—Sunday, January 29, 2012—
While riding the 2 train into Brooklyn, I watched two teens debate how to properly ask someone on a date. One young woman was adamantly telling a young man not to ask, “Want to hang out?” She told him he had to ask a woman on a real date. It had to be a real date.
My small heart grew three sizes as I heard her lay it out for her friend. I had been preaching the gospel of asking people on dates for over six months at this point and I was glad to hear someone else doing the work for me.
Of course though, a “real date” was subject to everyone’s own opinion on what it meant to be a date, but all I thought you had to do was ask someone to go on a date and then put some effort into it. Despite my loose definition of a date, I knew that some people might not accept that this was a “real date” because we weren’t going to spend any money (and no, this was not a high-roller-the-champagne-is-free situation).
This idea that you have to spend money to have a date is exactly why this date made the list though. So much of dating is structured around someone spending money, and often enough, the money is being spent by one party on the other. Not only is this “pay to play” aspect of dating hard to navigate from an interpersonal perspective, but it can be prohibitive to dating on an individual level.
Even if you’re only paying for yourself, you might not have the money to dine at restaurants, attend shows or even buy a few drinks on a regular basis. I had plenty of friends who expressed frustration over this issue and I thought it was stupid that they should be excluded from the dating pool simply because they were trying to be financially responsible, or simply getting on their feet for the first time.
Luckily, I found someone on OkCupid who didn’t buy into all the bullshit of dating economics, or at least, she was willing to put them aside for the sake of a project and an evening out with yours truly.
I arrived at the Brooklyn Central Library basically right on time, at 3:45 p.m., and waited around outside for someone who resembled Sandra’s profile picture. Eventually, she texted to say that she was inside by the information desk.
Upon entering the library, a woman handed me a flyer for the chamber music performance we were going to see. Then I spotted Sandra next to the info desk. Or at least, I thought it was her but her head was down, looking at her phone, so I was unsure. I approached slowly, and as I did, she lifted her head and sure enough, it was Sandra.
I was on the verge of hugging her hello when I got the vibe that she was not on the same wavelength, so I held back and just greeted her verbally. It felt awkward to only almost hug.
The first thing I noticed about Sandra was that she was wearing some kind of lip gloss or lipstick. It looked like it was her little “I’m going to look nice for this date” thing and it was really cute. Otherwise, she was casually dressed with her backpack and purse in tow because she had been at the library for a while already, planning lessons with a fellow teacher friend. I knew that much, that she was a teacher, from her profile.
Sandra had told me to meet her at the library not only because she would already be there, but because she frequented their free events and knew about the chamber music performance that day. I had really lucked out with finding her to be my Spend No Money Date because she already had her feelers out for free events in her part of Brooklyn and all I had to do was travel a little bit. I didn’t say that the effort involved in dating had to be grand.
We made our way downstairs and into the auditorium where the performance was being held and found a pair of seats. We had to be two of the youngest people at this thing, aside from children who had been dragged there by their parents. As I’m sure one might imagine, the crowd for a midday Sunday chamber music concert was largely geriatric.
Sandra talked to me about her teaching gig, which was also in Brooklyn. She was a first year teacher and graduate student from San Francisco, teaching little kids deep in the heart of Brooklyn. Her students were largely Hispanic and Asian, which made her one of the few white people in the room anytime she was teaching, but she’d lived in Central America and grown up in the diverse Bay Area, so she was handling the culture shock all right.
I told her about seeing some kids on my ride to Brooklyn and how they generally scared me. Something about them being tiny humans that acted on impulse and instincts alone. They would eat me alive. She asked me where I lived and I told her Astoria, so it had been a little bit of a journey, but nothing too bad. She lived close by, in Crown Heights, and had moved to NYC the previous April.
We talked about San Francisco and NYC, comparing and contrasting the two cities. I told her that I didn’t believe people who said they liked having seasons. Most people only kind of like having seasons but when the winter or summer lasts forever, few people in NYC are glad they have seasons. Though Sandra was raised in San Francisco, the majority of her extended family was from NYC. Her mom and dad met in LA and started a West Coast family sort of on their own. It reminded me a bit of my parents being the sole outcasts from their families in Massachusetts.
