He sat down across from the woman with the impossibly dark hair. He smiled first, or maybe she did. Introductions, handshakes, more smiles and then he asked about the tattoo on her arm.
It was the name of her dead father, so to lighten the mood he asked a funny joke question.
“The question was, ‘Have you ever been arrested?’ And she said yes, so I instantly think — because I’m having fun and I’ve had a couple drinks — oh, it was probably like for underage drinking or something like that. I’m like, ‘Oh, for what?’ And she’s like, ‘Ahhhhh,’ I’m like ‘Were you convicted?’ And that’s when she launched into it.”
Four years in prison and a story that involved an ex-boyfriend, wrong-place-wrong-time and a Mexican drug cartel.
This is speed dating in 2015.
“It was like trying blacksmithing or something,” our stunt dater “X” said of speed dating in the age of OKCupid and Tinder. “It doesn’t really apply anymore.”
For those who don’t know, speed dating is a means for single people to meet tons of potential mates at once. The guys and gals meet at a bar, with one gender getting to sit the whole time while the other revolving from seat to seat in hopes of finding a spark in the brief time allotted for connection.
In this case, 13 nervous guys spent five minutes per talking up 10 female friends of the staff of “a stereotypical North Side bar, unremarkable in every way” off the Red Line in Rogers Park.
“About half of the dozen or so women who were there were somehow affiliated with the bar or knew the host and were friends with the host,” X said. “I think she was trying to fill the ranks.”
For context, X is white, in his early 30s and sort of a dumber, uglier, worse-writing, smellier, weaker, inferior-at-pool-and-all-tabletop-sports and generally lesser version of me. (Except that for some reason, every woman I’ve dated who has met him has commented at one point about him being really attractive, smart and charming. Go figure.)
But my dear friend X (who left a profane message on my digital recorder when I stepped away from the interview to buy another round so I don’t feel too bad about calling him smelly and bad at pool) is our spy into this strange world of anime, drug cartels and a chesty German ex-model who told X he had beautiful eyes.
“It was probably the most interesting conversation I had the entire night, only because it was all small talk and she did it really well,” X said of the German. “Like somebody who has clearly been asked a lot of questions and was fairly rehearsed in how to have a really small talky kind of conversation. Different than most people who will ask a question and not really care about the response.”
They shared lovely small talk and a shot of Fireball, “the alcohol equivalent of the visors that frat boys wear.”
Then onto the next woman of the night.
“They’re very pleasant,” X said of the women. “Even if they’re not interested, they’re very nice and conversational. The men, however — and this is according to the women as I’m going on the speed dates and talking about them — the men were somewhat awkward. A few of them talked about how much they were into anime. A word of advice, if you’ve never been on a date before, if you’re not a big social person: Don’t talk about your anime interests. It’s not a good starting point.”
“One guy had never been on a date before in his entire life. His first date was speed dating on the North Side near Evanston in Rogers Park.”
When the nervous men and roped-in women arrived, they were all given a hand-folded trifold brochure run off a home printer.
“You ever been handed something by the health department? That was basically it.”
The brochure contained suggested icebreakers and everyone’s name. You circle who you like and if that person circled you too, the organizer will make the connection.
Some of his best experiences came when there was no spark, just a safe setting to meet a stranger.
“I ask her what her favorite flavor of ice cream is and this launches a whole conversation about how she doesn’t like ice cream. She’s actually from, uh, not Kenya. Fuck. Some African country originally, so she never really got into ice cream or dessert in general.”
This led to a wider-ranging conversation about Ethiopian food, Tusker Beer and the population of Washington, D.C.
“We had a really fun conversation. I think if you’re willing to talk to people and find something to actually have a conversation about, it can be a fun experience.”
As the night went on and drinks flowed, the scene got weirder. The host kept messing up the prompt times, cutting some dates short of the full five minutes. One of X’s dates was interrupted by a regular bar patron slamming a drink on the table before slouching back to the pool table, an angry gift for the woman he had been chatting up during the break. Another woman simply walked away from a speed date with a different man to hang out with friends who arrived at the bar.
X ended up circling three names, one of whom texted him the night we met for the interview. He might see her, he might not. But if he does, it’s not going to be around 12 nervous guys and Fireball shots.
“I don’t know if this is ever going to be a legitimate opportunity for men and women get together, but it was fun as hell,” said speed dater X.