Three Minutes of Pleasure

by

03/26/2002

300 West 16th St, NY, NY

Neighborhood: Chelsea

I’m standing on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street staring up at an enormous billboard advertisement, which in behemoth white letters is instructing me to “ProCreate.” Gaslight, the venue for this evenings HurryDate party, is on the bottom floor of the building directly below that billboard. HurryDate takes fifty eligible singles and pairs them up for three-minute long dates, which begin and end with the sound of whistle. Before rotating to the next date, eligibles circle Yes or No on a scoring sheet to indicate if they’re interested in meeting again. Two days after the party, eligibles receive an e-mail with contact information of their matches.

Neurotic about punctuality, I made it a point to arrive fifteen or twenty minutes before the doors open. The other eligible singles show-up–mostly in pairs and trios, friends who have agreed to do this together, waiting cross-armed on the sidewalk in front of the bar’s twin French doors. Unaccompanied eligibles are in the minority; they’re mostly older, and unlike the younger singles, they’re not here because HurryDate sounds like a good way to maybe meet somebody or an exciting Wednesday night out. Most of them look old enough to have spent money on video ads, newspaper personals, and Internet match services, and they wear a uniform expression of loneliness and desperation. They’re serious about meeting people.

The revelation that I look like the other unaccompanied singles leads to a sphincter-puckering nervousness that is on the verge of leading me away from this terribly bad idea when Ken Deckinger, the energetic twenty-eight-year old creator of HurryDate, appears in the doorway and announces that HurryDaters should form a line. I respond to the warmth and authority in his voice, a voice that has built HurryDate into a ten city, three country empire, and before I can stop myself, I’m handed a name tag with the number six written on it, a score card and pen, and a coupon for a complimentary Tanqueray gin beverage. Reminding myself of so called journalistic obligations, I promptly stop trying to catch a whiff of the alluring scent that seems to be coming from direction of bachelorette standing in front of me. Ken Deckinger, I note to myself, is one of the only people I’ve ever seen who actually looks good with a shaved head. And though it’s a warmish night, and my shirt is now damp with perspiration, Ken is dressed in black–black button down, black pants, black shoes–remains noticeably dry and smooth.

What you need to know is that Ken Deckinger isn’t selling romance. He’s selling you an experience. It’s the reason why he’s perpetually excited; he’s projecting a high wattage aura of excitement of speed dating. HurryDate is supposed to be fast paced and even a little bit outrageous, a notion demonstrated through HurryDate’s mantra “Dating should be fun and in mass quantities.” Attending to the overarching hunger to have fun seems to be the short coming of conventional dating services, and its precisely what makes HurryDate marketable and socially acceptable for singles who wouldn’t ever really consider signing up for a dating service.

****

Gaslight is an ‘L’ shaped room. A blue cloud of cigarette smoke hangs just below the ceiling. Ken’s staff has pushed all of the candle stands, velvet armchairs, and wrought iron garden furniture against the row of long narrow windows that open up to the sidewalk creating a handful of what Ken Deckinger calls “dating stations.” Thirteen rows of tables, two tables and four chairs per-row, run up the center of the room along the bar.

Before I have a chance to get a drink, I feel the need to sit and calm myself. I’m so nervous that I actually spell my name wrong and what follows is like a mini-anxiety attack, hot flashes, nervous sweats, and clammy palms. In order to circumvent what feels like an oncoming episode of hyperventilation I hustle into the bathroom to splash some water on my face. When the guy at the sink lifts his head it becomes apparent that he’s not only much older than any of the other eligibles, but that he’s suffering from the same kind of social anxiety that I am, but worse. Even after washing his face I can still see greasy little droplets materialize above his top lip and on his forehead. He’s got huge rings of sweat under his arms that have darkened the armpits of his purple button down shirt to a shade closer to navy blue and a similar stain runs down his black. And I don’t even want to mention the long smudge on the rear end of his khakis. I go about my business quickly so that I can give him a chance to get his act together, and head back out to the bar to get myself a drink.

The bartendress is wearing a black cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a black one-piece thong-bottom leotardish type thing, and her painted-on-tight black dungarees are pulled down past her pelvic region. She’s exposing way more skin than needs to be seen. Almost all one-hundred eligibles are crowded around the bar. I’m waiting for my complementary Tanqueray gin beverage, staring at a pissed-off looking blond who is leaning on the bar and thrusting her chest out like a peacock. The sweaty guy has emerged from the bathroom; he is bachelor number Seven, and he has spelled his name, Richard, correctly. He looks calmer now, too, and when I sit down with my rocks martini in one of the velvet couches by the window, he sits across from me and we both review the sheet of sample questions that Ken’s “partner” Adele Testani is distributing by the door.

