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Photograph by Alejandro R. Torres

At First Sight: Katy Byrne talks to a prospective date at a Santa Rosa Fast Dating event.

On the Clock

Fast talkers are rewarded in dating meet-and-greets

By Jennie Orvino

The room is all ours. Tables are numbered one to 20 in black magic marker on white cards. I get my name tag and go to table seven, lucky, right under the heater. In summer, this is courtyard seating at Acapulco Mexican Restaurant and Cantina. Now, in late February, the roof is black plastic and there's a chill.

Some of the women have tiny plates of happy-hour snacks and are ordering margaritas. On each table sit tall glasses of water, pots of salsa, and a basket of chips. I just brushed my teeth, rinsed with Scope, and put on two layers of lipstick. No way I'm going to eat, or drink alcohol either, even though I'm a little antsy.

Early-bird males have been chatting with women at tables one through three. Just after 7pm, everyone arrives at once and a line forms in the hallway. There were no age categories in this first Santa Rosa edition of California Fast Dating, but most of the women appear to be in their mid 40s. In my 50s, I seem to be at the upper end. Looks like there's more variation in the men: some are older than 50, some younger than 40.

The noise level is rising, and a clean-shaven, strawberry-blond guy sits down across from me. Nate (not his name) tells me that he likes sports, hiking, and skiing. When I tell him that I'm a performing poet, he says, "Wow, you're quite the creative type, aren't you?" I don't take this comment as a good sign.

Our hostess has a piercing voice, necessary, I suppose, in her line of work. The man across from me cringes when, after nine minutes, she yells out, "OK guys, move to the next table in sequence." I shake hands with Nate and write his name on my card. Under the heading "Want to see again?" I don't circle "yes" or "no." I need data on the entire field.

When I turn in my match card at the end of the night, if I have said yes to someone who said yes to me, we're eligible to receive each other's number. This information will come via phone from the program's host within 36 hours. We are discouraged from disclosing last names or contact information during the conversations.

I used the generic descriptor "speed dating" to tell my friends about my plans for the evening, but SpeedDating is actually a copyrighted name, and just one of many services that offer similar experiences. The one I attended was organized by California Fast Dating. SpeedDating parties allow the participant to have seven one-on-one conversations of seven minutes each.

There are other options: the format for 8MinuteDating is self-explanatory, and Fast Dating allows nine minutes before ringing the bell. There may be a niche left for a four-minute version, but HurryDate has them beat for brevity. This franchise allows the prospective daters to chat for only three minutes, a scheme that facilitates eyeball-to-eyeball meetings with 25 members of the opposite sex in one session.

Even if 10 minutes seems too brief to get to know someone, that's not the point. The encounter, like a résumé, serves to facilitate the next step--the phone call, the coffee date, the meet-for-a-drink. In this time frame, you can still gather important information, such as ease of eye contact, nature of the smile, clashing or meshing of interests, and a decent guess at the neuroses.

After my fourth guy, I start to ask more adventurous questions like "How do you feel about black leather teddies?" or "Is there anything you really, really regret?" I need to do something to keep from getting exhausted. How many times can I say what I do without boring myself?

Some quick-date events provide user-friendly tools: a ballot (not a score card) for taking notes and a prompt sheet for when the inquiring mind goes blank. Sample questions include: "If you were assured of success, what thing would you do that you haven't done yet?"; "If you could invite someone from history to dinner, who would it be and why?"; and "Tell me one good thing that happened to you today."

"We give a variety of prompts, but most people already know what they want to ask," says 53-year-old Joel Koosed, who began the Meeting Game Salon in 1999. He gave up on Sonoma County after hosting a few sparsely attended singles events here, but he is finding a niche in San Francisco and the cities of the East and South Bay. His organization has become popular for its varied offerings, from intimate gender-balanced dinners at stylish restaurants to structured, thought-provoking group conversations with up to 100 people. The Meeting Game also hosts gatherings specifically for Asian, Jewish, gay/bi, and lesbian/bi singles.

"I've always been interested in building community," says Koosed, who operated a Bay Area roommate service and the Avenue Ballroom dance studio in San Francisco before the singles venture. "Temperament will determine whether a person chooses a Salon, 10-Minute Dating, or Dinner Date. In all of them, the structure gives you the ability to smoothly and politely disengage when you're ready, with no hurt feelings on either side."

Internet personals can offer the same low-risk, high-volume matchmaking. But when I asked my 43-year-old, never-married musician friend about his online vs. speed-dating experience, he replied, "Internet dating seems good initially because it's always there and it seems like it's being proactive, but sometimes getting a reply is like playing the lottery. It's fun to have all those desirable prospects but a drag to get so few replies."

Andrew Kiken, owner of California Fast Dating, who organized the Acapulco event, says his business is growing because people want to get back to meeting in person. "True, it takes a degree of self-esteem to come to our event; some of the people who do online personals just don't have the nerve. But I've talked to people who say they've spent weeks or even months communicating by e-mail, and when they meet--no chemistry."

Kiken is a 32-year-old, fast-talking New Jersey native who lives in San Diego and whose parents own a vineyard in Calistoga. He produces Fast Dating parties in Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Marin County, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Fresno, Orange County, and San Diego.

Kiken chose to enter the North Bay market because franchise operations have considered Sonoma County too small to target, but there are "still plenty of interesting single people." He adds that people often pretend they don't care whether they have a sweetheart or not, but his experience indicates otherwise. "If folks say they're not desperate, they're kidding themselves."

Since the first Santa Rosa event (and the start of the war), Kiken says that registrations have plummeted; he is not planning to continue in Santa Rosa, although he has events planned in Marin. "I might just stick to San Diego, Orange County, and Sacramento," he says.

My two hours of speed dating speeds by, for the most part. The one exception: Tommy (not his name), who hunches over our table and keeps jerking his head to reference the rest of the room. "Well," he says, "this beats calling 900 numbers."

I didn't sit with every man in the room, but I did meet 13 available males in a safe and efficient way. It was a "quantity encounter," as a singles guru described it in one of the books I've read on the subject. Ultimately, I made one match. He was my favorite of the four men for whom I'd circled "yes." We're meeting on Saturday for a cup of tea.

As I'm leaving, a pair of documentary filmmakers from the Santa Rosa Community Media Center ask to interview me. Since I'm treating the singles search like a creative project that has the same requirements and rewards as any kind of art, I say yes. The singles scene demands focus and enthusiasm. You learn to weather doubt and discouragement. You find agony and ecstasy.

They like what I have to say. "You are quite the unusual spirit," the cameraman says, and takes my phone number.

A number of companies have Bay Area and North Bay events: www.northbayfastdating.com; www.meetinggame.com; www.hurrydate.com; www.speeddating.com; www.8minutedating.com; and www.matchlive.com. The next California Fast Dating event is Tuesday, April 22, 7-9pm (ages 45-60) at the Broken Drum Brewery, 1132 Fourth St., San Rafael.

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From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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