I could see why the Strand thought its Rare Books Room might make for a good first date.
Accessible only via elevator, it’s the part that looks less like an indie bookstore that took over your suburb’s local Costco and more like a professor’s office, if that professor were the kind who hoards a lot of first-edition pulp fiction. But I wasn’t here to hunt down an autographed copy of Siddhartha—I was here to find love.
A friend and I had opted to spend our Friday evenings and hard-earned cash on the Strand’s bi-annual “literary speed dating” event. Worn down by finals season and a collective five years’ experience in the Columbia dating pool, we figured we had nothing to lose except the hour-long block of time we’d otherwise have spent with Olivia Pope and a bag of Westside cookies.
Besides, our favorite pizza place was only a couple of subway stops away.
Our foolproof plan to find significant others (or at least a few book recommendations) hit its first snag in the elevator. The first group of singles was smart, accomplished, funny—and all female. Given the significantly discounted ticket prices for men, we probably should have seen that one coming.
The situation didn’t improve much once we got to the event proper. There was free wine and a few plates of complimentary secular holiday cookies, but first we had to pick up our assigned numbers and scorecards, for designating our prospects as “Date,” “Friend,” or simply “No.” Romance may be dead, but I might like ruthless efficiency better.
We had a good half hour before we were scheduled to take to our folding chairs and make small talk with strangers. While I’m pretty sure we were supposed to spend that half hour mingling with the opposite sex and humble-bragging about how much David Foster Wallace we had under our belts, I opted to get my money’s worth of gingerbread men and cheap Pinot while texting myself random observations. (“There’s a Park Slope Food Coop tote in coat check. OF COURSE THERE IS.”) If I wasn’t going to get a real date out of this, at the very least I was going to get a good story, gory details and all.
By the time we actually sat down, the odds were looking pretty grim. The ratio of girls to guys was somewhere between two and way-too-many to one—meaning that for every one-on-one speed date, each woman in attendance got three minutes of quality time with an empty chair. Not that what few men there were made for better conversation partners; I remember my first “date” more for missing the chair and face-planting when he tried to sit down than his taste in literature.
For the next half hour, our emcee—a comedienne who tried her best to mitigate the awkwardness, with limited success—ushered us through a dozen more rounds of mini-conversations. We were encouraged to talk about books in the spirit of the venue, but as I imagine is the case with most artificially constructed moments of intimacy, most of my “dates” consisted of talking about how weird the whole arrangement was.
Luckily, I wasn’t in it alone. My friend was kind enough to chime in on some of the more awkward match-ups when she wasn’t busy with one of her own (which, thanks to the gender imbalance, was more often than not). Among the fiascos she rescued me from were a septuagenarian in a sweater vest and an NYU grad student with something bright green that might have been cupcake frosting smeared on his lips. I tried not to stare at his mouth, partly because that would be rude and partly so he wouldn’t get the wrong idea.
Not every conversation was an unmitigated disaster. There was a paralegal who was into science fiction and a teacher so textbook Nice-Jewish-Boy I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been reverse-engineered by my mom. But after I had checked “Date” next to a few names, I realized that if I’d met any of these guys under normal circumstances, I’d have thought twice before giving them my number, let alone asking them out. I’d developed speed dating goggles—like beer goggles, but with more Zadie Smith references.
As we conducted our post-mortem over slices of pepperoni, my friend and I decided we’d gotten our money’s worth, in anecdotes if nothing else. (Exhibit A: this story.) But the real test would come a week later, when the Strand said they’d send us our matches—if any.
My first follow-up came from a name I didn’t recognize. When I saw that the email referenced Alfred Hitchcock and came from an AOL email address, I realized it had to be the 70-something-year-old. I didn’t think responding to his suggestion to “email some lines” would be a good idea, especially since I had no idea how he’d gotten my contact information in the first place.
The next match, a researcher who lived in the Bronx, was more promising. But as the days went by and his initial let’s-get-coffee message fell further and further from the top of my inbox, I decided it was time to call it quits. Researcher Dude had seemed nice enough, but the speed dating event had been a last-minute impulse, not anything I’d given much thought to spinning into an actual relationship.
In the cold, harsh light of winter break, I saw the evening for what it was: one of those strange things you do for the hell of it during finals, which in terms of snap decisions is like a weeklong period of being blackout drunk. I was glad I’d gone, but to go from speed dating to real-life dating would have made the whole adventure too real. Instead, I’d let it remain what it was: a feverish end-of-semester dream I’d be happy to revisit, but never repeat.
As for my friend? She was matched with one of the few genuinely attractive guys there—an account executive with an Ivy League degree. And then a few minutes’ social media stalking revealed the single weirdest part of an already bizarre experience: Account Executive was the older brother of one of my high school classmates.
Turns out the real world is just as much of a bubble as Columbia.