Maybe you’ve heard about the new Courtney Cox sitcom, Cougar Town, where older women who consider yoga-enhanced flexibility their greatest asset vie for younger men in bars. Or maybe you saw the New York Times Style article on cougars. In DC, where President Obama’s arrival has made us hip enough for reality TV, and where the Times Style section is the guilty pleasure People is elsewhere, this leads some to wonder: could DC have cougars like the play-seeking ladies in this new ABC sitcom?
DC has plenty of unmarried professionals of all ages. Websites and the many polled on an informal basis speak to this cougar scene. But the path to Cougar Town is filled with urban legends, eager young men and cautious women.
My first stop is Café Milano, a movers-and-shakers kind of restaurant with a very well-dressed meat market bar scene. I considered the bar a place where older men hit on younger women. But several men insist it’s a cougar den, and Thursday is prime-time cougar viewing.
They are wrong. I find many men, and one woman on a date. Women are in the restaurant, but not at the bar. I try to catch the blonde’s eye while her date checks e-mail, but she doesn’t see me. She does, however, see my handsome companion.
I’ve brought a wingman. He sells art, can chat up anyone and knows this crowd well. He engages her, somehow gets her to admit to having cougar-ed in the past, and then distracts her date so I can move in for a conversation.
She’s lived here several years, still speaks with a heavy British accent and says she’s met a few younger men at Milano.
“But there aren’t any cougars here tonight. Is there a better time?” I ask. “Phooey,” she mumbles. Her date takes hold of her hand. She turns away from me. “Phooey?” I repeat, somewhat loudly.
In a seamless gesture, she tilts her head in my direction, allows her hair to shield her face from her date and says “Dewey” in clear, crisp syllables. Then the hair flips back and she’s gone.
Dewey is a Delaware beach town many Washingtonians head to for summer weekends. It’s another world and what happens on the other side of the (Chesapeake) Bay Bridge, tends to stay on the other side of the bridge.
On the patio, my wingman corners a 24-year-old cub allegedly well-versed in the ways of cougars. Three women walk over from the bar next door. We can’t see their faces from where we’re sitting. Young cub-master doesn’t need to.
“Puma, puma, cougar in puma clothing,” he tells me.
I study the three blondes. All are fairly slim and dressed in skirts and heels. A puma is a woman in her late thirties who dates younger, versus the over-40-year-old cougar. From the back, I can’t judge their ages. “How do you know which one’s a cougar?”
He rolls his eyes. My wingman shakes his head. I am letting down the table.
“The tie-dye dress. She can’t pull it off at her age.” He sighs the sigh of the battle-weary.
I next visit the Four Seasons bar. “It’s filled with cougars for sure,” a 31-year-old male friend has told me. When I arrive, I wish I’d brought him. He’d have his pick of lovely ladies.
The Four Seasons bar has all the women Café Milano didn’t, but no men. These very well-dressed, fit women likely see their dermatologists more often than their relatives, so they’ll look thirty-five for another decade. The cub from Café Milano would have a field day. But neither he nor any others show up.
Is this a case of buyers and sellers not knowing where to find each other?
A certain socialite tries to set me straight. “No woman in DC’s going to fool around with a younger man because they don’t have enough to say. They’re boring.”
“We’re talking about casual situations,” I remind her. “Not much conversation needed.”
“Yes, but people in DC are dorks. We like talking.” She sighs. “But, the women I know who do play the cougars and sleep with younger guys go to Dewey Beach.”
Again with Dewey Beach. It’s a long drive for someone who doesn’t own a car. I refuse to calculate how many hours of Zipcar time I’d need for that road trip.
Instead, I call one more friend. He’s in his 40s, married and a magnet for women of all ages. They confide in him. They confide in me their crushes on him. He, I’m sure, will know.
“So, you’re wondering if there are cougars getting laid by younger men and, if so, where they meet?”
Please don’t say Dewey Beach, I think. “Umm, yeah,” I say.
“Let’s back up a second and ask the bigger question: is anyone in DC getting laid?”
I hang up. I refuse to answer his bigger question or go to Dewey Beach in pursuit of cougars. But I decide to try a cheaper bar, where the ladies can feel they’re not in a frat boy bar, while former frat boys can afford to drink on a budget. I go to Russia House.
Russia House is dark, more lounge than bar or club, and filled with singles of all ages. “Perfect,” I tell my 40-year-old girlfriend and our 30-year-old male sidekick.
But it’s not.
The women don’t approach the cubs. The cubs don’t leave the walls they lean against. Lots of staring. No action.
I realize they are waiting for a guide, and that my friend and I must play the cougars, showing them how it’s done. We will then clear out so the real cougars can make their approach while we observe. Martinis in hand, we target three men, none older than 25, standing by a fireplace.
It’s not easy being a cougar.