Keeping in mind how unpretentious and absurdly good Ken Deckinger seems to be at everything, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the two of them are romantically involved. Six feet tall with brown hair nearly half that length, Adele is the kind of impossibly beautiful woman–lean, amply busted, facially sublime–seldom seen outside the spinning supermarket racks of romance novels. And she glides around the bar wearing a long, spaghetti-strapped dress that hugs her hips and torso leaving very little to the imagination. My glances bounce off Adele like she’s protected by some kind of particle shield, but every once in a while I catch her stealing looks at Ken. Sometimes she winks at him for no reason, and when she passes him she touches his arm or makes some kind of physical contact.

Have I mentioned the kind of sexual tension saturating Gaslight before the HurryDate party begins? It’s actually giving me the creeps. Unmated humans, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five, travel to bars and nightclubs in gender exclusive herds, the sheer size of which offer safety and comfort to those within the group while deterring inter-herd relations. Club-goers pay the $20 cover as much for the accessibility of the door out as the exclusivity of the velvet rope. HurryDate eschews that herd-mentality, flipping around the entire culture of the singles bar. The dates are one-on-one, the regulations of HurryDate force you to approach the otherwise unapproachable, and rejection–confined to a secret scorecard–is innocuous. Take all of these factors into account, and then think about the 100 restless eligibles who have shamelessly paid $24 to flirt for an hour and fifteen minutes, and what you’ve got is a throbbing loins kind of sexual tension. By the way, I can see the bartender’s butt cheeks.

Adele starts seating the first bachelorettes at dating stations when I notice that just about every guy in Gaslight is sitting in the velvet couches or standing along the wall looking at the question sheet. Richard looks like a thoroughbred that’s been stuffed into one of those claustrophobic starting gates at a racetrack. He’s nearly epileptic. He’s actually scrawling answers on his sheet. The other bachelors are a fairly homogeneous group of professionals in their mid-twenties or early thirties. The majority of them are dressed in khaki pants and the cuffs of their collared shirts, slightly wrinkled from a day’s wear, have been folded over to reveal heavy steel watches. Their shoes–some black, others brown–share a common shine of almost metallic perfection, and their faces, probably because they can’t believe what they’re about to do, possess the same embarrassed crescent moon smile.

The only exceptions are bachelors Two through Five, who for about the past fifteen minutes have been standing at the bar doing shots and flirting with the eight or ten eligible bachelorettes standing near-by. None of those guys has even an eyelash out of place. Richard looks at them and flashes me a look like, “Yeah, we’re fucked.” I especially hate bachelor number Three. His shirt is unbuttoned about four buttons exposing his tanned, hairless (and no doubt professionally waxed) chest. Mostly, though, I hate him because he looks like the guy who stole my girlfriend in high school.

****

A complementary tin of extra strength cinnamints has been placed at each dating station. Bachelorette Nineteen is fidgeting with the circular cellophane seal that she peeled from the tin and is devouring one mint after another when Adele seats me in front of her for the first date of the party.

We’re not really supposed to begin talking until Adele and Ken blow the whistle, but Nineteen tells me, Oh my God, she can’t even believe that she’s actually doing this. Nineteen is modest looking–she’s not wearing a lot of make-up, but her short hair looks like it was cut only a few minutes before coming to Gaslight. Her nervousness is slightly detectable–she won’t stop playing with the cellophane. My own anxiety has been canceled out by the energy I’m required in order to conceal the fact that I’m distracted by Thirty-six, the bachelorette sitting next to Nineteen. There’s something about the way that Thirty-six, the last eligible I’ll have a date with tonight, pushes the renegade strands of flaxen hair behind her ear. She’s got me so wildly excited that I’m practically drooling.

****

The pre-HurryDate murmur recedes when Adele and Ken Deckinger begin waving their arms and shushing everybody so that they can explain the rules. Adele gives an on your mark, get set, and then the shrill scream of whistles. It’s hard to imagine the sonic cluster-fuck that ensues after that whistle is blown. Think midtown traffic and construction with wrecking balls and jackhammers, and you’re pretty close. Also, the bartendress is obviously a huge Zeppelin fan, and the stereo is turned up probably one notch too high. Nineteen is pleasant in that stereotypical Midwestern way, though she doesn’t mention where she grew up. We discuss mostly banal things: jobs, apartments, hobbies. The nervousness is beginning to subside just as the three minute date ends and Adele blows the whistle. I circle ‘no,’ on my scorecard without thinking and move along to the next dating station.

