So What Do You Do?

“So…who do you know?”

It was 2016, sometime in February, and I was jostling for position at the bar, desperately trying to get the attention of the tattooed bartender who was looking at anyone (namely, girls with better outfits and more makeup) besides me. I was out in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. (which I have since learned to avoid on Saturday nights) and my friends, who had dragged me to this bar, were off somewhere grinding to “mid-2000s throwbacks.” Because, you know, the mid-2000s were so long ago now that we can throwback to them and pretend to dance to Chris Brown without feeling guilty about it.

I turned to look at the guy who had been attempting to make some pretty terrible small talk with me and thus, had made me lose my one chance to grab just one gin and tonic please, is that so much to ask when the bartender scanned the crowd, saw us talking and presumably assumed I was too busy for alcohol, and ignored me once again. The man trying to talk to me was your average white dude, if we’re being honest. His face was unremarkable, his hair…probably brown? I know he was wearing a collared, button-down shirt, but it’s noteworthy that the rest of him was so entirely un-noteworthy to me that he’s become just a blur of a memory, two years later.

“What?” I yelled above the thudding, terrible house music.

“Who do you know?” The guy yelled back. And I looked at him – with his neatly-pressed khakis, his Ready To Meet The Parents-haircut, that smarmy smirk like he had just dropped the world’s cleverest pick-up line – and I immediately recognized him as a staffer. You know who I’m talking about: the quintessential white, male Capitol Hill employee. And as soon as I realized that, I also realized that he wasn’t asking me who I knew in this bar, or if I had friends I could introduce him to. No, this man was quite literally asking me, in a crowded bar on a Saturday night in an effort to make a move, who I knew of importance in the United States government.

“Well, personally, I think my mom’s pretty cool,” I responded, to which the staffer looked predictably unimpressed. It was at that moment that I seized my chance, elbowed a pretty blonde out of the way, and grabbed the bartender as he passed. “Just one gin and tonic,” I yelled over the noise. “Please.” Is that so much to ask?

Washington, D.C. is, obviously, an interesting city. It’s the capital of the United States, so people often think that the only thing here are government buildings and historic monuments, but it is actually an interesting city. The international food scene is incredible, there’s a thriving art community both online and on the streets, national and international movements are born here, and if you’re ever bored on a weekend, it’s because you’re too lazy to find something to do, because there is literally always something to do.

But guess what else? Washington, D.C. can be a terrible place to date people. And not just because of the transient nature of the place – after all, people flow in and out of here based on election results, and foreign diplomats don’t exactly put down roots. It’s also not just because eventually, people get sick of the high cost of living, the insane traffic congestion, and all of these allergies, and eventually move away to smaller, less pollen-ridden towns.

No, Washington, D.C. can be a terrible place to date people…because of the people. Don’t try to fight me on this – I will die on this metaphoric hill.

It’s a constant joke that the first question people will ask you when you’re out at a bar, event, or just minding your own business while watching ducks float by at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is: What Do You Do? I have navigated entire evenings of conversation in which I learn all the ins and outs of someone’s job, what hip D.C. neighborhood they can afford to live in because of their salary, and what they want to do next in their career, but I’ll leave the conversation realizing that I never learned their name. Worse than that? I leave the conversation feeling like I didn’t even learn anything about them. Their opening line is always the same: so what do you do?

This isn’t just me. This happens to everybody. When you mention it, everyone laughs it off in a “Oh, isn’t that just such a silly D.C. thing,” with a dismissive hand wave and chuckle, but it’s actually a terrible phenomenon. And it’s not just with dating – this happens in every D.C. young adult’s life when trying to awkwardly make friends as a grown-up. Even grabbing drinks with friends has become branded as a chance to expand your circle, make contacts, learn more about “the industry.” After all, it’s not just grabbing drinks with friends – it’s a “networking happy hour.” And if you’re going to a networking happy hour, you better bring your business cards and the D.C. conversation starter pack: It’s so nice to meet you! Where do you work?

