Demographers with the U.S. government will tell you that the Baltimore metro area is home to more than 2.5 million people.
Float this figure by veterans of Charm City's singles scene, however, and they'll surely assume those number-crunchers are all happily married, or maybe hermits holed up in their parents' basements.
"Baltimore just feels miniscule," says Amanda Birckhead, a single 35-year-old sales manager from Crofton. "It seems the only single people out there are crazy or very needy."
"Smalltimore" is a nickname some bestow upon our little-big town, a moniker that, for singles, describes not only a thimble-sized dating pool, but also a social scene with more curious and complex intersections than an Escher drawing.
"It has gotten to the point where I can't remember who's dated who, and the dating scene in Baltimore is so incestuous that I have to assume by default that everyone has dated everyone," says Mike Storck, a 36-year-old comedian from Parkville who gets material for his standup act through dating here, if not many serious relationships. "Dating in Baltimore is a Chinese fire drill."
And what else is it? How about "boring," "limited," "provincial"—these are just some of the terms singles employed on an unscientific, though telling, online survey this author concocted asking folks to describe the local dating scene in three words. (Among the more snarky replies: "Not enough men," "Go fish elsewhere," and "Prince charming who?")
Still, come the rice-tossing, high-season in June, crepe-paper bedecked limos will busily shuttle grinning newlyweds away from churches and temples all across town. Love blooms in Baltimore, perhaps despite the odds. Indeed, our intimate, socially interwoven, overgrown village has its own rules of attraction. Your friends meet my friends and, suddenly, some of us are more than friends. Happens all the time. The One might be somewhere out there on the Internet, or he or she might simply be pumping the keg at a backyard barbecue.
Liz McFarlane, a single 42-year-old fundraiser from Woodberry, even goes so far as to praise our single scene's "huge variety" and "great smorgasbord."
"And because it's a little 'Smalltimore-ish' you have the opportunity to vet potential mates with a panel of screeners—like your friends and coworkers—who are sure to know someone who knows him," she adds. "It's more like three or four degrees of separation here, as opposed to six."
It was through a mutual friend that Jim Meyer, a 37-year-old brand manager from Hampden, met his current girlfriend. Though he was quickly smitten when they first crossed paths two years ago, she was "off the market" and involved with someone else. Time marched on. Eventually he bumped into her again while walking his dog, learned she'd become unattached, and soon enough a new couple was born.
"In a really big city, that 'I see you everywhere' thing isn't there," Meyer says. "Baltimore gives you a second chance—sometimes even a third, fourth, or fifteenth."
So why the "small" in Smalltimore? It might just be because we put the "home" in hometown.
"I lived in New York City for a few years, and 90 percent of the people I met were from somewhere else—you could go out every night of the week and never see the same face twice," Storck says. "In Baltimore, you typically grow up here and stay here."
Big-city anonymity, Storck adds, does have its own dating dynamics: "In New York, women tended to be a lot more cautious of 'players'—guys burning bridges without fear," he says. "In Baltimore, if you're doing the one-night-stand thing and just trying to hook up, you'll get a reputation for it."
"Baltimore is a cliquish kind of town—it's high school after high school in a way," says Kat Hudson, 40, a Mt. Washington resident who writes a sex column for the local online fashion and arts magazine Gutter. "Folks tend to hang together with their 'comfort zone' people. I'm an art and music nerd and I hang out with that crowd. Eventually you run into the same people over and over again."
Certainly Internet dating has broadened the singles scene, but even the World Wide Web sometimes serves only as a convoluted way of connecting you with the girl or boy next door. Literally. Meyer ended up meeting a woman who lived across the alley from him through an online dating site. When it ended after two dates, so began the awkward moments taking out the trash or walking the dog.
"For a while I used to wave but she never waved back," he says.
