There's more to Craigslist than hookups and used couches.
Article by Cole Emhoff; illustration by Ella Emhoff
I woke to a large man standing over my bed.
“Benji?” I asked. “How’d you get in here?”
Benji shrugged toward the door, “You let me in, remember?”
I mouthed, “Oh, right, of course,” slowly lifting the covers over my bare chest, as Benji leans in closer to the foot of my bed. I’m unable to bring his face into focus, like some prosopagnosic motion blur. I blink and his arms are outstretched, pointing to the empty pillow beside me. I look over my left shoulder and back at him, but he’s already on the bed, advancing.
Just a dream, though, obviously.
I wake again, alone this time, save for the sweat-angel I’ve left on the sheets. With bad dreams, it’s difficult to really say what’s changed—kind of like how you learn to love roller coasters and horror movies. Adrenaline, maybe.
* * *
Two years ago I found myself browsing the Craigslist “personals,” as many bored boys do. I’d only just begun exploring when I happened upon the “Strictly Platonic” section.
“Hmm…” I thought. Refreshing: people who aren’t just desperately pining for a quick “suck-and-fuck.” Or so I thought. I’d later learn that Craigslist veterans knew better than to prowl the traditional (sexual) routes that have become so over-saturated with bots and scammers. If you really want to get laid on Craigslist, you’re going to have to be a bit more clever than:
FUN MAN WANTS FUCK FUN WOMAN—m4w 46 (Colorado Springs)
What may have worked for the cavemen simply won’t fly anymore. You’ve gotta be more subtle. Even on Craigslist, straight-up asking for sex is just way too desperate. Instead, you have to create a situation where sex could possibly occur—delicately, if you will.
Drinking pal gal—m4w 36 (Colorado Springs)
Someone to spoil—m4w 50 (Colorado Springs)
420 buddy?—m4w 28 (Colorado Springs)
Those are going to get you a lot further than:
Sit on my face PLEASE!!!—m4w 69 (Colorado Springs)
What a fascinating community.
It’s just so… magnetic? Enigmatic. That’s a better word for it—it’s the inherent mystery of it all. Like, did that 69-year-old man find somebody to sit on his face? Was he really 69, or was that some cheap joke? What kind of desperation compels someone to stoop that low? On second thought, that’s not really fair of me to ask.
There’s got to be a perverted satisfaction in the simple act of posing the question, right? With a full shroud of anonymity, what’s the worst that could happen? Either some willing participant responds and gives you the seediest ride of your life or, more simply, you’ve gotten it off your chest. Now the world knows that you’re looking for some face-sitting-fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an outlet, like therapy. Sometimes the very act of forming these abstract impulses into words and sentences can gratify those urges.
I always knew I’d participate at some point, but I just never knew how. When faced with a vague class assignment of reporting a story of my choice, I didn’t have to think too long before I remembered Craigslist and its mysteries.
I guess I’d just assumed that it’d be a lot easier meeting people. You’d think that with the amount of lonely individuals, practically begging for some IRL 1-1, I’d have an easier time getting in the same room as someone. Maybe my approach was off, as it tends to be.
I sent a lot of emails using the same opener, adjusting here and there for a more personal touch. To the left is an email I sent to an older man looking for a “son” to accompany him on a dinner date:
I was surprised by how disappointed I was when I didn’t get a response. Was I not the perfect candidate for the role of “son” on a dinner date? My dad would kill for that email.
The responses I did receive were always marred with suspicion and apprehension. Many doubted my motives and, in some cases, my existence. More often than not I was “ghosted,” which is when an individual slips back into anonymity—a common occurrence when communicating through “burner” email accounts.
Out of desperation, I was forced to alter my tactics. I started spamming almost every post I saw, no longer limiting myself to the strictly platonic section, using a simpler version of my previous email, downplaying the fact I’m writing an article, and reframing my request as an opportunity to practice my creative writing and interviewing skills.
Benji’s particular post caught my eye:
“Are you a gamer? Would you survive the zombie apocalypse?”
It’s kind of funny: I’m a huge gamer, but I’m so ashamed of it. The amount of gaming-related content I intake in a week is more than adequate to deem me a fully-fledged nerd. Yet I’ve always tried to grow out of it, ever since I asked my dad if I could get a desktop PC with Windows so I could play more games, and he looked at me with the stern cringe in his eyes—the kind of look that could only be shot by a father who’d tried so hard to get his “emotional” boy off his N64 and outside, where he could maybe toss a ball around and impart a few words of fatherly wisdom. He shook his head and said: “They’re just games, Cole.”
