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I Spy the Stranger of My Dreams

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to love,” wrote the poet Tennyson.

But in the “I Spy” section of personal ads in Seven Days, the fancy of men and women isn’t restricted to springtime. It turns to love all year round.

The Burlington-based alternative weekly has been running I Spy ads for most of its nearly 20 years, helping casual strangers make romantic connections.

“I think you are the finest looking townie I’ve ever seen,” said a recent I Spy ad placed by a woman to a “sharp-dressed man and always looking at me just a little too long. Would you just do something already?”

How could he not respond to that entreaty?

Goosed by the paper’s website – where people can place an “I Spy” ad for free – the ads are one of the paper’s most popular features.

But love doesn’t come free. While there’s no cost to “spy” somebody, replying to the spyer will cost you, beginning with an online “day pass” for $7.

The ads play off both the anonymity of 21st century life and the relative coziness of Vermont’s largest metropolitan area.

“I think the ‘I Spys’ work so well here,” said Paula Routly, the paper’s editor and publisher, “because of the size of the place: big enough to ‘spy’ the occasional stranger, but small enough that readers inevitably recognize from the description exactly who it is. That’s a big part of the sport of it.”

It’s a weekly sport for many regular readers – not because we want to be spied, but because we are nosy.

We want to know what became of the ad placed by a woman who spied the “Cute Middle School Janitor” and asked him, “How much does a girl have to flirt? Any more might be cause for arrest. It’s getting embarrassing … You know who I am, my daughter goes to your school, or does everyone flirt this openly with you? You’re always friendly. Ask me out already!”

We may never know what became of that single mom and the janitor. But we do know how some of the stories ended.

Ashley Cleare, the e-commerce coordinator at Seven Days, recalls that one summer day shortly after the Fourth of July, a local photographer came into the paper with a photo he had taken at the Burlington fireworks. The photo showed a man proposing marriage to a woman. He wanted to find the happy couple.

The paper ran the photo in I Spy, and the happy couple got a photographic record of their big moment.

One day a young man came into the Seven Days office looking for an I Spy ad he had placed awhile back.

He was about to marry the woman he had connected to through the paper, and wanted a copy of the original ad. Cleare helped him dig it out of the stack of back issues.

Then there was the woman who spied the “drop-dead sexy dark-haired dentist” and described herself as the “hottest thing at the gym.”

Or the woman who described the state of things this way: “You: seemingly a happy married man. Me: frequently thinking about ripping your clothes off.” (Warning: trouble ahead.)

Music often plays the muse here. One man simply quoted a Paul Simon song: “First thing I remember, when you came into my life, I said I’m going to get that girl no matter what I do.”

Another couple appears to have fallen in love to the music of Van Morrison, judging by an ad from a woman that was labeled “Into the Mystic.”

“You took me to London on Valentine’s Day to see my favorite musician,” she wrote. “Can it get more romantic than that as a first date?”

That guy is going to have a tough time coming up with a second date to top the first one.

Most of the I Spy ads are from the Burlington area. But occasionally they involve Addison County people – a couple of times including waitresses at the Starry Night Café in Ferrisburgh.

Then there was the enamored credit-union customer in Middlebury, a man who wrote: “You were the one who deposited something for me at the Middlebury branch this morning 3-12-14. You greeted me with such energy and compassion … You looked gorgeous. You know when you meet someone and after you feel good? Well thank you … for making my day with your smile and kindness, it just happens to be you’re also gorgeous. Till next deposit.”

I guess being a credit union cashier is a lot more exciting than any of us had imagined.

When Marty Schnure was a student at Middlebury College, she sometimes procrastinated from completing her reading by checking out I Spy.

As a geography major, she saw in I Spy much more than just a bunch of budding romances.

She saw a map.

Marty graphically depicted some of the best I Spy postings by geocoding where the incidents occurred and quoting some of the posts on the map. She entered her creation in the national Bizarre Map Challenge. You can see the clever result here.

She thought placing the ads within a geographical context would make an interesting project “because it is both unique to Vermont and universal. While the map is ostensibly very regional, it transcends its regionalism by representing universally recognizable human needs and wants: connection, intimacy, infatuation, (and) making eye contact with the cutie in the produce section.”

Her I Spy-themed entry didn’t take the top prize. It did, however, place second in the Bizarre Map Challenge.

Proving, I guess, that love doesn’t always win the day. But it sure makes for an interesting story. And map.

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