By Anthony Vaccaro
The atmosphere inside is as cold as it is outside. And with the wind-chill factor, it’s 30 below outside.
The 50 bodies in the dimly lit bar stand somehow too erectly, somehow too far apart, and speak in sudden disjointed bursts.
I catch some fleeting glances, but most eyes are too shy to hold on for the time required to say, “Hey, how you doin’?”
But then again, I tell myself, if they knew how to do that, they probably wouldn’t be here.
This is a night for speed daters. Twenty-five dates in 75 minutes. Three minutes per date and 25 chances to find that special someone.
While I stand patiently at the bar, drink in hand, the words of a woman my mother once met come back to me.
Upon learning that I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, the woman, dumbfounded and lacking tact, asked my mother in a tone of horror mixed with concern: “What’s wrong with him?” Looking out upon the group of 25 to 35 year olds, I wonder to myself, “What’s wrong with them?” * * * 25dates.com was started back in 2002 when friends Ragna Stamm’ler and Erin Hunt heard about a rabbi in L.A. who was providing a similar dating service for Jews to meet other Jews. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” says Stamm’ler. “I talked to Erin about it right away.” Hunt was just as keen, and the two worked their butts off to get a foothold in the competive dating market. They’ve done well enough to expand to Vancouver, and don’t see any reason to stop there. After all, says Stamm’ler, the stigma that may have prevented people from trying such a system in the past is rapidly disappearing. “It’s very normal, it’s just a way of meeting people,” she says. “People are busier, the role of women has changed, a lot of women are now working, and they are more choosy.” * * * And then it begins. Twenty-five women sit at their stations; a letter from the alphabet marks each table. They are small tables, lined up in three rows. The scene resembles that of a class about to write an exam, but for the lights, which are turned low. Each woman has a piece of paper and a pen in front of her, ready to evaluate each man that is about to be unleashed upon her with a yes or a no. If the yeses match, 25dates.com sends each the other’s e-mail address. Hunt, our hostess for the evening, blows into an exotic flute, and each man obediently files into a station. A look of hopeful anticipation adorns the face of each. * * * Bradley Moseley-Williams is in charge of public relations for Ashley Madison. He once had a similar job with Telepersonals. Telepersonals was Lavalife, before it became Lavalife. So Moseley-Williams was around before internet dating went mainstream, and he has witnessed a dramatic change in public perception. “I’m responsible for the change,” says Moseley-Williams, in a moment of unabashed pride. “It was very difficult [back then] to get media attention because the perception was that nice people didn’t do this. Online dating was a last resort of a desperate loser.” When I tell him that some people still hold on to this perception Moseley-Williams shoots back, “They’re lying. They’re online and in chat groups. It just doesn’t stand up to the numbers.” It is clear that more and more people are turning to the computer in the pursuit of love and/or sex–25 dates has an internet component as well where clients can check out one anothers profiles–but is such a trend in proportion with the degree to which people are retreating from people in their real lives? When I come early to class the next day, I see students busily typing behind a computer screen and I can’t help but be nostalgic for the days when classrooms were full of chatter and flying paper airplanes. You threw one at the girl you wanted, and sometimes you got her. What possible advantage could dating online have over hitting the apple of your eye square in her eye with an air-rocket of love? “There was a girl in a wheelchair who contacted me about using Telepersonals,” says Moseley-Williams. “She ended up meeting up with this great guy. She said that because it was on the Internet, he saw her person first and not the wheelchair.” A touching story, but it seems slightly marginalized. Not so, says Moseley-Williams, who has a quick reply to all of my doubts. “It’s just a smart tool to leverage into a social network,” he says in the most matter-of-fact voice that I’ve heard in weeks. * * * By the fourth woman, the answers are already becoming annoyingly canned. “I like keeping in shape, I like the outdoors, I like movies and long walks.” Damn, she didn’t even take a breath. Fortunately, Ms. Canned Answers is the exception. As I dip into and bop out of station after station, I begin to see that 25 dates is a microcosm of the women you would meet in ordinary life–only com-pressed, condensed, compacted and hurried. So while the artifical canned response is there, so too are the spontaneously funny, the easygoing, and the incredibly drab. By date 12 my mouth is dry, my head is spinning, and I can hardly remember my own name, let alone hers. Hunt picks up on my fatigue–maybe because I stand up and holler, “Hey, when do we get a break?”–but whatever, she brings me a tall glass of water. By date 19, I have passed a threshold. Like a marathon runner after the 13th mile, my head is in a new zone, beyond pain. Silly words float out of my mouth, the 19 faces morph into one gelatinous mound of smiling feminine flesh. * * * Murray Pomerance is a professor of sociology at Ryerson. When I ask him to comment on how modern dating techniques reflect a societal trend of turning away from reality in favour of computer screens, he guffaws. “Seems to me that there are different ways to define what’s real,” says Pomerance. “The computer is not less real. It’s less embodied–there is less touching of bodies–but it has more to to do with the mind.” Pomerance doesn’t equate increased mediation between potential lovers with increased social alienation. Instead he sees it as just another aspect of life, one that is neither inherently good nor bad. “There is no naturally given way for people to be,” says Pomerance. “There is this image that people were once outside and happy, and that this dark thing of the media came in and ruined all that…It’s a pretty exaggerated portrait.” * * * As I approach my final date, I’m surprised that she beats me to the sigh. Wasn’t she waiting in joyful expectation for me? “No,” she says. “I’m exhausted.” Our mutual fatigue seems to take us immediately into a philosophical discussion. “I think the Ideal of dating is dead,” she says, her olive eyes glimmering from the candlelight. “You learn that there isn’t an Ideal, that you have to learn to accept the situations and make the most of them.” I realize that she could be talking about either the person she will end up dating or the actual dating process. And it doesn’t really matter which. She’s a cool person; attractive, thoughtful, has a good job. She just hasn’t met the right guy yet. Pretty simple really. Nothing wrong with her at all.