The pace of HurryDate is relentless. I circle ‘no’ for a top-heavy blond wearing a red halter top; and ‘no’ for a bridge-and-tunnel paralegal wearing sterile-looking white sneakers. The masseuse who offers me a complementary rub down and mentions to me matter-of-factly that getting her hands on me is something she’d like to do a whole lot gets me so flustered that I circle ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and then scribble them both out. I mark ‘no’ for a hairdresser from Jersey City with knit eyebrows and a mustache that’s darker than I prefer on a woman.

It’s only six or so dating stations after leaving Nineteen that I begin to break down. My eyes glaze over, and I’ve got a nightmarish case of cottonmouth from talking too much. I’m regretting that in the midst of my pre-HurryDate anxiety, I finished my complimentary rocks Martini with the hope that it might loosen me up a bit. Between rounds Adele floats in my direction and subtly tells me that if I don’t start having fun she’s gonna kick my butt.

Forty-seven, who is visibly unhappy about her job as a circulation assistant at Martha Stewart Living, and seems to genuinely hate Martha Stewart, tells me that it’s highly doubtful that she’ll meet anybody that she’ll be even remotely interested in seeing again. I circle ‘no’ on my scorecard, out of a genuine fear for my life, when Forty-three tells me she works as a ‘headhunter’ and that she loves her job. I notice that Richard has been using Adele’s question sheet pretty faithfully. I decide I’d be quite interested in spending some time with a schoolteacher who bought a dog because it was small enough to fit in her handbag.

Zero time is allotted between rounds for bachelor rotation. The end of one date signals the beginning of the next, and the process of settling into a new dating station can be perilous. The tables and chairs in the center of the bar are lined up so that they’re closer than a set of gonads. It’s nearly impossible to sit down without bumping the eligible seated behind you or knocking something (or someone) to the ground. I’ve developed an anxiety about the execution of the transit–it’s the first and last impression I make on my dates. Without exception, I totally disrupt the two or three dating stations in my vicinity trying to squeeze into a too skinny space or contort a leg and climb over the back of one of the plastic chairs. Adele doesn’t appreciate my suggestion that the bachelorettes should rotate between rounds rather than the men. Bachelor Number Three (AKA the guy with the waxed chest) avoids appearing ungraceful by lifting the chair over to the side of the table. I’ve watched him do this twice now, and he uses it as an excuse to close talk. I watched him kiss my beloved Thirty-six’s hand. He was whispering something in Nineteen’s ear earlier, too. A lot of the bachelorettes actually like him. They think he’s cute.

Twenty-eight hears me call Three a fucking bastard under my breath. She’s not impressed and lets me know it with a look capable of melting lead. Severe is not a sufficient adjective to describe Twenty-eight’s face and demeanor. She’s got an up-turned nose, her lips and chin are fascist, and her hair–gathered in a bun–has been pulled back so tight that her face looks like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Her method of questioning is hostile and Socratic. Mostly, though, as she continues on with a painfully long digression about her job as an assistant buyer at an advertising company, I’m overtaken by an are-we-there-yet impatience when I realize how long three minutes actually is.

Cameramen and sound technicians surround Twenty, a journalist from Oxygen, a cable television network for women. Twenty is one of about three bachelorettes for whom I’ve decided I will circle the ‘yes’ option on my scorecard based on aesthetic considerations alone (This number includes Adele, whose name I’ve decided to pencil in). Twenty was probably picked by the network for this assignment to project the image of a young woman living the really hip, really edgy, R-rated life style that a young single woman searching for love, wealth, and happiness in the Big City should be, must be, leading. And she pulls it offóshe’s intelligent, beautiful, and very professional. She’s sitting in a velvet chair that’s been pushed into a corner close to the bathroom doors with her long, tan legs crossed at the knee. I saw her on the sidewalk earlier leading her cameraman around in search of sound bites. After one interview I heard he say that she wanted to find somebody willing to admit that they’ve just gotten out of a relationship and have come in search of a rebound.

It’s easiest to think about HurryDate in the context of a T.V. commercial. As an eligible, I’m given a small window of airtime to make my productóin this case, meóas appealing as possible to my audience. As the author of a set of rehearsed illusions, my commercial image is always sexier, smarter, and more sophisticated than the actual product. There’s something disarming about the awareness that, just like me every other HurryDater I talk to is just a little bit less sexy, funny, and smart than they would like to you think. Also, there’s something deeply condescending and exploitative about Oxygen TV’s presence at Gaslight.

