Heart to heart, Cupid is where you find him

Times Staff Writer

How difficult it is to meet single people in L.A. depends on your perception of opportunity. Consider Stan Rosenfield's experience. The divorced entertainment publicist was lying on a gurney at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, waiting to be wheeled in for a routine colonoscopy. He noticed that an attractive woman occupying the gurney next to his seemed nervous. They began to chat. He'd had the test before; she hadn't. He explained that she had nothing to worry about, reassuring her that when the procedure was finished, she wouldn't remember a thing.

"We exchanged names and phone numbers," he says, "and a few weeks later I called her and we went out to dinner."

Intrepid pickup artists don't think about humiliation, rejection or how awkward they might feel conversing with a stranger wearing a matching, well-ventilated hospital gown. They plunge into the process, hoping that each time they stick out a foot, the glass slipper will fit.

Romance is a year-round industry. But around Valentine's Day, especially, ranks of experts -- dating coaches, matchmakers for hire and freelance yentas -- stand ready to apply art, science, technology and prayer to affairs of the heart. To them, wallflowers are people who just haven't tried hard enough to find love in the City of Angels.

Assuming that loitering in the outpatient areas of major medical centers isn't an option, where else can you go to search for a potential soul mate? In Los Angeles, people spend much of their time encased in cars. That need not be a problem, according to Samantha Daniels, a former divorce attorney and author of "Matchbook: The Diary of a Modern-Day Matchmaker."

Daniels counsels her clients to pay attention to who's around them, at all times. "I was on the phone with one of my female clients who was stuck in traffic and complaining how she never meets anybody," Daniels says. "All of a sudden she said, 'Oh, my God. There's a really handsome guy in the car right next to me. What should I do?'

"I told her to smile at him. Sure enough, he smiled back. He motioned her to pull over into a gas station. They talked a little, and it turned out he was a nice guy, with a good job. She didn't feel comfortable giving him her number, but she took his. They went on a couple of dates and became good friends. One night they went out in a group, and she met a friend of his, who she's in a relationship with now."

Professional matchmakers and dating coaches believe it doesn't matter where you find someone, or even how you pick them up. What's important is having a positive attitude and a proactive approach to meeting new people.

"It's a numbers game," says Janis Spindel, a matchmaker and author of "Get Serious About Getting Married -- 365 Ways to Find Love in Less Than a Year." "If a woman meets enough men, she is going to click with one of them. If you look good and feel good, you're going to exude confidence and you're going to meet someone."

Spindel and her staff pick up men and women in public places all the time, to provide dates for clients. Although she's been married for more than 20 years to an obviously secure guy, she can pick up 100 men a day.

"I just initiate conversations," she says. "I usually use some kind of prop, or talk about what they're carrying or wearing. I saw a great-looking man buying a muffin, wearing a lavender shirt, a purple tie, a purplish suit. I said to him, 'What are you, Barney?' "

To a truly motivated singleton, no encounter is wasted.

An L.A.-based writer befriended a couple he frequently sat beside at his favorite sushi bar. They introduced him to their daughter. Next? A woman he met as they walked their respective dogs along the Santa Monica palisades. After an effervescent start, that relationship fizzled. But he's maintained a friendship with a woman he discovered in a concession stand line at the Hollywood Bowl. "The dog walker turned out to be a folly," he says, "but so much of life is folly. I'm endlessly curious, and my basic philosophy is I do want to know most people."

Does seeing pickup potential in every situation mean one must always be camera-ready? Not necessarily.

Janet Garrison works for a nonprofit foundation with offices in the Maple Drive Building in Beverly Hills. She had exchanged glances half a dozen times with a man who worked in the building. After listening to a friend vow to open himself up to meeting new people, the next time she saw Office Guy, she said, "Hello." The following day, she sat at the bar at Maple Drive, eating lunch. "I had no makeup on, and I was wearing sweat pants," Garrison says. "I saw him come into the restaurant with a young man, who turned out to be his son, and I thought, 'Oh, God. Please don't let him come over because I look awful today.' He came right up and sat next to me."

Garrison and Geoffrey Talbot have been dating since November. "Janet is a woman with great energy," Talbot says. "It's hard for me to meet women, because I have very high standards. But you can meet someone anywhere -- at the ATM. When a person is emotionally available, the conversation doesn't stay superficial very long."

Food shop at night

Once you're armed with a smile, an open heart and a truckload of confidence, where do you go to meet someone?

Dating coach David Wygant endorses the everyday-errands-as-opportunities strategy. Everyone has to exercise and find nourishment, he says. By adjusting your timing, you can maximize the chance of a pickup at the video store, bank or post office.

"Bars and gyms in L.A. are the worst places to meet people," he says. "Go to the dry cleaner on Saturday morning, when everyone else is there," adds Wygant, whose guide for singles, "Always Talk to Strangers," will be in bookstores March 1. "Buy your groceries at Whole Foods, and go between 6 and 8 on a weeknight, when all the single people who don't want to cook are buying prepared food to take home."

Wygant found the Whole Foods on San Vicente Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in Brentwood, the dry cleaner across the street and the nearby Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to be fruitful hangouts. Now 42, Wygant estimates he met 1,000 women before the day, 4 1/2 years ago, that he asked Alison Horstmeyer if she had stomach problems as she examined a bottle of digestive enzymes in Whole Foods; now they live together.

