Feature Lonely land

Jobs and housing are up in SA, but romance seems as elusive as ever

It’s springtime in San Antonio. Where’s the love? Every late spring or early summer since 2001, Forbes.com — notorious “best-of” list purveyor and self-styled sometime arbiter of hip — canvasses 40 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas and dispenses to its sizeable reading public a calculated inventory of the year’s “Best Cities for Singles.”

Every late spring or early summer since 2001, as a result, Forbes.com readers are taught anew that San Antonio sucks for the unmarried. And, apparently, it’s getting worse.

Of the twoscore towns reviewed by the site in 2005, the Alamo City checked in at a paltry No. 35 — seven slots down from last year — to finish just a hair behind Indianapolis and barely edge such haute-couture hotbeds as Norfolk, Virginia, Providence, Rhode Island, and Greensboro, North Carolina. (SA’s best rating to date was its debut at No. 25 in the inaugural 2001 list; last year’s mark was its worst showing yet.) Northern cousins Austin and Dallas-Ft. Worth fared a good bit better, nabbing the No. 11 and No. 20 spots, respectively. The relative snubs don’t stop there, though: click a link dubbed “Coolest Cities” to see Austin pop up at No. 1; select “Least Cool Cities” to open a window displaying — you guessed it — home, sweet SA, four places from the bottom.

City scores are based on one to 40 rankings in six categories, including nightlife, culture — which includes pro-sports teams — and cost of living. Surprisingly, San Antonio only manages to creep into the top 25 in two areas: job growth (8) and nightlife (16). Despite our best efforts, it seems, we’re still six spots behind, and getting out-cultured by, last year’s last-place finisher, Pittsburgh. Yes, that Pittsburgh.

Can it really be that bad, though?

Depends who you ask.

One problem that seems to pervade the San Antonio scene is familiarity. For those who have lived here all their lives, or tend to run in the same circles or frequent the same places, the search for new faces can prove difficult.

“It really just seems like everyone knows one another already,” says Patty, a 40-ish saleswoman and fairly recent divorcée who was teaching her mother to play pool at The Fox and the Hound on a recent evening. “The single scene here seems to be the same single people, or they’ve become single again.”

Her sister Anne, also 40-ish and divorced, agrees. Both women say they’ve lived here since they were born, and tire of attending the same functions they’ve been going to for years.

“It’s still run by these old men who think they’re ageless,” says Anne, of an annual party series. “But they’re crotchety old men ... they’ve got their gold watches and gold chains — yuck!”

“And they’re pot-bellied,” Patty chimes in, matter-of-factly. Anne nods.

“It’s been the same guys for years,” she tsk-tsks. “This is a very small town, for a big city.”

Frustration and boredom with the status quo of singlehood is by no means limited to socialites, however.

“It sucks out here,” says (another) Ann, a 26-year-old security guard who has lived in San Antonio for 22 years, as she watches the women trickling into Heat. “San Antonio sucks when you’re single. Because the gay community’s too ... small.”

As Ann explains it, if she hasn’t been with you, she’s been with your friend.

“I know everybody,” she says. “I had dated someone, an old girlfriend, and I saw her ... about a year ago, and she was `dating` my cousin.”

The sentiment is echoed by Brent, 23, who works at The Saint, a downtown gay bar.

“I already know everybody,” he says. “It’s hard to meet new people. People are trying to get out because it’s so small here. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Small worlds aside, many singles believe the problem is that the city simply doesn’t cater to the unmarried lifestyle. They feel that social life in San Antonio is constructed around parents and their children, and options for those who are not at that stage want for diversity; this as opposed to, say, Austin.

“There is no answer,” says Marissa, a third-grade teacher in her late 20s, sitting with four friends in a booth at The Fox and the Hound. “This is a family city. San Antonio is just not a place for single people to meet.” Marissa bemoans the perils of barroom dating and her friends genuine distress over the paucity of local meeting places that do not hinge on the sale of food or alcohol.

“I do not like drunk men,” says Lauren, who works in radio. “I cannot meet a man if he’s drunk ... It’s like a different person ... When you go to the bar, he’s with like a bunch of his friends, she’s with a bunch of her friends, they’re trying to talk over the loud music ... It’s really hard to get to know someone at a bar.”

Some, in such an environment, will resort to alternate forms of communication, as Marissa found out. “Somebody licked my face one time,” she says. “Yes. He walked up to me and licked my face. That was downtown, at a bar.”

Another problem with going downtown, Marissa says, is that even the most promising of meetings can prove exasperatingly fruitless.

“You can meet OK people,” says Marissa, “but most of the time, because of the tourist-y stuff downtown, you don’t meet people that live here. I’ve met two that don’t live here.”