I told her about my job very briefly before the concert began and I was more than happy to be cut off.
The concert was enjoyable, as far as I understood chamber music to be enjoyable, and Sandra and I exchanged snarky comments back and forth during the song breaks. We definitely loosened up a bit as we gauged each others’ senses of humor. Sandra was funny and I was able to make her laugh, which were both good signs.
There was an opera singer for several of the pieces and it was funny to watch her get really into the theatrical moments of the songs and then return to neutral while the musicians did their part. Her husband was the cellist in the ensemble and he could really shred. Despite the excellent performances, we decided not to stay for the whole thing and waited for the intermission to take off.
On our way upstairs, I asked her, “When do people get to this point? Where this is entertainment?” It seemed weird to both of us that there might come a time in our lives where we stopped enjoying things that were actually fun and might somehow come to value events where you sat quietly and strained to stay awake as supremely entertaining.
Leaving the library, I asked Sandra if she had any ideas of places we could go. She offered her neighborhood or Prospect Park. I’d never been to Prospect Park, and I didn’t want to seem over eager to see her neighborhood, so I told her the park sounded like a great idea.
We began walking toward the park but quickly realized that the winter sun wouldn’t hang around for too long and it would be dark sooner rather than later. Sandra confirmed that Prospect Park was not an awesome place to be at night. “Yeah, I try to avoid murders when I go out with people,” I told her. So, rather than peruse the park, we decided to walk over to her neighborhood of Crown Heights and check it out.
“Oh yeah, so tell me about this thing,” Sandra said to me as we walked. “What thing?” I asked, playing dumb.” “The dating project,” she reminded me. Right. That thing. She wanted to know why I would want to do something like OHD and I explained my rationale to her, about being a serial monogamist and wanting to learn how to date. It seemed to make sense to her on some level. Sandra had also been in relationships consistently and felt like moving to NYC was a chance to start anew for her. She sounded very similar to me in that regard.
We walked by the Brooklyn Museum and I found it to be very impressive. I’d never passed by it before, much less gone inside.
She told me briefly about her time in Guatemala with the Peace Corps and I discussed the trip my friend Tony and I took there, less than two years earlier. Not that I had significant experience with Guatemala, but so few people I’d met had ever been there that it was cool to talk to someone about their experience with the place.
Sandra also told me about the cute little kindergarteners whom she taught. She reminded me of my friend Julia, who was also a tiny child teacher in Brooklyn and similarly spoke Spanish. I asked Sandra more specifically about her program, since she was also a graduate student. The Teachers College at Columbia University was what had brought her out to NYC, but she said that she also really enjoyed the New York experience. She liked what the city had to offer.
I felt the same way about how great NYC was and all it had to offer, though I told her that the abundance of stimulation was often my downfall. There was so much to do and I had developed an attitude of “might as well do it all.” Balance was important, she reminded me. I knew that, but I was not so great at balance. She had hinted at her ability to balance a few days earlier when I’d texted her about a free event in Manhattan and she told me that she didn’t go to Manhattan on Sundays. I could never have the self-restraint to rule out a train ride to Manhattan simply because my workweek was starting the next day.
We turned down Franklin Avenue, and though our entire walk had been unfamiliar to me, I actually knew where we were. I had once done an improv show at Breukelen Coffee House, which I thought was only a couple blocks from us. It was, Sandra confirmed, and told me that she went there all the time.
As we walked up Franklin, Sandra began pointing out various establishments saying we could go here for food, or there for coffee, and my spine began to collapse. I thought, This is Spend No Money Date, but she doesn’t seem to care. Maybe since we had already done one free thing, she thought we could just carry on with a normal date? I wasn’t sure, but I also wasn’t about to be a downer and remind her that all these things were off limits. For a minute I just told myself that it was okay to not accomplish the task of a given date. That was part of the process, I conceded.
