Why you should care

Because even the well-educated get schooled. 

Jerome Copulsky eventually received a Ph.D. in religious studies. His work has appeared in such places as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

In the run-up to our 25th college reunion, a former classmate posted a New York Times article on Facebook that first appeared the spring of our senior year. Based on interviews at my college, the article described how the economic downturn was affecting our class’s career prospects and quoted my roommate lamenting the difficulties we were facing in the job market. The upshot? After four years of studying the liberal arts, we were now acquiring an unsentimental education in rejection.

At first, I had tried to avoid the situation by applying for graduate programs in philosophy, only to be rejected from every school I applied to. So, soon after graduation, I followed some friends to Washington, D.C., equipped with a gray pinstripe suit (a graduation gift) and a parental check for my first month’s rent. I had lined up a couple of “informational” interviews, believing, without good reason, that I would land an interesting position in no time.

The informational interviews failed to lead to real ones, much less job offers; letters of inquiry and repeated phone calls went unanswered. So when I came across a listing in the Washington Post’s employment section (“intelligent, personable interviewers needed for exclusive personal introduction service”), I felt I had nothing to lose.

Most of my romantic encounters existed in my own mind, and what I knew about love came second-hand.

 

Days later, I found myself in my pinstripe suit sitting across from the president and CEO of the company. Settling into his leather chair, he leaned back and looked over my application. “Good education,” he said. “Thank you,” I replied.

He launched into a prepackaged monologue about the company and the changes in American society that made such services useful and necessary. He said he was looking for energetic, extremely motivated people to join at the ground level. After a substantial training program, I would be sent to the homes of prospective clients to explain the program and work with them to build a detailed picture of what they were looking for in a romantic partner. The actual matchmaking would take place back at the office by the pros with their accumulated wisdom and computer-generated models. (This was, of course, well before internet dating had been conceived.) He raved about the quality of his clientèle and boasted of success stories.

Leaning across his desk, he looked at me and asked, “What makes you think that you can succeed in this position?”

The question hung in the air. I had no reason to think I would. Sure, I had graduated from a perfectly respectable college, but that hadn’t exactly qualifed me for this kind of work. Most of my romantic encounters existed in my own mind, and what I knew about love came second-hand, from books, movies and friends’ foibles. So I uttered the first thing that popped into my head: My mother made me watch Fiddler on the Roof over and over when I was a kid.

He stared at me blankly. I fumbled for more, reeling off a litany of questionable accomplishments: a job as a reporter for my hometown newspaper, psychology courses I had taken, the research paper I had written on the Romantic Age (for which I received an “A”). I knew a thing or two about human desire, I declared.

“This isn’t college,” he said. “This is the real world, kid.”

And then he let out a deep sigh, followed by: “Can you work evenings and weekends?” I said I could.

So, after my roommates had left for their more traditional jobs, I put on my suit, called the office for my appointments and drove off to meet clients.

Sitting for hours at their kitchen tables, we would methodically work through a list of questions: What kind of person are you looking for? What kind of food and vacations and movies do you like? Are you religious? Are you affectionate in public? Do you have or want kids? How about pets? I meticulously recorded their responses, like a punctilious student taking notes.

They would confide in me as if I were an old friend or therapist or priest, revealing all manner of intimate details about their lives, their accomplishments, disappointments and stubborn hopes. They spoke of young loves and first kisses, infidelity and betrayals, domestic abuse, custody battles, illnesses and death, the loneliness they were trying to dispel by pouring themselves into their work, taking up new hobbies, or sitting in front of the television or in bed with a book or a pet. The contours of desire and heartbreak were shaped by their voices and stories, by small objects in their homes: photographs on the refrigerator; mementos on a shelf; an abstract painting, I was told, evoking the visage of an ex; a wedding ring, still worn, only now as a pendant.

All the while, I took pains to mask the shallowness of my own experience and the absurdity of my mission. When someone asked if I was married or had a girlfriend or if I was using the service myself, I would dodge the question, afraid to reveal what was abundantly clear to me — that I was in way over my head, and despite my education and “professional training,” I had no business offering promises of romantic fulfillment to anyone. Indeed, the more we talked the more I realized how little, really, I knew.

My career as a junior matchmaker did not last long. Within weeks, I’d said my goodbyes and turned in my questionnaires and business cards. I moved on to a series of jobs — waiter, campaign advance man, tour guide — until that graduate school acceptance letter finally arrived.

I am now about the age of most of my interviewees and have, over the past quarter century, accumulated the detritus, and wisdom, from many a failed romance. From time to time, I wonder about the people I met, if they ever found their other halves, or discovered another kind of love they had not expected.

I doubt I helped anyone in the end. I have come to understand, however, that those weeks constituted an improvised symposium on human connection. Seated in a kitchen classroom, I was the student again and they were my mentors. I may have signed up for a job, but what I received was an education.

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