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Sheerly Avni | January 12, 2012 | Lifestyle Story City Life News and Features Neighborhoods

It's a chilly winter evening at the commonwealth club, and the house is packed. The Market Street networking and culture center has long been a hub of San Francisco’s intellectual life, with a membership that tends toward the well-heeled, the politically enlightened, the perpetually curious. They’re exactly the sort of people whom one might like to meet, especially if one is single, especially if one has exhausted all other options and is dreading the thought of another Valentine’s Day alone, curled up in front of Downton Abbey. Which is why tonight’s panel—“How to Get Your Holiday Squeeze”—has drawn all types: professionals in financial district suits, grad students toting bike helmets, balding men with unfortunate ponytails, society women with Prada boots and equally unfortunate facelifts.

But the panel just tells us what we’ve all heard before. Put yourself out there, a sex blogger urges, injecting a spicy anecdote about picking up an aspiring Navy Seal at a rifle range. Don’t get stuck in your own tribe, take off your labels, take chances. The panel’s token man (who, natch, has a girlfriend) suggests creative “activity dates” like cooking classes. Feminist author and sexpert Carol Queen reminds us that, no matter what, “there is honor in being single.” Not exactly what this audience—now stealing furtive glances at one another while maintaining that San Francisco pose of studied nonchalance that we call “flirting” and other places call “bored”—came to hear.

Matchmaker Joy Nordenstrom, blond, pretty, sweet voiced is talking about the importance of Presenting Your Most Authentic Self when she is interrupted by a wailing siren.

The moderator asks her to speak up.

“YOUR MOST AUTHENTIC SELF,” Nordenstrom repeats, but there are more sirens now, and they’re starting to sound not like a few cop cars but like an overture for Armageddon, because they are followed by the sound of chanting and yelling. The police are trying to break up the Occupy camp at Justin Herman Plaza a few blocks away.

Outside, the streets resound with shouts about the haves and the have-nots, the wealthy and the poor, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. But here inside, money is strikingly absent from the conversation. No one talks about the ways in which the Bay Area’s peculiar mix of tech boom and rest-of-us recession—call it the ReBubble—has affected where, why, and how we look for our mates. No one mentions the awkwardness of asking to move in with a new girlfriend because you’ve just been evicted, or choosing a restaurant for a date with a guy whose unemployment just ran out. Nor does anyone bring up the fortunate but still disconcerting need to play down your own financial good luck while courting an independent-minded artist with nothing but ramen in her cupboard.

Against this backdrop, much of tonight’s advice seems outmoded, even quaint. Look outside your tribe? Sure, but not outside your zip code, because who can afford cab fare. Cooking classes? Do they offer need-based scholarships? And what if Your Most Authentic Self wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, haunted by visions of no health insurance, no Social Security, and no one left to commiserate with because they’ve all married and moved back to Indiana? For first-date conversation, a less authentic self might be a better bet.

It’s the economy, Cupid. Whether we like to admit it or not, money matters more than ever for San Franciscans, in life, in work, and most definitely in love.

Money talk or no money talk, the crowd at the Commonwealth Club has been drawn together by an undeniable truth: Dating in San Francisco sucks. People here are notoriously cliquish, rejection-shy, and wary of approaching others. We’re also picky and judgmental (which might account for the wariness), and when it comes to settling down, our insistence on independence and affi nity for sexual exploration do not exactly prioritize commitment, monogamy, or, you know, calling people back.

Where San Francisco has made up for these less-thanendearing qualities is in its romantic egalitarianism. For such a judgmental place, we’ve been unusually accepting
of romantic partners who follow nontraditional financial paths—i.e., people who don’t work (much). Sexy was never the banker in $500 shoes; it was the poet just back from Chiapas, the painter who spent all her money on canvases, the surfer who lived in his van on Ocean Beach and answered to no one but Poseidon. You could call it immaturity or middle-class privilege; you could get fancy and call it the extended adolescence of the first class first-world narcissist, and you’d be right. But San Francisco was also a city that had seen its share of booms and busts, and had shown, over and over, that no matter how badly you crashed, you would have another chance. And that confidence carried over into romance: Your true love might be selling weed today, but tomorrow he or she could be running a division of Google. It was never too early to retire, and it was never too late to grow up.

