When I walked into the room, the average age of the people sitting there dropped by about 25 years. The small group gathered for the Shabbat Singles service was comprised of people old enough to be my grandparents, or at least my older aunts and uncles.
The singles service was supposed to be for people in their 20s through 40s. Plus, there was a misprint in the listing, so I was more than a half-hour early.
On top of all of this, there was only one woman there, who I will call Ruthie. She was somewhere in her 60s, well-dressed with finely applied makeup — and legs many a 30-year-old would envy.
Ruthie was outgoing and friendly, even if she spoke a little too loudly for an intimate conversation.
“Hi, what’s your name?” she asked as she sat in the semi-circle of chairs in the synagogue’s multipurpose room.
I introduced myself. We exchanged the usual introductions: work, where we both lived, general small talk.
“How old are you, Roy?” she asked.
At the time, I was in my early 30s. Out of decorum, I did not ask the reciprocal question.
“Roy, are you a bachelor?”
“Are you a bachelor?” she asked again.
Her question and word choice reverberated inside my head: Are you a bachelor? I have been called all sorts of things, both complimentary and insulting, but have never been called a bachelor.
Holding out my left hand as proof that I was indeed not married, I said, “Yep, no rings on this finger.”
An Official Definition
What it means to be a bachelor these days is abundantly clear to me. But the actual meaning of this word raised an intellectual question.
To further investigate the true meaning of the word bachelor, I consulted several dictionaries, which trace the origin of the word to Old French and Medieval Latin: baccalaris or baccalarius, which means “helper or tenant.”
Originally, the term bachelor was used as a title in the feudal system of property ownership and social standing. A bachelor was a “young knight and landholder who served under another’s banner because he was not old enough or had too few vassals to display.”
In modern usage and common parlance, a bachelor is “a man who has not yet married.” The first synonym is appropriately listed as celibate. A third, rarely used definition, is applied to animals, mostly fur seals, that have not yet mated or are excluded from the mating season by older, more mature males.
Although I have never seen a fur seal up close, I recognize that the bachelor is a product of his times.
When I hear the word, it conjures up images of a suave 40s-or 50s-era man in a dark, tailored suit, puffing on cigarettes from a silver case, sipping a martini in a sophisticated metropolitan lounge. Think Cary Grant in one of those 1950s romance flicks, maybe a Hitchcock film. Or a Rock Hudson character in a similar movie, but he turned out to be an entirely different type of bachelor.
The bachelor image seems to have totally skipped over the ’60s. Maybe there was enough free love to go around that nobody got stuck on name-calling based on marital status. In all seriousness, the Vietnam war also snapped up many potential bachelors.
But the bachelor returned with a vengeance — a disco inferno explosion — in the 1970s. This bachelor was in the vein of a John Travolta boogying in a colorfully lit disco, or maybe Richard Gere in an American Gigolo-type role. These were slick guys with wide collars, shirts buttoned down to the middle of the chest, with a gold chain or two.
The ’70s bachelor also had a sleek convertible — preferably red — so he could speed along the highway with the top down, with a different babe in the passenger seat every day of the week. He drove this snazzy car back to his “bachelor pad,” an apartment with the sole intent to seduce via a delicate combination of plush carpet, mood lighting, a lava lamp, wet bar with bamboo and Naugahyde stools, and, of course, a waterbed.
Though I was a teenager for most of the ’80s, the decade seems to have failed to yield an appropriate prototypical bachelor. The safe-sex revolution — the “Just say no” message of abstinence from sex, drugs and bad rock ’n’ roll — may have snuffed out the bachelor for good. Plus, how cool could a guy on the prowl look in parachute pants, an overly moussed mullet hairdo and a feather for an earring?
It’s now the ’90s — oops, it’s the 21st century. Today, the best image of a bachelor society can roust up for us is the C-list brother of a B-list actor devoid of both talent and personality trying to make it big on phony television.
As a 30-something suburban guy, I never really thought of myself as a feudal knight, much less an unmated animal — there have been many futile nights, but that’s another story. I do not have nor will I ever have any vassals, either. Then again, none of popular culture’s bachelor images seems applicable either.
So, let’s change the vernacular, shall we? You can just simply call me single.
Roy S. Gutterman is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer. To contact him, visit: www.Lrev.com.