#274: Labelle, "Nightbirds" (1974)

     Are you lonely
     are you lonely
     living in a city without a heart?

A lot of Labelle's Nightbirds as I understand it is disco music, and I’m a stranger to that. I don't get on the dance floorthat floor is lava unless I’m five drinks in. Last time I indulged was at a white-tent wedding in Vermont, with a set of brightly-colored, loose LED balloons being lifted, punted, and swatted above the dance floor.

Of course I'm lonely, I think. If this city had a heart, I’d hear it pumping by now. I’d stop downloading all these smartphone apps. I’d stop swiping through Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid, take my dancing shoes and go home.

I had guinea pigs as pets when I was a kid. They're extremely social creatures. Apparently, it's illegal in Switzerland to possess only one of them. When one of yours dies, rental services can provide your surviving pet a friend to hold them over. It seems on point.

Here’s what I found. Loneliness calcifies. Sure, it starts out aching, like a muscle you’ve torn, warm and sensitive to the touch. Time, however, camouflages it. Loneliness, extended from a state into a practice, is a farmer tan that gets evened out, or an errant plank of wood you stomp down until it’s flush with the floor.

This is typically the part where one of my friends saves the afternoon by telling you to calm down. You’re hanging around too many married people with kids. You just need to get laid. Maybe they’re right.

* * *

Earlier this year I got to a point where I felt ready to get back into the dating scene I’d mostly abandoned for years. For me, that meant online dating. I refurnished my OkCupid profile, downloaded 4 or 5 other apps. Excessive? Maybe. But for all the work I put into my profiles, 90% of this game is profile pics. I’m not ‘80s Rob Lowe. I’m Toby Ziegler from that scene in The West Wing where he says to Josh Lyman, “How you do get women? Smart and funny, right?”

So it made sense for me to diversify. I sent dozens of messages out. I tried smart and funny and sometimes it worked, other times it fizzled. Still, the swiping mechanic of these apps is simple, comfortable, and fun. Soon you start singling people out for pettier and pettier reasons. For instance, one otherwise lovely girl uses the phrase “Partner in Crime.” Nope. Another one watches NCIS and doesn’t mention Game of Thrones. Next. You don’t feel bad. She’ll never know.

Eventually I hit a match on a girl with a cute picture of her wearing a long-sleeve tee with “STAR WARS” written on it. This is on Bumble, an app where after you match, the woman must make the first move to initiate the conversation within twenty-four hours, or it fades forever. She doesn't initiate, but it turns out we have a mutual friendthe wife of my coworker and friend, Josh. I ask him about her. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “that’s my wife’s boss at the animal shelter.” Josh helps me make a meet-up happen. He says she's excited, but nervous.

I get invited to his wife’s birthday dinner the next week. First I drive down and spend an hour at their house while everyone gets ready. Josh and his wife, Jessie, have three children. The oldest daughter is six years old, smart and talkative. The boy, a two-year-old, sees me standing next to his similarly bearded father and exclaims, “Two daddies!” I introduce myself, trying to correct the error. I pull out my smartphone and play Pokemon Go with them. The wide map and endless cast of characters don’t seem to paralyze them. They just want to hear Pikachu go PIKA! on my phone.

At the restaurant, my match shows up and is incredibly quiet. First I think it's shyness, and I try to engage her in common interestsStar Wars, pets. She won't look me in the eye. When I step away for a moment, she tells someone at the table that I'm cute, and word gets back to me. On my return, I mention Harry Potter, and how I just figured out my patronus was an otter or something on the Pottermore website. Nothing.

Come on girl, I think, everyone loves a patronus.

This dynamic lasts until the end. On the way home Josh, Jessie, and I do an autopsy. Maybe she's just cold like that. Maybe she didn't like that I mentioned an allergy to cats. I'm incensed, as that seems unfair, but I remember that Josh's cat made me sneeze uncontrollably before I left his house.

Pika, as it turns out, is Japanese for the sound a spark makes. There was none.

* * *

It’s Tuesday, November 8th, 2016. I’ve taken the week off work to write and visit old friends who still live in the area after I’ve moved away. Once I take the exit heading into D.C., the Labelle track “Somebody Somewhere” begins on my car stereo. The song seems an appropriate anthem for the empowered men and women I know who are ready to see Hillary Clinton take the best house in town. It helps that the guy she’s running against would see the White House as a step down from his other holdings. From this hopeful song:

     Somebody somewhere has all the answers to the questions in our minds
     somebody somewhere has grown impatient with your reasons and your crimes

     and no more lies shall be told, no more lies shall be sold

First, however, I have to wait for my hosts to get off work, and write awhile at a restaurant called The Coupe on 11th Street in Northwest. On the street corner sits a stand for copies of the Washington Hispanic, the candidates' faces on the cover, with the headline “El futuro en tus manos” (The Future in your Hands).

