When I agree to go “undercover” to a WNYC 40 & Under Singles Event, my friends — devoted listeners of public radio — are annoyed.
“You don’t even listen to public radio,” they point out.
“But I like public-radio people,” I respond.
This is true. Public-radio people, as much as they exist as a self-contained subculture (the studious-yet-conspicuous glasses, the liberal bent, the tote bags) are my kind of people. At least, I assume they are. I’m a near-sighted, college-educated book reviewer. Except for the minor detail that I don’t actually listen to public radio, I fit snugly within the demographic.
Also, I’m newly single. The event promises me a valuable opportunity: a chance to
suss out my compatibility with those I assume will be semi-pretentious, philanthropically inclined and media savvy. It’s a project with great journalistic merit.
Of course, this is all in the abstract. When I get off the L train and catch my solitary reflection in the window of a Polish deli, I feel more alone than single. I also feel a little soft in the guts.
I remember a time when being single felt like a constant, insatiable hunger, when every trip to the supermarket was a possible run-in with a girlfriend-to-be, every hastily chosen seat in a movie theater a potential conduit to a love tryst. These days are not those days. This time around, singleness feels less like hunger and more like mild nausea.
Which is still how I feel when I enter the Brooklyn Brewery — a little less than confident. But I’m also not alone: I’ve brought a friend, and I’ve sent him in before me to case the joint.
As I shuffle toward a table of nametags at the entrance, Jon comes out to fill me in. He’s wearing the cultivated scruff of the underemployed actor: a pink short-sleeve button-down, a trucker hat and three days of stubble. The image of the casual-yet-curious single man. I’m wearing a work-appropriate polo shirt and slacks, which makes me feel like an asshole.
“There’s one hot girl here,” he says, “but I think she’s with her boyfriend.”
Ridiculous, but somehow not surprising. Even in the tenuous havens of the unallied, the coupled folk
follow and mock.
I pick up a nametag and scribble my signature across the bottom. I notice my tag is labeled “Oxytocin.” Jon’s, I see, says “Dopamine.” I experience a brief wave of anxiety. Dopamine, I’m inexplicably convinced, is much better. Have I fucked up already?
I turn to the ladies behind the nametag table. They’re both wearing white lab coats, which is obliquely creepy. I notice that one of them, a short girl with a short brown ponytail, is potentially cute.
“So what are these chemicals all about?” I ask.
“They’re for a game you’ll be playing later,” Ponytail says.
You’ll be playing? Ouch.
“You know, this is Radio Lab — ‘Where science bumps into culture.'”
I know from my “research” that the event is being hosted by the NPR program of that name, though I’d never heard of it before I got my ticket, let alone listened to it.
“Of course,” I say. “But is Dopamine better than Oxytocin?”
Ponytail lets a relaxed, sympathetic smile spread across her face.
“Of course not,” she says, and then turns to the next person in line. She, too, I decide, must have a boyfriend hidden somewhere.
The idea of the “game” gives me pause. Will I be forced into awkward pairings with other Oxytocins? Will I have to explain to a stranger how Oxytocin best represents my relational self?
Because the event is being held at the Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn beer of every variety is being handed out for free at a makeshift bar along one end of the warehouse. I get in line while Jon goes to snoop out his hot girl and her maybe-boyfriend.
On the floor of what, most days, is the site of a much less complicated chemical process, singles have been set free to loiter, talk small and, presumably, fall hurriedly in love. But when I look out across the floor, they’re all standing arms-length apart in same-sex pairs. I’m seized by an impulse I haven’t felt since middle school — I look around for the cool kids, certain they’ll be effortlessly connecting on the other side of the dance floor. But there are no cool kids. Nor, mercifully, is there a dance floor.
Despite this, I manage to half-stumble on someone’s foot and lightly knock Jon’s beer. It splashes on the leg of the hot girl he spotted earlier.
This is good, I think: interaction.
“Oh, sorry. That’s awkward,” Jon says, without a trace of sheepishness. “I’m Jon, by the way.”
