"People here may be open-minded about other people's eccentricities," says 28-year-old Danielle Stovel, "but they are very specific about their own. After living here for a couple years, a person begins to know exactly what they're into because everyone is constantly asking them. Your sexual inclination begins to define who you are." Stovel finishes off half her pint with one inspiring swig and lights a cigarette in full view of the bartender. The defiance sits well with her cutoff T-shirt and the unfinished tattoo that is spreading down one arm.
"The guy I like," says Stovel glancing casually over her shoulder, "he only dates strippers. He says he digs the insanity." Something flickers in her copper-colored irises, but not for long. She finishes off her beer with a second swallow.
Down the street, it's much the same. Twenty-four-year-old Jason Meir is pining over a guy he met last month at a dance party. "I think he wants a muscle boy," says Meir, who is slender but heartbreakingly elegant with a distant smile culled from years of listening to Ziggy Stardust, "but he keeps stringing me along. Giving me just enough, you know?"
"The last woman I went out with really seemed special," says Jackson Darmaskis, a stocky, blue-eyed man with a square jaw and pouty lips. "We connected. She didn't seem jaded or bitter. She laughed a lot when she was with me. She hasn't returned any of my calls, though. I'm not sure why."
"I want a nice girl who I can build a life with," says Derek Miller, a ruddy-faced bad boy with a motorcycle jacket, greased-back hair, and traditional family values. "You know, someone who I can make dinner with and sit on the couch and watch old movies with. Someone who wants children and a dog." Miller's deep, crow-black eyes resonate with sincerity, but when he leaves with a woman wearing a red latex corset who drinks shots without using her hands, the image of Ozzie and Harriet withers.
"Words can be misleading," suggests a barroom clairvoyant. "If they weren't, personal ads would work." Ah ha!
At the Singles Heartbreak Valentine's Party (an event co-sponsored by the SF Weekly Romance Department), hundreds of eligible people who can encapsulate everything they want in a mate in 20 words or less drift through the Exploratorium. Feel-good disco pumps out of a sound system near the snack bar; cheerful women wearing heart-shaped name tags pour drinks and serve hors d'oeuvres; and singles mingle over the science exhibits, which have been given an amorous theme -- heart dissections, sweat detectors, olfactory enhancement machines, aphrodisiac sampling, scent bars.
"I'm looking for someone audacious, hungry, fiercely (and gently) sane, and playful," says Box Number 1016, a friendly, moon-faced 30-year-old who passes out toy rings to break the ice. 1016 is in product marketing, but he's quick to emphasize his women's studies major and two other accomplishments: He has hopped freight trains and climbed the George Washington Bridge. He drives a Toyota Camry and has never been to a singles party before.
"Ask him how many dates he goes on a week," suggests his friend, Box Num-ber 2962, who is the editor of the zine ZAPRUDER headSNAP.
"Oh, about four or five. I get a lot of responses to my ads," says 1016 matter-of-factly. "But I'm looking for a serious relationship. It's hard to be emotionally available to 50 different women." 1016 offers a swallow of single malt scotch from a half-pint he has smuggled in. 2962 looks unimpressed. He is looking for a story, not a date; but, just in case, he mentions that his ideal woman would have to know who Archibald Cox is, where the Tigris River runs, and in which hotel Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
"People get tired of leaving things up to chance," says Emily Strauss, a longtime proponent of personals ads. "You hang out at a bar or club every weekend for a year, maybe you meet two or three people in that time, one of which you go out with. That's not very good odds. I get two or three calls a day on my ad. Sure, not all of them work out well, but it's still a lot better for your self-esteem than standing around wishing everyone weren't married or gay."
A roaming pack of teen-age girls passes by. It seems an unlikely sight at a singles party, which is presumed to be the domain of leering men with receding hairlines, but this event is a surprising mix of ages and "sexual inclinations." There are, in fact, several old friends of mine here and two groups of teen-age girls in cocktail attire who are eventually detected and scrutinized by a crew of young, rambunctious men. The giddy awkwardness of high school romance sets forth.
"None of us had dates tonight," explains 17-year-old "Patsy." "And the Exploratorium's cool. Maybe I'll even meet somebody cute. I wouldn't answer an ad though, 'cause people have been known to lie."
Later, I find Patsy sitting on the ground beneath the moonlit dome of the Palace of Fine Arts with her legs crossed Indian-style. A dark-haired boy sits across from her with a bottle of champagne between his legs. Their talk is private and intense. It goes on for hours. Patsy's eyes shine and, lies or no, she is oblivious to the cold.
Inside the Exploratorium's McBean Theater, a lone man watches videotapes of people talking about being hopelessly in love. The interviews are real, and the excitement in the people's faces is tangible. The lone man watches, remaining very still, then says, without turning: "Love is an opiate, and all those people out there are hungry, desperate little junkies. I can't talk to any of them." He leaves alone.
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By Silke Tudor