But the crash of ’08 and its aftermath have changed all that. Call it the end of magical thinking, or of California dreaming. Unless you’ve got a degree in computer science, plan to fix Siri, or some other direct line to the ReBubble or the industries that serve it, you really are facing the worst economy in decades. Before, being young(ish), broke, and without obvious prospects was a phase, something you chose, whereas now, it too often feels like a way of life. It’s no longer a given that when you finally decide to grow up, get a real job, and have a family, the world will bend to your schedule. The latest U.S. Census data paint a bleak picture of the Great Recession’s effects on mating patterns across the United States: big drops in the number of people getting married, sharp increases in the age of first marriages, much higher rates of marriage among college grads (i.e., those affluent enough to afford nuptial bliss—and bills) than the less educated and less well-off. And the effects on relationships here in the Bay Area? The word that comes to mind is complicated.

Twenty-eight-year-old Holly Becker*, a marketing rep who runs with a Russian Hill/Marina crowd, remembers how she and her mother used to argue about her boyfriends. “She would ask me, ‘Is he financially stable? Does he have a good job?’ And I’d be like, ‘Mom, that’s not what matters—it’s about the bubbles and sunsets and how our souls meet.’”

(*some names have been changed)

The bubble burst after her soul met a software guy who was trying to economize by living with his parents in the South Bay. The first time she met his mother and father—over breakfast, the morning after her first sleepover—was among the most awkward moments of her life. But she liked him enough to commute for a year, staying in his childhood bedroom (“Spending nights next door to his little sister did very little for intimacy,” she says delicately) or her place in the city, making out with him in his truck and behind bushes when they went hiking, trying not to think about how much it all reminded her of high school. Becker emerged from that experience both wiser and more selective. “A guy’s financial situation has a lot of effect on his confidence and how he feels about himself in the relationship,” she says. “If circumstances were different, if he had lived on his own or with a roommate, we would have had a healthier relationship.”

As for dating another person so far from where she lives: “For the right guy, I like to think I’d be willing to go halfway around the world.” But for someone who seems merely OK, maybe not south of Geary.

In the Bay Area, the rental squeeze alone can play havoc with one’s love life. A mere 20 years ago, $300 a month got you a room in a Mission flat, $1,000 a decent house in the Berkeley flatlands—manageable even on a part-time job at a bookstore, with plenty of time left over for moping and soul-searching. Now, a room in the Mission averages $1,600, and you could be hiding the canned goods from your roommates into your AARP years. According to the latest federal data, nearly one in six Americans in the 25-to-34 range now live at home (twice as many men as women)—and not all of them have folks as tolerant as those of Becker’s ex.

Take Brad Washington, 24, a cellist and freelance designer who’s living back home in the far East Bay while applying to grad schools. His parents are conservative Christians who don’t believe in premarital sex, and he explains overnight absences by telling them he’s staying with his bandmates after practice in San Francisco. (Actually, “after practice” is the only time he can meet up with women: Bridge tolls and $3.60 per gallon regular unleaded mean he can’t afford to take any trips that fall outside his work schedule.)

Then there’s Zachary Tang, a 31-year-old ex–Wall Street analyst who recently traded his New York apartment for a room in his parents’ home in Oakland until he can get back on his feet. It was a wise financial decision, but since his parents don’t know he’s gay, it also forced him back into the closet.

Tang still gets out at night, taking advantage of dollar taps at Castro bars and chances to party with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of available, equally unemployed bachelors. But when it comes to genuine relationships, he has doubts about his appeal as a partner—a feeling, he admits, that is exacerbated by his housing arrangements. “If there’d been no recession,” he says, “I’d probably be earning 200K, living pretty comfortably. I was moving up really fast. With that level of power, I probably would have asked men out then that I couldn’t ask out now. I can’t put on my most gracious face. The confidence level is shattered.”

It’s no wonder that people try to avoid the parent/roommate trap however they can, even if it means moving in together before it makes sense for the romance. Emily Smith had been dating Mark Tenley casually at Stanford—but when she scored both a job and an apartment after graduation, he asked if he could crash for several weeks while he did an internship. After it was over, he stayed on and on, unemployed and miserable. His pride about money, coupled with his economic dependence on her, had an “insidious” effect, Smith says. “I was afraid to suggest dates that cost money, because he would want to watch his spending. But he also wanted to please me, since he relied on me to carry him financially.”

Her new romance, with a software developer named Jason, is much more satisfying. “Half the fun of a relationship is having someone to do fun things with,” Smith says. “And half the fun of doing fun things is looking forward to them. One of the best things about Jason is the freedom to say, ‘Hey, this event looks cool, wanna go?’ without having to worry about an emotional meltdown due to an inability to comfortably afford a $15 ticket.”

In this new pragmatic dating environment, the question isn’t so much, does someone have money, but how does she manage the money she has? Does she work hard? Does she have a plan?

