After an hour flirting online with my first cyberfriend, Troveur, I began to understand the mysterious allure and increasing popularity of finding love online.
For one thing, there was no eyelash curling or uncomfortable squirming into last year's size 8 jeans. There was no yucky bar or frustrating search for a parking place. I just sat in the comfort of my own office (OK, my own cubicle) and got to know Troveur, a gemologist and freelance ambulance driver from Queens.
At first, we were bantering in a singles chat room on a popular computer network. Soon, however, we were exchanging IMs — instant messages — back and forth into the evening.
My experience with the mystery man whose screen name is Troveur confirmed what several married couples who met online told me: Chat rooms are becoming a safe, effective, even romantic way for regular folks to meet.
And for Jewish singles looking to find each other, online areas can be especially useful. America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe and other computer networks offer chat rooms where single Jews can shmooze.
Michigan sound engineer David Kron says AOL allowed him to cast a geographically wider net in his search for a Jewish mate.
"Lansing is not exactly the Jewish dating capital of the world. I knew I'd have to pursue non-traditional avenues," says Kron, 32.
He soon became a regular in a Jewish singles chat room in the People Connection area on AOL, where he met Shoshi, a New York special education teacher. After nightly phone calls, the two finally met in the spring of 1994. Six months ago, the couple married in Brooklyn and now live together in Lansing.
"Looking for that special someone is still like finding a needle in a haystack," says Kron. "But at least the online Jewish community gave me a haystack to look in."
Kron says using the network to meet people should only be the first step in a courtship.
"When things start getting serious with someone, arrange to meet them as soon as possible. No amount of chat, e-mail, phone calls, pictures, anything can really give you an overall sense of a person like spending time together, "Kron says.
Still, his wife agrees that meeting online can be "a lot less scummy than the traditional singles scene."
Like Kron, many of the women who inhabit chat rooms say they do so because it's less threatening than going to clubs or bars. In person, you can't just click away a smarmy come-on like you can online. And to be sure, there are sleazeballs in cyberspace. Anyone with a female-sounding screen name is likely to be propositioned with an instant message that's less than wholesome.
Take me. Before discussing the finer points of Shakespeare and "Murphy Brown" with my new pal Troveur, I received a message from a man whose desire to engage in a little cybersex was thinly veiled. Very thinly veiled. You get the idea.
Think of those messages as gnats on your windshield as you drive down the Information Superhighway. They're pesky, but they won't slow you down.
Playing it safe in her computer quest for love, Margie Levy, 40, decided to avoid live chat rooms and respond to a notice posted on a singles bulletin board from Maurice Plough two years ago. It was the virtual equivalent of responding to a personal ad.
"He commented on being single and not wanting to go to clubs and bars. We had that in common, so I e-mailed him," Levy says. The two corresponded through e-mail, exchanged phone numbers, and finally agreed to meet in a public place in Boca Raton, Fla., where they both lived.
It wasn't love at first sight, she says, but they became close friends. Both had been married before and had children. Both valued family life. Eventually, the relationship blossomed into full-blown cyberlove story. This month, they will join the ranks of couples who met online, and married.
Andy Rosen was also looking for a traditional relationship when he signed on to AOL. The Los Angeles consultant wanted a Jewish woman with an extended family and "her values in the right place."
Despite the intricate web of phone lines, modems and computers that makes this mode of romantic connection possible, Rosen stresses that chat rooms aren't "space-age technology. It's just a way to introduce people. Beyond that, it's totally conventional."
According to Rosen and other cybernauts, chat rooms, which can hold up to 23 people, have a party atmosphere. When you sign on, it's like hanging up your coat and settling in next to a bowl of Chex mix. When you start instant-messaging someone, it's just like walking off into a corner to have a private chat.
"It's like going to a `Cheers' bar. You walk in and everyone says `Hi' and `How are you?' It's a friendly place."
To paraphrase the popular show's theme song, everyone knows your screen name and is always glad you came. Especially Gina Margolis, a Tucson, Ariz., teacher who signed on to AOL for the first time in December of 1994.
Rosen was attracted to GincaM (her screen name) right away. He checked her member profile — an optional fact sheet for AOL members — which indicated that she was born in 1955, same as him.
"I instant messaged her, `1955, great year.' That was my pick-up line," Rosen jokes. When they married a year later, their wedding cake featured a frosted likeness of the couple dancing on a computer with the words "1955, great year."
How did Rosen sense the person behind the black-gray letters?
"By the time I met Gina, I was fairly seasoned at meeting people [online]. If a person is open in instant messaging, you can tell a lot about them. There's an upbeat way they communicate," Rosen says.
And while Rosen suggests "hitting the phones as soon as possible," he says meeting through words first has advantages.
"It's like meeting someone from the inside out. When you can't see or hear what people are like, you learn what they're like as people. You get to know what their interests are, their needs."
As for Troveur, I got to know more about him in an hour online than I've known about men I've dated for weeks; I know he wears flip-flops in the summer and hiking boots in winter. I know he reads Camille Paglia along with Shakespeare. I know women always seem to break his heart.
I don't know if I'll ever get to Queens. It's cold there and I don't even know Troveur's real name. But if the flip-flop fits…