So I responded to the post, and made sure I noted that, yes, I am a gamer.
Let me clarify something: Benji wasn’texplicitly looking for anything sexual. Quite the opposite actually—he was looking for farmers, assassins and craftsmen. Turns out, Benji is a recruiter for the local chapter of Dystopia Rising, a post-apocalyptic LARP-ing community. Here’s a little blurb that was included in Benji’s “Are you a gamer?” post:
“Dystopia Rising is a fully-immersive Horror Live Action Role Play (LARP) that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, riddled with zombies, raiders, and other horrors. Create a character, find a profession, and explore the world of Dystopia Rising in the local chapter of this national game.”
Sounds fun, right? If you’ve ever played “Fallout” or seen “Mad Max,” you’re probably familiar with the common lore that most post-apocalyptic scenarios share: big bomb goes off, ruins society, zombies everywhere and people going crazy. Pretty standard fare.
Now, LARP is a niche in nerd culture, compared to the hallmarks like video games and comics. LARP-ing is a lot like “Dungeons and Dragons” and other tabletop games, where the main goal is role-playing—a full immersion into the character and their world.
In my mind I can easily picture a group of young adults cavorting through a park or field, brandishing large foam swords and screaming magical incantations. I’m not a LARP-er, but I’ve dabbled in role-playing type games here and there, and I’m not embarrassed to say that it sounded kind of fun.
I sent Benji my introductory email and something strange happened: he responded within five minutes. Out of the 20-plus emails I’d sent, he was the only person to respond in less than 24 hours. Even more surprising was this:
Benji’s World: Love, LARP and Craigslist.
A power move on Benji’s part, for sure—he caught me off guard. Luckily, I had nothing better to do.
For some reason I’d got it in my head that this interview should take place in a coffee shop—I don’t even drink coffee, it just seemed appropriate (and safe). But Benji said he didn’t like coffee either and would rather meet up somewhere more convenient, like the Citadel Mall food court or something of the sort. The food court seemed like an odd place for an interview, but I needed new socks, so I thought this could be a two-bird-one-stone type of situation.
As it turned out, Benji made yet another power move. I was about five minutes away from the mall when I got a text from Benji, saying that his “partner” has the car, and he couldn’t make it to the mall. For a second there, I was relieved, as my nerves had begun to tense and this whole thing was starting to feel too… strange.
Benji asked if I could meet him at the Subway near his house, on Murray and Flower. “Subway,” I thought, “really? I didn’t know they had those here.” But of course, he meant the sandwich shop. An interview in a Subway—classic.
The weather on Thursday, February 2nd was quintessentially Colorado Springs: a bright sunny day that seems to freeze out of nowhere—no snow, no rain, just ice, completely out of the blue.
I entered the Subway and scanned the room for Benji—it was packed, but mostly with military dudes, so I felt safe assuming none of them were here to tell me about LARP-ing. However, moments later, almost everyone stood up and exited, as if my growing discomfort created some bad “mojo” in the place.
I stood awkwardly waiting by the door before deciding that Subway isn’t the kind of place that appreciates loitering. I purchased an XL soda and grabbed an extra straw to chew. I sat in a booth in the back, facing the door so I could watch as people entered. The whole situation felt uncomfortably familiar, like a Tinder date. You find yourself playing this silly guessing game.
“Gray hoodie and laptop case” isn’t much to go on. Before I continue, I just want to note how wildly low my expectations were with regards to Benji’s appearance. If you’re familiar with the term “neckbeard,” then you’ve probably got a good idea of what I was expecting. Essentially, a neckbeard is a derogatory term for a slovenly dressed, socially inept and generally unpleasant nerd. Lock someone in a basement for 15 years with only a World of Warcraft account and a lifetime supply of Doritos, and you’ve got a neckbeard.
Suddenly I felt a blast of cold air and looked to the door. A man with a gray hoodie and laptop case had just entered.
I didn’t say that. I looked over to the counter where the sandwich technician was standing.
The bravado in Benji’s voice was startling. Benji walked over and embraced the employee. I, on the other hand, stayed seated and contemplated whether I should eject myself from the situation. Benji looked over to me, and I suddenly realized I was the only other person in the room.
Things got off to an awkward start. Benji wanted to get something to eat, so we had to pause our introduction while he made his way down the counter, building his sandwich. He kept turning to me as if to speak, but we both knew we should wait until he sat down. Instead, he carried on a spirited conversation with the Subway employee making his sandwich. An odd sandwich to say the least—it was a combination of ham and tuna with cheese. It required an “extra” toasting.
