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I mean I was, but I was 12.
I love the 90s. Not for the fashion (apart from Liv Tyler’s entire Stealing Beauty wardrobe) or some nostalgic childhood stores of memory, but rather for the logistics. Simply the way things were then and will never again be. We can’t un-invent the Internet, can’t turn back the course of a global shift in like…everything. I imagine people in the early 50s went through quite an adjustment period when televisions became a must-own commodity in every home. Noise that wasn’t previously there, a gadget eating into their quality family time. But those assholes had the ability to turn the thing off. They could set it out on the curb on trash day if they wanted. Not having a television wouldn’t realistically set them back in any way. They didn’t have to rely on it for communication, employment, even safety. It was just a thing that entertained them sometimes. It certainly never promised it could find them a husband.
I wish I was single in the 90s. I mean I was, but I was 12. There were no dating apps then. No cell phones, really. Certainly no cell phones people took seriously. The Zack Morris was more joke than status symbol. There were no dick pics back then either, unless someone at Walgreens developed them for the guy first, and who would risk hourly employees passing thataround on a smoke break? Can you imagine that walk of shame to and from the photo counter? You could never visit that drugstore again. You might even have to move out of state to avoid the shame. Oh, to have that built-in consequence at work nowadays. At present, men can fire off photos of their genitals in between brushing their teeth and taking a shit, all in total privacy. So yes, I miss the good old days.
Back then it was considered rude to be broken up with over the phone, with the worst offense occurring via answering machine. You were broken up with in person. Those were the days of men. Now a guy simply stops speaking to you without warning, leaving you to wonder if he was hit by a bus on his way to meet you or if he left you sitting alone at a bar entirely on purpose and without regard for your feelings. And that’s only if you had plans to see each other again. In today’s dating world, you literally never know if your first, or fifteenth date will be the last time you see or hear from someone. Both are just as likely, percentage wise.
I’m of the last generation that will ever remember both. The world with the Internet, and without. But what the generation above me has that I don’t is the fact that they were single, and dating, in the 90s. What was it like? When you made plans with someone, you actually had to show up, as the text flake-out was not a menu item available to you. Maybe people were more cautious about making plans, knowing they’d really have to keep them? Maybe the quality of a night out was improved by people being more selective? Perhaps women were simply stood up more? I want to study this like an anthropologist. It’s baffling, and also I feel like we need to preserve these stories for generations to come. My grandkids (ugh) will be hanging out via video chat (in my day it was the mall) and going to school through virtual reality (I took a bus, like an American). In the future no one will ever leave the house and dating will be determined by algorithm. Let’s make sure to tell future generations just how good we had it, hmm?
Entire relationships now take place without the use of the human voice. Texting, the least-warm communications method short of a fire engine’s siren is how we connect to and interact with other human beings. Major decisions, life changes are determined via text. Moving in together, merging bank accounts, divorce, these things can legitimately be decided upon with nothing more than our thumbs, and it’s ruffling my goddamn feathers. It’s also just an illogical way to build up an affinity for someone. I don’t think it’s bragging if I say I can write a decent sentence suitable for texting. I’m not bad at that particular activity. But I don’t think it’s possible to fall in love with me (or even just fall in like with me), through texting alone. But it’s all I’ve got.
There was a time in my single life when I was still taking “advice.” I was listening to what other people had to say, following their instructions, because I didn’t want to seem (or even truly be) closed off or stubborn. I still figured anything was worth a shot. A good friend of mine, slightly older and one of the first to really utilize online dating (with success) told me I had to stop the texting and demand that a guy call me. Person-to-person connection and attachment development couldn’t happen via text, voice had to be involved. I resisted, but she was married to a guy she met online, the girl had clout. I went out on a date with a very nice, funny, charming guy, who then texted me nonstop, never really asking to see me again, but not leaving me alone, either. She said I was not to write back to one more text message, I was simply to say:
Hey, I’m really busy at work right now. Why don’t you give me a call tonight and we can make plans?
And he did! He actually called me on the phone and I heard his voice. This was a triumph, a success. Except for the part where he didn’t know how to speak on the phone very well or even form coherent sentences and it was the worst and most awkward 2:13 of my entire life. We didn’t make any concrete plans, and I never heard from him again, via phone, text, or carrier pigeon. I haven’t asked a man to call me since. This was three years ago. I don’t take advice anymore.
I remember when (holy shit that sounds old) the only way you could communicate with your friends if you were not in the same room was via telephone. We lived and died by our phones, and our answering machines. I had the clear kind with the colorful innards and a neon cord. Now dusty relics in the basement of a hoarder, these items were once the primary tools utilized by the unmarried and mating human adult. So was memory, for goodness sake. Count, if you will, the number of phone numbers you currently know by heart. If you can’t get past Mom….Dad, you’ve fallen victim. We’re not currently using our memories, our speaking skills, or our manners. We did in the 90s.
And, my goodness, did they meet people naturally back then? Like, out at places? During events that were not specifically and obviously set ups? Can you imagine a buzzyworthy bar back in the 90s? Just picture it! It must have been full of people looking up, for fuck’s sake, paying attention to what was happening in front of them, in the room, rather than a device and 4G connection away, all with a backdrop of 90s alternative/rock (real, not like..The Verve Pipe), playing perfectly above their heads. There were no craft cocktails being over-elaborately shaken by mustached men in vests. There were just shots and beers doled out by tall, dirty-haired men or lipsticked women who took no shit. Did these people know how good they had it? Now house music blares seizure-inducing tones and frequencies as a sea of faces lights up with a light blue glow, as people involve themselves in something fake somewhere else that is more important than something real in the room right now.
