Faster, Pussycat! Date! Date!

The premise is simple: Gather a bunch of single men and women together, divide them into neatly numbered couples, and force them to engage in ice-breaking conversation, though only for three minutes at a time. When time’s up, the single men move onto the next single woman and repeat the three-minute intimacy.

I can see the attraction. There’s no uncomfortable approach, no in-your-face rejection. By the end of the night, every man has spoken to every woman, and all parties have increased their chances of making a match in this godless world by an unknowable, though undoubtedly significant, factor.
This particular session of Fast Dater is open to all singles between the ages of 21 and 40. Chad Haines is the chief executive cupid behind this operation. The (coupled) franchise owner of Fast Dater Twin Cities explains that he doesn’t want to restrict the age range any more than that, because he doesn’t want to put arbitrary limitations on any of the prospective matches.

Fast Dater is not the only organization of its kind. There’s also Speed Dating (three minutes) and Dateminutes (eight minutes). This particular version of high-velocity romance began in Chicago and is quickly increasing in popularity in the Twin Cities. Previous events have attracted about 70 daters, and clients have had some success, Haines says. There are at least a few engaged couples around the country who can claim Fast Dater as their miraculous matchmaker.

Haines makes his way through the crowd, shaking hands, smiling, and schmoozing with his Fast Daters. Each Fast Dater gets a nametag, a scorecard, and a pen. They also receive a sheet on how to make the most of the Fast Dater experience. Daters are advised to relax and have fun. Whatever the state of the cold, cruel world, they don’t have to fear face-to-face rejection at Fast Dater! They also should not put pressure on themselves (or, presumably, on the Fast Dater organization) to perceive any one individual, upon initial meeting, as The One.

Finally, each Fast Dater also signs a waiver that prevents him or her from opening a copycat business. The assumption seems to be that this nervous, primarily shy, and not necessarily super-suave group would suddenly overcome their anxieties and start playing the town’s matchmaker. It’s a paranoid and peculiar idea—to have your clients sign a non-compete before you’ll do business with them. But Fast Dater Inc. and Haines, an ambitious, buttoned-down Master of Business Administration from the Carlson School of Business, aren’t taking any chances.

Registration and drinks began at 6 p.m., so the room is in an uproar when Haines, who is also this evening’s emcee, yells at everyone to take their places. By Haines’ estimate, about 60 percent of the daters drink at these events. (I would have thought that number would be closer to 90 percent, given the fact that it’s a high-anxiety event set in a bar. But if you stop to think about it, you realize that many of these people are here precisely because they have trouble letting down their hair.) Number plates in place, the ladies sip their drinks and make preliminary chit-chat with bachelor number one, the very first date of the evening. Haines sounds an air-horn. Let the games begin!

After three minutes of small talk, that earsplitting foghorn sounds again. The men gather their scorecards and drinks and make their way as best they can through the maze of tables to the one bearing the next number in the batting order. It’s confusing, and the herded men move slowly. By the time some of them reach their table, they’ve lost a full minute, leaving only two more for deep, soul-searching small talk. No matter. This is merely a numb
ers game, the hopelessly unromantic Haines informs me. Finding The One is about meeting as many people as possible, sizing them up, and then marking a simple yea or nay on the scorecard provided. At the end of the evening the scorecards are collected. That’s when Haines really earns his keep, comparing scorecard to scorecard in search of matches. Two yeses means each Fast Dater receives an email message from Haines, informing them of the match. After that, it’s in the hands of the Fast Daters whether they might pursue a more traditional, say 90-minute, date. And that, of course, is what you tell the grandkids when you’re celebrating 50 years of wedded bliss.

The daters make meaningless conversation after meaningless conversation, pausing occasionally to hit the bar. More women have signed up for this session than men, so during any given round, a handful of women are sitting by themselves, looking, as one might suppose a single woman might look, balefully alone. Some stare off longingly at the “couple” at the table across from them.

One such “couple,” Chris, an acne-scarred IT professional, and Diane, a late-thirty-something IT professional, struggle to carry on a conversation about the Twin Cities’ IT scene. That subject exhausted, a good 90 seconds remain on the clock. A half-minute ticks away. Diane stares across the booth and finally blurts out, “How old are you?” The embarrassed Chris admits he’s 23. “You look younger,” Diane says accusingly. Chris agrees. They both nod silently. Only two more hours to go.

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