If meeting a new flame is hard here, so too is staying clear of loves that have long since burned out. There are anecdotal tales of splitsville couples going out of their way to, er, stay out of each other's way—to the point of formally divvying up Baltimore bars and eateries (Okay, you take The Brewer's Art, I'll take Golden West). But you never know where and when an erstwhile significant other will awkwardly appear. Just ask 48-year-old writer and Federal Hill resident Brian Wendell Morton, who found himself holed-up with an ex while doing the already dreaded jury duty down at the courthouse.
"She ended up as Juror Number Five and I as Alternate Number Four," Morton recalls. "We just turned around in the jury box and looked at each other like, 'Can you believe this?'"
(The defendant went to civil trial and Morton and ex made it through the ordeal without creating a court case of their own.)
Suffice it to say, Baltimore's downsized social scene can result in slim pickens and, in turn, some pretty unbelievable stories from the minimal dating pool.
Take Jamie Crumpler's story. The 30-year-old communications specialist from Bel Air donned the always-appropriate little black dress for a first date with a man she met online. Her would-be paramour, meanwhile, shows up—without irony or hipster artiness, she swears—sporting an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt.
"You know, with the hand pointing to the side," Crumpler explains. "Needless to say I spent the entire evening—which I gracefully cut short—trying to stand on the other side."
Sometimes the best way to deal with a complex social situation is not to get mad, but inspired. Filmmaker and 42-year-old Mt. Vernon resident Jeanie Clark says she moved from "anonymous" Washington to close-knit Baltimore 12 years ago, and was soon ensnared in the city's love-line spider web. She turned her experiences into the partially autobiographical film Smalltimore, a feature-length indie she wrote and directed that's billed as a "romantic comedy of zero degrees of separation." It screened at The Charles Theatre in December and is now out on the film-fest circuit.
"In one way or another, all the stories intersect," Clark says. "There are romantic plot lines regarding everyone from a wealthy elderly widow to a twentysomething barfly and they're all tightly woven together, as usually happens in this town."
Lynn Crosby, too, has found her muse while searching for Mr. Right. The divorced, 42-year-old school administrator from Mt. Washington has put a 21st-century spin on an old adage: "When life gives you lemons, write a blog."
Debuting in 2008, her Boyfriend, please! blog (boyfriendplease-sailorgrl.blogspot.com) chronicles the single mother's cannonball-leap into the city's knee-deep dating pool. The inspiration came from her coworkers, who were always amused by her morning-after tales. And with more than 50 first dates under her belt, Crosby has plenty of these—though it's getting tougher all the time.
"My pools to draw from get smaller and smaller," Crosby laments. "Trying to find fresh blood is almost impossible."
She never names names in her writings and few men ever get wind of her online chronicling. One who did was a two-timer from D.C. who spent weekends with Crosby and weekdays with a Washington woman—a lady who did some Internet snooping, found Crosby's blog, and was able to connect the dots just from some of the details.
"Basically, he got nailed by my blog," says Crosby, who knew nothing of the man's D.C. mistresses until it all came to an ugly head.
Among her more memorable dates was a week spent in Amsterdam with a man who paid for everything and never laid a finger on her. "When I told him I didn't feel a connection he was very respectful," she says.
And among the worst? A divorced father of 11—a fallen evangelical preacher—who was new to both dating and drinking so that even a small amount of wine sent him into a slurred diatribe about lost faith.
"Oh my God, I wanted this guy out of my house and I kept waiting for him to sober up," Crosby says.
"I get discouraged sometimes and it's all out there in the blog, which has been hugely therapeutic," she adds. "It's an adventure and I'm having one hell of a ride."
And her advice for the lovelorn of Charm City?
"Regardless of how small Baltimore is—and it is small—you have to put yourself out there," she says. "Otherwise you stay at home doing nothing. And that sucks."
Six Degrees of Smalltimore
Think you're dating a stranger? Better ask these six questions first.
- What high school did you go to?
- How many mutual Facebook friends do we have?
- What neighborhood do you live in?
- What's your go-to bar?
- What gym do you belong to?
- Where do you work?