reuben strayer


Nametags. I recognized trouble when I walked into the bar and before even sizing up the place, before counting the double-x's, my attention was drawn to a table that obstructed the entrance like a sentinel. A poster on the table read in large black letters Innovations. It must be difficult to name a Jewish singles organization; you have to get people excited without drawing attention to the club's purpose. Innovations is cheesy, but I give them credit for resisting a Jewish reference like Mitzvah Madness or Romance-a-lox. I had been hesitatingly optimistic for the past few days, I mean it's not easy to meet like-minded women in Dallas (or anywhere else). On the table in front of me are nametags and pens. And an email sign-up list so you can keep abreast of Innovations events. A smallish, curly-haired twentysomething standing on the other side of the table must have noticed the look on my face that said this can't be serious because she gave me her winning smile and asked me if this was my first Innovations mixer. I looked at my ride and confidant Matt for guidance. Matt just last week told me about the gorgeous physical therapist he met at an Innovations mixer. He said nothing about nametags. The twentysomething, Julie, had hers affixed to the wrong attractive breast. The first thing I learned in medical school was that the sticker goes on the left, so that it is not obscured while shaking hands with your right. The little bit better I felt about being up on nametag protocol was erased by the sight of her handwriting. Julie's handwriting screamed , "You can talk to me. I don't take myself seriously so I won't judge you." My handwriting says, "I'm really good with computers."

Rather than deliberate about what to do, having gained entrance to this month's Innovations first thirst-day, I followed the well-established ritual of heading straight for the bar. Not that I particularly wanted a drink, but I had to create the illusion that I was busy with some task. Since I couldn't be busy with the task of smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer (the two commonest barroom illusion-tasks), I needed motion. There are three types of barroom motion. They are, in descending order of preference, motion directed at the bar, motion directed at the restroom, and random motion. I am never caught in the desperate third category because I choose a fourth type of motion - motion directed at the exit - before resorting to random motion. There is an art to motion as an illusion-task. To maintain the illusion for as long as possible, you must move in such a way that prolongs arriving at your destination without betraying your motives. In the same way that women put on as much makeup as it takes to look as though they are not wearing any makeup, I gently move people out of my way by putting my hand on shoulders and waists. Excuse me, I have a destination. Excuse me, I'm in motion.

Matt taps me on the shoulder from behind before I make it to the bar. I turn around to face him, and wince at the sight of his great-looking nametag. Matt wants to introduce me to some people he recognizes who, unfortunately, are male. Talking to a male at a bar is like talking on the phone to an incessant complainer while working on the Sunday crossword. Doubtless there is a person behind the sounds coming out of the receiver, but if there weren't you wouldn't know the difference. I talk to Ned the Neurosurgeon knowing neither what he is saying nor what I am saying.

After sharing a nonconversation with Ned for a few minutes, I say, "Listen. You don't want to be talking to me and I don't want to be talking to you, so why don't we just smile at each other politely and move on?" Of course I didn't phrase it like that, what I said was, "You want anything from the bar?" Ned shook his head and smiled politely.

I am moving to the bar not only to end my interaction with Ned but because I earnestly want a drink. No, I need a drink. Five minutes into my first Innovations experience, it is already obvious that I would rather burn in the flaming pits of hell than be sober on this night, so I wait in line. To the uninitiated the barroom queue moves with astonishing sluggishness, but veterans recognize the line for a beer as the unique entity that it is: a line that no one wants to get out of. Waiting for a drink is a great thing to do at a bar, as you can create the task-illusion without moving, spending money (e.g. billiards), or best of all, without talking. This is frustrating on the rare occasion when you want to fulfill your ostensible mission of getting a beer, but that is a small price to pay for the usual peaceful bliss that comes with waiting 30 minutes for a pint.

Getting to the front of the line was thus a mixed blessing, as I could finally drink but could no longer wait in line. I get a Shiner for myself and Matt. Leaving the bar with more than one drink is a wonderful feeling, as you can move through the barroom with sharp purpose. Excuse me, with a smug smile. Can't you see that I'm delivering a drink to someone? Out of my way.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Matt and I drink as quickly as we can tolerate the awful taste of beer. Nothing motivates people to drink faster than being at a bar, except maybe the prospect of being at a bar later. I am always amused by nostalgic reports of the great time James had at some bar. "How much did you drink, James?" "Oh gosh, at least twelve beers." A lot that says for the bar. After twelve beers, untangling knots is fun, scraping dogshit off your shoes is fun, fishing is fun. Be suspicious of any activity that is usually done drunk, like fishing or playing golf or progressing to old age.