     Somebody somewhere has all the answers to the questions in our minds
     somebody somewhere has grown impatient with your reasons and your crimes

     and no more lies shall be told, no more lies shall be sold

Much like dating, this song seems unfamiliar and awkward to me until, despite yourself, you’re caught up in it.

* * *

It’s a strange, offhand kind of cruelty we deal to one another in these apps. We put out what amounts to a baseball card’s worth of information. Almost instantly, we choose to keep someone in our deck or discard them forever. We answer batteries of questions about our preferences, sexual proclivities, even trivia:

Which is bigger, the sun or the earth?
In the phrase, “wherefore art thou Romeo,” what does “wherefore” mean?
In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?

What do people want from this? Labelle sings in the energetic “What Can I Do For You?”

     People want true things, or nothing at all
     People want sincerity and nothing more

Take that as you will. I got to D.C. a few days after a second date with someone I’d met on OkCupid. Well, first date. The first time we met was in a Barnes & Noble for tea, and you could argue that's just a standard catfish/creeper check. This particular night was Halloween. A Roman centurion served us our food and a unicorn stood over the grill. I liked hersmart, pretty, committed to a nursing career and watched Parks & Recbut she presumably didn't feel the same. Dinner ended early, she won the check dance, and was noncommittal about meeting up again. I texted her a few days later. Her schedule was bluntly full. I wondered if I'd have handled it the same way.

It's hard to be honest. Sometimes it's even harder to listen.

* * *

Polls start to close, and I get to the house rented by the newlywed couple from Vermontthe last time I danced to anything. As we watch CNN, the tension rises against odds that tamped it down earlier in the day. We're all anxious, but sure enough that this is a party.

     Who holds the key
     who will it be
     you or me

The mood is, on balance, hopeful. We've seen the likelihood for Hillary Clinton’s win drift down over the last few weeks from around 90% down to about 67%. It’s not ironclad, but it’s enough for us to feel secure in concocting a drinking game on our whiteboard. Selections include:

A state's called Blue – Drink. Yell, “Nasty!”
A state's called Red – Drink. Shout, “Wrong!”
Your home state goes Trump – chug a Yuengling.
CNN promotes a new toy (touchscreen, holograms, mystic seer) – Drink.  
CNN fucks up while using their toy - Drink.
The House flips  – Drink until you pass out.

But you were probably watching with me that night. You know how this ends.

* * *

Some of us call it a night early, disgusted. Others stay up until five a.m., waiting for all the networks to call it and the speech we thought would never come. Some of us cry, others comfort each other. Someone else punches a wall. One friend calls her Canadian parents warning them to expect her back home. Many condemn a deeply racist, sexist country. We feel alone.

     Somebody somewhere must lead us onward to the truth in our hearts
     somebody somewhere will hear our cries for freedom if we never, never stop

I want to change my answer on OkCupidmaybe a nuclear war would be exciting, in a certain light.

I can't stop thinking of how confident we werehow blithely we made wagers, the game we made of it. I think of my uncleswhite, working class men in middle America, whom I was furious with for voting for the winnerand their Facebook posts. We had failed to connect with these voters and failed to respond to something that festered this yeara sense of being left behind that, despite its attendant horrors, was still real. We'd swiped left too quickly, dismissed too smugly, and paid the price.

I spend some days in DC watching protests, hitting old haunts like my alma mater and the Red Derby, a favorite local dive. Wednesday afternoon, I go to the local taqueria solo, tipping unreasonably and abnormally well.

* * *

One blessing of this kind of lossyou get to know yourself again. The songs that put you on the streets start ringing in your head. The people you knew would be out there with you all start to coalesce, to re-form.

     Nothing good comes easy
     nothing makes it fast
     no one ever made love
     overnight to last

You are no longer pretending to be something you're not. There is no time left to pretend.

If this is going to work, I have to know myself and be willing to know others. I have my profile ready, but here's a preamble that's too much for OkCupid:

I am a public servant, a poet and a friend. I believe chorizo tacos are the perfect food. I believe dogs are truly loyal to us while most cats merely tolerate us. I believe the darkness around us is deep, but that a kelson of creation is love, and that will keep our ship afloat. I have three computers with three keyboards and they all kill fascists. Courage is no longer optional.

This may not be a game I'll win. No, it's not really a game at all. But I'm still in it.

I got me. What can I do for you?

—Benjamin Walker