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Meeting new people: All that broken ice

Test-driving the new meet & greet clubs

Tired of making small talk with your cat? Then extend your circle of friends! Credit: (Mia Hanson)

Like to meet new people? Tired of making small talk with your cat? Then extend your circle of friends! Find a romantic partner! Meet new business contacts! It’s a tall order for one night, but that’s exactly what’s promised by Joy Network, one of the many new queer social clubs popping up in town. Are these clubs worth your time or energy? Take the tour right now to find out.

My first event is a meet and greet with the Joy Network. I already know what a meet and greet is: the name tag stickers, the free munchies, the chance to rub elbows with a 30-to-50-something crowd you’d normally ignore in a bar, not because they deserve ignoring, but because at a bar, it’s just the right thing to do. But at this meet and greet (held last month at the Churchmouse And Firkin) it’s different than at a bar: strangers’ eyes are inviting. Their arms, welcoming. Their mouths, full of food. It’s mostly men, mostly white – 30 of them at any given time at the back of the Churchmouse’s second floor, squished comfortably between the cash register and the men’s and women’s toilets. There are couples, singles and, in at least one case, couples who should be singles but are happy to drag out the misery a little longer before making the transition. In other words, both hitched and unhitched will feel welcome.

The moment I enter, I’m greeted by a host and given a stack of game cards, each card bearing one mystery acronym. It’s an icebreaker, you see, and it’s my job to get other guests to guess the meaning of the acronym. The game has the happy effect of getting us to approach other people, but a game like this hardly opens the floodgates of conversation. Instead, I spend the few
first minutes of each crucial first impression staring blankly at my new companion and stammering, “Uh, I don’t know.” I spent nearly 15 minutes trying to help one guest decipher what the “M” represents in “M & M.” By his
ninth guess, the game had achieved the status of social crutch, but it was the end of a tiring workday and neither of us, I suspect, had any energy left to bridge the gap between flippant icebreaker and reasonably committed
conversation.

And what’s a meet and greet without door prizes? Even if you don’t find your new best friend or the lover of your dreams, you will at least have the chance to walk away with a free mug or Tim Horton’s coupons. But the value in interrupting a room full of gay men from actual conversation just to determine who gets to walk away with a free donut is, at best, suspect.

Besides, prizes tend to cheapen events like these, spelling the kind of degradation you get at a baseball game or a high school dance, when a guy with a microphone and a loud mouth works the crowd into a passionate frenzy for the chance to win a T-shirt nobody in his right mind would pay to own.

Like most in the Joy Network crowd, I was in the middle of a good chat when prizes were announced and the spirit of conversation couldn’t have been killed off any quicker if someone had wrapped his fingers around it and strangled it blue. I welcomed the disruption: deep in my heart, I wanted to win. True, I didn’t need another mug, but therein lies the danger of having prizes at events like these: few conversations can survive the distracting allure of free stuff.

Next, I sit through some brief congratulatory speeches: short thank-yous to everyone involved in the “tremendous success” of the evening, followed by
polite patters of applause. At this point, I have the uncanny sense of being trapped in a high-spirited self-help group, a feeling intensified by the diners in the front of the restaurant craning their necks, no doubt, to see
which of us poor wretches is being healed next.

One tip: go easy on the free nibblies, especially the chicken wings. You’ll make few friends licking barbeque sauce from each of your fingers before digging into a hearty handshake with some-one who by now wishes he never made eye contact with you. While nobody appreciated the cheese bread more than I, don’t be like the guy beside me who clearly confused the term “free appetizers” with “smorgasbord,” stacking his napkin as if preparing to go into hiding. The whole night, from 7pm to 9pm, costs five bucks, plus the cost of drinks. Verdict: What else is there to do on a Monday night? Plan for the next one.

* * *

My next social stop is the Monday Movies Club. There’s no fee, only the cost of the movie ($4.25 for a first-run flick), pre-movie dinner and coffee afterward. The dinner is at 5:15pm at Hothouse CafĂ©. There’s no need to fight for elbow room. When I arrive for dinner, there’s only one person, Bruce. He’s the organizer, a man who I’ve never met before and with whom I’d now be dining with, apparently, alone. It’s how blind dates start, and Bruce, perhaps sensing this, assures me that last week a lot more people showed up. A woman soon joins us, and it’s three’s company, a pleasant dinner that couldn’t have been any more platonic were I eating with my parents.

After dinner, we hoof it to the movie house where we are joined by more participants. Dinner is optional: most come for the discounted movie, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Cue the brief intros, and then we find ourselves a seat. Hardly social, but there’s plenty of time for chatting
later, if you must, when we shuffle back to the Hothouse for coffee. It’s only after having spent 90 minutes sitting in a dark theatre staring at a movie screen that I realize that I have almost nothing in common with these people – except that I spent the last 90 minutes sitting in a dark theatre staring at a movie screen. Thus it was the 10 of us spent half the time discussing the club’s attendance record, the club’s past movies and the club’s new e-mail bulletin format. Intermittent bouts of uncomfortable silence were spent staring collectively at the bottom of our mugs, nursing our hot beverages only slow enough not to scald our tongues before we could declare ourselves finished and say our good nights – at least until the next week.

It was a table that desperately needed an icebreaker. Acronym cards would have been a blessing. Still, people seem genuinely happy to see you, an outsider, and with people like that, who needs clever conversation? Verdict: it’s been around for a year, and the host is organized to a tee. Worth it.

* * *

My last event was suppose to be with the Alligaytor Club, a new dinner social group claiming to “introduce you to new friends we think would be compatible.” But you’d be lucky if the club introduced you to anyone at all. I registered on-line twice for two different dinners but both times, my registration – but not my $15 registration fee – was ignored. It turns out both events were cancelled because too few people signed up. The problem was
nobody told me it was cancelled until days after the events were supposed to have taken place. I was, in effect, stood up twice.

Alligaytor is supposed to work like this: you provide brief personal info about yourself and the club seats you at a table with like-minded people in your age category. Men with men, women with women. The $15 fee, mind you, covers only the privilege of ordering from the menu, plus a free drink. Food is extra. Once you register, the club e-mails the location. Or it’s supposed to. To the club’s credit, the organizer who called me was very apologetic, explaining that the concept of Alligaytor is “a difficult pitch to the gay and lesbian community.” The exorbitant cover charge, apparently, has nothing to do with it. He thanked me for my interest, promised I’d get a refund and
told me to keep an eye on the website for future dinners.

I do just that, signing up again the following week. My registration fee is taken, I’m promised to be notified the details, but I don’t hear back from them until three days after the dinner was supposed to have taken place. Verdict: you pay your money and you takes your chances.

Apart from a few minor quirks and growing pains, these clubs do beat the bars’ stand and model crowd. It’s a matter of choosing the best club. Or not. Either the social animal in you is ready to burst onto a new scene, or
you’ve got just enough energy at the end of a long day to crawl onto your couch and have a heart-to-heart with kitty.