Outside a shiny building off 60th Street, one car is waiting for Mariah, a lighting consultant in the movie industry. Dark, slim and attractive, Mariah is 32 and wants to get married.
"When do I have time to meet anybody?" she says, as she slips into the limo. "I work a 70-hour week on average. All my friends do." The car pulls into traffic and heads uptown.
"My parents met at work, hardly anybody does that these days. The guys are too scared to ask. They're afraid of a sexual harassment suit."
New York is developing a reputation among single Americans. They say that of all US cities, it's the toughest place to find romance.
"It's not too hard to meet somebody," says Mariah. "But who wants to meet just anybody? We're all afraid of Aids, but that's not the biggest problem - the worst is bullshit. You get mountains of it all the time. Just you wait."
The car pulls up outside the Muholland Drive Caf, which looks packed. The Drive is famous for its singles scene, and Thursday is New York's night out. Like most New York singles bars, this one has a staggering ratio of women to men. The numbers are closest to even at the teenage end of the spectrum. There seem to be at least two women to every man in any place with a clientele in its mid-twenties.
Mariah spots two of her girlfriends and they fall into conversation. But not for long - Mariah soon has a man at her shoulder.
Their conversation is frenetic: first names, then professions, followed by home towns. It looks intense and a little desperate. After a few minutes, the touching begins. Then they move on to movies they've seen, music they like.
Later, after exchanging telephone numbers, Mariah adds up the points. "He was very good-looking, but that can be a problem. He says he's an advertising executive, with Pepsi as a client, but who knows." She lights a cigarette.
"The last guy I dated told me he was a partner in a law firm. Turns out he was in the accounts department. I wasted three months on that guy. That's time I don't have."
In the heterosexual community, Mariah's experience is typical; and most people accept that women suffer more. "So many of my girlfriends are beautiful, intelligent and successful," says Mariah. "But there just aren't enough men with similar qualities."
The New York Bureau of Census states in 1993, New York had over 20 per cent more women than men aged 25 to 35. In the same age group, there were almost 30 per cent more single women than single men. One explanation is that New York's industries are in the service sector, which is where women have made the deepest inroads. The media giant Time Warner has four new cable television channels in development, and on average women make up 70 per cent of the staff. The Advertising Agency Register states that women hold more than 60 per cent of executive positions in New York- based advertising agencies.
New York women get married later than New York men, and tend to marry people they have met in the city. New York men are much more likely to marry women from outside New York. The explanation is simple, one woman told me: "Female New York is very aggressive professionally. Women don't stop to find a mate until their thirtieth birthday. By then, the best guys have married their home-town sweetheart. Around 30, the mate pool becomes small and suspect."
But help is at hand, for a price. When it comes to tying the knot, more New York marriages begin with a dating agency than anywhere else in the US.
Most of these agencies are expensive and discreet. They do not consider themselves part of the computer dating industry, and they are specialised. New York has private agencies that cater exclusively to Wasps, Jews, gays, African Americans or just about any other racial or religious grouping. Their fees begin in the thousands of dollars, and many include a full background check on all prospective clients.
Denise Winston has been a New York matchmaker for seven years. She has written a self-help manual for prospective clients called Twelve Tips to Successful Dating.
"I'm a love coach," she says in her expensive office overlooking the East River. "My role is to eliminate the risk and the deceptions.
"We check our clients' backgrounds with a zeal that would - and has - impressed the FBI. Nobody can become a client of mine unless they submit to a full investigation. And that includes all their records."
Hundreds of New Yorkers have agreed to this invasion of their privacy, and paid $6,000 each for the privilege. Winston passes their files to a firm of private investigators, which checks financial records, medical backgrounds, police files and marital histories.
What about that other fear, the threat of Aids?
"It is not a problem for our clients," says Winston. "We require everybody to get a doctor's note saying they are in good health and free of all communicable diseases. Then we ask them for six different blood tests. By the time we recommend somebody, we know they're clean on all fronts."
Gerry Palace is a burly ex-cop, he runs an agency called Check-A-Mate with his partner, a former detective from the NYPD.
"I think some dating services give a false sense of security," he says. "But make no mistake - the demand for this sort of thing is enormous. We've never been busier. We have over two hundred clients on the books right now. But next month we're expanding, moving to a new office in midtown and taking on two more investigators. We'll have 400 clients by the end of the year."
Unlike Denise Winston, Check-A-Mate does not find partners for its clients. Gerry Palace and his partner are several steps further along the chain of insecurity.
"People come to us about people they have already met," he says. "They want to get serious, but there are things they ain't sure about. We then do a lifestyle check."
This can have spectacular results. "Last month, we had a lady call us, she was getting serious about this doctor. The guy said he was a cardiologist. But she'd never been asked to his apartment." This, Palace says, is a definite alarm signal.
"We sent one of our undercover investigators to a bar where he hung out," Palace says. "Sure enough, he spins her a line. They go out a couple of times. He sends her love letters, very romantic. Then he stops phoning for a few days, but when he does call he says he's been busy but he misses her. Can she come meet him at the hospital for a cup of coffee?
"So she turns up. He's in a white coat with a stethoscope round his neck. They walk around the hospital, he makes as though he knows everybody." There's a hint of professional admiration in Palace's voice.
"Turns out he's been doing this with 11 different women, all of them intelligent professionals. He's not a doctor and between the 11 of them, he's `borrowed' $25,000. There's a lot of emotional desperation out there, for some that spells money."
But why do people get taken in so often? "They are victims of their own optimism," says Palace. "They want to trust people. If they did not have that need, they wouldn't be looking for relationships."
Denise Winston wrinkles her nose at such stories. "People shouldn't be so flaky. Romance has to be planned," she says.
"There's nothing less romantic than divorce. People these days want somebody else to do some of the hard work."
Which means that agencies like Winston's have become increasingly thorough, if only to avoid being sued.
"If they pass all the checks, we ask the client to draw up a profile," says Winston. "This should list the attributes of the perfect mate. We call it `the laundry list of love'. A short list is healthy, a long list is not."
Is that it? By no means.
"We then ask people if they like their mother and father, what level of dysfunction they have in their family, whether they want to have children. We hope our clients have already been therapised, but if not, this is the short course."
Winston examines a well-manicured hand. "I do this as a feminist. Women have had to suffer too many bad relationships, and they pay a bigger emotional price for their success. They reach 30 or 35 and realise that a career won't keep them warm at night."
"I'm not surprised that people need these agencies," says lawyer Pamela Liapakis. Her firm specialises in cases involving sexual assault and harrassment. "Dating in the workplace is now all but unacceptable. A woman might get away with asking for a date. A man almost certainly would not. As men still do most of the asking, that's destroyed a large portion of the marriage marketplace."
Back at the Drive, Mariah is having a disappointing evening. "After that first guy, they've all been jerks." she says.
So what about a dating service? "I've tried them." She pulls on her cigarette. "But I could never respect a man who had to use one. I'm attracted to the idea of fate."
But what about all the liars, the smoothies with their bad chat-up lines? "I still believe there's somebody out there for me," she says. "Maybe not Mr Perfect, but at least Mr Goodenough. I guess that makes me a romantic, right?"Reuse content