Heather, a marketing professional, commiserates with her friend, and suggests that San Antonio may not be attractive enough economically to achieve high rates of potential-mate retention.

“I meet a lot of guys at my job that don’t live here,” she says. “The job market in San Antonio is really stagnant, aside from the military, and they’re here and gone anyway.”

Not everyone is quite so down on the scene, though. Greg, 34, and Daniel, 28, who are also playing pool at The Fox and the Hound, say the Alamo City is a notable improvement over their previous places of residence: Durango, Colorado, and Houston, respectively.

“There’s a lot more variety,” says Greg, who works for an insurance company and has lived in the city for a year. “San Antonio girls, a lot of them are streetwise. “There’s some towns I’ve been in where the girls are naïve ... Out here, they’re `savvy` ... If you come at ’em all big and strong and macho, she’s gonna blow you off.”

Daniel, who works as a right-of-way agent, says that in the few months he’s been here, he’s been sufficiently impressed. “I think it’s a better singles place than a lot of places. They have as many festivals as they can think of ... I mean, they have a festival for cleaning the River Walk.”

Greg, who recently went through a divorce, says that while he plans to remain low-key and just have fun for a while, he eventually wants a family, and sees San Antonio as a good place to do both.

“There’s plenty of bars,” he says, “Plenty of clubs, plenty ... plenty of churches. That’s where I prefer to meet the ladies ... the lady. Not the one-night-stand girl. Not the 4 a.m. girl. I’d rather meet the girl in like a Starbucks, or a bookstore, Wal-Mart, church. Not the club. Not the bar.”

For those San Antonians who would prefer not to wait until they happen to step into the same retail chain or house of God as their destined other, however, there are a number of local services available to aid in the process.

Adventure Club San Antonio, which bills itself as “South Texas’s largest and most active outdoor and social-activity club,” is careful not to call itself a dating service, though it has spawned “probably a dozen marriages,” according to club founder and owner Dirk Davidek, 40. The organization, which caters to professional adults and is open to both singles and couples, charges from $21.57 for a monthly membership to $162.13 for an annual membership. Activities are sundry and include tennis, kayaking, volleyball, speakers, seminars, dinners, trips, classes, movies, camping, mountain biking and more, with up to five events scheduled on a given day.

“We do a little bit of everything,” says Davidek, who met his wife Beverly when she joined the club three years ago. “There’s a lot of people who are just kind of shy and are reluctant to get out there and take the first step.”

Davidek estimates that Adventure Club has about 350 members, 56 percent of whom are female, and 90 percent of whom are single. He puts the average member age at 39. Davidek says events having to do with sex, politics, or religion are essentially disallowed, to avoid what may already be a combustible situation.

“Oh yeah, it can get interesting sometimes, too, when a couple doesn’t work out,” says Davidek. “Sometimes they part friends, sometimes they part enemies.”

He says such goings-on are just a “side effect” of putting single people together. He also explains that the club contains a built-in screening process.

“By going to the events you want to go to, you end up meeting people who are interested in doing those same things,” Davidek says.

Perhaps a less frenetic alternative is the Single Professional Network of San Antonio, which features a somewhat more subdued calendar: parties, wine tastings, hiking, bridge, happy hours, etc. Prospective members here, as per the on-line application, must be at least 21 years of age, employed professionally (to the satisfaction of the SPN board of directors), and sponsored by an SPN member. Membership runs $50 per year.

“When you’re 45 and single, generally it means you’ve gone through a divorce,” says Diane Huth of SPN, who gives her age as “over 50.” “One of the things that happens when you lose your spouse is that all of a sudden ... your social interaction changes. You really need to have a new group of people who can help you rebuild your self-confidence.”

Founded in April 1988, the organization also holds a number of dances throughout the year. As with Davidek, Huth found her “sweetheart,” as she calls him, through her interaction with the Network.

“We see the value of having friends ... and having people who are going to sit with you and dance with you, so you’re not alone,” says Huth. “I think being 40-plus and single is very scary and difficult, and I think having an infrastructure `can be helpful` regardless of how you find that.”

Listening to Huth, SPN sounds perfect for Patty, who says:

“I date. I have men that I date that are ... I don’t want to say that my ex was a hard act to follow, but in many ways, he was,” she says. She adds: “I’d rather be miserable alone than have two times the misery. When you get to be our age ... we all have lots of baggage.”

Huth says dating in one’s later years can be more honest an endeavor, but also a more vulnerable one.

“When you’re 50, basically, you’re who you’re going to be.” Huth says. “You’re not going to get any younger, any prettier, any more successful.” By far the most unusual of the available local services is housed at a website called Mysoltera.com. Run by 40-year-old entrepreneur Lewis Quintero, the site is, in Quintero’s words, “a matrimony agency that unites American men with Columbian women.” Why?

