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One night, 33 dates

She's supposed to be at her Bible study class in Hyde Park.

Instead, Melissa Slocum, a 27-year-old with petal-smooth skin, large blue eyes and shiny, long blond hair, is at Jackson's, a restaurant and bar on Harbour Island. She's sitting at a table for two, a rosy Cosmopolitan on the table next to her, a name tag on her V-neck shirt that reads Melissa 22.

A guy with short dark hair and vivid blue eyes sits down across from her. The name tag on the shirt beneath his black leather jacket says Jeff 54.

"You have very nice eyes," he says right off the bat.

"Thank you," she replies, smiling brilliantly.

""And I've only complimented like three or four people here," he adds.

They chitchat about work, what they like to do in their off time. He asks why she's here.

"I came here because I thought it would be fun," she says. "Except, I've got to pee real bad."

After three minutes a whistle blows, sharp and loud. Time to move on.

"Aw, come on," he says looking over his shoulder at the whistle blower.

"You know I'm going to have to write yes," he says confidently.

"Yeah!" she says and begins to circle the Y on her sheet next to his number, indicating she wants to see him again.

" 'Cause I want to get to know you better."

"Me, too. I want to get to know you better."

He stands up and moves a few feet, to the next table for two. Alex, No. 63, takes his place. He's Slocum's last date of the night. Her 33rd in 99 minutes.

No pressure here

Two hours earlier, in her South Tampa townhome, Slocum had leaned into her bathroom mirror and put on a brownish-pink lipstick called Spirit. For this night she had chosen a black shirt with elbow-length sleeves, a jean skirt that reached just below her knees and a pair of black boots.

"I had a boyfriend, oh, let me see, a couple years ago," she said, running her already straight hair through a straightening iron. "Let's see, what year was that? We broke up in 2000, the summer of 2000. Isn't it sad how we forget? So I've been single, like, two years. Everyone I've dated has been kind of "uh-uh.' "

Slocum, a marketing analyst for Home Shopping Network, was about to embark on a new adventure. It's called speed dating, and Slocum, a friend of one of the local organizers of this gathering, figured it might be a way to meet some guys quickly. Very quickly.

The concept is not new. In 1999, a rabbi in Los Angeles, concerned about the rising number of Jewish people marrying outside their faith, brought together equal numbers of men and women for eight-minute dates. Later, businesses copied the idea.

Last week, one of those companies, HurryDate (www.hurrydate.com), launched its first session in Tampa with 33 men and 33 women of any number of faiths, nationalities and races. The company was started in 2001 by a pair of University of Florida graduates who were friends in college and ended up living a block apart in New York City.

The company has brought together 12,000 people for 350,000 three-minute dates in 22 cities around the world. It boasts of one engagement, a couple who met in March in Atlanta and are expected to marry next June.

Slocum thought that speed dating made sense because singles can size each other up quickly without the onerous one- to two-hour date. Rejection is not as painful because people don't really get to know each other.

"They have to talk to me for three minutes; that's it," she said. "And so it's, "Were my breasts not big enough? Did they like brunettes?' It's not threatening."

Slocum said she's not in a big rush to meet a man. She'd like to find someone and have time to get to know him before she has kids. She said she hasn't dated a lot of guys in the last year. Maybe three.

One was too controlling.

One was too needy.

One was too self-centered.

"I think people have so much going on in their lives, so much pressure to not settle down," said Slocum, whose parents divorced when she was 3. "We're the first generation of all the divorces. There's a lot more pressure to stay married forever. There's a lot more pressure to not screw up."

She acknowledged that she's a little picky.

"That's why I haven't met anyone," she said, grabbing a black leather jacket and heading out the door to her 2002 silver Jeep. "I want the attraction to be there. I want everything to be there. Personality and intelligence. I don't want them to be too possessive. I want a nice boy, and they're all married."

Slocum said she wasn't expecting to meet her "knight in shining armor" while speed dating. She viewed this as an opportunity to meet new friends.

"They call it speed dating, but I don't consider it going on a date if you have a three-minute conversation with somebody," she said, driving down Bayshore Boulevard, the Tampa skyline to her right in the darkened sky.

Tooth check

There are 33 two-top tables lined up in rows of about seven on the outdoor patio next to the bar at Jackson's.

Slocum says that some of her friends are going to hang out at the bar and watch her and another friend, Lauren Payne, be guinea pigs.

Soon she finds out that she also knows some of the guys. She runs into Darrin Guilbeau, who once dated someone Slocum knows.

"What happened with church boy?" he asks, referring to someone she dated briefly.

