Veruca Salt: I wanted to be the first to find a Golden Ticket, Daddy!
Mr. Salt: I know, angel. We’re doing the best we can. I’ve got every girl in the place to start hunting for you.
Veruca Salt: All right, where is it? Why haven’t they found it?
Mr. Salt: Veruca, sweetheart, I’m not a magician! Give me time!
Veruca Salt: I want it now! What’s the matter with those twerps down there?
— from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
When I accepted the job at the dating service, I thought it was going to be personally rewarding and fun, just like the job I’d had a decade earlier as the romance specialist for a weekly newspaper. My duties at the newspaper had included helping people write their personal ads and giving advice on dating etiquette. I found that most people had at least a bit of patience with the process because, honestly, what were the other options? Going to singles’ bars? Or, perhaps, making a humiliating video at Great Expectations, only to meet a 40-year-old guy who still lived with his parents.
I was devastated when my boss told me that the personals were being phased out of the paper. Online dating and the emergence of new matchmaking services had made our ads obsolete. The world of dating was getting faster and more efficient. Never would I have imagined I’d be flipping through the paper on a Thursday morning and not see a gem like: JUMBO SHRIMP: Human Oxymoron. Male, 5'6". Small Stature, Huge Heart.
As it turned out, my time at the dating service would be anything but rewarding and fun. One evening, I called my sister crying; I’d seriously had to fight back tears twice that day. One guy had called me a dumb fuck and then hung up on me. Another guy had tried to get me fired. My sister couldn’t believe it. “My God, what happened? What did you do to him?”
The client had informed me he’d gone out to a few clubs in the Gaslamp over the weekend. He’d seen tons of girls that were really hot. Almost every one of them was someone he would date. “Everywhere I looked there was a hot girl — why can’t you match me with one of them?”
I reminded him that we weren’t head hunters. I couldn’t go downtown and recruit people to date him. We could only match people based on the clients we had in our database. I also reminded him that our service should be only one avenue to explore. I asked how many of the women he’d seen he’d talked to or asked out. His response was “NONE, that’s YOUR job! Don’t call me back until you find someone gorgeous. Not just gorgeous, out-of-my-league hot!” Click.
That week, I’d called to tell him about a possible match. A young girl had signed up who was so beautiful, I was shocked she wasn’t a model. She was so stunning, I told him, I was amazed she was single. When the client got off the phone, he called my boss and suggested she fire me. He said I’d proved his point about the service because I’d apparently been dumbfounded that a pretty girl had joined.
He decided to put his membership on hold and would look into suing to get his money back. I guess it was just as well. When I told the young girl about him, she turned down the date because he was short and bald.
∗ ∗ ∗
The premise of the dating service was simple enough. Busy professionals met with a director to discuss what they were looking for in a relationship. This included their likes, dislikes, and physical ideals. If the director felt she had a sufficient number of matches, the client paid a one-time fee of $1300 for the year and in return received a promised minimum of 12 dates. Based on the availability of appropriate matches, and the willingness to be open on all parameters, the actual number of dates could be much more.
As the coordinator, my job was doing what I loved to do best — being on the phones, telling people about their upcoming dates and arranging a time and place for them to meet. I was also the one who listened to feedback about the matches and then relayed it to the directors. If the clients had a great date, we knew we were on the right track. If it was not a great date, we could narrow the search so that next time, hopefully, we would get a closer match.
The upside for those wanting to join the service was that it was next to impossible to be turned down. Unfortunately, for those being matched, this was also the downside. Some people came with quite a bit of baggage. However, the franchise owner would chastise the directors if they tried to pass on someone because the client appeared to be too vulnerable or depressed. It didn’t matter if they spent the entire interview in tears. If they had the money and wanted to join, they could. We understood the owner’s position. How would we determine if these people were ready or not? We weren’t psychotherapists.
The directors weren’t allowed to pass on clients who had unrealistic expectations, either. One woman joined who was only 4'11" and a little heavy. She was successful and pretty, and we could have had a ton of dates for her. But she insisted that her matches be between 5'11" and 6'4". She said that large men made her feel “dainty.” The owner insisted we take her, even though she wouldn’t budge on the height issue. She reminded us that “You may have someone tall walk in this afternoon, dying to date someone short and round.”
