch of my students from the University of Baltimore, and, briefly, John Waters, but even the open-minded and dauntless Rainbow Bright could find nothing of concupiscent consequence. At 1:20 a.m. we finished the last of our vodka-sodas and called it a night.

Strawberry Shortcake is no Rainbow Bright, I would soon learn. You try taking a picky teetotaler who goes to bed at 8:45 p.m. out for an exciting night on the town.

On the way south, I detoured to W.C. Harlan. (By the way, though you may not think of the Remington neighborhood as a happening party district, I just saw it written up in the Southwest Airlines magazine as the next big thing, which I found sort of scary.) In any case, this tiny, candlelit bar is my favorite, with its funky speakeasy ambience and its mismatched vintage glasses. "Reminds me of France," commented Strawberry, but this apparently was not a good thing, as she took all of ninety seconds to case the joint and head for the door. I shot a longing glance over my shoulder at the blackboard describing the Cocktail du Jour, which had nine ingredients, seven of them alcoholic.

The ideal venue for Strawberry's debut, I felt, would be the bar at Pazo, a watering hole for upscale types. But Pazo was closed for a House of Cards wrap party, Bond Street Social was weirdly empty, and Ouzo Bay was filled with couples. So I gave up my Harbor East platinum-card fantasies and ventured into gritty Fell's Point proper, first stopping at Loring Cornish's mosaic gallery for a pizzazz infusion. "Loring Cornish radiates sex," according to my neighbor Pam Stein, referring to the artist's habit of engaging in various sweaty and muscular artistic labors on the sidewalk in tiny boxer shorts and nothing more.

But it was a chilly night and we found Cornish fully dressed, though sweet and fabulous as ever. I bought a gorgeous mosaic for a veritable pittance, and good thing because Strawberry would not stop anywhere long enough to let me spend money for the next several hours. We slithered into the long narrow cavern of Leadbetter's, where customers and band were smushed together in two straight lines like the girls in Madeline. A few kindly winos beamed at us, but Strawberry marched on. We stampeded through One-eyed Mikes, Kooper's, Duda's, Cat's Eye, and The Horse You Rode In On. Sundry gentlemen along the trail returned the ecstatic smile I had plastered on my face; still, Strawberry saw no one to slow her down. She clearly did not subscribe to the order-a-drink-and-see-what-happens school of dating.

Finally, I pulled her into a chair at a sidewalk cafe to get a hamburger. All else aside, it was a ravishing night; the bay sparkled, the air was crisp, the sidewalks bustling. It was almost like we were tourists, especially when it took us another half-hour to locate our car, left behind ten bars ago.

"This was fun!" said Strawberry, yawning as she slid behind the wheel, but Jesus, it was only 9:30 and this was the most bar-hopping I had done in my life without having a single drink. Grasping at straws, I suggested we hit Elliot's place uptown. Strawberry knew of him, though it was now said he had a girlfriend.

We found many single women already in attendance at the bar when we arrived. All were bemoaning the Baltimore dating scene while sucking down chocolate martinis and flirting with the ever-smiling Elliot, who sported but refrained from twirling his new handlebar moustache. He set Strawberry and me up with glasses of rosé and asked what we'd been up to. We told him we'd been at a party at Monty's, who is normally one of Elliot's Saturday night regulars.

"Oh, that's where he is," said Elliot, "I wondered." Clearly, he was used to having a little help in entertaining the lovely, lonely ladies of North Baltimore.

I wish I knew a better way to help my little sisters in singlehood, but I have had no better luck at online dating than I've had in the bars. Fortunately Strawberry and Rainbow are both young and beautiful, and life is a mysterious journey with no real shortcuts. I predict happy endings all around.