I sat there silently while they talked. He mentioned something about his “sugar babies” and I made sure to remember to ask him what the heck he was talking about.
Benji’s a big guy, with fairly normal American proportions. Fat, if you will, but not obese. I find it worth noting that, at 5’8, I might not be the best judge of a person’s relative size, since they usually appear much bigger than me. As I stared at his large body, a part of me felt a pang of worry—that eerie dissonance experienced by smaller individuals when they agree to go on “dates” with much larger ones who could easily take advantage of that fact.
About seven minutes passed and his sandwich was finally ready—an inordinate amount of time for a Subway sub. He sat down and before we continued, I asked if I could begin recording the conversation.
The first thing I got on tape was the sound of him unwrapping his sandwich. Now I’m a huge fan of tuna fish, but even I’d have to admit that it was unnecessarily pungent—a more sensitive individual may have gagged. Otherwise, things started off well.
We immediately found common ground in Psychology—he already has his master’s, whereas I’m currently one thesis away from my bachelor’s. Benji said that, at first, he thought he’d work with children as a therapist, because his focus was on adolescence—he ended up writing his thesis on the effects of physical affection during adolescent development. However, Benji claimed that “It’s impossible to work with children in America without it being about getting sued.” It wasn’t 100% clear what he meant, but I let it pass.
Instead of getting his PhD, Benji opened up a private practice as a life-coach, so he wouldn’t have to worry about the stringent guidelines most accredited therapists are forced to work around. He cited one of the best parts of his private practice was that he’s allowed to wear as many piercings as he wants.
For a second there I imagined him working with a small child, a thought that I found only slightly disconcerting. Like I said, Benji’s a big guy, but’s that’s not it. He’s got all these piercings and tattoos. One is on his face, which might make children uncomfortable. But it’s nothing too crazy, especially for the Springs—he’s got “snake-bites,” which is a set of two lower lip piercings on either side of the mouth. He’s also got a tattoo on his forehead in the shape of two small circles with question marks inside, which he designed as tribute to the hours spent tapping his forehead in frustration as he wrote his thesis; he called it his thinking button, which I found pretty clever.
Benji said that he was self-employed, which reminded me of something. Recently, I remember looking through my mom’s Tinder account and was amazed by how many guys regarded themselves as “self-employed.” My mom said it’s a huge red-flag and that it means they’re most likely a loser who won’t admit that they’re unemployed.
I’m not so sure that would apply to Benji, though. He’s worked many jobs, everything from managing retail and restaurants, to hospitals and psych wards. He even said that he ran a business solutions company, however, upon further investigation, I realized that this meant that he was running the marketing for his friend’s web-comic called “Tentacle Kitty,” which sounded a lot less “legit.”
Anyway, after almost an hour of conversing, I felt like we were starting to build a rapport. He started diving into the in’s and out’s of DR (Dystopia Rising), when something totally unexpected happened.
His “partner” arrived.
“What are you doing?”
“Grabbing a bite.”
“Why didn’t you just ask me?”
Corbin, or Corby, which is Benji’s pet-name for him, had just entered the Subway. It’s hard to really get a full picture of Corbin since he never took his hood off. He reminded me of a raccoon who broke into a Hot Topic, or some kind of Emo version of Kenny from South Park. Corbin is one of Benji’s “partners,” which I guess is another name for “lovers.” It was at this moment that Benji informed me of his polyamorous relationship.
For those of you who are unaware, polyamory is Greek for “many loves” (poly, many and amour, love) but people who identify as polyamorous will often go by terms like “poly,” for simplicity. Benji likes to refer his relationship as “the pack.”
Benji looked to Corbin, who was standing there, examining a bag of chips. Benji passed him his credit card, and Corbin scurried away toward the register. Benji handed over his cup as well, and said “free refills, babe.”
“How many… ‘partners’ do you have?” I asked.
Benji smiled and counted four fingers.
“There’s me, papa bear, and then Chris, and Tim and then Corby.”
LARP-ing could wait, I thought, this feels a lot… juicier.
Benji went on:
“So, Chris and I moved from Houston together. We’ve been together now for almost two years. We actually met as a hookup on Craigslist. He came over, we did the deed, and as he was leaving, he noticed I had ‘Bioshock Infinite’ laying out.”
I interject: “I love that game!”
“What started out as a ‘Hey, come over and lets do Craigslist-things and you can leave’ turned into him staying for three days and we played through the game, and well, we’ve just been like, together ever since.”
It was hilariously nerdy, a little bit weird and incredibly cute, all at the same time.
“Did you and Chris, like, establish that you wanted to be poly?” I wondered.