“`Columbian women are` old-fashioned, and that doesn’t happen here anymore,” says Quintero.

Mysoltera.com (literally, “Mysinglewoman.com”) is geared, primarily, toward wealthy executives who are turned off by the club scene, Quintero says. A membership fee of $175 includes the price of a criminal-background check — mandatory for all members, male and female — and access to photo galleries of the girls. Male and female members may contact each other via monitored e-mail, and interested male clients may sign up (at about $2,000 a pop) for Quintero-led tours to Columbia, to meet their new e-companions.

Quintero says he was inspired to start the site by a similar program based out of Houston, through which he met his wife of two-and-a-half years, Yuly, who is from Columbia. He says he had grown weary of “traditional” dating and, more specifically, the American women around him.

“My experience with women was, ‘money, money, money; gimme, gimme, gimme.’” Says Quintero. “I thought, ‘You know, me being Mexican, I need to find myself a Latin woman.’”

Quintero says he picked his wife from a number of women with whom he was corresponding due to her stated emphasis on, among other things, family and God. He says he knows “for a fact” that if not for that service, he would not be married today.

Mysoltera.com boasts about 400 women and more than 100 men in its database. Quintero says the average age for his male clients is 40-60, 25-30 for females. Mysoltera.com also employs a staff of translators, as there is very often a language barrier, but Quintero tells the story of a particular couple who found each other through his site:

“He didn’t speak a lick of Spanish,” he says, “she didn’t speak a lick of English. They’re happy.”

For those wary of joining clubs or marrying Columbian strangers, there is always on-line dating, which has seen a more-than-healthy boom in recent years.

“It used to be they’d say, ‘You can’t get a date by yourself ... ha ha ha!’” says Herb Vest, 61, affable founder of the Dallas-based True.com. “Now people say ... ‘That’s a smart play.’”

At more than six million members (nearly 35,000 of whom reside in San Antonio), True.com is the second-largest on-line dating service behind Yahoo! Personals, Vest says. The site utilizes compatibility tests and screens for both criminal background and marital status in order to match potential candidates.

“You go to a bar, and Suzy walks in, and your mouth drops to the floor,” hypothesizes Vest. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a cheat sheet? If you had a little biography written by Suzy already? Brings a whole lot of information to you.”

It’s not for everyone, though.

Patty tells of an on-line mishap — her very first match (it wasn’t with True.com, incidentally):

“I get home, I open up my computer,” she says. “I called in my mother and my daughter, and our answers were exactly the same ... and then my daughter said, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting — it’s Uncle Joe!’ It was my brother. We were a perfect match.”

At a far table in The Fox and the Hound, Kenny, 49, sits in a wheelchair. He has spina bifida, a puckish smile, and is single. Across from him sits Rod, 48, a truck driver. He looks like a truck driver, speaks loudly and cheerfully, and is also single. The two are friends; Rod describes himself and Kenny as “fixtures” at the bar.

“We live here on the weekends,” he says. “We know a lot of faces ... torment the hell out of the poor door girl, any waitress that comes in range.”

As the topic shifts to dating, the two characterize themselves as “keeping an eye open,” but not actively looking.

Kenny says dating is “really hard, being handicapped.” He says he tried a video-dating service once, but calls it “a disaster.”

“They don’t get to meet you,” he says. “Once you say you’re 4-foot-8, 100 pounds ...” He trails off. Not so much sadly, though. More matter-of-factly.

Asked what he looks for in a woman, Rod specifies “a unique sense of humor.”

Kenny seconds that, but adds, “They’ve got to be real comfortable with me ... Over the years, perceptions have changed, but still, I can tell if they’re comfortable or not.”

He mentions having tried a few other avenues, but was unhappy with the results.

“I went on one blind date once, with a dwarf,” Kenny says. “I was like, no, thank you ... I’m not really into chicks with disabilities.”

Asked what she’d like in a man, Lauren thinks for a second.

“One: Does he have a job?” she says. “Two: Is he nice? Three: Can we have an interesting conversation?”

She says that’s about it; and she’s not even picky about the job, as long as he’s passionate about it.

“He can be the fry guy at McDonald’s,” she says, “if he...”

Heather quickly interrupts: “No, that’s stupid and ridiculous.”

“No,” agrees friend Deanna, who has not spoken much, but sees fit to make her point here. “She does not speak for us.”

Presented with the same question, Patty pauses for a moment.

“The next man in my life has to fill me with joy,” she says. “That’s the one thing. Joy.”

She smiles; she seems happy with this answer.

And rightfully so. When you’ve got joy, who needs Pittsburgh?

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