In the modern search for a mate, there’s a dating game—and a payment plan—for singles of every kind. SHANDA DEZIEL reports from the front.
“DON’T JUST STAND THERE, go screw someone.” It’s an obvious enough opening line at a Nuts & Bolts Party—where single guys are given bolts and single girls get nuts—but it’s still pretty jarring. It takes a few minutes (and a tequila shot) to actually feel comfortable enough to mingle. Someone out there has a nut or a bolt that fits yours and you just have to find them. Once you’ve located your match, make a quick introduction, receive a raffle ticket and a new nut or bolt—then you’re free to do it all again. The concept is cheesy and lewd, second-circle-of-hell territory—but somehow you grow accustomed to,
maybe even join in on, the innuendo: “Can I see your thing? Sorry, too small.” And so on: easy banter for a mid-20s-to-mid30s bar crowd. “It definitely doesn’t feel creepy,” says Val (who nonetheless does not want to use her real name), a gorgeous 33-year-old. “It really isn’t a pick-up thing.” She sounds almost disappointed.
While the Nuts & Bolts event, hosted by Toronto’s StreetcarParty.com, may be one of the more risqué nights for singles, it’s only one example of the creativity that goes into helping people find romance these days. There’s speed dating (and salsa speed dating); dinners for eight strangers who love books; Dinner in the Dark, where eating and getting acquainted is done in the pitch black (the waiters wear nightvision goggles); Singles Safari at the Calgary Zoo, a dinner and dancing event dedicated to meeting other unattached mammals; and rock or ice climbing for those willing to go to extremes. And, if we’re lucky, Canadian Wal-Marts will adopt Friday night “Singles Shopping”—it’s all the rage in Germany.
Welcome to the urban singles’ smorgasbord, where money
can buy you love. Purchase a membership or pay as you go— there’s something for all age categories, all sexual preferences and for professional, athletic or artsy types. “The Internet kind of exploded the whole singles industry and allowed for new ways for people to meet,” says Susan Kates, who runs DinnerWorks, a dining and dating service in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. “All of a sudden matchmaking, something that was not talked about, has been brought into the forefront.” The dating industry (including online, traditional matchmaking businesses and the new “introduction” type companies) is estimated to be a US$1.2 billion money-maker in North America. And as the online portion starts to plateauafter 77 per cent growth in 2003, it saw only a 19 per cent jump in 2004—face-to-face events are primed to take on a bigger role. “Speed dating and nuts-and-bolts-type parties are not based on sitting at a computer with your pajamas on, telling someone you’re something you’re not,” says Catherine Fogarty, the Halifax-based owner/operator of Speed Dating Atlantic. “It’s for a totally different person, who wants to sit
in front of someone and find out, ‘Does this make sense? Am I attracted to their eyes? Is the chemistry there?’ ”
But just what kind of person is that? We used to say desperate. Nowadays, the stigma that came with looking like you’re looking is all but gone. Participants are confident, busy professionals who know what they want and are searching out a partner the way they would a new job. Many of those who’ve done speed dating and dinner events marvel at the quality of the people they meet. But that’s not to say they’re all winners. At her first Toronto DinnerWorks meal—where four men and four women spend the evening at a local restaurant—Paula (not her real name) was seated beside a guy who proceeded to become very drunk, and was acting so aggressive that two of the women at the table left early. “Things you probably don’t want to do,” says Paula, “are complain about your job incessantly
when you first meet somebody, or about how you got a bad deal with your union. You’ve got to be yourself, but you’ve also got to be on your best behaviour.” A 35-yearold vice-president of an online communications company, Paula doesn’t tell her colleagues or acquaintances that she’s joined DinnerWorks and It’s Just Lunch (a leading North American matchmaking service), but she regales her girlfriends with stories from the battlefield.
While these services generally cater to an age range of 25 to 45, the older, professional crowd is more keen to partake than the young, arty types. “I’m not at that stage,” says Megan McCoy, a 27-year-old theatre producer. “I still have faith that I’ll just bump into somebody one day and it’ll be perfect, like a romantic comedy. I don’t pass any judgment on that stuff, it’s
just not what I want to tell my kids about how I met dad.” So McCoy relies on set-ups by friends and the bar scene—which, she’s the first to admit, isn’t exactly working.