“I mean, we both believed very strongly that humans are pack animals. The idea of monogamy is romanticized, and to be honest with you, it’s just stupid. I mean, not to belittle people who are monogamous or anything, but there’s just no benefit to it. I mean, we felt like we were complete, just us together, but then Tim came along and we realized we wanted more.”
Corbin returned to the table and tried unsuccessfully to push Benji over on the seat. Benji pulled him to his chest and said, “you’re a jerk, and I love you.”
He went on:
“We actually found this little guy (Corbin) on Grindr, when he was underaged. At first it was like, ‘nice talking to you, bye!’ But we kept in touch and like a year later on his 18th birthday, he moved in with us.”
Suddenly I realized that Corbin and I had yet to formally meet. I offered my hand and said, “I’m Cole, by the way.” Oddly enough, Corbin sunk into Benji’s side and glared at me.
I felt uncomfortable, and I think Benji noticed.
“Hey, so I think I gotta take Corby home, but there’s a lot more I want to show you… you want to come over for a bit? It’s just across the street.”
I sat there stunned for a second. Go to his house? Was I taking this too far? Is this the moment I’ll look back at and say, “I wish I hadn’t followed that stranger from Craigslist home?”
I caved under the pressure of social-politeness and said:
“Sure! I’d love to!”
For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to Benji, Chris, Corbin and Tim as “The Pack.”
The Pack didn’t always live in the apartment complex across from the Subway. In fact, they had a house together, or at least Benji was paying for it, but they all lived there. That’s why Benji and Chris moved to the Springs from Houston, so they could actually afford to stay in a house. But that dream went up in smoke when their house burned down.
In July of 2016, Chris and Benji were downstairs in the basement, gaming, when Benji noticed a smell. He assumed Tim had burned something in the kitchen and called out. After the smell intensified, Benji went upstairs and found his kitchen engulfed in flames and Tim asleep on the couch. Benji dragged them outside, and they lost almost everything.
Benji hates the new apartment. I can see why.
As we climbed the steps toward the front door, Benji asked Corbin if Tim had cleaned out the cages. Corbin shrugged and Benji said, “Shit, I wish we had Febreeze.”
Quick digression: I’m very sensitive when it comes to scent, especially when it’s from an animal’s ass. I blame my childhood friend, Charlie Rock, whose floors were so covered in dog and cat shit that I couldn’t sleep over without vomiting in my sleeping bag.
Benji opened the door, and I gagged, suddenly flooded with the sour, brow-furrowing memories of Charlie’s disgusting floors. In the far corner of the room, next to the kitchen, stood two towering cages—one for the ferrets and one for the sugar babies, which I’d later learn were small rodent-like marsupials.
Aside from the stench, the place was decent. I also live in a house with four other guys, so I could empathize. Things were just as I expected—filled with nerdy crap: video games stacked high along the walls, three katanas hanging over the kitchen counter, a line of magnetic canisters of marijuana affixed to the mantle, an entire wall filled with collectable “League of Legends” bobble heads, and finally, a black cat, who’d later tear my Patagonia jacket (fuck that cat).
Benji led me to a bedroom, where he kept most of his LARP-ing gear. A thought struck me.
“So do you guys, like, all just use this bed?”
“Of course not. We’ve got two bedrooms that we just kinda share. It’s like musical chairs at night to decide who gets to sleep with who.”
Benji went on to tell me more than I ever needed to know about Dystopia Rising. It’s a community of LARP enthusiasts based out of New Jersey. He showed me a piece that The Verge had done on them, which surprised me—this was way more legit than I’d thought.
I could describe to you in great detail the world of Dystopia Rising, but trust me when I say that I’m sparing you. The manual alone is 400-plus pages. What I will do is offer some highlights.
For starters, the role-playing aspect is incredibly complex and thought-out. The games are stretched out over a weekend, and players must stay in character the entire time, day and night. Benji’s character, Char, has an arm growing out of his shoulder. When he told me that, I assumed it was imaginary, but nope. He showed me a picture, and his character really did have a robotic arm growing out of its shoulder.
It’s also worth noting that in Dystopia Rising, Benji has a wife. Or rather, I guess I should say that his character, Char, is married to Mercy. In real life, Mercy is a platonic friend of Benji’s, but in the game, they’re married. It’s not just pretend, though. They literally kiss each other and sleep in the same bed. Char also has a British accent, which means that Benji must also use the accent for the entirety of the weekend.
Benji asked me if I’d decided what character I’d like to play.
I hadn’t. I never said that I wanted to play.
I looked at my phone and realized I’d been talking to this man for over two hours now. It was time to go.
