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Personals history

I moved to San Francisco in 1991. At the time, I was freelancing in theater, doing sets and props. The work was sparse, and the pay was abysmal, but San Francisco was a different city then. It was moderately affordable, and artists could still squeak by if they were lucky.

I paid $400 a month for a room in a flat with two roommates, which crushed me financially at the time. On a good month, I could net about $500 in theater work, and filled in the rest with temp office gigs. It didn’t leave much room for anything else, and I didn’t know many people in the city in any event. If I could scrape enough spare change together, I would occasionally treat myself with a six-pack of craft beer. That was more or less the extent of fun in my life.

The following year, my dear friend Christine came for a visit. She had graduated the year before, and was working as a graphic designer in Manhattan, making a proper living wage. During her visit over a long weekend, we hung out, ate sushi, drove to wine country in my rickety truck, laughed a lot. For the first time in a long time, I was human again. When she returned home, I was left with an aching awareness of the gap in my life. Lacking any other means to network, I placed a personals ad in the San Francisco Bay Times, a small indie print newspaper still in existence today. My goal was simply to meet new people, make some friends, and if it should turn into something more, then so much the better.

Things were pretty different then. There were no smart phones, no apps, no swiping—heck, no internet for most people outside academic settings. A personals ad was no quick process. You had to write the ad, limited to a number of words that would fit within the amount of column inches each ad was allowed. You would then send it via physical mail to the paper, which ran it a week or two later. Each ad had a voice mail box to dial into, where respondents would leave messages for you. You would in turn call them, and then, maybe, you’d meet up. This process could take days, or longer.

Calling in to retrieve the voice mails was something of a cross of Christmas morning and finals week, full of anticipation and apprehension. My first surprise was that I got any response at all. That I got several was beyond unexpected.

Some were older men, which neither surprised nor interested me. One was what sounded like a young Latino man who was so nervous his voice shook, and he hung up before getting around to leaving his contact information. Ultimately, I met up with one guy, just a couple years older than me, and we saw each other casually through the summer.

But voice mails kept coming in. One I responded to was a man named Paul, about my age, who was currently living with his parents in Marin County. In a typical ice-breaking way, I asked what he did, and he responded that he was studying sign language. “Oh,” I said, “I know a signer,” and mentioned his name. Paul made a low grumble. They had just broken up.

From that point, we quickly ascertained that we knew other people in common—remarkable as I knew so few people—and when we finally met face-to-face, I realized we had met several times before.

I was still seeing the other guy, and Paul was also having something of a summer fling, so we initially just became friends—which was, after all, the objective of my ad. Over the next few months, we hung out, and I became more integrated into his circle of friends. We grew close, but there was a barrier.

By the end of the summer, though, Paul’s fling was heading back to college, and my other relationship wasn’t going anywhere. We gravitated to each other. We let our relationship move to the next level.

In October, I had an opportunity to fly to Washington D.C. with The Names Project, where I had been volunteering. Excited, I called Paul, and he promptly contacted them to see about volunteering as an ASL interpreter. We spent an emotionally charged three-day weekend together in the capital. Seeing the quilt in its entirety, marching on the White House, chanting “Shame! Shame!” at an administration that still appeared not to care about a community in crisis.

Ah, but we traveled together. We spent 72 hours in each other’s company, and did not want it to end. I knew, then, this was a relationship I wanted to pursue for the long haul.

Fast forward 25 years. We’re still together, married three times, in our second home together and with our second dog. Paul is now dpaul, though that’s a story for another day. The story of the personals ad has always been in our narrative, but it hadn’t occurred to me until this year, the 25th anniversary, to actually see it again.

At first I contacted the Bay Times directly, but they did not keep archives that far back; however, the San Francisco Public Library does. And so I found myself at a microfilm station speeding through the first six months of issues of the San Francisco Bay Times for 1992. (For the record, there are few things that will make you feel older than researching your own personal history on microfilm.)

I had a rough idea when the ad was, so I zoomed to May, then a couple issues in, and no sooner did I hit the personals section, scrolling past old installments of The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green and Dykes to Watch Out For, and boom, there it was, staring me in the face.

Or rather, there I was, younger me, staring myself in the face. At once I recognized him, with the long hair, the black porkpie hat, the thrifted wardrobe and record collection. (Yes, Big Audio Dynamite. It was 1992, yo.) I remembered this person, more clearly and more fondly than I imagined. I remembered then-Paul, too, our early years, our struggles and triumphs. Did these two young men have any idea that they would build a life, a lifetime, together? I don’t think so, but I’m very glad they got beyond that first voice mail exchange.

  • Denise Tanton

    Wonderful! xo!

    • Sean Timberlake

      xoxo

  • Excellent article and with a happy ending! Cheers to you both.

  • LisainSF

    Love this!!!

  • Jerry Russell

    An inspiring and warm story my friend, thanks so much for sharing this part of your life. It’s uplifting.

    • Sean Timberlake

      Thank you.

  • I can’t imagine you two NOT being together, a testament to your great relationship. Nice to know this story of your beginning. It’s a bit like mine and Lee’s, except ours was through the now defunct Yahoo! Personals (so nothing but ether at this point).

    • Sean Timberlake

      Aw! Surely there’s some archive of it somewhere in deep data storage…

  • Gabi Moskowitz

    <3

    • Sean Timberlake

      xoxoxo

  • Liz Ditz

    What a sweet story, thanks for (a) looking it up (b) sharing….

    • Sean Timberlake

      Thank you.