I halfheartedly agreed to go into Franklin Park and said nothing about the fact that we couldn’t spend money. She showed me around the large restaurant, bar and beer garden, noting that there were a lot of options for us. I couldn’t help but agree — the place was fantastic and I would have loved to grab dinner, have a drink or play one of the arcade games that they had in the center of the venue. This only made me stress out more about sticking to the theme of the date. I gave in easily to temptation and I could feel myself cracking. I felt the expectations of what it meant to be a good date weigh on me and I didn’t think I could tell the cute young Sandra that I didn’t want to spend any money to spend time with her.
Plus, I knew that she didn’t have a very good idea of how seriously I took the project. When we were texting just a few days earlier, to plan something for Sunday, I found out that she had no idea there as a list of dates to choose from and that she hadn’t really even read the site. She had been suggesting dinner and drinks and other standard dates while I was looking at the list, trying to cross something off. Finally, I explained to her that each date had to fit into a specific category. With her low familiarity of the project, I assumed she would think it silly of me to stick to the spend no money thing so intently.
Sandra suggested we play Big Buck Hunter and finally realized that it would cost money. Anything we did in her neighborhood would probably cost money. I confirmed that it would be breaking the rules and she told me that she was not one to follow the rules, so maybe I could just leave this bit out when I wrote the post. “Maybe,” I said, compromising my OHD ethics.
Whether I was going to write about it or not, Sandra insisted on paying the $2 for both of us to play, so that at the very least, I wouldn’t be spending any money. With her offer on the table, I agreed to join her for a round of Big Buck Hunter. The concept of the date was largely to shrug off the notion of having to spend money to have a good time, and especially the idea that a man had to spend money, so I suppose allowing her to pay $2 for both of us still somehow proved the main point.
We put Sandra’s quarters in and started the game. We were not very good at first, but thankfully, a child came over to give us unsolicited pointers. He was pretty funny -— telling us what to do every other second. We improved our skills by the end and even made it into a bonus round.
As we went to leave the arcade area, we found a couples’ photo booth printout on the ground. Sandra said it was cute but noted that they must not have really liked each other because all the kisses exchanged were on the cheek. “Usually when you like someone, you kiss them on the lips,” she said matter-of-factly.
Also, I found a quarter. Sandra didn’t want it, which meant not only that I hadn’t spent any money thus far, but I was actually up $0.25 on this date.
Since we had come up against the money obstacle rather directly and I certainly didn’t have any ideas of what we could do in Crown Heights on a Sunday night for free, Sandra invited me over to her place. I told her that I didn’t want to impose, but she assured me that she was cool with it. Plus, she said that she could use a hand moving the pieces of a broken IKEA bed out onto the curb and I was more than happy to help.
On our way to her apartment, we wondered why no laundry/bar combinations had caught on in New York. I’d actually been discussing this with friends recently and we’d come up with the highly offensive concept of building one of these places with two entrances, one labeled “Whites” and one labeled “Colors”. Obviously, someone had suggested this in jest, because it would be horribly offensive, in a “I can’t believe they went there” kind of way, but when I mentioned it to Sandra, she did not approve. As in, she didn’t even approve of me making the joke. She suggested that I never say it out loud again. I really brought the house down with that one. In retrospect, she was right and some things just aren’t funny when a white man says them without the exact perfect context.
Sandra lived on the top floor of a brownstone, with a family occupying the floors beneath her, and it was a really nice place. She immediately brought me into her bedroom for the tour. Okay, I thought, this is cool. Maybe she’s into me. She certainly trusted me. Clearly, she wasn’t worried about me murdering her or anything.
We brought all of the broken bed parts out to the curb and she even put the instructions out with them, just in case someone wanted to pick up the pieces and try to rebuild it. She was a good person and I was happy to offer some manual labor. I felt like I earned back those $2 she had spent on our date.
