The first impression Sharon Lloyd, a 39-year-old professional black women from Crumpsal in Manchester, creates is one of irrepressible energy. The same is true of the woman she describes as her "second skin", Sharon Thomas, 32. The pair have a lot more in common. Both are professionals and single mothers with a decidedly no-nonsense attitude to life. ("If you want something, you have to go out and get it," says Thomas unequivocally). The Two Sharons, who both work seven days a week, even shared a weekend job at a telephone answering service so that they could afford their trip.
"I told this friend of mine that Sharon and I were going to New York to shop and that I was going to find a huzzbunnd," Thomas says, mimicking a slow, Southern drawl. "It was a joke," says the other Sharon, "No one in their right mind would go on holiday just to find a man." But their mutual friend thought that the trip would be a good subject for a documentary, and wrote to Channel 4. The very next day Thomas saw an article in the Afro-American woman's magazine Essence about finding a husband. Its author claimed that with the right ad in the right place, any girl could find the right guy. "So I decided to place some ads before I went," Thomas says.
New York seems a long way to go to find a partner. Why not search a bit closer to home? Both Sharons hasten to reassure me that there was no criticism implied of the men they were leaving behind. "I'm not saying that there aren't any available black professional men in Manchester," says Thomas. "But I haven't come across any ... maybe I wasn't looking hard enough."
It is a thorny subject. British black women's difficulty in finding suitable black partners has been the subject of heated debates not just within the black community but in the national press. It is generally accepted that black women are currently outstripping the men professionally (in part because employers stereotypically see them as less threatening.) The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the proportion of black men in Britain who marry white partners is around 22 per cent, compared to 10 per cent of black women who do so, according to the latest Census figures. And the figure almost doubles among professional black men.
Although the number of black women choosing white partners is rising, Thomas was adamant she wanted a black man. "Tall, fit and black" is what she specified in the personals. "I wanted someone who was solvent, and who was working. That was important to me because I am not looking after no man, no way, no how." She placed two ads in the Village Voice and the New York Post. One was written like a recipe ("One part gentleman, to one part lady ... If you can add spice", etc), and the other straight ("Black professional female seeks ...")
On her arrival in New York, checking her voice mail, Thomas discovered that she had received more than 100 replies. "It was hilarious. There were all kinds of men. Some were just out for a 'good time', some were white guys, who were obviously just intrigued." After she had narrowed her initial list of contenders down to 10, her first date was with Tony, who had been to England, which gave them something to talk about. Thomas was so nervous that she was two hours late. Tony waited. He turned out to be nice, and she decided she might see him again. Next on the list was a double blind date with the other Sharon. They arranged to meet Ed the chef and his friend Michael in one of the many up-market black hangouts in the city. Date followed date, but one or two of the candidates, particularly Lynn, a 35-year-old engineer, were beginning to stand out.
Both Sharons were mesmerised by New York's Buppie scene. In such Manhattan jazz bars as Chas Wildon, which has an open-mike slot for young hopefuls on Sunday nights, or brunch spots like the Shark Bar, young black professionals gather to meet and greet each other. "There is just nothing like this in Manchester," says an awed Thomas.
But despite its size and affluence, the American scene has its downside. Many Afro-Americans still see themselves, Sharon Lloyd feels, very much as a besieged minority. "It's very segregated, and very political, which is sad," she remarks.
It seems that little has been resolved since the particular flavour of the sex war as played out among Afro-Americans was so viscerally documented in 1980s novels by Alice Walker and Terry McMillan. Indeed, in America, black women's tribulations in finding a mate have been a subject emotive enough to warrant not just one but a veritable slew of Oprah Winfrey specials.
Black men have their own problems with Afro-American women. "They said that American women were too greedy and materialistic," says Thomas. "If a woman makes $80,000 (pounds 50,000) a year she wants a man who can double it. In fact, one guy I went on a date with asked me towards the end of the evening whether I wasn't going to ask him how much he earned. When I said 'No', he was really surprised. He said that most American women won't go out with you until they've found out about your salary, your credit cards and what kind of car you drive."
Of course, difficulty in finding a partner is a problem that is shared by the community at large. "Some people in New York work so hard and such inconvenient hours," Thomas says, "that they really don't have time to go out and meet new people."
And lonely hearts, dating agencies, and other kinds of matchmaking services, are becoming more and more acceptable. In part their growth is also a product of the paranoia endemic to New York life. In a city enraptured by its own violent mythology, it is easy to feel that every stranger is a potential serial killer. Indeed, almost every female New Yorker I have met can enumerate at least one brush with a Ted Bundy-style psychopath. At the very least they mirthlessly catalogue their encounters with frauds; the guy who pretends to be an unattached lawyer but who turns out to be a baggage handler at La Guardia airport; the thrice-divorced shoe salesman from Queens who claims to be a paediatrician. In the faceless city no one is quite what they seem. Less and less do people trust chance encounters, more and more are detective services and decoy agencies employed to check people's fidelity or financial status.
With soaring divorce rates, and a pervasive sense of fragility about existing relationships, many are looking for more pragmatic links to their future partners: someone with the same educational background, prospects and social aspirations as themselves. And if it is more of a merger and less a marriage that has become the goal of many, it is no wonder that dating agencies and the cold specifications of the personal columns, which are so much like old-fashioned matchmakers or arranged marriages, look so attractive.
"I think it's very equalising. It gives women just as much a chance of pursuing what they want as men," says Thomas. "If you're an ordinary girl from Manchester, you'd never dream of putting an ad in the personals. I mean, you get the Manchester Evening News and you read them and laugh, and think that they are for desperate people. But in New York, they aren't taboo. It's not degrading. It's an upmarket, safe way of meeting the right person."
Sharon Lloyd, too, is a whole-hearted convert. And no wonder. Her shopping trip has been a resounding success. Lynn, the sweet-smiling electronics engineer from Queens, has turned out to be Mr Right. "I feel safe with him. He doesn't say things just because I want to hear them. He's so honest, that's what I like most. I feel I can trust him ... at least in this point in time!" But aren't we forgetting something? "Of course I'm in love! That's a silly question. If this isn't love that I'm feeling
8 'Shopping for Mr Right' will be shown at 8.30pm on 12 Oct as part of Channel 4's 'Short Stories' series.Reuse content