I think it’s wonderful that people are passionate about their jobs and the work they do here in this city. I would rather someone be excited about how they contribute to society for eight hours a day than hear them whining incessantly on Google Hangouts about how bored they are. Being driven and passionate is a good thing! It’s also pretty cool to be in a city that is essentially The Room Where It Happens. The longer you live in D.C., the more you realize that you’re surrounded by people who actually make things happen in the world. Meeting incredible people from all over the globe who care about the work they do and aren’t just cruising through life is definitely inspiring, I won’t deny it.

But unless someone is gushing about their job and why they’re so passionate about it, when complaining about work or discussing the ins and outs of office dynamics and strategy are the only things people talk about at a bar, it gets repetitive and boring. It feels superficial. What about hobbies? What about causes you believe in? What about your friends, family, pets, favorite junk food? What are you excited about, how do you make people’s days better? Instead, you get the usual: so what do you do? In the end, you leave the conversation feeling like you didn’t meet the person at all. I exit D.C. bars after five hours, still craving genuine, human connections that I managed to make in fifteen minutes in the common areas of hostels abroad.

So in an effort to facilitate those genuine, human connections (or actually just to do something completely stupid and spontaneous that took me out of my comfort zone), I did what any normal human would do: Isigned up for an in-person, speed-dating event at my local (absolute favorite) independent bookstore. On Valentine’s Day.

“Retro Tinder,” as Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café called it, was exactly as you’ve seen it in sitcoms and 90’s movies. It was indeed like Tinder in Real Life, except I had to wear real clothes, makeup, and spend money. To be honest, I prefer the version in which I window-shop men in my pajamas from behind the safety of my phone screen, but this was fun too. I did indeed wear real clothes (a bright red dress and heels that I tripped in on my walk to the bookstore), makeup (which I put on my face with five minutes to spare in my office bathroom), and spend money (on a really amazing cocktail called “The Gin Gatsby” that involves plenty of gin, hibiscus, lime, and rosemary sprigs).

My pal Moira and I had signed up for this speed-dating event together, and so we went up to the mezzanine of Kramer’s Bookstore where the event was held. Every table was decorated with a candle, a bowl of sweetheart candy, and the cover of a Fabio harlequin romance novel. I sat down at my assigned novel cover (Wild Scottish Embrace by Rebecca Sinclair) as quickly as possible because with my heels and low ceilings, I was an absolute giant, and then promptly awaited true love.

By true love, I mean a man who was hopefully my own age, since the sign-up form for speed-dating had kept the age range from 23-35, but there were definitely quite a few gentlemen filtering into the room who were significantly older than 35 and had maybe lied about their age. We were instructed to bring our favorite book as a conversation starter – if we didn’t bring our favorite book, then the bookstore staff would hand you a copy of 50 Shades of Grey and you’d have to explain to a complete stranger why that collection of trash masquerading as a book is your favorite thing to read.

Terrified of having to explain to my potential first husband why I was (not at all) passionate about reading an inaccurate portrayal of BDSM, I brought one of my top 10 favorite books of all time: David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. David Sedaris is an incredibly funny nonfiction writer who basically takes every terrible thought you’ve ever had in the back of your head, pairs it with his fun upbringing as a gay man raised in the boonies of North Carolina, and creates writing that has actually had me snickering out loud on public transportation. I wasn’t exactly expecting to meet anyone significant that night, but on the off chance my soulmate showed up to this random bookstore speed-dating event, I wanted to bring a book that would filter out anyone who didn’t appreciate a slightly twisted sense of humor.

I won’t share names or too many details about my dates because of privacy and all that jazz. They were all perfectly nice and friendly, but the first guy to sit down across from me had apparently partaken in an Ash Wednesday service earlier during the day and I, a survivor of 16 years of Catholic school, started off our three-minute date by making a joke about ashes and Catholicism. It uh…didn’t go over well.