This new attention to ambition and responsibility is as real in Bikelandia as it is in business school. Sean McDonald, 31, is a skinny, scruffy-haired musician and sound engineer who spends most of his time in the Mission and wears a demographically representative amount of plaid. “Everyone I know is hustling, working really hard because they want to stay here—that’s the only way to get by.” His friends are creatives who do double shifts at restaurant jobs to finance their dreams; as far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing sexy about slackerdom. “I’m attracted to women who have something going on,” he says. “If you want to slack, you should move to Portland.”

Not surprisingly, the more serious you are about finding a lasting relationship, the more these things matter. Holly Becker is in premarital mode, searching for The One. “When I look at a guy as a potential life partner, I want someone who saves,” she says, “someone who is going to be able to take care of kids.” As a result, “the conversation about money happens much, much sooner than it used to,” she adds, “even before the discussion about being exclusive.” And when approximately 9 percent of the Bay Area is unemployed, and so many people are entrepreneurs and contractors by choice, job status isn’t necessarily the crucial issue. “It didn’t matter that he was out of work,” Lorna East, a friend of Becker’s in the insurance business, says about her most recent boyfriend. “I just saw this as a temporary setback. Instead, I was extremely impressed that he was able to live within his means and didn’t take on debt. I think if he had been making purchases that he couldn’t afford, that would have made me uneasy.” In the end, what doomed them was his getting a job a very long airplane ride away.

How much you owe has emerged as a common bottom-line issue. Credit cards and law school loans used to be status symbols, the ability to creatively
juggle bills you couldn’t pay, proof of resourcefulness. Now they are warning signs. “I’m not sure if it’s the recession or just lessons learned,” says Sallie Potter, a bubbly Cal Poly grad who works at an architecture firm in the city, “but I now look for partners without debt. I’m starting to look at relationships more as an investment in my future than just who gives me a funny feeling in my tummy.” She’s worked hard her whole life not to spend money she doesn’t have. “Why would I get into a relationship where his debt is now my debt?”

And if you can’t think of a tactful way to inquire about personal finances, you can always forgo the tact. After Nikki Jones, a 37-year-old journalist–turned–dental assistant, broke up with her boyfriend of seven years (and yes, moved in with her parents in Hayward), she agreed to go out with a guy who had been in hot pursuit. On their first date, he had the nerve to inquire about her credit score. “I said I didn’t know it, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t high, and he said it was unfortunate because now we couldn’t ‘do anything.’” The offended Jones normally doesn’t have dessert, but since dinner was on him—“If you’re asking, you’re paying,” she’d told him when she first agreed to go out—she ordered the cheesecake.

But there’s really no reason to be so blunt, not when social media turns out to be the perfect financial reconnaissance tool. One of the first things Potter does when she meets someone she finds interesting is look him up on Facebook and LinkedIn—known in her circle as “résumés for dating” scrutinizing his employment history, background habits, social networks, and of course, alma mater. Beth Cook, a matchmaker and active dater, goes further, checking out a guy’s Twitter feed and anything else she finds on Google. “This is their public persona,” she says, “something they’re comfortable showing the world, and if you’re really offended by it, you probably shouldn’t be going out with them anyway.”

Then there are the dating sites, which have proven even more appealing since the downturn: They’re far cheaper than a night of barhopping, and far more revealing of potential financial deal-breakers. OkCupid—user-friendly, low-commitment, and, most important, free—offers plenty of clues for anyone who knows how to read between the pixels. Aimee Shroeder, 23, who works in the bridal industry, especially likes the question asking people to list six things they can’t live without. “Some people put their iPhone, their iPod, their iPad, and their iBook on their list. If you can afford all those things, obviously you have some income, but you come across as extravagant. I question your priorities.”

To Shroeder and her friends, all recent college grads who came of age during a decade of crisis, any kind of extravagance is a turnoff, even something as seemingly innocent as buying flowers for someone you barely know. (“It seems like an empty gesture,” she sniffs.) In her cohort, the expectation is that no one will take care of you—not the government, not your struggling baby boomer parents, not your spouse, and certainly not your kids, should you ever be able to afford them. “A friend was dating a guy whose parents had given him money for an apartment and a business,” Shroeder says, “and her concern was that he was too dependent on them—how is he going to survive on his own?” In the new financial calculus, a man who’s renting his folks’ guestroom may be more appealing than one who’s living off his trust fund or blowing through his techboom salary without thinking about the future.

“There used to be so much posturing about what you wore and what you had,” says Sharyn Bires, the thirty-something publisher of San Francisco Brides who arrived in the city last year after stints in New York and Los Angeles. “People now realize that a lot of the things we used to think we wanted from a romantic partner, like a great job, don’t matter, because anyone can find themselves jobless. What matters is substance. Do I like you? Do you have what it takes to sustain yourself when things get tough?” Then she adds something most people around here have never heard before. “I love dating in San Francisco. I love it!”

