The smiling, geriatric face, plastered upon a twenty-foot-tall billboard, looms above a four-lane roadway on the edge of Sweetwater, Texas, a dusty 10,000-person town an hour west of Abilene. To the right of the cheerful visage, a desperate message—part personal ad and part hostage-negotiation note—beckons drivers down a romantic rabbit hole in large block letters: 



Like the mysterious monolith that appeared in the Utah desert some years back, this visual mating call has manifested in the most unlikely of locations. Sweetwater, a religious, family oriented community surrounded by prairie, is better known for its annual rattlesnake roundup than its robust singles scene. In fact, according to Karen Hunt, executive director of the Sweetwater chamber of commerce, many singles in the town drive to Abilene to mingle. The unattached men who end up in Sweetwater don’t go there for romance; they arrive looking for work at some of the largest wind farms in the world—Nolan County’s claim to fame. Adding to the oddity is the fact that the lonely male’s advertisement wasn’t posted outside a nightclub or a restaurant, but along a stretch of roadway flanked by industrial sheds and a small gas station that sells Dippin’ Dots and Native American dream catchers. After KTAB, a CBS-affiliated news station in Abilene, ran a story about the billboard, I was eager to find out whether the advertisement was an expression of sincerity—or an elaborate joke or scam.

The man who answers the number on the billboard doesn’t sound particularly downcast. But he does sound like a stereotypical East Coaster, his speech littered with elongated vowels and a sense of indignation. He tells me his name is Albert Gilberti and claims he is, in fact, a real person with real needs. At the moment, it turns out, his primary need is to relocate from his home, in Rutland, Vermont, to Sweetwater, a place he once visited more than a decade ago for less than an hour but is now desperate to return to and find a life partner, as strange as it sounds. His devotion to finding romance is matched only by his devotion to performing karaoke—two passions he’d like to share with a single individual, preferably a slender one between the ages of 45 and 80. Ever since the billboard went up, at the start of April, the 70-year-old bachelor says he’s been inundated with responses from people determined to figure out whether his bid for companionship is a ruse of some kind. 

Hoping to erase the skepticism, he asks to meet over Zoom the following day and offers to sing for me—a way of verifying his karaoke credentials and, in turn, I later realize, an essential component of his identity. I quickly accept the generous offer. But when Gilberti appears on my screen at our appointed time, it’s immediately apparent that I’ve failed to dress for the occasion. I’m wearing a plain white T-shirt fished from the bottom of a laundry pile. Freshly shaven and grinning, my counterpart is decked out in a tailored black suit, his head topped by a white fedora that looks like it could’ve been plucked from a Dick Tracy Halloween costume. “You look slick,” I tell Gilberti, eliciting nervous laughter from both of us. “I wanted you to see that I’m the kind of guy who puts in effort when it comes to finding a romantic partner,” he replies. 

It’s 10 a.m., and for the next eight minutes, Gilberti and I—two single men who have only spoken once by phone—make awkward eye contact as he gently sings a variety of songs across multiple genres to me with a hint of vibrato (his karaoke range, it turns out, spans from “Hippies and Cowboys,” by Cody Jinks, to “Karma Police,” by Radiohead). He pauses only to adjust his gray, shoulder-length hair, which he later assures me is not a mullet. We are not on a date, but we might as well be. After his performance, unsure how to acknowledge the intimate experience we’ve just shared, I clumsily pivot toward a conventional interview. After decades of karaoke performances in front of strangers all over the country, Gilberti appears to feel no discomfort—not now; perhaps not ever. He answers my questions in dense, repetitive bursts that betray an undeniable zest for whatever comes to mind, from Mafia history and fashion to comedy, romance, and documentary film. Within a few minutes, I’ve decided that he has the energy of a man half his age. 

After discussing what he wants in a partner, I throw Gilberti a curveball and ask him to list a few qualities that make him a great catch. His answers arrive without hesitation: he makes a mean lasagna, he does a hundred push-ups a day, and he loves the early 2000s rock band Staind. The New Jersey native is especially fond of the band’s hit song “Outside,” an angsty chart-topper about coping with feelings of postbreakup alienation.