Every three minutes, a buzzer would ring and I’d stand up and move to the next table, where I’d try to decide whether or not I liked this stranger within a grand total of 180 seconds. I guess out in the real world, that’s all it takes to know if you jive with someone, right? The man in the bar who had asked me who do you know? required all of 30 seconds of interaction before I realized I disliked him. The guy I shared headphones with in a brewery a few years ago and danced to Elvis with as everyone stared? It took all of 2 minutes of that song to realize that I was a big fan.

First impressions matter, and so you would think that these three minutes would give me enough of an impression of these men to decide if I liked them or not, and to scribble a little “yes” or “no” on my speed-dating card, but it was stressful. Not only was I trying to get to know them, they were trying to get to know me. The room was loud, there were weird, raunchy Fabio book covers on every table, and I was trying to charm these strangers while wondering if my mascara was melting down my face.

The good news is my mother taught me from a young age how to talk to strangers, so I babbled with the best of them! The bad news was I left each table confused as to whether or not I actually liked the person, or if I just had expertly executed a conversation and was flying high off of that. As I said, everyone was perfectly friendly! We talked about books and how weird speed-dating is! But I definitely scared one particularly shy guy with my exuberance about whatever it was we were talking about, because he walked away looking both relieved and terrified.

In the end, I stayed true to myself: I talked about pasta, I talked about ramen, I talked about prosciutto. I also think I had some conversations about gentrification in D.C., nonfiction as a genre, and where I intended to travel in the next year as well, but I honestly can’t remember. I think someone complimented me on how personable I was, but that could have just been another way of saying that I wouldn’t shut up. I don’t know – it’s all a blur to me now. I had ten dates in one hour and before I knew it, the evening was over. We turned in our cards and were assured that if we had mutual matches, we’d be given the emails of those people in the next few days.

All of the men slowly filtered out of the room, but for some reason, the ladies stayed. I felt like I had just run a marathon, and I decided to reward myself for going through more first dates in one night than I had had in the past two years by buying myself a glass of wine.

But you know what was my favorite portion of the night? The part that came after the dates. The moment when I was standing there in that tiny, dark room – covered in those gaudy Valentine’s Day decorations – sipping a glass of rosé and suddenly befriending the other eight girls in the room. It was instantaneous. If we weren’t laughing at the absurdity of what we had just put ourselves through, we were earnestly talking about the books we had brought, with more enthusiasm than we had been able to muster when talking to our potential dates.

Before we knew it, an entire hour had passed after the conclusion of the speed-dating, and we were basically best friends. You might think I’m exaggerating, but actually, we formed a book club, right then and there. The event’s organizer, Olivia, was a whirlwind of personality and hilarity, and she took all of our emails down and declared that she would be founding a book club with all of us. It seemed like one of those things you say upon meeting new people at one of those networking happy hours, right? “Oh, we should totally grab drinks sometime!” You exchange numbers, friend request each other on Facebook, and then never see them again for the rest of your life.

But guess what? A few days after the speed-dating event, we got the emails with our date matches. And a week later, we got an email picking out days for our future wine and book club to be hosted at Kramer’s, with a suggested book genre already in place. My date matches were perfectly nice and friendly and sent me sincere emails about the conversations we had (about ramen), but I’m kiiiiiind of more excited about this book club that’s coming up.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve had trouble with in D.C., it’s occasionally breaking through that wall of constant professionalism and getting to know the people around me as actual humans with lives outside of their offices. And, surrounded by a bunch of girls laughing at the fact that we had just tried speed-dating for the first time, commiserating with each other on lost love, and gushing about books and reading and life – I realized that I had done it. I had had conversations with people that went beyond just what do you do? I bonded with strangers, I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone on a silly holiday, and I’m going to see all of my new friends next month to talk about the cheesy, ridiculous harlequin romance novel we’re all going to read.

D.C. is a challenging place to date people, it’s true. But if you’re not too afraid of looking like an idiot at events like speed-dating in a bookstore on Valentine’s Day, you might be surprised by the people (and potential friends, soul mates, etc.) that you’ll meet just by asking questions beyond someone’s 9-5 gig.

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