Which brings us to the final twist. For all the daunting economic challenges, San Francisco is awash in stories about romance gone right—not in spite of the recession, but because of it. There’s Bires herself, who plunged into the singles scene soon after her arrival here—four or five dates a week. Within a few months, she met a great man with a wonderful extended family; they’re now planning their future together, and the email she wrote to her friends laying out her online dating methodology and rules has gone viral. (Sample advice: “If there is ANYTHING you like about someone—their eyes, their sense of humor, their job, their education GO OUT WITH THEM.”) She thinks the recession’s impact on online dating has been “fantastic”: “Because so many people are online, you have access to virtually every single person out there and can meet people that you wouldn’t encounter in your everyday life. I also found that the men in the Bay Area are amazing—they’re smart, they’re entrepreneurial, they’re athletic, they’re socially responsible....” (She thinks the women here are great, too.)

Also promising is the new premium placed on creative frugality. Kelly Malone, the 37-year-old founder of Indie Mart, recalls one of her favorite dates: shooting arrows in Golden Gate Park, followed by street food. “It’s cool that guys can still impress you when they’ve only got 20 bucks in their pocket,” she says. “It shows they put a lot of thought into it”—surely more thought than it takes to whip out a credit card at Saison.

For Erin McNear and Jeffrey Arnold, their low budget but magical first date in 2010—lengua burritos in the Mission, followed by a long conversation at a tobacco-friendly dive (“Neither one of us smokes, but there’s less pressure when you go to a nasty place,” she says), then a walk around Grace Cathedral (“He picked a flower for me”) and a visit to the Exploratorium’s wave organ—was the beginning of a romance that’s still going strong despite all the economic bumps that followed. He was a student when they met; now he has a good job and she’s the one who’s scrimping. They moved in together after she got evicted but before she was ready—a potential recipe for disaster, yet it’s working. Both McNear and Arnold have had the chance to find out what it’s like to hold the financial reins, and what it’s like to be yoked to them. She’s been there for him, and now he’s returning the favor. Early adversity helped them build trust in each other, and in its own way, that’s pretty romantic.

Also romantic—again in its own way—is the city’s more carnal side, still running strong on cheap beers and young libido. Do you really think the freewheeling sex mecca that spawned, Good Vibes, and the Folsom Street Fair would let you go hungry, just because money is a little tight? Not a chance. “People talk about unemployment like it’s a bad thing,” laughs Bill Wyland, a 48-year-old former writer who’s between jobs, “but unemployment means time for sex in the morning, and then time for a civilized cup of coffee.” And if you are employed, either working 80 hours a week at Zynga or Square or juggling three part-time restaurant/writing/design gigs, an athletic night with an attractive stranger may be all that you really have the bandwidth for anyway.

One longtime local who sees nothing but good things in San Francisco’s new dating culture is financial guru Suze Orman. An occasional speaker at the Commonwealth Club, she certainly would have added a dose of hard-nosed realism to that mostly useless winter panel.

Blunt, funny, and deadly serious, Orman has been preaching for two decades about the fiscal and psychological dangers of unfettered spending and
unresolved debt. She welcomes the ways in which the recession has brought San Francisco—“49 square miles of fantasy surrounded by reality,” as someone famously called it—crashing down to earth. We had a lot of growing up to do, she says, and the economic downturn was the slap in the face that this frivolous city finally could not ignore.

The recession and its aftermath “have given people permission to stand in their own financial truth,” Orman says, “to do what is true versus living a lie.” There’s no such thing as being too practical, she adds. She approves wholeheartedly of Sallie Potter’s quest for a man without debt, Sean McDonald’s insistence on a partner with “something going on”—even Nikki Jones’s brazenly pragmatic would-be paramour (it was Orman, after all, who first coined the phrase “No FICO, no sex”). “Once you get into a state of lust,” she says, “you don’t know how to get out, you don’t want to get out—and you don’t want to know the financial details.”

Orman’s last thought before hanging up is about saving up to buy real estate—prudent investor that she is, she’s speaking from her home in Florida—but it could have well have been another bullet point on Bires’s list of dating rules. “This is not a time where you say argh and you give up on all hope,” she says. On the contrary, “this is a time when you work like you have never worked before.”


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Sheerly Avni is a writer in San Francisco.
Sidebars and additional reporting by Michelle Bergmann, Justin Juul, Coco Ceevan, Olivia Martin, Richard Procter, Annie Tittiger, and Taylor Wiles.


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