Did guys actually come up to women and say hi back then? Did they speak to women? Did they have like…pick up lines? How did it all work? If I search my brain, no man has come up to me in public to speak to me within the last five years, apart from the drunk who started yelling at me on New Year’s Eve this past January. That little Napoleon can fuck right off. But in general, men don’t say hi. They don’t send girls drinks from across the room. The only way I can get a guy to say hello to me is via dating app and even then my ratio of matches to hellos is probably 50–1. And climbing.
I’m invisible when I go out. The people that invited me remember I’m there, sure, but they’re the only people I talk to. New people don’t happen to me in public. Only online or in business meetings or press previews where everyone is in PR and they’re my friend because they’re being paid to be. I haven’t left a venue knowing someone I didn’t know before since law school. But if this was the 90s, wouldn’t people, guys, have to talk to me? If that was the only way to meet women, short of an inappropriate office romance (because those were inappropriate back then), wouldn’t men need to speak to women in person more often, simply out of necessity? Surely I could beone of those women.
And I know what you’re thinking: Shani, the things you want are probably not happening because of you, not because it’s no longer the 90s. Live in the now. And I’m sure you’re right. There’s probably something inherently terrible about me that’s preventing men from saying hello. Friends and colleagues have often referred to me as intimidating, but I don’t know what that means, apart from “not an airhead.” Women are more successful and independent today than they’ve ever been but they are still expected to just nod and smile if they want boys to like them. I think from your reading you can gather that the only time I might nod and smile is if someone is offering me a cookie. Apart from that, I engage in actual conversation and have real thoughts and questions and opinions and I don’t hide myself to seem less of myself in order to make people like me. My friends and family like me just fine. I’m assuming one day, one man, might do the same. If anything, it’s a filter, my personality. If I scare or intimidate you, good. Away with you. I have a thing for bravery.
Men must have also gone out more often back then in general. Without women. Absent the internet, I bet men left the house more without first being invited out by their friends’ girlfriends or wives, for a “group thing.” I bet single men used to leave the house of their own volition. I bet they went to bars to meet friends and didn’t stay home all the time playing video games that look like real life and watching endless options on Netflix because back then Netflix was a VCR + Blockbuster and video games still had visible pixels. They must have gone out! I bet the whole single world was a pageant of penis back then. Options as far as the colored contact lensed eye could see. Now single women spend an inordinate amount of time asking each other one question, over and over and over:
“Where do single guys go?”
We simply don’t know. We can’t find them. They’re insects scattering at the flip of a light switch. They’re not at bars, or restaurants. They don’t attend events. I’ve never sat next to one on an airplane and I fly about five times a year. I’m 33 so let’s start at age 18 and that makes 75 flights where I’ve only sat next to rye toast businessmen or girls in college who wear pajamas to the airport. Not a single, single man. Ever. Somewhere along the way we decided to start lying to each other, suggesting we try to meet guys at the grocery store. Some gremlin put a scene like that in a movie and we all decided to take it as gospel because that was a much better story to tell our grandkids. You actually can meet men at the grocery store, but you have to hunt them down, like safari.
Today, we turn our lenses to the harshly lit tundra of Whole Foods. It is in this landscape we will attempt to identify and capture a rarely seen species. Good fortune is with us tonight, as it is a Tuesday and a totally illogical night of the week to grocery shop. We have no doubt we’ll have sightings, our hunting grounds should be rich. Here, in the pre-cut fruit section, we see an adult male of the tribe in pursuit of sustenance. The least-skilled of the herd at this particular task, and prone to depending on others for delivery of food, the unpartnered adult male will often struggle to select proper items for maintaining physical, nutritional health, making him easy to spot. The contents of his cart are the key signs that an adult male is unpartnered, and thus available for capture. Wardrobe is never a guaranteed indicator, often leading to confusion. Food item selection is far more clear, far more indicative. Items will often be frozen, with colorful labels. Deli meats will be pre-packaged, rather than sliced at a counter. Bread will be long and rectangular in shape — never round or freshly baked. A squeeze bottle of something is a good sign. If you see a six pack of an IPA, strike, strike quickly.
But we always forget one important thing about meeting men at the grocery store. This is assuming single men are actually, miraculously at the grocery store at the precise time you are, and they’re not “sleepers,” men who walk around with just a handheld basket, rather than a cart, but who you’ll later see are paired up with a woman who herself has a handheld basket, and was just shopping on the other side of the store from her boyfriend to save time. The Bachelorette is coming on, they need to hurry.
What we forget is that striking up a conversation in a grocery store is really hard. Inter-aisle eye contact is rare. We’re all looking at items, not each other. The obvious conversation topic, food (or at Whole Foods, price), is not the sexiest one. It’s also hella embarrassing to start talking to a guy at the grocery store. Everyone, literally everyone there knows what you’re up to. So does he.
And that’s the best we’ve done. That’s the best hunting ground we’ve come up with since the 90s. The cereal aisle. We’re doomed. The only target-rich environments left live in our phones. Jesus, I’ve heard of more people meeting each other on Instagram these days than in person.
So yes, I miss the 90s. When I still listened to music on an actual radio and taped songs as they came on. I had to work for my music collection, rather than simply opening Spotify. Boys asked girls out by passing them notes or like…actually asking. A time when there were no cell phones on dinner tables, no dating apps exposing us to everyone, anyone, on the off chance one of those millions of someones was a person we might like. Ghosting, if it existed, didn’t have a name. Seeing a movie in the theater still cost less than purchasing the DVD of it. Hair was messy and jeans were ripped, but not on purpose. I owned a Caboodle. Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon were the stars of Monday lunch table conversation. The family all shared one computer. There was a little bit of accountability in dating. And all my phone knew how to do was ring.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot. If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy The Insanity Of Being Single, or The Reason We’re “Still” Single.