Love in 3 Minutes

Welcome to speed dating, the giant buffet of romance.

Tea at Five Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through September 3; 216-795-7000
Linda Gualtieri, the belle of the ball.
Linda Gualtieri, the belle of the ball.
Some 60 people have gathered at the Little Bar downtown. These are not the beautiful ones, to be found a half-block over in the nightclubs of West Sixth. They're everyday Clevelanders, a mix of eagerness and big smiles, anxiety and cautious scoping of the room. Such is the nature of romance.

It's called speed dating, supposedly conceived by a rabbi to tend the amorous needs of his flock. For 20 bucks a head, women line up on one side of the table, men on the other. They have three minutes to chat, reveal, probe for mutual interest with the person across from them, then the men move down the line.

It is not the most romantic of ventures. The guy who said, "Love is a many splendored thing" likely wasn't inspired by an assembly line. You almost expect to hear a foreman yell, "C'mon, boys, let's get this love built. We gotta ship it to Wichita by morning."

Then again, things practical are rarely pretty.

This group is age 35-45, inhabitants of The Period of Doom. It's the age when passion must navigate children, divorce, and biological clocks that morph into time bombs. It's not like when they were 20, young, firm, with little to risk. Nor is it like when they'll be 50, when their station's largely set and they'll be forced to accept peace or resignation. They are caught in that between age, the time when bodies sag, hair thins, jobs demand, but there is still time to score someone good, someone right, before the light fades.

The proposition -- one part opportunity, one part dread -- is best summed up by Linda Gualtieri: "Would I like to share my life with somebody? Absolutely. The worst thing I worry about is spending my life alone."

Despite the absence of flowers and candlelight, speed dating is an oddly efficient way to salve that fear. Instead of hunting the sparse game at bars in hopes of a glance, a spark, this is a giant buffet of romance, with each menu item looking for the same thing you are. Bonus round: "You never have to listen to someone say, 'No, I don't want to go out with you,'" says Tracy Corpus, who mans a bullhorn to keep the three-minute segments moving.

Each person privately scores their date a yea or nay. At the end of the night, ProgressiveDaters, the Independence company hosting this bash, will tabulate the scores. Matches -- meaning both parties said yea -- are distributed by e-mail. From there, the couples pursue as they wish.

Gualtieri, a former magician turned credit-card fraud investigator, is coming off a failed 14-year marriage and a rebound relationship gone sour. Her tale typifies the crowd. "He loved to cook," she says of Rebound Man. "He took care of me. He was very kind and considerate. He took me under his wing, an angel that had come down from heaven."

He was also bipolar. Dumped her last spring. Got married last week. Such are the travails of modern dating. "It's hard to find someone my age who doesn't have a lot of baggage," she says.

Women are on the short end of this equation. Being the superior species, they have nowhere to look but down. Men will happily target anything that moves, so long as it provides regular sex and doesn't stand in front of the TV. Women, unfortunately, have standards. And standards are not conducive to mating.

Lydia, an equal employment opportunity counselor, is looking for "someone stable, secure, who knows himself and is on the wild side just a little bit." It's a reasonable expectation. She is smart, with a kindness that encircles her like a force field. She also has three kids at home. "It's very hard," she says. "They have to be willing to embrace a family."

Jane's search has been equally difficult. An environmental and safety compliance officer with an 18,000-watt smile, she'll know Mr. Special has arrived when "your palms sweat and your heart flutters." Problem is, she's 41, and the guy with the flutter has yet to show.

She remains upbeat, like most of the women here tonight. These are professional women. They are confident; they have achieved in life. But the slightest hint of anxiety shades their faces, speaking to pursuits unfinished. "I've always wanted children, and at 41, that will likely never happen," says Jane. "And I've kind of felt sorry about that."

Gualtieri would seem to have no worries. She is tall, warm, with a regal beauty seemingly ordered from Central Casting. Clearly she's the belle of the ball. The men unabashedly scope. The women wear the tight faces that come when heavy competition is near. But she has problems of her own. The men who ask her out are largely in their 20s and early 30s. "I don't know what it is, but younger guys hit on me," says the 42-year-old. "What do I have in common with them?"

By the end of the night, she'll find four matches. But, "to be honest," she later says, "I really didn't connect with anybody that much." Her hunt is for someone "compassionate and sensitive, who will be there for me, but will also provide space." It's a difficult quest, given the nature of the primitive male.

Just ask Peggy, who has the misfortune of being seated below the TV, which is showing the Tribe-Detroit game. "If you get the seat under the TV, it's hard to get their attention," she says. "You're used to them looking down, and now they're looking up."

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