Last Valentine’s Day, she reluctandy headed out with friends to a Toronto bar. “Two martinis in, I was chatting up a butcher,” says McCoy, “and for a 36-year-old guy who lived with his mother and drove a yellow Thunderbird, he was actually quite charming.” Next, she was approached by a guy wearing a straw cowboy hat and a tight white T-shirt that read “Your girlfriend thinks I’m hot.” This guy was in the business of door restoration. “As I ordered my sixth martini,” says McCoy, “bam, there was bachelor No. 3. He was a baker, who’d just finished off the heartshaped cake and cookie
baking stretch—and he was cool.” In fact, he stayed cool when McCoy barfed—he held her hair, got her Kleenex, flagged her a cab and asked her to call him when she got home safely. “The next morning, completely ashamed, head pounding, I came across the phone numbers from the night before,” she recalls. “Wouldn’t you know it? I’d met a butcher, a baker and a restoration door maker. Happy f— ing Valentine’s Day to me.” There’s at least one event out there that caters to the McCoys of the world. Santa Cruz is a singles night for people who are too cool for singles nights. Hip indie musicians, artists and the like flock to a grungy Toronto bar/concert venue once a month. They receive a number to pin on their shirts, which corresponds to a mailbox—an in-house messaging system for dropping anonymous (or notso-anonymous) notes to those you fancy. But that’s just a silly backdrop to the night’s main attractions: rock bands, artists doing
THE STIGMA of looking like you’re looking is gone. Professionals seek partners the way they would a new job.
live drawings, mind readers, circus and burlesque acts, and DJs whipping up a dance party. “Indie rock kids often don’t dance, they just sort of stand there,” says artist/organizer Tyler Clarke Burke, 31. “I was excited by the idea of getting over quiet social anxieties—and my secret desire was that people would wear numbers, hook up and and have fun.” Even those who are there “just to see the band” can’t help but get caught up in
the flirtation, writing and receiving notes that range from the safe, “I like the way you drink water, love, #44” to the strange, “When I gazed into your eyes, my irritable bowel syndrome disappeared, #177.” Whether you’re 40 and corporate or 25 and trendy, most people agree that it’s a tough time to be on the market. We’re marrying later and the pool of potential partners gets considerably smaller once you’re out of school. The decreased participation in church and community events has taken away traditional places to meet. And while the Family Feud game show says “Work” is the No. 1 place people meet their spouses, hooking up with an officemate can
be messy. Some companies have started asking employees who get
romantically involved to sign a “volitional relationship contract” saying both parties have entered the union consensually. Other places have policies against coupling, trying to ward off post-breakup tension or, worstcase scenario, sexual harassment claims. Recently, a California appeals court upheld an employer’s right to enforce one of these policies over an employee’s right to privacy.
CEOs aren’t safe either. Kelly Duffin, president of the Canadian Hearing Society, was fired by the organization’s board after they learned she was dating the president of an advocacy group that provides outreach and various services for the deaf community. As dicey as work romance can be, love conquers all, right? Despite his own policy of not dating co-workers, Chet began seeing his girlfriend Danni (not their real names) while they were both employed at a Canadian women’s magazine. They kept their relationship a secret for a year until Chet found
IT’S A tough time for singles-the pool of potential partners gets considerably smaller once you’re out of school
a new job. “In an office with all women, we just didn’t want to be the talk of the town.” Some lucky folks, like Angela Szeto, 36, and Rick O’Brien, 44, didn’t need school, work, church or community. A few years ago, Szeto accidentally dumped her coffee on a really cute guy (O’Brien) in a Toronto neighbourhood café. Surprisingly, they still remembered each other over a year later, when he walked into the laundromat while she was folding clothes. Angela said, “Hi.” Rick said, “I like those socks.” And it was love. But what if you’ve got a washer and dryer
at home? “When I was 30,1 thought meeting someone was just going to happen,” says John, a 40-year-old entrepreneur in Vancouver, “and then, at 35,1 thought I’m kind of getting a bit older. I really want to give fate a nudge.” John estimates he spends about $400 to $600 a year on services, including DinnerWorks and Lavalife, the wildly successful Canadian Internet dating site. “I think it’s a bargain because I used to go out in my 20s and 30s and I would spend $50 to $100 a night and often times I wouldn’t meet anyone.”
For some, shelling out just a little cash pays off big time. Two years ago, Janice Greene went to three Speed Dating Atlantic events in Halifax at $25 a pop, then she gave up “looking.” When SDA owner Fogarty invited her to a New Year’s Eve dinner party, she declined. But Fogarty persisted and, in the end, the touring company executive dragged herself there. She met Bill Varvel
VERY BAD BEGINNINGS
When a journalist went looking for tales of dating disasters, women were only too happy to respond
PLAYING WITH MATCHES Amy Cameron; Random House; $19.95
YOU THOUGHT meeting someone was hard, but that’s got nothing on dating. Who hasn’t looked up from a plate of pesto pasta and thought, “Who is this person?
