Just Don't Call It Dating

Amy Albert is a senior associate editor at Bon Appetit magazine. Contact her at magazine@latimes.com.

I've had friends--and friends of friends--fix me up. I've placed personal ads in the New York Review of Books. I've tried speed dating. I've posted on Match.com, Matchmaker, EHarmony, Yahoo, Salon, JDate, the Right Stuff and Science Connection. Countless inter- views and auditions for emotional compatibility, intellectual sparks and physical chemistry--things that are supposed to happen naturally--make you feel as if you've given a pint of blood. And that's no way to meet someone.Recently, a friend and I were catching up over dinner at the Medusa Lounge. The bar started filling up, but not with the young hipsters we were expecting. These were people our age--in their 40s--and older. A guy in a brocade jacket and a fez with a blinking light on top darted around introducing people, though many seemed to know each other. It was obviously a singles thing. But not like any I'd ever seen.

We were witnessing a confab of Dive Bar Adventures Inc. and the Los Angeles Baby Boomers Social Network. We had stumbled on a Meetup.

Blinking Fez Man handed out playing cards to get newcomers mingling. First one with a royal flush gets a free drink! The thing smacked of bonhomie, not desperation. I hadn't seen so many single men my age in the same place since college. Could this be my ticket out of EHarmony?

Meetup.com was started in 2002 by dot-commer Scott Heiferman in an effort to revive face-to-face socializing. In 2004, Howard Dean supporters used Meetups as a powerful campaign tool. The site now has 3 million members in more than 130 countries. Some 43,000 groups cover 3,500 interests, political and personal.

Logging on for the first time is like finding Atlantis. There are clubs for every cause you can name and some you can't (acrobatic yoga or Dumpster diving, anyone?). Nearly 2,000 exist within a 25-mile radius of L.A.; new ones pop up daily. Drinking and hiking Meetups are the most popular.

Finally, I did it. I went to a Meetup. At a cafe around the corner, the Los Angeles French Language Meetup was having a Sunday brunch. Easy enough: If I hated it, I could walk home.

The dozen attendees, most in their 20s and 30s, were a friendly mix of native speakers and beginners. We took over a couch-lined alcove; those with similar fluency found each other naturally. I ended up next to Charlie Keenan, a 43-year-old financial writer with whom I shared a lively, wide-ranging, two-hour-long gabfest. He mentioned a girlfriend, but so what? I was having a blast jabbering in French.

At the Los Angeles Wine (& Food) Meetup, 15 budding oenophiles showed up for a tasting at Monsieur Marcel in the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, led by 30-year-old wine importer Jean-Baptiste Dhalluin. His selections were good--a surprisingly complex Muscadet, a soft, earthy, Cotes de Nuits-Villages. I sat next to Sang Muthui, a computer software designer in her early 30s who's a regular. Was she here to find someone? Nope. It's about the wine, she said. Lucky and Ian, two guys in their early 30s, said the same thing.


Bret Hampton, 58, a film and video editor and one of the organizers of the French-speakers group, explains: "If a guy showed up to meet women and was too forward, other members might run interference. It becomes a community." Is Hampton in it to meet women? "That would be nice," he says, "but it's not why I joined."

Well, if a stranger asked if I were there to meet guys, I'm not sure I'd cop to it either. But people, come on! We're talking about rooms full of friendly, like-minded souls.

Dhalluin says socializing--to meet both friends and dates--is as much a part of his Meetups as is the wine.

"I won't say I've seen people getting married," he says, "but I've seen them find dates." Members post their photos online, he points out, so if there's someone interesting you didn't get to talk to, it's easy to see the next Meetup he or she signed up for or send a message.

Chris Kaufman--he of the blinking fez--is married, 43, and an organizer of Dive Bar Adventures as well as Culture Sponges and a Gen-X support group. So, I ask him, are people hooking up at Meetups?

"It's to make pals and explore the city," he says. "But the straight answer is yes."

A former software entrepreneur now studying sociology at UCLA, Kaufman advises members looking for love to proceed with caution. "See the person on a few more Meetup dates and get to know them first," he says. "If there's an intense spark, great. If not, at least you've built a friendship. And ask if they have any friends outside of the Meetup. It's a small community."

Again, the C word: community. It reminds me of how isolating Internet dating has been in all its single-minded efficiency. But when you're doing your thing--and for every thing there is a Meetup--the pressure is off. You're not auditioning for anything. You're opening yourself up to serendipity. And that is a way to meet someone.

This isn't news. But it's easy to forget when you're shopping hard for love.

Dhalluin has delicious wines to introduce me to. It's great to be speaking French again, and I can't wait to see what kind of surfing Meetups are out there. As for Financial Writer Guy from the French-speakers' Meetup, he's adorable and we have tons in common. Yeah, I know, he has a girlfriend. But if there's one like him out there, there must be more.

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