When I learned that thirty years’ worth of the paper had been digitized by the wonderful people at Cleveland Public Library, I found that scrolling through the back issues more than a few nights during the darkest days of winter and the beginning of pandemic era was way more fun than doomscrolling through social media, and I began screenshotting the classified ads that I liked the most for a future zine project that I’m still working on.
Some of them had placed ads, but wouldn’t say which ones. Others who’d worked there remembered some of the regular characters, and some of the ads were specific enough that some of us recognized the parties involved because of how little they’ve changed.
There is something about the haiku-like limitations of space and characters, and the universal sentiments in a context from a previous time that appeals to a lot of us, especially when we may or may not have been lucky in love, business, or music, or saw something of ourselves or others we knew, when we weren’t shaking our heads at red flags.
This wasn’t my first encounter with the back pages. While I never placed an ad or answered one, I used to bring copies of Scene and The Free Times to the high school lunch table, and we’d check out the music listings and read the the personals aloud to laugh over recurring characters and speculate about their lives.
In a few years, the personals and the band wanted ads we pored over would mostly be supplanted by Craigslist, social media, and dating apps as means of connecting with potential partners, customers, and bandmates, so it’s ironic that these are the ones that are still out there even though I’m sure no one originally placing them ever expected them to see the light of day decades later, and I hope things worked out for some of them.
I joked with a friend that if I was teaching a creative writing class, I’d hand these out to students as short story writing prompts, because certain ones had what were clearly some stories and some characters where we truly wished we knew the outcomes, like the pair of girls who called themselves “The Poopettes” looking for pen pals for their New York Dolls fan club, musicians convinced they were on their way to stardom who couldn’t hide their band drama, teens looking for dates to shows, and, of course, plenty that detail the mating rituals of the Rust Belt.
Unsurprisingly, many of the women wrote the best ones, as this page from 1989 shows:
While there were lots of the generic “Bach to Rock,” “Sugar Daddy seeks Young Lady,” “loves the country and the city,” “looks good in dresses AND jeans,” “tired of the bar scene,” and blatantly predatory listings, there were always others who tried a little harder or were more specific, in hopes of finding others who might share some common interests, or be in a similar life situation without having to begin in person.
Not unlike the beginning of online dating in the past few years, there was some degree of embarrassment that one would have to resort to this means of doing so, and some say “we can lie about how we met,” or “I hope that you’re not the kind of person who usually responds to these.” While some would claim that looks didn’t matter, that wasn’t true for everyone. Regardless of gender and orientation, many ads were generally less about who someone was and more on physical appearance, mentioning ideal height, ideal weight and body type, and possibly a Harley to go along with all that.
Many ads included descriptions of themselves and potential ideal partners by what celebrities they found attractive, whether it was a woman seeking “Martin Gore” or “an Eddie or Alex Van Halen type of guy,” or a man describing himself as a “Sean Penn look-a-like” and one wrote of looking for “Sharon Stone but minus the ice pick.”
Alongside the “long hair a must” and “looks are everything” stipulations in the 1980s and early 1990s that encompassed both the musician classifieds and the personals, there were ads from from “Scissor Wizards” advertising punk and new wave haircuts, and then as hair bands became a thing, “Italian weave” for men who wanted to cover up their thinning hair and offering “group discounts for bands” seeking to make it big.
I sometimes wonder too what I would’ve said about myself if I had to pay by the word or the minute, or if I would have found it worth it to pay for a phone call, take the time to write a letter, or go downtown to see if anyone had sent me a letter or a photo, especially now when a lot of things can be done on a phone for free. But seeing everyone’s wants laid out in these pages has me wondering where a lot of them are now, if they ever found what they thought they were looking for. I’m thankful that we got to enjoy it.
(There's even more to enjoy below.)
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