Nonetheless, Twenty introduces herself and keeps talking to me as though there isn’t a middle age guy breathing all over me and clipping a microphone to my shirt collar. The camera guy gives the thumbs up that we’re rolling. She wants to know what the most outrageous question I’ve been asked is. I want to ask her if she thinks these circumstances could be any more artificial–a date, two peoples’ first meeting, restricted to three minutes in length, recorded for television? But I feel pressure to be charming so I try to answer her question. I tell her that I haven’t heard anything that resembles outrageous. I tell her that after sitting at eight or 10 dating stations my head hurts from being asked the same set of recycled questions about where I’m from, how I heard about HurryDate, how long I’ve lived in the city, and what I do to earn a living. I tell her that I’ve started improvising. I’ve been telling bachelorettes a couple of different things, so some think that I’m the bullpen catcher for the New York Mets, others that I’m a B-grade Latino soap star. She’s amused. As time runs out and I begin to consider if Twenty is for real or just an image created for television, I look over my shoulder and watch as Twenty-eight stares balefully at the bachelor in front of her.

Thirty-two is the first in a line of four women, seated consecutively, who have lived in Flushing, Queens for their entire lives. She begins our three minutes together by removing a cigarette from a pack of Newport 100’s that sits on the table in front of our dating station and explaining her relationships with Thirty-three, Thirty-four, and Thirty-five. She tells me that Thirty-three is her sister; that for the past 15 years she’s worked in the office of a tenement manager in the Bronx, and that’s where she met Thirty-four; Thirty-five has been Thirty-two’s neighbor since childhood. She refers to all of them as her sisters. After about ninety seconds I’ve hardly spoken a word when she asks whether I’m a Mets or Yankees fan. Before I can answer she cuts me off, telling me about her lifelong love affair with the Mets. Whistle.

Thirty-three wants to know if I picked her sister, and looks pissed when I won’t show her my scorecard. Her shirt is decorated with puff paint and different colored sequins in a script that reads “I Love Mommy.” She’s the only woman who asks me straight out how much money I earn, and looks pissed when I avoid the question by remaining totally silent for the remaining forty-five seconds.

Thirty-four chews gum loudly and with effort. She tells me immediately that she won’t date me if I’m neither Latino nor Italian. I watch her circle ‘No,’ and wait silently for the whistle, choking on her cigarette fumes.

Thirty-five looks short and squat even when she’s sitting down. By the looks of her ashtray she’s a chain smoker. I suspect that if she held a match too close to her hair she would combust, because the sweet scent of Aqua-net swarms around her like a cluster of Tsetse flies. She’s got long permed hair and a vertiginously tall arrangement of bangs. She’s the nicest of the weird sisters, the most sociable, and before I can sit down I’m already shaking her hand and listening to a laundry list of qualities she wants in a man. She’s looking for a guy who likes to have a good time, loves kids because she’s got a six-year-old daughter, and has a flexible schedule because she she’s got a six-year-old daughter, and has a flexible schedule because she works two, sometimes three jobs. She smokes, and I sit there, dazed and uncomfortable, like a dangling participle.

*****

I’m sitting diagonally across from Nineteen, back almost where I started, for my long-awaited date with Thirty-six. She’s wearing a deep red that matches the color of her fingernails and alternates between looking me in the eye and looking at the pen she’s playing with. We agree not to talk about jobs or apartments. I chew up a minute of our time telling her about my pre-HurryDate anxiety attack, the hot flashes and sweaty palms, and about how my mouth is now dry from talking so much. She snorts a little when she laughs. I feel good sitting here, and we keep talking for a moment after Ken Deckinger blows the final whistle. She touches my arm when she says goodbye.

******

Right now, it’s mid-afternoon, two days later. I am standing in my apartment, staring at the unopened e-mail message that contains the matches from HurryDate. I am trying to remember which of the twenty-five eligible bachelorettes I decided that I would be interested in seeing again. I am trying to calculate the likelihood that they found me smart enough, or charming enough, or handsome enough to circle my number.

The HurryDate e-mail is staring back at me. I can barely stand the thought of opening it. Ken Deckinger has told me that on an evening when a hundred eligibles meet, it’s not unusual for there to be about one-hundred and forty matches. I’m anticipating it will say that Thirty-six was a match. I’m certain it will say that. I click on the envelope and the computer kind of hums and sputters for a minute. The screen goes blank–it’s just a white screen for a minute. An advertising banner appears on the screen first. Blue borders next, and then the ten-point font. There’s no numerological scramble here, no numbers at all, in fact. Only the message that HurryDate is very sorry, but I had no matches.

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