All the times that I’ve cried
All this wasted, it’s all inside
And I feel all this pain
Stuffed it down, it’s back again
And I lie here in bed
All alone, I can’t mend
But I feel tomorrow will be okay

The twice-divorced Gilberti knows those feelings all too well, which explains why he’s once again on the hunt for a healthy, lasting love—the kind that could offer companionship as he enters his autumnal years. During previous relationships, he wasn’t necessarily ready to be the best version of his romantic self, he admits, but now, at seventy, he finally knows how to give love and how to receive it.

Gilberti says he’s so serious about finding love that he forked over several thousand dollars to pay for the billboard in question, an even greater sacrifice considering he’s retired and on a fixed income. Lamar Advertising, which owns the billboard, estimates the sign is being viewed by nearly 21,000 motorists per week. How many of them are single women pining for a serenading septuagenarian is anyone’s guess. Kyle McAlister, a Lamar account executive who helped Gilberti commission the billboard, says he’s had individuals use the company’s signage for birthdays, celebrations, and at least one apology between a married couple. I ask him if the apology was from the husband or the wife. “The man, of course,” he says. “A woman would’ve just moved on.” Until now, as far as he knows, nobody has used the company’s billboards to search for a prospective spouse. “I hope it works for him,” McAlister says. “There’s been such a good response that next time I won’t even charge him!”

Gilberti’s actions raise two obvious questions: Why Sweetwater, of all places?, and, Why a billboard? The answer is weirdly uncomplicated: Sometime around 2012 or so (Gilberti isn’t entirely sure), he and his then-wife were passing through West Texas on a Greyhound bus after visiting relatives in Arizona. When the bus stopped at a gas station in Sweetwater, Gilberti looked out the window and noticed a quaint, lively downtown and an impressive mesa in the distance. Suddenly, and without explanation, Gilberti says he was overcome by the sense that this place was home. “I loved the way the town was laid out and I loved the landscape and I just thought, ‘This is where I want to be,’ ” he says. 

Though he was living in Denison at the time, a city located about 75 miles north of Dallas, Gilberti ended up moving to Oklahoma, to Ohio, and eventually to Vermont, where he currently resides. He longed to return to Sweetwater, and to Texas in general, where he’s already spent almost two decades of his adult life, but he faced a major obstacle: during his brief visit years earlier, he never found out the town’s name. Using Google Maps, Gilberti spent weeks tracing the suspected path of his 2012 bus journey before eventually discovering the rest stop that he’d had in his memory for more than a decade. “I looked at photos of so many convenience stores and bus stops, but I eventually found it,” he says. As he looked for housing, Gilberti decided he might as well start looking for a romantic partner as well. If things work out, he says, he’s more than happy to split the rent with the woman he loves. He’s tried online dating in the past, but he grew tired of scams targeting older men. “Besides, I knew that a billboard would stand out and make people realize that I’m sincere,” he says. “I want a partnership, and if it leads to marriage, great.” 

Hunt says the key to thriving in Sweetwater is making an effort to get out into the community and meet people (Texas Monthly visited Sweetwater in 2021). There isn’t a huge variety of dining options or a movie theater, but there are a handful of churches, as well as a popular World War II museum dedicated to the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The community is building new housing and could always use more singles, says Hunt. “We are small and rural, which can be very attractive for those who are looking to leave the rat race behind and be around families and attend good churches,” she says. 

Gilberti says he’s ready to embrace all three. Perhaps most important for him, however, is the fact that Sweetwater has multiple options for performing karaoke as well. If he can find a woman who will join him onstage, even better. So far, he says he’s received hundreds of texts and emails, but only a few dozen messages appear genuine. How will he know when he’s found his match? “I’m looking for someone who is sincere, honest, and loyal,” he says. “They can be liberal or conservative, younger or older, religious or not religious as long as they’re sincere, honest, and loyal.”