Love at Twentieth Sight

Can getting hitched survive today’s fast-paced hookup culture? Where can South-Siders go for traditional long-term relationships? Is love at first sight really possible in our time?

Tameka Jones of Pretty in Pink Productions has answers. Her speed dating service, Twenty First Dates, presents the opportunity for love at first (or twentieth) sight to the South Side’s lonely masses in the form of fleeting romantic encounters.

Jones, who also operates under the alias “Miss Pretty Pink,” says that the idea for Twenty First Dates came from repeated viewings of the romantic comedy Hitch. In the film, Will Smith plays a “date doctor” who diagnoses men’s romantic foibles, before curing them with dates of both the blind and sped-up variety. Jones says that the premise, coupled with the perils of the fast-paced life led by most singles, inspired her to launch her speed dating service. She says, with a dreamy gleam in her eye, “There’s just not enough time to find dates nowadays. It’s easy here compared to a bar!”

Twenty First Dates occurs weekly in the rear of L26, an edgy dining hotspot in Bronzeville, and is, without a doubt, an updated take on one of love’s most ancient rituals. Female speed daters sit expectantly on the inside of a ring of tables as each new man cycles by. Dates lasts five minutes, before Jones rings a bell that signals a shift to the next potential mate.

Loosened up by the one free drink included with Twenty First Dates’ $25 admission fee, I decided to try my hand (and my heart) at this unconventional, albeit intriguing, new dating ritual. From the outset my encounters were uncomfortable, undoubtedly due in part to compounded flirtatious anticipation and necessarily dry journalistic inquiry.

An innocent, investigative query of, “Do you come here often?” was met with no sympathy in the eyes of my first partner, so I trashed that angle of attack in favor of something more straightforward.  I decided it might be best to evade, up front, any further shenanigans. I found an escape from suggestive banter in the following mundane disclosure: I’m actually a reporter, do you mind if I ask you a few questions about speed dating?

From there, the conversations grew decidedly cooler, but perhaps more pointed. The women whom I “encountered” throughout the night had come to Twenty First Dates for reasons ranging from the brightly curious (“I wanted to try something new!”) to the somewhat more practical (“It’s a good way to get to know someone safely and non-creepily”). By and large, Twenty First Dates’ clientele said they hoped to meet new people. It felt ironic, considering the decidedly modern nature of speed dating, that most daters seemed to be searching for a “more traditional” alternative to the chaotic and stifling world of meat market—esque bars and clubs.

Though few speed daters considered themselves to be conventional (“I am anything but traditional,” one woman assured me), most seemed to hold views tending toward old-style romance. One young lady affirmed her belief in love at first sight, stating hopefully, “Anything is possible in the first five minutes of meeting someone.” When asked if she might catch that kind of spark at Twenty First Dates, she replied, “It might not be tonight, but someday, definitely.”

Another speed dater took a slightly different view: “I’d like to believe [in love at first sight], but I don’t think I can!” The venue, however, struck her as an opportunity for “instant connections,” a fitting and ostensibly modernized version of first-sighted love.

As for the madame of the evening, Tameka Jones affirmed her belief in the reality of love at first sight. “In the first two minutes of taking to someone,” she said, simultaneously starry-eyed and grounded, “You can form a connection that tells you if you’re compatible for the long-term.” The promise of such an apocalyptic spark powers much of the drive behind speed dating. What better place to find Mr. or Mrs. Right than in a quick and intimate environment? It’s enough time to know.

Though Twenty First Dates only launched at the beginning of the month, a surplus of eager daters, Jones’ gusto, and the encouragement of spring seem to promise success. Twenty First Dates will be kindling the fires of summer flings and lifelong couplings for a long time to come.

Twenty First Dates, L26 Restaurant, 2600 S. State St. Wednesdays, 8-10pm. $25.