Once we’d dispensed of her old bed, Sandra asked if I wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to which I readily said, “Sure.” I sat in her kitchen with her as she made some fancy PB&J toasties. I noticed a UCB Comedy sticker on her refrigerator and we got to talking about improv. Apparently, she and her roommate had seen some shows at UCB, but neither of them were particularly involved in comedy.
By the time we sat down to eat, I was telling her about how it could take a long time to make money from improv and so it was good to still have a day job. She had been wondering why I wasn’t just doing comedy full time, which was a fair question. I asked if she had any hobbies and she mentioned primarily photography and bike riding. I told her I had a bike but I hardly even rode the thing. I was just looking for a common interest.
At some point, Sandra made a comment like, ”Wow. You really are skinny”. That fact was listed prominently in my online profile, I reminded her. Lucky for her, I told her, she was even cuter than her picture had led me to believe. She said that maybe her glasses changed things, as they weren’t featured in her profile. She took hers off and it didn’t make a discernible difference — she was very cute either way.
I took my glasses off as well and I felt like it somehow brought down a barrier between us. Once we’d done that we began talking more fluidly and we became more casual with each other. We talked a great deal about dating and online dating in particular. She asked me what was difficult about the OHD project and I mentioned that alienating my friends had become a problem and how a lot of the women I really liked were ending up in relationships. Despite my devotion to the project, I was not devoid of emotion, hopes and expectations. I was trying to learn how to reel them in though.
Also, having dates cancel too often was becoming a problem. She apologized for that. Sandra had cancelled on me the week prior. I told her it wasn’t a problem and she asked me if I had taken someone else in her place. Indeed, I had invited someone else to Off-Broadway Date and so she boldly asked if that woman was a better date than her. I was a bit lost for words because that date had gone incredibly well and the woman I’d taken was a great date, so it was difficult to say with our date still in progress. I timidly answered Sandra, “Well, not yet.”
Needless to say, that response didn’t sound too flattering when it came out of my mouth. In my mind, the more complete thought was “This date isn’t over yet. I can’t make that call.” She heard, “You need to do something to prove yourself.” Though it was surly in jest, she told me she was offended. While I’m sure she wasn’t actually offended, I’d bet that my lack of enthusiasm didn’t make her feel awesome. I was really charming her pants off.
We went on to talk about about the “creep” label, as I’d recently discussed it with Gaby Dunn in an interview and it was fresh on my mind. She told me that she was seeing a few guys at the time and that one definitely wanted to be exclusive but she wasn’t really into it. It was an interesting thing to admit on a first date, but then again, this context was pretty interesting for a first date. She said that all of his calling and texting was too much and had turned her off. I thought about Julie and about how I’d probably texted and called her too much and how she’d gotten back together with her ex. Maybe I should have backed off.
For a few moments, we seemed to be lost for something more to talk about and I almost wondered if Sandra was debating whether or not to proposition me for a bedroom make out. She wasn’t really giving off that vibe, but we’d just been talking about stuff like that and I don’t know, it just seemed like it was in the air. Hell, she told me she would go on another date with me, without my asking, so maybe she was working up to something more direct.
Well, that didn’t happen and I don’t think there was really any hope of that happening. I had just sensed something in that moment and allowed the fantasy to slip into my brain.
Finally, Sandra said that she needed to get some work done and it was my cue to leave. There was a moment when we both stood up from the table which seemed like a good time to kiss her, but I balked. There seemed to be another good chance while we were in the kitchen briefly, but I didn’t pull the trigger then either. So, I got my jacket from the other room and Sandra walked me downstairs.
At the door, she thanked me for coming all the way to Brooklyn and told me to have a good night. I went in to hug her, thinking that this was my final chance and that I would be an idiot for not trying to kiss her. I kept my head faced forward, expecting a kiss, but before I could even pucker, Sandra made a move which clearly communicated to me that I shouldn’t kiss her, so I aborted at the last second.
I settled for an odd hug and we both laughed a little bit at the extremely awkward moment. The night had ended just as it had begun, with Sandra communicating to me that my advances were a little too advanced.
Oh well. At least I hadn’t spent any money.