Following Wygant's guidelines, a random to-do list would include shopping for food at the rock 'n' roll Ralphs -- as it's popularly known -- on Sunset Boulevard and Fuller Avenue in Hollywood, eating lunch at a restaurant where a meal can be ordered at the bar, such as Prego in Beverly Hills or Bar Celona in Pasadena, or going to restaurants with community tables, such as Rockenwagner in Santa Monica and Le Pain Quotidien in Beverly Hills.

Any kind of shopping can lead to a pickup. A guy won't necessarily believe you need his opinion on the tie you've picked for your father, but chances are he won't mind your asking. "Go to the Beverly Center or the Grove on a weekend afternoon," Wygant says. "Just do laps. It's teeming with guys and girls of all ages."

Before moving to Seattle a year ago, Wygant hiked regularly in Runyon Canyon, one of many local trails that can be fertile ground for pickups. He also recommends dog parks, like the one atop Laurel Canyon, as ideal places to meet other singles. Go on weekends or in the evening -- unless you're in the market for a professional dog walker.

At the beach, Wygant cautions that strolling up to someone's blanket and starting a conversation would be too intrusive. A better plan would be to join a pickup volleyball game, talk to someone walking on the strand or stand next to the object of your affection as she's sticking her toes in the water.

"You can pick someone up anywhere people linger," says Bryan Swerling, Wygant's coauthor. Swerling's favorite coffee bars are Peet's on Main Street in Santa Monica, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Plaza and the Urth Cafe on Melrose. (The Coffee Table in Silver Lake and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Los Feliz are also often full of friendly lingerers.)

At a gas station, the time it takes to fill a tank is long enough to ask, "How do you like your car? I was thinking of buying one of those." And if you buy the car and it turns out to be a lemon, use the time you log in the dealer's dank little waiting room well. And speaking of waiting, what to do when you're waiting at a carwash? If your car gets a bath at the Hollymont carwash at Vermont and Prospect avenues in Los Feliz or the one on Sepulveda Boulevard just north of Olympic Boulevard, chances are other singles might be in cleanup mode too.

Books and chat

Bookstores, unlike libraries, have no prohibitions against conversation. Barnes & Noble at the Westside Pavilion, Borders on Westwood Boulevard, Book Soup on Sunset and the Barnes & Noble on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena are packed with people, especially on weekend nights. Many outdoor newsstands have the same atmosphere. Try the racks of magazines at Ventura Boulevard and Woodman Avenue in Studio City or the newsstand at Hollywood and Cahuenga boulevards.

A friendly encounter can redeem an unpleasant situation, such as waiting at a baggage carousel at LAX or attending traffic school. Figure anyone signing up for Comedy Traffic School isn't so guilt-ridden about getting caught speeding down Olympic that they have lost the will to laugh.

And then there are sporting events. Says Wygant: "Men at Laker games are like sitting ducks. The key for a woman to succeed is to make eye contact when a guy looks at her, and wave at him. Make sure you smile and that he knows it's him you're smiling at. Then wave him over."

If you want to be attached, should you follow your own interests

Knitting classes will probably be full of women. Expect to find a majority of men at car, boat and technology shows. Look for women at antiques and crafts shows like the ones held at the Santa Monica and Pasadena civic auditoriums several times a year.

On weekends, the Adventure 16 store in West Los Angeles is crawling with fit, healthy outdoorsmen shopping for hiking gear. That's terrific, if you're a woman who also likes communing with nature. If you don't, Wygant says, "you'll be exposed as a phony and a relationship will never work. When I work with clients, I develop a game plan based on their hobbies and interests."

Attending bereavement support groups in hopes of meeting a widow or widower might be a sign of being too goal-oriented, but don't rule out art galleries (be alerted to openings by getting on gallery mailing lists), museums, churches or synagogues, jury duty, volunteering for nonprofit or political organizations, adult education classes and cultural events at places such as Walt Disney Concert Hall, where you're most likely to meet someone in the gift shop or during intermission.

Addiction is serious business, but that doesn't mean no one's ever made a connection at an AA meeting. "You're not supposed to date someone in the first year that you're in a 12-step program," Wygant says, "but meetings are one of the biggest pickup spots in L.A. If you're there because you have a problem, you can meet someone who has the same demons." Elizabeth Taylor found a husband in rehab. The marriage didn't last, but neither did her other wedded unions, to men not in recovery.

In "Hitch," a romantic comedy that opens Friday, Will Smith plays a dating coach who preaches sincerity; cheesy pickup lines ("You look an awful lot like my next girlfriend") make his eyes roll. Real pickup artists say clever come-ons matter less than body language, self-confidence and a brilliant smile. And ultimately, the art of the pickup is a self-limiting skill. The more you practice, the more likely you won't need to do it anymore.


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Be careful out there


Is it safe to talk to strangers? It can be.

Dating experts given to paraphrasing dead presidents say we should mostly fear fear itself, because it's often an excuse to stay home. Alone. Acknowledge that if you talk to strangers who seem appealing at first, the greater risk is discovering they don't make your heart sing, not that they're stalkers or homicidal maniacs. To avoid either, take some simple precautions:

Give out only your cellphone number or an e-mail address.

Don't tell a new acquaintance where you work.

Do not give out your home address or let a stranger take you home.

If you arrange a rendezvous after that first encounter, meet in a public place and be able to get home by yourself. Tell a friend where you're going to meet, and check in when you've gotten home safely.

Remember your surroundings as you remain open to life's possibilities. Strip clubs, prison parking lots and check-cashing stores may not be the best places to find your soul mate.

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