Matt and I share a couple more pints before a girl that Matt has been courting approaches. She has blonde hair, always an advantage at a Jewish function, but blue-eyed Matt is not intimidated. I'm introduced to Ellen, who does not extend her hand. Fuck. Being introduced to a man is easy, as you can establish rapport by offering a firm greeting, confidence swollen with centuries of man-to-man handshakes. How I wish I could shake Ellen's hand, or kiss her hand, or bow, or stick out my tongue, or something. Instead I wave a meek, emasculated wave and leave them alone.

I decide to take the long route to the bar and explore the other side of the room. Mistake. As I squeeze through the J. Crew outfits I notice a small clearing in front of me. In the center is Miriam, standing, smiling at nobody. Miriam's nametag is attached to a body that must weigh 250 pounds. In a bar so crowded it's hard to move, no one comes within conversation distance of Miriam. My heart hurts. Why is she subjecting herself to this? Should I talk to this girl? No. Maybe if she has a miserable enough time she won't come back to this miserable place. Not content with this rationale, I stand and stare until I catch myself staring. Then I stand and stare at the ground. Now she's staring at me stare at the ground. Oh god. I need another drink. I walk past her, or really around her. Now I feel not only like a loser but an asshole as well.

I don't recall how I started talking to Allison. I just remember talking to her for a while, happy to have found a girl to talk to. Allison is an accountant. Allison lives in North Dallas. Allison went to school at Emory, Allison knows my friend Rachel who went to Emory! Hurray! Oh yeah, Rachel and I go way back. She was in my homeroom for years. Rachel was in Allison's sorority! Fantastic. What a small world.

I point out a particularly ornate nametag with Lyla written in glitter. It turns out that Allison knows Lyla, Lyla is the director of Innovations. Lyla plans all the Innovations events. Would I like to meet Lyla?

Lyla recognizes Allison and expands her smile, if that were possible. Lyla walks over and greets Allison. Before Allison can say anything, Lyla forcefully extends her hand in my direction. She reads my nametag and introduces herself with a firm handshake. Is this your first time? Welcome to Innovations! I thank her. Silence. Lyla smiles at Allison. I comment that Lyla sounds like a Hebrew name, and ask if it means anything, knowing full well what it means. Lyla is not listening. Lyla is beckoning her "honey." Honey comes over with an impressively short woman. Lyla introduces everyone to her boyfriend Ariel and his sister Sarah. Lyla met Ariel at an Innovations mixer two months ago! Silent nods and smiles. "It's all about meeting people" Lyla says, smiling, nodding, smiling some more, tugging contentedly on her date. We all nod in agreement. Yes, it's all about meeting people. I feel myself slipping.

"No, Lyla, it's not all about meeting people. Everyone knows that you can't meet anyone at a bar because no one meets anyone at a bar."

I'm energized by Lyla's confused face.

"You can't meet anyone at a bar because the purpose of going to a bar is to meet people. If you want to meet people, you have to have a reason for being in the same room other than meeting people. That reason can be to worship, or it can be to eat dinner, or it can be to discuss a book, it can be anything. But socializing doesn't work when it's an end in itself. Socializing as an end in itself is misery. I need a drink. Excuse me."

Actually, when Lyla said it's all about meeting people I just nodded in agreement. But anyway it's clear that we don't go to bars to meet people. Or some people do, but they're just good at fooling themselves. And others go because that's what everyone else is doing. But most of us go because we're lonely. Being in a room full of strangers evaluating you is even more lonely, but, surprisingly, being drunk in a room full of drunk strangers evaluating you is a good remedy for loneliness. More surprisingly, getting high at home alone and listening to jazz music is an even better remedy, and cheaper, but you stand no chance of getting laid.

With that in mind, Allison and I manage to disengage ourselves from that depressing group and continue flirting, but my heart is not in it. Allison is kind of boring and on the side of cute closer to not cute. I'm more desirable, and I want someone at least as desirable as myself, preferably more so. Naturally those girls who are more desirable than me are looking for someone more desirable than them, which is why you never want who wants you and are never wanted by those whom you want. Rarely you will see a lucky couple where the guy thinks the girl is more desirable and the girl thinks the guy is more desirable. More commonly, both know who is more desirable, but one person likes to kiss ass and the other likes her ass to be kissed. This leaves people like me, who enjoy neither, in a difficult position. I need a drink.