Call Me Thelma

There are questions that catch one off-guard not so much in the posing, but because you realize, to your surprise, that you've never been asked them before.

I was on a blind date recently (a cup of coffee--low risk, easily escaped) with a woman I'd met through an online personal ad. We'd enjoyed a half hour of pleasant, if not terribly memorable, conversation when NYgal212 (all handles have been changed to protect the innocent) threw me for a bit of a loop by asking, "So--why's a great catch like you still single?"

(At least that's how I remember it. It's entirely possible she did not actually characterize me as a "great catch"; she may instead have said "great guy" or even, let's face it, merely "guy." But I digress...)

I was startled and not a little flattered by the question. It's a query with an appealingly anachronistic quality to it, a question one hears posed in old movies, not on the high tech battleground of 21st-century dating. Doris Day asks Rock Hudson how it happens that he's still single; Ruby Keeler wonders at Dick Powell's unattached status.

But somehow, in more than a quarter-century of dating, no one's ever asked me that question. And I can't help but wonder if this is because it was readily apparent to all those Janes, Joans, and Jills why I'm not married.

After all, no one's ever asked me how it is that I'm not the starting center for the New York Knicks, either. No one's expressed surprise that I've never been named People magazine's Sexiest Man of the Year. And, to the best of my knowledge, nary a soul has ever puzzled over the fact that I've not managed by now to garner a Pulitzer Prize.

Some truths, let's face it, are, as the man said, self-evident.

So can it be that I am not, in the collective eyes of the women of the world, marriage material? Perhaps I'm the male equivalent of the tomboyish, rough-edged, yet sympathetic female so often depicted on stage, page, and screen--the sort of woman to whom men turn when things aren't going well with their lady loves.

Maybe I am the male Thelma Ritter.

Recall, if you will, Ritter as Jimmy Stewart's housekeeper in Rear Window: brassy, sassy, no-nonsense--a real man's woman, the kind of gal any guy would love to have as a pal. You stand Ritter to a couple of drinks when some dame has done you wrong and you need a sympathetic ear; you take her along when a buddy stands you up and leaves you with an extra ticket to a ballgame.

But did any leading man ever romance, much less marry, a Ritter character? Don't kid yourself. Thelma Ritter had a key role to play in those old pictures, but the love interest it was not.

So, fond as I am of Ms. Ritter's work, I'm none too keen to follow in her footsteps. I'm pleased to have a great many female pals, but I don't want to be thought of as just one of the girls.

Now, I wouldn't mind being the male equivalent of Judy Holliday. She had a touch of Thelma Ritter to her; she was brash and street smart and plain-spoken. But there was a little Marilyn Monroe in the mix, too, and it made for an intoxicating blend.

But it may be that I'm making this too difficult. Perhaps there's a male actor to whom I might aptly be compared, the girly-guy counterpart to Ritter's somewhat mannish woman.

Perhaps, though I may aspire to emulate Hollywood's leading men, I am instead following a path forged by Tony Randall. His characters were smart, sophisticated, and urbane (pinch me if I'm dreaming, but I'd like to think I share those attributes), but Randall was no dreamboat and one doubts that he was ever particularly handy with his fists, so he didn't have the "tough guy" component in his favor, either.

No, Randall was best buddy material through and through, a shoulder to cry on, a pal to drag along on a post-breakup shopping excursion. No one ever asked Randall why a catch like him was still single--it was understood.

So, as much as I admire Tony Randall (he is, after all, a transplanted Oklahoman, like me, and a terrific actor), if I thought him the cinematic archetype I most closely resemble, I'd be tempted to throw in the towel and join a monastery.

No, I have to believe that, though William Holden-esque heights may be beyond my grasp, I can, on my good days, pull myself up to, say, Jack Lemmon's level. Personable, decent, quick-witted, not unwilling to throw a punch if pushed to the limit (though likely to get worse than they gave), Lemmon's characters, especially in the 1950s, had a certain likable Everyman quality that made Lemmon seem ideal marriage material; he even starred opposite Judy Holliday in his first two movies, It Should Happen to You and Pfft!, a pair of delightful romantic comedies.

Yes, one could certainly do worse than to follow in Lemmon's footsteps. And I now realize that he's even given me the perfect answer to offer the next time a woman asks me how it is that I'm still single: I'll simply reply, "I guess I just haven't met my Judy Holliday yet."

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