Patty Hoffman, a trim, 57-year-old redhead with sensible Aunt Bea shoes, a ready smile, and an encylopedic knowledge of the city's streets, has been driving a bus for the Springfield Mass Transit District since October 1, 1977. Over the years, she has safely delivered thousands of riders to their destinations with nary a mishap or untoward incident to mar her 25-year career.
Though she hardly looks big enough to handle one of the largest vehicles on the road, she pilots her bus with skill and confidence day after day, deftly maneuvering the noisy behemoth along her route with the level of care and watchfulness that naturally accompanies a safe driving record.
Recently she was involved in a rescue that altered the course of her life forever. She was visiting her friend, Ron Kramer, a 58-year-old Orkin Pest Control technician from Morton. She walked into the kitchen and saw that he was on the floor, on all fours, with his head in a gas oven. Hearing her enter the room, he retracted his head and asked her to marry him. Momentarily stunned, she agreed, thus saving two lonely people from the tempests of the modern-day dating scene. Make that the Internet dating scene.
"He was cleaning the oven, and I guess he decided the time was right, old romantic that he is," Hoffman says. "I thought maybe the fumes just got to him, so I said yes before he had a chance to take it back."
Hoffman and Kramer are among the growing number of people who have found each other, and subsequently love, via the Internet. Why would a normally cautious person surf the 'Net in search of companionship?
In Hoffman's case, it's because she can. She admits that she didn't tell her children, all of whom are in their 30s.
"It's my house and my computer, and it's my life," she says, laughing.
She's had a computer since 1994, but it wasn't until 2000, after she had been divorced for six years, that she began to browse personal ads from the safety and comfort of her home. She was aware that there are plenty of creeps out there in cyber-land, so she always played it close to the vest, never giving out any personal information.
"I've never been in a chat room," she says. "It kind of scares me. I just browsed the personals, kind of like looking at the JCPenney catalog. I would select the area and then select the age. No smoking was a requirement for me, and as for drinking it had to be little or none. And employment was an important factor too."
Hoffman's experience underscores the attraction of personal ads. Through the process of elimination, she was able to separate the potential matches from the discards in a short time. But since everyone posts his own profile--and there is no middleman, as there is with a conventional dating or matchmaking service--honesty is a paramount concern.
But, Hoffman says, you never know if a person in a barroom is telling the truth either. And surfing the personals was infinitely more appealing to her than the bar scene.
"I've never been a drinker and I have no interest in the bar scene whatsoever," she says.
Kramer--who is slight, bespectacled, and so mild-mannered that one wonders what self-respecting insect would ever fear him--echoes her sentiments.
"You don't really meet people at the laundermat or grocery store," he says. "And neither Patty nor I have a church affiliation. I think a lot of people use the Internet for a toy. Patty and I used it more seriously. We had to."
Hoffman started by contacting several people who had placed ads. Over the course of a couple months, she had a few dates, and, she says, met "some real decent people." But she found that she shared little in common with them and met no one whom she cared to see on a regular basis. She resigned herself to the thought that she might never meet another life partner--certainly not through the Internet.
In spring 2001, Hoffman confided her feelings to a friend who encouraged her to branch out, geographically speaking, and search the America Online personals for the Pekin/Peoria area. Hoffman, who had graduated in the Pekin High class of '62, didn't think anything would come of it, but she figured browsing wouldn't cost her anything but time.
She began her usual sorting process, looking at the age group of 50-62 years. She classified the ads into three groups: (1) This is a no. (2) This is a possibility. (3) I'll come back to this one later.
Then one ad caught her attention and held it: "Morton area--Ron, age 56, service technician, likes movies, boating, gardening, photography, NASCAR, 3 kids, non-smoker, occasional drinker."
The ad went on to say he had no distance limitations. Hoffman was sufficiently interested to reply with a message: "Is Springfield too far away? If not, let's talk."
The next day she received a reply: "My name is Ron . . . how are you?"
They began exchanging messages and "chatting"--mostly about their kids (she has three boys; he has three girls) and grandkids (she had two grandsons; he had two granddaughters--there have been additions since then). The relationship began to consume a lot of Hoffman's thoughts, even though she had not divulged her last name or address. She confesses to falling prey to a major case of "the butterflies" and asking herself things like "Will I hear from him tonight?" and "Why didn't I hear from him this morning?" In other words, she began to act like a typical 16-year-old.
Kramer admits he was overcome by the same condition.
"Excitement, anticipation, I never thought I'd feel that way again. I would send a message and think, 'Will she message me back?' "
After a week, Ron proposed a date. As he had a second job that kept him busy on weekends, they were not able to meet until 5 on a Sunday evening at Hoffman's Laketown house, where she had invited him for dinner.
Kramer says the first hour was a nervous blur. They chatted over soft drinks while she readied a dinner of roast beef with carrots, potatoes, gravy, and rolls.
"I was shaking like a leaf," Kramer recalls. "But we already knew a lot about each other and that made things easier."
Hoffman admits she was also a bundle of nerves--not about the dinner she was preparing but about the reaction she feared from her dinner guest when she told him that she had four previous marriages, all of which had ended in divorce. They were looking at some photos of her son's wedding, when she decided to ask him point blank:
"How many times have you been married, Ron?"