"Oh, that's history. That's a long time ago," Slocum replies, taking a sip of a chardonnay.

"Shall we start out together?" he says. He's 35 years old with longish wavy brown hair, blue eyes, a mouth full of braces.

"I think that would make it easier to ease into it," Slocum says.

They head over to one of the green plastic two-tops, each with a votive candle in a hazy jar, a black plastic ashtray and a list of questions that the daters are supposed to use if the conversation gets dry.

Among them:

"Do you believe in ghosts?"

"Can you roll your tongue?"

"How do you like to be kissed?"

Slocum and Guilbeau look at the score sheets they've been given. On them are a list of numbers representing each person they will talk to. Beneath each number, they must indicate whether they want to date that person again by circling a Y or a N. Both circle yes for each other right off the bat.

"He wants to make sure the system works," Slocum says, laughing.

"Okay, guys," yells Ken Deckinger, the CEO of HurryDate, through his microphone. "Three minutes. Thirty-three dates. Every minute counts. Here we go."

He blows a whistle and sets his stop watch. The dates begin.

"Do I have broccoli on my teeth?" Guilbeau asks, baring his braces.

How time flies

The women sit at the tables. The men move from table to table. Down one line of them, up the other.

About four dates in, Slocum perks up for a guy named Jason Armstrong. He's 27, dressed like he just walked out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, with looks to match. His name tag says Jason 69.

"That's a nice number to have," says Slocum, noting his attractive smile.

"Isn't it great?" he says, taking his seat. "That's the ice breaker."

"So what are you doing here?" he asks, yelling a little to be heard over the 32 other dates going on in the room.

She explains about her friend, the organizer. Then he asks her where she's from.

"I grew up in Tampa, actually."

"I came here from Pittsburgh 3{ years ago."

"Oh my god, I love Pittsburgh," Slocum says, leaning in a little closer. "It's awesome."

They talk about what they like to do for fun. She says she has about eight friends she hangs out with. She points to the bar and shows him a few.

The whistle sounds.

"It's so short," Slocum says, mournfully.

"It's too short to meet anybody," he agrees, getting up.

She circles yes beneath Jason's No. 69 on her score sheet. He sits down at the next table across from a woman with hair styled into ringlets and circles yes beneath Slocum's No. 22.

Those participating in this speed dating event are supposed to be between 25 and 35 years old (as time progresses, the company will add a HurryDate event for 35- to 45-year-olds).

"I'm probably the oldest guy here," says Erik Taber, 47, about seven dates later.

He's got a youthful face but not a 35-year-old face. He says he likes to hang out with younger people.

"I like to do stuff, you know? I've only been to jail once," says Taber, who buys, rehabilitates and sells homes for a living. "It was a long time ago. It was in college. It was a frat party."

Slocum sees an in.

"Oh, where did you go to school?"

"I went to five of 'em, actually," he says. "I've got friends all over the country. New Hampshire. Houston, Kingsville, Texas . . . "

The whistle blows.

"That is not three minutes," he says vehemently. "That was not three minutes."

Dan Piparo, 24, takes his place. He's got black wavy hair, brown eyes. He's wearing a navy blazer and pants over a cream-colored button-down shirt with a rather large collar.

"Nice outfit," Slocum says.

"It's my John Travolta look tonight," Piparo says quietly, shyly. "I'm Sicilian, just like he is. I don't have the right jacket and shirt, but close . . . 'cause I'm not him."

He trails off. They exchange professions. He's created a Web network called danworld.com.

"I thought this would be a good way to meet people because I don't really go to the bars," he says. "I work out of home."

The whistle interrupts them. He circles yes. She circles no.

Some of the men sit down, run down their qualifications, then sit back for questions. Others take charge of the conversation, hitting Slocum with questions. With the shy ones, Slocum must keep the conversation moving.

Slocum circles people whom she connects with or thinks are funny. A guy named Ben gets a yes because he's entertaining, asks her things such as whether her toenails are the same color as her fingernails. Her fingernails are clear.

"He's so funny," she says as Ben leaves. "He's just a trip."

Humor helps

For a match to occur, the man and the woman must circle yes. Then HurryDate sends each participant an e-mail with e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

In the end, Slocum has selected eight men, and seven have picked her. She says she's going to wait for the guys to e-mail her.

"The guys I picked were easy to talk to," she says a few days later. "They made me laugh or I felt like I could talk to them."

Of the 33 people who participated, 30 found a match with at least one other person. One woman had 13 matches.

Organizers considered this to be a successful party. Most speed dating parties generate matches for 50 percent of the people who attend.

For the record, the guy with the most matches was the funny guy, Ben. He had 14.

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