I usually don’t make much conversation in cabs, but this cab driver had many questions. What kind of music did I want to listen to? He thought I might prefer one station if I was going to a club, another if headed to a date. Was I going on a date? Ah, a double date. Did I know the other couple well? Going to a nice dinner?
I fell quiet after this deposition, but after a few minutes of cruising downtown in the rain, the driver surprised me with another question. “What is the alphabet of dating?” he asked.
I was stymied for a moment, but he explained: he wasn’t from the States, and didn’t feel that he understood the “A to Z” of how to pursue romance in this culture. I liked the turn of phrase, but I couldn’t think of any specific tips or techniques to tell him. There aren’t any rules, I tried to explain. Or rather, the only rules that matter are those that matter to the two concerned parties. Romance is a nation of two; the only way in is to talk to each other until you’ve learned the language, the culture.
The driver didn’t buy it. “Start from the beginning. Like, what makes a good first date.” he persisted. “Drinks? Dinner? Coffee?”
“Oh, not coffee,” I exclaimed, and he laughed at me, because apparently I do believe in dating rules with an application greater than two.
Why not coffee? In a big East Coast city, there are two ways to get coffee: at a counter or at a café. Coffee at a counter (or diner, or truck) is fuel: you order it because you want it strong and you want it now. Coffee in a café, though, can be many things to many people, all of whom are consuming it in the same room: a finely foamed cappuccino to sip while reading the paper, or a vanilla latte to nurse during a friendly or professional meeting, or fuel, for the students and freelancers who occupy the majority of any café’s tables in my city. I usually fall into the last category myself: the neighborhood café is an out-of-home office for me and the city’s underpaid intelligentsia who rent the table for hours by ordering one cup and endless refills. We can’t help ourselves: cafés are great workspaces. They are usually well-lit, well-stocked with wide surfaces and power outlets, and aside from the occasional scream and grind of barista apparatus the noise level is low.
From the inadequate shelter of my tiny netbook, I’ve overheard many an awkward first date in a café. You can always tell it’s the first, because hopeful romantics ask each other a barrage of predictable questions and overreact to one another’s responses (“You’re kidding! Me too!”). But even if they’ve snagged the coveted corner armchairs, a café offers little intimacy. Their conversational volume always rises a little too high, as though straining to hear one another across the distance imposed by blocky furniture and over the hostile clattering from surrounding laptops. I’ve never overheard a first date going well at a café.
To the inquisitive cab driver, I recommended drinks. In most cases, a first date is a meeting arranged with a person you don’t yet know as well as you’d like to: the friend of a friend you met at a party; a passing acquaintance from class or a hobby; someone you’re meeting for the first time after exchanging messages online. The date is essentially an experiment — if you keep asking questions, will you like the person gradually revealed by their answers? When you see or touch them for the first time, will there be a chemical reaction? Darkened dives and craft cocktail bars alike usually provide the ideal environment for a social laboratory. The noise level tends to be higher than the average café, so conversation seems to be more insulated from those around you (except for the bartender, who knows all and sees all). You’re not required to lean closer to hear one another, letting your knees graze under the bar — but if you want to, it’s a natural gesture from your barstool perch. Caution and social decorum recommend that a drinks date be a short date, but all you need is two rounds with or without alcohol: the first drink breaks the ice, and by the bottom of the second glass, you’ve covered the basic introductions and have either moved into an intense and intimate conversation or lapsed into an awkward silence. In the either case, there’s no need to sit through pour after pour; you either give your regrets and part while the night is young, or decide together to continue your scintillating conversation over dinner or anywhere else.
Of course, your mileage may vary: the same elements that recommend the bar environment to me might be unappealing to others. To a friend of mine who is allergic to most fermented things, a café is a preferable venue because the menu is both more palatable for her and less socially fraught, since many people are uncomfortable drinking with a companion who isn’t. So although in the instance that I invite you out for coffee, I have invited you on a work date (bring your netbook!), if my friend invites you out for coffee, the case may be that she likes you. Another date may invite you for coffee because the polite distance and deeply unsexy couches of a typical café feel more relaxed and safe for meeting a near-stranger. There’s no debating taste; what I’m suggesting is that the public space of a bar or café has a visible measure of influence on your otherwise highly subjective and unpredictable interaction with a date. To a degree, the chemical makeup of the featured refreshment in either venue shapes the environment: we want our cafés to be clean, well-lighted places appropriate for exercising the physiological stimulus of caffeine; we like our bars a little less bright, a little less in focus to go along with the relaxing properties of alcohol. But it’s not just chemistry that makes it easier to feel more companionable and uninhibited over drinks; the space and the place set the mood just as significantly as the background music this cab driver wanted to select so carefully.
So I reflected as the wet city streets flashed by on my way to dinner for four at a brand-new upmarket restaurant, a privilege of one established couple meeting another. Dinner — particularly a nice one — has all the limitations of a coffeeshop in terms of first-date spatial relationships, along with a set of context-specific worries: two near-strangers may find themselves suddenly very conscious of what they eat, if it is likely to wedge into teeth or drip onto the collar, whether it satisfactorily conveys an adventurous or health-conscious or sophisticated palate. And good heavens, the check — somehow the dinner bill is a higher-stake proving ground than the easily shared cost of coffees or beers, and the end of the meal can become the setting for a dramatic staging of chivalry. But with the confidence and ease of long-time friendship, the environment that can seem mountainous or momentous becomes a companionable settling to clink glasses, break bread, and graciously share the tab.
Illustrations by Mackenzie Anderson