It was two a.m. when Renee, a kind of kooky reporter I worked with at a now defunct New Jersey newspaper, finally got me to agree to go on a blind date with Jim McGreevey.
I just wanted Renee to go to sleep. She wouldn't. She was afraid of sleep. She was also afraid an oncoming car on Route 27 would hit her if she drove home at night, which was why she was staying over in my apartment. She wanted to stay up and talk about her mother, about her psychiatrist, about oncoming headlights, about her fear of death and about Jim, a recent Harvard M.B.A., the brightest lawyer in New Jersey, she said, a guy really eager "to meet someone."
"Why don't you date him?" I asked.
"Not my type," she said.
That should have been my first clue.
I have not been on many blind dates with men who would later become governor of New Jersey and lead double lives in which they propositioned Israeli interns by pulling down their pants in limos. But that was one blind date where, upon seeing Jim waiting for me in a Perth Amboy union hall where he was finishing up a political function, I seriously considered turning tail and running home.
His tan Macintosh was slung over his arm like an elderly early birder, his platypus lips pouted as he checked his watch impatiently and he was short. He was, hands down, the most unappealing man I'd ever seen. I couldn't leave, however, because my mother had brought me up better. That would be cruel. Besides, maybe he had a great personality, like Renee said.
"You're late," he snapped, marching to the door. "We'll take my car."
It was dark, rainy and we were in the part of New Jersey everyone thinks of as New Jersey. Strip stores. Chemical plants. Sulfuric yellow skies. We were headed to Rahway.
"Why Rahway?" I asked as Jim clutched the wheel and sped through winding streets.
"Rahway Democrats. Just to stop by."
The Rahway Democrats? Just what kind date was this? A very bad one. Listen, I was twenty two and going to a Rahway Democratic Club dinner was not my idea of a spiffy Friday on the town. Plus, Jim and I could not agree on anything. I distinctly remember it as the night that a decision was reached in the CBS/Westmoreland trial. I was pro-CBS; Jim was anti CBS. In fact, my impression of him was that he was extremely conservative, right down to his devout Roman Catholic roots. How do you know a first date's bad? When you are disagreeing about abortion before it even starts.
And it only got worse. The Rahway Democrats met in a low red building in a neighborhood with lots of funeral homes. There was a band. A coat check. I did not want to check my coat. I wasn't staying. Jim said, "Check your coat." I checked it.
Then, taking me by the hand, he smiled and said, "Ready for show time?" And in a blink, Jim transformed into a gracious, charming and political, well, animal. The ladies gathered at the tables eating their chicken dinners squealed with delight and poked their husbands. "This is the young man I've been telling you about."
"This is Sarah, my girlfriend," was how Jim introduced me. We had known each other all of a half hour.
It was bizarre. I tried to discreetly slip my hand from his grasp. No. He held it firmly as he went from table to table, smiling, greeting and pretending to be a straight man with a girlfriend, a good Catholic boy who would get married and have six kids, their pictures all framed and displayed on his mother's white doily-covered piano. He had done this routine, I realized later, many, many times before.
He was desperate to be attached to a woman. One of his first questions when I got in the car was whether or not I was Catholic. Shocked, I told him I was Episcopalian and he frowned since, clearly, I would not fit the role. Later, I would derive perverse glee in learning that Jim and his lover, Mark O'Donnell, attend Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church where gays are welcomed.
Jim didn't hold a political office then. But five or six years later he would become mayor of Woodbridge next door and would win a seat on the New Jersey General Assembly. That blind date was my first peek into how early one needs to lay the foundation to establish a political career, including hitting up "the rubber chicken dinners," as Jim called them.
When I told him that I was going to get a cab and leave the Rahway Democrats, he whined about having paid $60 a plate for each of us, but acquiesced. We ended up at a nearby restaurant eating chicken tarragon. The place was practically empty. The minutes ticked by mournfully. The only point when Jim brightened was in talking about the next day: he had a six a.m. pancake breakfast with "the seniors."
Today is the on-sale date of Jim's memoir: The Confession. I might flip through it, looking for references to that period in his life when he was trying to meet a wife and play straight. Since our disastrous date, I've watched him rise through New Jersey politics. My friends have sent me clips from the New York Times showing Jim on the lawn of Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion, with his wife. "This could have been you, Mrs. McGreevey!" written in the margins. I remember leaving the bathroom in a New Jersey rest area and flinching upon seeing his smiling face peering down from me on the wall.
But of all these events, nothing surprises me more than the phone call I received a few days after our date. It was Jim wanting to know if we could do it again.