To be up-front, this is the story of a Speed Dating Event I attended recently; but it’s prefaced by a few thoughts on what it might mean to find love these days, and just where the heck the concept of Speed Dating might come from.

I studied abroad in India my junior year of college, and I remember vividly a conversation with the father of my host family. We were drinking liqueurs on the back porch of the house and discussing love; the subject of arranged marriages came up and (quite drunk) he asked me if I would consider an arranged marriage myself.

My answer was: Yes, definitely.

I’m no expert on Indian culture in spite of having been there, so I’m a bit ashamed to make the obvious reference: I found quite touching that episode of The Simpsons in which Apu, the Quik-E-Mart clerk, meets the girl he was betrothed to by his parents and actually ends up marrying her (the girl’s thought: “What the heck, we can always get divorced”). I’m often asked if I believe in “true love,” and my answer has to be the one expressed, with rather sad irony, by Ringo in The Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends: “Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time.” I believe in love perhaps, but not in true love; if that means that an overwhelming sensation of love is the only basis for a happy marriage. I find this to be a modern invention: before our time, and in most cultures, most marriages were arranged or ordained by necessity. To say that blind, overwhelming, “true” love is the only real basis for interpersonal connection, is to deny that people born before, I don’t know, 1850, ever experienced romantic happiness. I believe that people can love each other in a sincere and selfless way; but as to how these connections are formed, I’m reserving my judgment.

In Jane Austen (that most romantic of authors, as far as I find most women are concerned), “love” is conveniently never at odds with a certain practicality.Persuasion is perhaps the most “romantic” of her novels; but even there, while the heroine marries the black sheep hero, she admits–even insists–that she was right to reject him while he was still poor and futureless.

These brings me to subject of Speed Dating: obviously, in spite of our individual emancipation, many of us don’t find solely within ourselves the tools to construct a perfect life. Speed dating is a structured environment for modern, structureless people to be frank about what they want and get some help achieving it. I was excited to attend this event for a number of reasons, but there was, above all, something of sociology in it.

The event took place in one of those dreadful establishments of which Manhattan has far too many: hangouts for people who are monied rather than rich. It was decorated with a senseless assortment of both Western and Oriental trappings of aristocracy, and while a free drink was included with the price of admission, the Corona I bought to steel my resolve halfway through cost seven dollars (for reference, that’s a bottle of wine at the convenience store in my local ghetto). Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the rich; but to my way of thinking, there should be one of two qualifications for having money: righteousness or imagination. Back when I was a truly poor student, I used to imagine incredible orgies took place in secret, gilded rooms in Manhattan; and perhaps they do, but I’ve found it also happens that profoundly stupid people, who have somehow gotten their hands on a lot of money, go to a boring space and pay twenty dollars for a shot of Ketel 1solely for the privilege of mixing with other “monied” people. But I’m getting sidetracked; and this wasn’t the sense I had of my fellow speed daters, per se.

There were more men than women, but it was a nice balance; I’d estimate about thirty guys and twenty girls. The girls were installed in the lounge upstairs and we men went on a sorry round of the tables, presenting our feeble selves as objects worthy of affection. We only had, I’d guess, three minutes to make our case; then a bell would ring (reminding me irresistibly of the refrain of Eliot’s Wasteland: HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME); then it was on to the next. This gave it a rather unfortunate air of prison, or a cruel psychological experiment. The “dates” seemed a bit short, but then again, I imagine it relieved some people who found themselves stuck with awkward partners.

Which leads me to say, I found it somewhat trying, but not for the reasons I expected. My prior image of Speed Dating was derived entirely from these quite funny comics; but after I got used to the initial shock of this bizarre environment, I found I got on with my “dates” with a certain ease and even affection. For a surprising number of them (I’d say up to 80%, assuming they were being honest) it was also their first time. We were more like inmates enduring a penitential experience than people looking for romantic partners.

But love?

I have to admit, I didn’t feel a strong romantic impulse all evening. The girls were sweet, interesting; while most of them worked in the media or finance (New York’s favorite industries), there was an opera singer and a task force director for the United Nations. In the end (emotionally exhausted) I managed to recall the names of five girls I would want to meet again; and if they say likewise, a real date might be in the cards. But there was no one I felt an immediate connection with. I just don’t know whether to chalk that up to my own frigidity, luck (that is, bad luck) of the draw, or–and I find this most likely–the alienating nature of the experience.

As for the guys, they all seemed humorless and somewhat predatory; but perhaps, like me, they were just nervous. I really wished I’d paid attention to what they did; but I didn’t have a “date” who bored me enough to justify zoning out on her. I am curious how they (for the most part much older than me) approached this.

I often tell people that I’m shy around girls; but maybe this is just the high standard to which I hold myself. I don’t stutter or freeze up, but I can never communicate exactly what I want to; much less in three minutes. I write much more easily than I talk, and count myself lucky if I can say something remotely witty to suggest that I might be intelligent.

I wonder if Speed Dating is for me; I suppose I won’t know until I get my results back. Does it work? The fact that so many of us were first-time Speed Daters suggests that it might. From my experience, it is a bit of a trial; but I like its assumption that we can’t do this ourselves–that we need help.