What am I doing here? Do I have green stuff in my teeth?” And those are only the mildly bad dates. Toronto journalist Amy Cameron, a former Maclean’s writer, has compiled 93 of the worst stories you’ll ever heargut-wrenching, laugh-out-loud, truly unbelievable tales of disaster-in Playing with Matches: Mis-
adventures in Dating. “Initially I sent out an email to two friends asking what they thought of this idea for a book,” says Cameron, 32. “Instead of answering that, they just started sending me their date stories. I figured I was onto something.”
Cameron collected close to 300 anecdotes through email and bad-date dinner parties, where groups of girlfriends would one-up
each other with outrageous and embarrassing romantic situations from the past. People would overhear Cameron talking about the project at restaurants and bars and just have to tell her their stories. “I felt like I had tapped into this resource that was floating right under the surface,” she says. “Women had been sharing bad date stories forever. We do that, we share our pain.” One woman got caught going through her date’s wallet-she had forgotten his name and was searching for a driver’s licence. Another
went out for dinner with an art gallery owner, then ended up back at his place where he began mixing up a batch of crack cocaine for his artists. Not exactly what women mean when they say they want a man who can cook. According to Cameron, whether it was the woman’s own fault or her date’s, if things went wrong in the bedroom or while meeting his family, each storyteller was able to laugh about
her experiences. “No matter what awkward situation a woman found herself in, when retelling the story, she was not cynical or mean. These women dated again. They were hopeful.”
When she started researching the book, Cameron planned to include a chapter of stories as told by men, but she found they couldn’t provide the same detail. “Men don’t share easily,” she says. “For a guy, a date is bad because of slightly intangible things: ‘I’m not that into her, she wants babies and I don’t, I don’t like her friends.’ But they don’t remember what they didn’t like about her friends, they don’t analyze.”
What Cameron did include were her own awful stories-and there are a lot of themfrom how her grandmother sabotaged her first date at 12, to a night years later when flirting with a friend led to a fleabag motel and some unexpected spanking. “I don’t tell that story a lot,” Cameron says. “And at first I wasn’t going to include my own bad dates. But I didn’t want to be some anonymous woman taking advantage of the kindness of strangers. I wanted to say, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’ ” Yup,
we all do.
(who, like her, was in his 40s)—and they married a year to the day later. Fogarty has also brought gay and lesbian singles together. Vaughan, a 25 year-year-old retail manager, met his boyfriend through Speed Dating Atlantic. “If you go to a bar, you can meet a trick, someone for an evening,” says Vaughan, “but that is definitely not what I’m into. And if you’re set up with someone through a friend, the logic behind it is: ‘You’re gay and you’re gay, and you’re single and you’re single, so you must make a perfect match’— which absolutely does not work. That’s why speed dating is becoming vogue.”
Some pay for adventure and get the romance thrown in. Peter Manneul, a Toronto chiropractor, spent $1,500 plus airfare on a sea kayak vacation to Belize with Meet Market Adventures (a singles travel agency and social coordinator). “I signed up for the trip because it had a good mixture of sea kayaking as well as other fun activities,” says Manneul, 35. “Did I want to meet somebody? Sure, it’s always in the back of your mind.” When Shelia Brooks, a Vancouver sales director, burned herself cooking fish on the trip, Manneul came to her aid, pouring cold water on her hand. He even made her laugh. Brooks, 33, moved to Toronto and they’re planning a September wedding.
While these stories offer hope, they also add more pressure to the situation. What if, after throwing yourself and your pocketbook into all these newly respectable options, you still come up empty-handed? That’s when a single guy or gal needs a good sense of humour. Val from the Nuts & Bolts party is a three-year veteran of all the Toronto dating fads. “I used to think that it’s not a lot to want great love in my life, as well as a great career. But now I’m thinking maybe it is too much.” The East Indian medical student looks and sounds like she’s walked straight off the set of Sex and the City—she wants someone she can talk to, who’ll take care of her emotional needs, a friend, a lover, a spiritual connection. Oh, and great sex. “No one will settle for bad sex anymore,” she says. “Not like our parents’ generation, who took whatever they got.” Val’s parents, who moved to Canada when she was 2, had an arranged marriage, and she says “they are so not right for each other.” That’s the reason she let them know early on that she was dead set against the tradition. “Although,” she jokes now, “maybe I shouldn’t have been.”