As I was leaving, Benji asked me to do something that made me uncomfortable.
He asked if I’d text him when I got home—he’d worry otherwise.
Later that night I received a text from him asking if I’d be interested in coming over Saturday for another get-together and that I should bring some friends along. I thought it over that night, and in the morning decided that I needed a little more. A little more of what, I didn’t know, but the idea of seeing Benji and the Pack in action seemed hard to pass up.
I convinced my friend Miles to tag along, thinking that I could use an outsider’s perspective, which is kind of funny when you consider that I was already an outsider in the situation.
The following Saturday, Miles and I headed back to Benji’s place. We stopped at the Starbucks across the street for a drink and realized, when we returned to the car, that it had died. It’d be another two hours before AAA could bring a new battery.
Another two hours to spend at Benji’s.
I felt compelled to warn Miles, but I didn’t know what to warn him against, so I told him that it smelled bad inside.
As we entered, I noticed two unfamiliar faces on the couch, playing “Overwatch.” One of them was Chris, Benji’s first partner in the Pack. Chris looked a lot like Corbin, but he was missing one of his front teeth, which gave him a distinctly devilish smile. Chris was more outgoing than Corbin and immediately offered his hand when I offered mine.
Tim, the final member of the Pack, was not home. He was working at the Citadel Mall, selling phone cases—I would never meet him. Jeff, another Dystopia Rising member from Texas, was the other unfamiliar face. Apparently Jeff had emailed Benji, asking for his address so he could send a “special package.” A few weeks later, Jeff texted Benji and told him to check outside for said package. Instead, Jeff stood there—a clever way to surprise-visit a friend, I thought.
I actually liked Jeff a lot. He looked as if someone had taken an attractive man’s face and affixed it to a pear. I’d later learn that Jeff was also married in-game, except that he went on to marry his wife again, in real life. Jeff was introduced to his future wife by her sister, while skinny dipping in a jacuzzi.
It’s worth noting that Dystopia Rising does not permit real-life physical sexual encounters. The first time Jeff and his wife consummated their in-game relationship, they sat alone in a private room and massaged each other’s backs for 10 minutes—that constitutes sex in DR. Someone walked in on them, and they had to break character (which is demonstrated by patting your head) and inform the intruder that they were currently “fucking.” It turned out the intruder was role-playing a character who was a small child. The small child, unsurprisingly, didn’t know what “fucking” was.
I found this amusing in a troubling sort of way.
An hour passed, and Benji spent the majority of the time explaining the game to Miles. He gave us both character cards and asked us to start thinking of what “strain” and “profession” we’d like to role-play.
Luckily, Miles received a call from AAA; they had arrived with the battery.
We’d be leaving soon.
It was silent for a period while Benji was distracted by Jeff, and Miles was dealing with AAA. I just sat there and scrunched my face, trying to block anymore of that offensive odor from seeping into my nasal cavities.
Suddenly Jeff said something to Benji that caught my attention:
“Admit that the only reason you use Craigslist is to get boys to come over and suck you off.”
Benji laughed. I did too—well, pretended to at least. I knew it was a joke, but that didn’t stop the image from penetrating my mind.
Miles returned and I looked at him, trying to remember if we’d ended up deciding on a safe-word. I stood up abruptly and told Benji that we had to dip. He looked disappointed and said that he was planning on ordering pizza.
“Thanks… but we’ve really gotta go.”
“Alright, well make sure you fill out those cards so next time we can focus on developing your backstory.”
As we exited, he reminded me to text him when I got home.
I didn’t that time.
He texted me a couple days later, and asked how my character was going, and when Miles and I would like to hang out again.
I gave him a vague response and left it at that. I needed time to digest all that had happened.
What did happen?, I wondered. Why had I gone to such great lengths only to find myself more confused and uncomfortable than before?
It was that enigma, Craigslist, that brought me this far. I guess I just wanted to know what it was all about—what stories lay hidden behind those cryptic requests. I yearned to see through them and enter a reality where I had no baggage. It was Benji who let me in.
I knocked and he opened.
The problem was that I only wanted a peek. I assumed he would let me into his life, have a look around, and leave without a trace. Benji must’ve had different expectations.
I guess that’s my fault. I led him on. I tried too hard to feign interest in LARP-ing, when all I wanted was a window to peer into his life. So now he’s texting me, and I’ll ignore him and vanish like every other ghost on Craigslist. I was the one who chose to intrude into his world, but now he’s invading mine.
That night I dreamt that Benji stood over my bed.
“How’d you get in here?”
“You let me in, remember?”
Part of the Red Issue