Washington's pages of lust

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 October, 1999, 12:00am

WHO said romance was dead? Sandwiched between some of the most brazen, if not desperate, personal classified advertising on display in the American media is the legendary 'I Saw You' column of Washington DC's free weekly City Paper.

It stands out like a beacon of old-fashioned mystery and propriety among wanted columns that cater to every conceivable sexual/relationship whim, trend, desire, recreation, experimentation and outright fetish - and then some.

'I Saw You' can be safely read by the prudish yet seems to pull in the punters over the how-the-other-half-live appeal of the kinky stuff.

Stroll around the capital's streets on a Thursday afternoon and its impact is palpable. Young and old, hip and homely, pour out of the metro stations and offices, heads down, checking whether that certain somebody, somewhere has finally noticed them.

Or maybe they just want a voyeuristic giggle at the hard up.

Whatever, in an age of stalkers and date-rapists, the 'I Saw You' column seems incredibly popular.

The concept is simple. For a few dollars, you place an advertisement describing your brief encounter with the vision of your dreams who, of course, disappeared without you ever getting their name or address.

The results are hilarious. There are the long-shot, most desperate pleas from the most fleeting of glances among crowded buses or park benches. Then there are the people who met on jury duty but never quite got the chance to make eyes at each other during the case of the mad axe murderer.

It is a compelling mix of utter optimism, innocence and earnestness thrown together with some bad puns - 'You blew me off my feet during Hurricane Floyd', or 'You with the brown curly hair reading the Washington Post's style section on the Rosslyn metro on Tuesday' (a description that narrows the field down to a 16th of Washington's population). Or there is: 'Me the guy with the red tie too sleepy to take a chance. Dinner? Coffee?' Not likely.

Or the characters - usually men - who somehow fail to mask their own vanity, creepiness or sheer lust. 'Amazing red-head on G-2 bus . . . You sat in the back, wore a tight black top revealing your beautiful tattoos. I was up front, in a blue jacket, being my bookishly handsome self.' And 'You: Aloof. A long, lithe ebony queen in dark blue satin. Me: the short round guy with glasses and beard and brown corduroys frantically trying to work my Palm Pilot.' Despite the fact that an 'I Saw You' plug invariably denotes just physical attraction, some appear to be in nauseating denial.

'It was Chaucer and His Age, you sat at the back quietly shining with a beauty matched only by your intellect. And everything now says I should have said it sooner. I think we could fall in love. And God bless you for liking The Pogues.' Others, amid a similar flurry of literary references, give the game away with references to 'tight black bicycle shorts', 'cute white socks' or even 'I was reading Portnoy's Complaint . . .' Then there are those who describe themselves as 'quirky and embittered' or 'left leaning' - which in this monetarist age is just as likely to denote one leg shorter than the other as much as any political bent.

Washington, of course, is the sort of city that breeds such fantasy.

A youngish, transient population whose minds are far too suspicious and deeply entrenched in careers and ambition to build meaningful ties - classic stereotypes for what sociologists increasingly insist is an intensely troubled dating game across urban America.

The other columns in the paper's classified section provide further and ample ammunition for the doom-sayers who warn that sexual politics has never been so fraught.

Apart from the Men Seeking Women and/or Men, and vice versa, is the notorious 'None Of The Above' column that is most definitely not breakfast reading, and the classically mercantile 'Adult Services'.

But, fear not, it is the 'I Saw You' that everyone seems to turn to first.

'But what if once you discover yourself mentioned and it is Brad Pitt on the other end of the advertisement?' asked Julie Haversham, a 32-year-old accountant, describing an apparently common dilemma for people who should know better.

'It is a bit like the lottery - you know there is no real chance, but you go ahead anyway. Everyone insists they would never be so desperate as to advertise. But I notice everyone seems to read it.' Just like this week's edition: 'You: 5ft 5in [1.65-metre], Hispanic wearing blue fishing hat . . .' Brad Pitt, you have competition.