I get perhaps five feet. My 30-year old friend, allegedly experienced in the ways of cougars, sees his higher calling and becomes our Cougar Coach.
“Think like a man. Don’t—wait, didn’t you hear me? Don’t look at a guy for longer than ten seconds. If you do, you’ve tipped your hand and lost the chance. Just go.”
“What do we say?” I ask. My fellow cougar-poser is inching toward the stairs. I all but grab her by the sleeve.
“Ask if the fire’s wood-burning or gas.”
“That’s stupid,” I tell him.
“It won’t matter.” He fixes me with a steely gaze he’s learned from government jobs he can’t discuss unless he kills you, and tells me to strap on the big girl pants and make the approach. I all but salute, and follow his orders.
“Do you mind sharing the fireplace?” I ask the boys. It’s seventy degrees outside. No one needs the fireplace. But they’re not women. They’re not going to turn their backs on my fellow cougar-poser and me.
Conversation is an endless dodging of topics that would flag the age gap. Jobs, extended stays abroad and favorite high school movies are all off the table. Unless both parties are a) very drunk, b) ready for sex, and c) able to ignore the watchful crowd around them, the center will not hold. Within five minutes, we return to our Cougar Coach.
“You talked too long,” he tells us.
“We didn’t want anything more to happen,” I remind him. “It’s an experiment.”
“I don’t like being a cougar,” my friend says. “And I’m tired. I’m going home.”
“You’ve got to head to Adams-Morgan,” the man beside me says. He’s 31 and tells me he’s known his share of older women. “This is prime time for the cougars. After 1:00 a.m. is when they’re at their best. I mean, let’s face it: who wouldn’t rather be with someone closer to their own age if they can before last call?”
A man whose few remaining hairs are a streaky mix of gray and white is standing nearby. I catch his eye as the 31-year-old poses this question. The man looks down at his feet. Two other men, sitting near us, lean forward.
I look out the window, toward Adams-Morgan. It’s filled with bars no one over the age of 24 wants to enter, very cheap beer, even cheaper pizza by the slice just outside. No self-respecting cougar would enter those bars.
“The cougar relationship is a beautiful thing,” the young guy next says. He’s holding court in Russia House and dispensing wisdom while my Cougar Coach hits on two women who likely got in with fake IDs. “She doesn’t want to see you after the night. You don’t want to see her. No one’s feelings are hurt.” The men around us nod. “But you’ve got to go where the beer’s cheap and the night’s almost over.”
The following Saturday, I update a trainer in my gym. I’ve decided to head to Adams-Morgan in one last search for a Cougar Town-like scene. He shakes his head, disappointed. It’s as if he’s caught me at the Krispy Kreme with a dozen doughnuts.
He looks up at the ceiling as if for guidance. “If you want to pose as a cougar, paint your nails. Bright red. And wear some big necklace. Something shiny. Pearls if you don’t have anything big and shiny. But it’s raining. Cougars don’t go out in the rain.” He wants to say more, but others walk up. He won’t discuss cougar escapades in front of them.
People in DC care about their reputations. Maybe it’s the government vibe or the political air that tinges everything here, including who hires you some of the time. If you’ve visited DC, you’ve probably noticed that we’re not overly fit or fashion-forward. We’re a little nerdy. We like talk and, if someone’s got enough time to keep their bodies too perfect, that person’s probably not talking, or thinking, enough.
More than money or looks, information—about politics, refugees in war-torn countries and even the sex lives of others—is our currency. To be the cougar who seeks out her cub for a night or a weekend, you can’t care too much about what people think. And people in DC, right or wrong, care.
A 38-year-old friend accompanies me to Tom Tom. It’s still raining and the roof’s leaking so the bartender wears a rain slicker. Beer costs less than five dollars a bottle and no cover is charged. Men well under 30 approach. Finally, a cougar/cub scene.
“Do you get a lot of older women and younger men meeting here?” I ask the bartender. “I’m working on a dispatch about whether or not we’ve got a cougar scene in DC.”
But I look around and realize that, for all the young men and women, we’re the oldest women in the bar. Maybe the rain’s kept them home. Maybe they’re in Dewey, waiting out the rain with an off-duty lifeguard. Or maybe they all really do care too much for this. A camera flashes. The boys are taking our picture.
My friend asks one how old he is. 22, he says. And you? 26, she says with a grin. Then I’ll be 23, he replies.
Outside, the rain’s still falling. Within another hour, people will start buying the Sunday Times at Kramerbooks, down the hill in Dupont Circle. Maybe they’ll be staggering home to fall into an inebriated sleep, paper by their side. Maybe they’ll have a significant other or friend with benefits in tow, ready for bed. But stopping in for the Times is part of the night. That’s the kind of wonky, knowledge-hungry people we are.
We may have MTV’s Real World and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning President. But, even with all the unmarried men and women living around DC, we’ll likely never have much of a Cougar Town scene. And that may not be such a bad thing.