The owner often said, “Who are we to judge?”
One client loved to hike, bike, swim, and play volleyball — but he preferred to engage in those activities at a nudist resort. Since our directors had no way of knowing how many people in the database would enjoy the same thing, it was not their place to pass judgment, or to determine if this man would find a match using our service.
During the two years I worked for the service, I witnessed hundreds of new members join; I only witnessed one person being turned down. A cute 30-year-old woman came in with a three-page, typed dossier about what she was looking for in a man. Her outline covered every possible facet: religion, mannerisms, hair and eye color, height, reproductive desires, family interaction (how often did he visit), what his relationship to his father and mother should be like, what holiday would be his favorite (hers was Christmas), how many kids he wanted (she hoped for a boy and a girl, God willing), how he would raise the kids, and much, much more. As if this weren’t enough, when we got to page three, the dossier read, “Now, here’s the catch…he has to be an airline pilot.”
Her father, grandfather, brother, and uncle were all pilots. She was comfortable with that lifestyle, so that was what she wanted. We all held our breath and looked to the owner to make a call. When she said no, that this was way beyond our scope, we all let out a collective sigh of relief.
∗ ∗ ∗
I got together with a group of single friends to talk about my job and the hostility I was dealing with. Was it just because I worked at a service that charged a lot of money for dates, or was it the norm for people looking for love to behave like Veruca Salt? Only now the golden ticket is a marriage proposal.
“Nope,” my friends assured me, “it’s not just you, and it’s not just about the money. It’s everywhere.” People have no patience when it comes to finding “the one.” As it turns out, they aren’t just being horrible to me, they behave atrociously to each other. My friends and I weighed in with theories on the reasons.
I blamed it on the analogies people have come up with for dating, something probably started by some high-strung psychologist trying to sell her book, Dating is like… Dating Is Like Shoe Shopping, Dating Is Like House Hunting…
One client told me she’d read a book that told her to treat a date like a job interview. So, she’d written a pitch about why any guy would be lucky to have her. Her style was “proactive and intense.” That didn’t even sound appealing on paper, much less in real life. I asked if she’d ever had fun going to a job interview, and she said that first impressions were serious business, and she wasn’t about to blow it. I tried to find a way to say as gently as I could, “Too late.”
This analogy technique allows people to look at dates as little more than inanimate objects. If that old shoe doesn’t quite fit the bill, it can be tossed back into the closet or dumped off at the thrift store. I had one woman who went to a restaurant to meet her date, and when she saw that he was wearing shorts, she asked the waiter to sneak her through the kitchen and out the back door, so she wouldn’t have to meet him. Her reason for leaving: “He wasn’t polished.” She didn’t call and cancel or say she wasn’t coming. She just left him sitting there.
Perhaps she’d read the City-Data.com forum on how long it should take to find a house and applied it to her dating technique:
Usually, people know within 30 seconds of walking into a house if it is a possibility — and it is easier to spot the “no’s” than the “yes’s.” Don’t be afraid to take one step in and another right back out. There’s no point looking at a house you know won’t work. People are amazed how many times the house looks “perfect” in pictures, but totally different in person…I can always leave feedback for the seller that the driveway/siding/location wasn’t what my buyer wanted, so they know we took a look, even if we didn’t look inside.
Unfortunately for me, I was the one who had to leave feedback for the seller. That poor guy left alone in the restaurant was crushed and embarrassed to death.
My friend Tory thought that people’s unrealistic expectations and impatience had more to do with the speed and breadth of online dating. With an online ad, you can connect with someone anywhere in the world. You’re out there with the widest net possible, whereas before, you were just looking in your own backyard.
Add to that the fact that some people pay to be a member of a service or a club. Their friends tell them, “Hey, you’re paying for it, you should get what you want, no compromises.” All of a sudden, looking to find a mate is like a Build-A-Bear workshop. Each physical characteristic becomes nonnegotiable.