"You don't want to know," he replied.
"Yes, I do," she pressed.
"Four," he replied.
She had to catch herself from falling on the floor.
"Oh, my God, I have too," she said, noting the look of astonishment on his face.
It was a watershed moment, which, Kramer says, "opened the door for us both." It established the rapprochement they needed to open up to one another--about the reasons and circumstances of their past wrong choices, of which there were no shortage. They now had common ground for a discussion of lessons learned and knowledge gained.
"I was all smiles driving home," Kramer says. "I thought, 'This is somebody I can be friends with. By God, she's a nice lady. She's really a nice lady.' "
Since that meeting, they haven't stopped talking. Or listening. Both Kramer and Hoffman say there's a level of friendship and communication that neither has enjoyed before. And though they share a wealth of common interests, they have found that flexibility and compromise are the keys to compatibility. Kramer had to lose the second job and two of his four cats. The other two cats will eventually have to go as well. He knows other pet people will understand the depth of that particular sacrifice--he says it's far greater than the second job.
"I liked living by myself, but there was an emptiness. Just me and my cats. They are very important to me. They're awfully forgiving, and they are your friends when there is no one else around."
Kramer and Hoffman eventually began to spend weekends together, alternating between Morton and Springfield: "68.3 miles, door-to-door" is how she puts it. "An hour and ten minutes," he says. They have found that they both enjoy home and garden projects as well as cooking. They enjoy coffee and hot chocolate on Saturday mornings while watching programs on HGTV and the Food Network.
They've found photography is also something they can share, but that certain things will remain in Kramer's bailiwick exclusively, such as NASCAR and bass fishing. Through the miracle of videotape, Kramer hasn't missed a race yet. Hoffman says she does enough driving during the week--she doesn't need to watch it on weekends.
Hoffman has agreed to sell her Springfield home and move back north. After their wedding, they'll sell Kramer's Morton home and move to the Pekin area, where Hoffman plans to clean homes to supplement their income. Kramer wants to work for four more years and then retire. Much of their time together now is spent looking at homes.
Perhaps Hoffman's biggest concession has been to allow Kramer to drive (that is to say, to do all the driving), as he did when they took a vacation to Virginia earlier this year.
"He's a man--naturally he thinks he should do all the driving. So I let him," she says, rolling her eyes and laughing.
They have received love and support, and a good bit of teasing, from their families and friends. Kramer has some customers who have been with him for 27 years, which is far longer than all of his married years combined. He says they are happy for him and wish him and Hoffman great joy on their new life together.
Some of Hoffman's regular riders on the Lowell Avenue bus have jokingly offered their services as minister, ringbearer, flower girl, and soloist at the upcoming ceremony. But one of the riders, Brett Ivers, who works in the Energy and Recycling Division of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development, does in fact perform weddings and has done so for 12 years. She is attached to the Universal Life Church and has conducted weddings, funerals, christenings, and commitment ceremonies.
When Hoffman discerned that Ivers' proposal was sincere, she readily approved, and Ivers will conduct the ceremony at a private Lake Springfield club on April 26. Hoffman says they wanted to be married during a month in which neither she nor Ron had previously been married.
"I think it's neat that they have the courage to try it again," says Ivers, who has known Hoffman for about a year. Ivers has witnessed some offbeat happenings in wedding ceremonies. Once a flower girl balked at performing her duty without her mother by her side--so the ex-wife preceded the bride up the aisle.
"That was interesting," Ivers says.
Some of her other weddings have had the bride, groom, and all the guests in medieval garb; couples have leapt over fire to symbolize their faith. She tailors each ceremony to suit the wishes of the betrothed, and the vows are customized for each occasion. She says that maintaining individuality in a marriage is important, as it is the very reason why the people were attracted to each other in the first place. She also says she always speaks about the solemnity of the marriage covenant and the fact that marriage is not easy.
"I guess I don't have to tell Patty and Ron that, though," she says.
The book of love is not etched in stone--for good reason. Nothing, it seems, in the realm of human experience is more confounding to grasp, and to keep, than romantic love. Down through the ages, poets, writers, scholars, singers--well, just about everybody--have been vexed in merely trying to define it.
There is no guarantee that everyone will find love. Nor are we guaranteed to get it right the first time, or, if we do, that it will stay. But Hoffman and Kramer bear testimony to the human need to find love--and to keep looking until we find it.
Only rarely now do they communicate via e-mail. Hoffman says that Kramer will occasionally drop her a card or a note, but mostly they talk on the telephone after 9 p.m., when the minutes are least expensive. They are readying themselves for the changes to come.
"I'm totally ready," says Hoffman. "I always liked Pekin. It's quiet, laid back, clean--of course, it's a lot larger than when I was there in the '60s. I am looking forward to it. I can't wait. I want everything to come together at the same time and fall into place. I feel like I've found the guy. Ron says that he's never, ever felt this way before, and I feel the same way."
Kramer says: "Communication is so important. To be honest with anyone else, you first have to be honest with yourself. I think it was lacking in my other marriages. I sweated the small stuff and made mountains out of molehills.
"I have matured. That might sound ridiculous, coming from someone my age, but you're never too old to learn. I decided to get real. I have never felt this before and I like it. I hate to leave Patty. It's a long drive home.
"I love her."