She looks at us both, pauses, and then looks at her man-friend. “A gentleman would get me a napkin,” she says.
Without speaking, Jon and I scurry toward the food table. At this early stage in the evening, the food is where the action is. Around the various rolled meats and cubed cheeses, the most hungry and most trepidatious singles have congregated. I begin to ply my face with Parmesan and cold-cut turkey. Jon, three beers beyond me, claims he’s “just not hungry.”
“But there’s guacamole,” I say.
“Excuse me,” someone cuts in. It’s a girl in a tight-fitting black blouse. I wonder if
she’s had a boob job. “Can you hand me a fork?” she asks.
Jon hands her a fork. She walks away. Jon takes a swig. I chew.
“Was that girl really a public-radio listener?” I ask Jon. I begin to question my noble assumptions about this crowd. Wouldn’t a Morning Edition fan shun the tyranny of silicone?
I grab for a bundle of grapes and inadvertently pull a few away from a woman who is not completely unattractive yet isn’t quite my type.
“Sorry,” I say.
“No, no, go ahead,” she says, smiling. “Those really are some grapes.”
“Yeah,” I say. The grapes, I admit to myself, really are quite good.
“So why are you here? Are you a big Radio Lab fan?” she asks.
“Sure.” I say. “I guess so. You?”
“Oh, God, yes. WNYC every morning, Radio Lab every Sunday.” Her voice is filled with such enthusiasm that I’m afraid to respond lest my Radio Lab ignorance be exposed.
“So what do you do?” I ask.
“I work for a nonprofit,” she says. “With the homeless.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” I say. Very public radio. I almost ask her where she lives but wonder if such a transition would be tactless. It’s been a while since I’ve worn “single” on my sleeve. I’ve forgotten how easily it can make the simplest interactions incredibly awkward.
Before I recoup my composure, she cries, “There he is! I have to go tell my friends,” and scampers off. I notice that everyone in the room is looking toward the bar. The evening’s MC, Radio Lab DJ Jad Abumrad, has taken a spot behind a microphone stand.
“The guru of radio-induced love,” Jon says to me under his breath.
In a baggy white lab coat, lanky and bespectacled, Abumrad could easily pass for a lab tech a few years from his PhD (they’re all wearing them, by the way — bartenders, caterers, and other random host-like folks — all wearing white lab coats and wandering the perimeter with supportive, chaperone-at-the-dance smiles). I’m prepared to find Abumrad pretentious and patronizing, but in his opening speech — during which he welcomes us all to the event, commends us on our courage and tells us we are all attractive — I feel myself warm to him. I wonder if I’m picking up that reverence from the crowd. I begin to assume that he, too, has a girlfriend waiting for him at home.
“I gotta go smoke,” Jon says.
Before I follow, Abumrad puts on a recording of a Radio Lab episode. The theme? Chemistry. In it, Abumrad is interviewing a scientist about the chemicals that trigger feelings of desire in the brain — Oxytocin and Dopamine are two, Norepinephrine is the other. I hear members of the crowd, already claiming allegiance, laugh and cheer. Amidst their giddiness, I slip out.
Outside, Jon is sucking down his cigarette, jaws clenched with a drastic look of disappointment.
“She left,” he says.
“Hot Girl. With her boyfriend. I just saw them get on bicycles and ride away.”
“Jon,” I say, “they came to a singles event together and then left early.”
“Yeah, but she was hot.”
Next to us, a tall, busty woman is holding the stub of a cigarette and scowling.
“Wait a second,” she says, turning, “you guys are way too young to be here.”
We stand back, startled.
“How old are you?” she asks. “Twenty-five?”
“Can’t we be any age as long as we’re under forty?” Jon asks.
She lets out a sour laugh and asks us why we can’t just go to a bar to pick up girls.
“That’s easy for guys like you,” she says.
For a second, I believe her, though I’ve never met anyone at a bar. And then I’m embarrassed. Why is she here?
“You could meet men at bars,” Jon says to her.