My least favorite client was that type, a pushy and domineering middle-aged woman notorious for passing on dates because they didn’t meet her ever-shifting criteria. She would keep me at my office for an hour after everyone else was long gone, meticulously going over every detail of a potential date, purring out questions like the Cheshire Cat… “And what color are his eyes?” I had to stop after each question while she furiously wrote down the answers. She took these notes with her on dates, to compare the guy’s answers with mine. The saddest part is, I would sometimes spend an hour convincing her to go out with a guy, only to have him pass on her within a minute because she was too old.
We had a middle-aged man who was the opposite: he wanted to go out with everyone. The moment his date was seated, he’d slide over a glossy business card. Instead of his office information, this card featured a picturesque mountainside with lush trees shrouding a glistening lake. In the left-hand corner, his disembodied head hovered among the clouds. To the right, his list of “likes” were punctuated with bullet points: hiking, eating, and speaking French. One woman said wryly, “It’s too bad his ‘likes’ don’t include having a job or paying his own tab.”
I remember one client who joined the service as a 35th birthday present to herself because she was having trouble meeting a guy online. (It seems that even if a man is in his 50s, he assumes women over 30 are all desperate to get married and have kids.) When I called to tell her about her next date, I suggested she get out of her Banker’s Hill office and walk over to Balboa Park on her lunch break. I mentioned that a handful of museums are free on Tuesdays. She could get some fresh air and, who knows, maybe meet someone cute. “Why would I want to meet someone unemployed?” she asked. I was dumbfounded and inquired why she assumed they would be unemployed.
“Well, why would someone be at the park on a Tuesday?”
Maybe, I reasoned, he was a doctor with a flexible schedule; there are hospitals and offices all around Hillcrest and Banker’s Hill. She retorted, “If he’s a doctor, why does he need to go to the museum on a free day? Shouldn’t he have enough money to go anytime he wants?”
Her logic was staggering. I was no match. I gave up. There is no competing with a hypothetical scenario already worked to its conclusion.
I’ve also had people go the over-optimistic route with hypothetical relationships, with equally disastrous results. Once, a client called, livid about her date the previous night. She wanted to know if I’d told him she was an Indian.
“No, I said that you were born and raised in America, but that your family was of Indian descent. He wasn’t open to other ethnicities, but I stressed that you were born and raised here, that there wouldn’t be any cultural differences, which is what he said he was hoping to avoid.”
“Well,” she said, “he showed up for the date wearing moccasins and turquoise jewelry. He kept saying things, like, he’d always wanted to move to the mountains and live in a commune, kind of like a tribe. He clearly thought I was a woo-woo Indian, not a dot Indian!”
When the guy called in to give his feedback, he went on and on about how great the date had been and how beautiful he thought “Indians” were. Based on this horrible, racist mistake, he had not only decided before the date that he probably wanted to marry this girl but that he might want to start a whole new tribe with her.
∗ ∗ ∗
Where was Larry Smith when I needed him? Smith founded an online magazine called, simply, Smith, and he launched the Six-Word Memoir project. Smith posits that anyone can write their own personal story in six words. The idea stemmed from Ernest Hemingway’s response when asked to write a full story in six words: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Had Smith’s site and his subsequent books been written while I was working at the dating service, I would have bought copies for every client I had, everyone who was searching for love at this frenetic new pace.
Before embarking on the process of finding a partner, maybe some soul-searching is in order. With only six precious words at their disposal, people would be forced to identify what really matters. Would they really want to say: Don’t waste my time with friendship? Consider the possibility of being trapped on an island with one person — what would be most important to you? Would you choose: JUMBO SHRIMP: Little Stature, Big Heart or 5'10" Only. Blue Eyes. No Baldies?
Trust me, I’m not oblivious enough or naive enough to think we should ignore red flags about people’s personality or behavior. And, of course, looks matter, to a certain extent. Plus, there is that ever-elusive X factor, chemistry. But barring real obstacles, people all want the same thing. They want you to get over their height and not ask them to hop on a scale. They want you to understand that age is just a number; it doesn’t define anyone. They’d rather you didn’t examine their hairline. People aren’t out-of-date siding or a funky driveway. They want you to step inside, even if it’s only for a moment, to see if they have a huge heart or a stellar sense of humor.
Who am I to be giving advice? Eternal Optimist: Hoping you find love.