Love in a hurry

You have eight minutes to make an impression on someone who could be the love of your life.

Think fast.

January 12, 2003|By Mike Morris

Anxiety is written across their faces, yet these singles are doing their best not to let it show. An attractive blond discreetly fixes her makeup near the bar, while a shy businessman self-consciously nurses his beer. At least two people, the couple curled up on the leather sofa, seem to be hitting it off.

They've each paid the $28.88 registration fee, put on their nametags and discreetly checked out the crowd. All that's left to do is wait.

"It's time to try something new," says Debbie Caler, 28, a marketing coordinator from Columbia.

So far, though, Baltimore's first 8-MinuteDating event resembles something old: a junior high school dance. The 14 guys are bonding on one side of the room; the 14 women are giggling in the opposite corner.

But then the silver bell sounds, and everyone frantically dashes toward a randomly assigned partner of the opposite sex.

The musical-chair-style quest for love has begun.

The couples settle in at candlelight tables for two throughout McFadden's Restaurant and Saloon in Power Plant Live. After predictably awkward introductions, usually accompanied by the question "How did you hear about this?" the pairs quiz each other on their interests, beliefs and ambitions.

From one table to another, the conversations, which last eight minutes each, switch gears from pets ("My cat bites me in my sleep") to sports ("I'm a big Steelers fan") to music ("Frank Sinatra is the best") all while the singles make mental notes, hoping for that possible love connection.

Two down and six to go for Caler. Eight minutes, she's learned, can feel like an eternity when you're talking to one guy, yet it seems like a barely a second when you're sitting across from another. "It's fun, definitely better than I expected," she says, adding that her expectations for the evening were low.

After each date, these singles, who are in the 28-to-38-age range, shake hands, tactfully rate their designated mate on a scorecard, and move on. In 90 minutes, everyone will have completed eight eight-minute "dates," with one 20-minute intermission.

On the back of each scorecard is a list of suggested icebreakers, ranging from "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" to "What's the best trip you've ever taken?" Inside the sheet is a space for personal reminders.

Dana Shanholtz, a 34-year-old White Marsh resident, jots down: "Sam 607, Doctor / Canton. Matt 608, Teacher / Towson. Brian 601, No Way / Bad Attitude."

The traditional rulebook for courting another has been drastically rewritten, compliments of 8-MinuteDating and many similar assembly-line dating companies: singles' last names have been assigned random numbers, and asking someone out on a date or for a phone number is considered taboo.

"My girlfriend and I were both having nightmares about coming here tonight," says Caler. "It's not as horrendous as I thought it could have been."

Diana Ryan, a 29-year-old accountant from Canton, was also having nightmares about the evening -- although one of hers came true.

Ryan's goal for the evening was modest: She just wanted to get through the night without seeing anyone she knew. All was going well for the first hour. Then came date number seven.

She instantly recognized Dave Kozak as an old friend. The pair hadn't seen each other since they attended a Preakness party together last spring.

Ryan's face grew red with embarrassment.

"Oh my God! Don't tell anyone you saw me here," she screamed.

"I'm telling everyone. There's nothing to be embarrassed about," said Kozak, 35, who lives in White Marsh.

In an effort to eliminate the pressure of asking another out, or being asked out, singles log onto the company's Web site within 36 hours of attending an event, select the people they want to meet again, and specify whether the interest is for dating, friendship or business. When two people choose each other for the same category, the company then e-mails contact information to both parties. At that point, it's up to the two to set up a date.

Lori Hill, Baltimore's 8-Minute-Dating event organizer, met her boyfriend in September after being paired up with him at an 8-Minute-Dating session in Washington. She said the company provides its participants with a refreshing alternative to jump-start a relationship.

"Once you're in your 30s, you get tired of the bar scene," says Hill, 36. "You can spend a lot of money in one night trying to look pretty or handsome, and hoping someone will pick you up, which is never guaranteed. With 8-MinuteDating, everyone is there for the same reason -- to meet someone."

Romantic sparks ignited between 14 singles at the 8-MinuteDating event, according to results from the company. No business associates were made, although 12 found potential new friends.

Some, however, weren't as fortunate.

"I got stuck with all the dweebs," Shanholtz says while tearing up her nametag, which reads "Dana 708," and throwing it in an ashtray on the bar.

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