“No I can’t. Plus, I’m tired of it. And I want an intelligent boyfriend.”
“And you hoped to find one amongst the radio fans?” I ask.
“Better chance here than at singles night at the JCC.” She stomps her cigarette into the concrete. “But, oh well.”
I feel sorry for her, but mostly I feel anxious for the future of my own singleness. Then I wonder if this corralling of our interests is really a productive way to meet people. Do public-radio fans really share a value system and a magical sense of hormonal congruity? Maybe they just share a semi-snotty taste in media, in which case I’m the odd man out.
“Really, though,” she goes on, “why are you guys here? Are you journalists or something?”
I try to motion to Jon that I want to head back inside, but he takes another cigarette out of his pack and lights it.
“No, we just really love public radio,” I hear him say as I hurry back in.
Around the bar, everyone seems reanimated. I notice they’re holding large index cards and speaking in quick, excited bursts.
“What are those cards all about?” I ask the nearest duo of girls.
“Oh, you’re an Oxytocin,” she says. “Can you sign here?”
On one side of the card, I notice, is a list of questions. On the other, the symbols for Dopamine, Oxytocin and Norepinephrine, with blank lines underneath.
I realize I’ve walked in on an icebreaker. As usually happens, I freeze up. I’m skeptical that genuine mutual interest can be discovered through the use of summer-camp programming, but I sign my name on her card anyway.
“They’re going to put them in a raffle and the winner will get an iPod,” the girl says.
I get my own card from a nearby table and get her to sign it. She’s a Norepinephrine.
“I’m Molly, and this is Liz,” she says, pointing to her friend.
These girls are my age, I think. These girls seem nice enough.
“We’re way into Radio Lab. Are you?”
“Not really,” I say. “I’ve never actually heard the show.”
They laugh. Laughing is good.
“Then why are you here?” Molly asks. It’s the question of the evening.
“Who knows,” I say.
“I hear you,” Molly says, bobbing up and down with an Amy Poehler-like intensity.
I begin to ask Molly what she “does,” but stop myself. Isn’t there any other way to chat up a half-drunk single person you’ve just met?
“So what do you do?” Molly asks.
The thing is, I want to like this girl. I want to be excited that she’s talking to me. And even though I already know we won’t connect through a mutual love of radio, I hope that the fact that we’re both middle-class, creatively-inclined New York residents will do the trick.
But then Molly begins to talk about her deep love of radio — the ritual of it, the way it punctuates and populates her days. I catch Jon out of the corner of my eye, eating the last of the good Parmesan. The way she’s talking about Radio Lab reminds me of the way Jon talks about the Yankees: religiously and with covetous awe. I begin to realize that this event may be more about public radio than I’d anticipated.
“On a scale of one to ten, how important is it to you that your potential mate be a radio fan?” I ask Molly.
“Well, if he’s smart and curious to begin with, he can always be converted,” she says.
I laugh, but I begin to wonder if I should have just told her I was a radio fan from the beginning.
I suddenly feel fraudulent. Molly, possibly because she senses it, possibly because she’s thirsty, excuses herself to go get a drink.
When I get to the food table I ask Jon what happened with the angry girl.
“She was too angry,” he says. “What about those two girls?”
“I was suddenly very hungry.”
When the raffle is finally called, Jon wins an umbrella.
We go outside for a final cigarette just as Molly and Liz are leaving. Molly comes up to me with her number written on the back of her raffle ticket.
“We’re having a party this Saturday,” Molly says to me. “This is the address. You should come if you’re free.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Totally.”
As they walk away, Jon laughs. “What, I’m not invited?” he says.
“You can bring Hot Girl,” I say.
On the subway ride home, I realize I have no intention of going to the party, especially not alone. But I have to admit: it feels pretty good to have been asked. And to have gone through the motions in order to get asked. I scan the subway car I’m sitting in for WNYC totebags, but all I see are iPods. Even here, it’s impossible to guess who’s listening to what.
©2007 Joey Rubin and Nerve.com