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L-U-V Hangover

Why is it so hard to be single in KC? Under cover of darkness the Night Ranger seeks answers.

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Flash back five months. It was the last day of February, a windy, frigid day, when we heard the dreaded words from our then-boyfriend: "We have to talk." All had seemed relatively normal up until that point -- especially when we left his house that morning -- doubly so, because we were supposed to go to Lawrence that evening for a delayed Valentine's Day gift of a night at the Eldridge. However, with those four words we knew that for some reason, it was suddenly, inexplicably over. He came to our house after work, said he'd found out that day that he might, just might, have a job in another country and, just as dramatically, left our life.

The day after, we forced ourselves to go to our friend's sex-toy party (think Tupperware, only with better plastic and no disgusting burp noises). We desperately needed to get out of the house for some air. However, the dullness we felt made it hard for us to be social. We couldn't even laugh at the bemulleted naked guys on the playing cards, which was very much unlike us.

In the pain-dazed days that followed, we replayed scenes, good and bad, from the entire relationship on a continuous loop in our mind. Of course, we also thought of the things we should have said to him instead of sitting there numbly. We realized that it really is All For The Best, but that didn't ease the pain of being dumped. We went out with our friends, most of whom are couples, and even though they were wonderful, we couldn't help but feel like an interloper at best or a Fifth Wheel contestant (albeit a platonic one) at worst.

We reread Bridget Jones -- both books -- and took comfort in that. We listened to a lot of Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, and it spoke to us. Someday you'll be the one who's left when someone sets you free/You will learn love's lessons, you will think of me.

We thought it would be impossible to meet anyone again.

And, just like that, we found ourselves back in the hell that is dating. As that bleak winter day melted away, it gave way to an antic-filled spring and summer, when we enjoyed various flirtations and dalliances. Consequently, even though we weren't actively seeking another relationship and basically just wanted to Date Around and Have Fun, we still became embroiled in the politics, neurotic behavior and overanalyzing of situations that constitute the modern dating scene as we know it.

That's why it came as no surprise when a list ranking cities for singles posted last month on Forbes magazine's Web site (www.forbes.com) tagged Kansas City a bottom-dwelling 36 out of 40. We had heard from our friends in other cities that it was hard for them as well -- even for those who lived in places that ranked high on the list. So we wondered: Is KC, a place that prides itself on its Midwestern friendliness, really such a horrendous place to be single?

We were intrigued by the lack of l-u-v apparently afflicting this place. And because we cover the bar scene for a living, we figured that teeming petri dish would be a natural starting point for study. Plus, we occasionally get "Dear Night Ranger" e-mails asking, "Where's a good place to meet men/women/interesting people/party with the elite?" (Yes, that was an actual query.) At the very least, we could answer a few of these questions in the course of our research.

Of course, there were some caveats. We were well aware of the fact that it's easy to meet people in bars if you're just looking to hook up, especially with the social lube of alcohol. But we were choosing to focus instead on why it's hard to meet someone with whom you actually click and can wake up next to without having to mumble some lame fakescuse as a reason to flee. So, as we delved into the world of singlehood in KC, we kept in mind a passage from Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: "I promise never to suggest that Singletondom is a mistake, or that because someone is a Singleton there is anything wrong with them. For, as we all know, Singletondom is a normal state in the modern world, all of us are single at different times in our lives, and the state is every bit as worthy as Holy Wedlock."

Plus, we were being paid to go out and drink and talk to cute guys. Which is really the best job to have after a breakup.

First, we were curious about how Forbes.com came up with its list. Its staff looked at several categories in the forty largest American metropolitan centers: the number of singles in the area (people older than age fifteen who have never been married), nightlife (the number of restaurants, bars and nightclubs), culture (museums, pro sports teams, live theaters and university population), how much it costs to live alone, job growth, coolness (the size of the gay community and the number of creative workers like artists and scientists), and the wily and elusive "buzz factor." Kansas City ranked low on all fronts except for the cost of living category, in which we placed eighth.

For the three years that Forbes.com has been compiling this list, the write-ups about KC have been as generic as the stock photos used to illustrate the stories. The usual Chamber of Commerce references to the "city of fountains," our having "more boulevards than Paris" and our "good BBQ" have been tossed about haphazardly. And just why was Forbes.com doing this survey, as opposed to, say, Cosmo?

"Every year, Forbes takes a look at the best places to do business," said Davide Dukcevich, the staff writer who edited this project, in explaining how the idea came about. "My editor was interested in doing a list -- and because it is a dot-com, the Web site is geared toward a younger audience. I was a 26-year-old in New York, and the only thing I knew, really, was being single and going out and stuff."

We asked how Breckinridge Ely, the guy who produced this year's write-up, got his information about KC. Dukcevich replied that Ely hadn't been to Kansas City but had interviewed some people he knew here. "Kansas City is one of the more difficult places, actually," Dukcevich said. "For almost all the cities, we had someone [write the piece] with an intimate knowledge who lived there. For Kansas City, we had to rely on interviews.

"By the way," added the amiable Dukcevich, "this hasn't helped me at all in my own marital status. [There's] not even a shadow of a girlfriend. It just shows you how it's all about who you are, I guess, rather than the statistics."

Armed with the knowledge that this was just a shameless promotion for Forbes.com, we set out to investigate the magazine's claims by gathering a little anecdotal evidence. Our strategy: drinkin' and schmoozin'.

Our initial research started at three officially sanctioned schmoozefests that occurred in one week: Shook, Hardy and Bacon's "happy hour to celebrate diversity" at Trago, the free concert by the Samples sponsored by the Downtown Council, and the Chamber of Commerce's Business After Hours street party at 19th and Central. We confess to having developed a weird fascination with these events. We've often wondered whether they were good pickup opportunities disguised as "networking." At the Shook, Hardy shindig, though, we discovered that it really was all about the schmooze and that having a business card to exchange was essential.

The event organizer strictly enforced the mandate that everyone in attendance had to meet five new people, which definitely provided a great excuse for chatting people up. We bonded with Greg, 25, a native of Detroit who didn't want to give his last name; and Daniel Thomas, 27, a KC native who used to live in San Diego. Though both had girlfriends (whom they met through friends), they were happy to help.

"Everyone's married. It absolutely sucks," Greg said of KC. "It's nothing like Detroit, San Diego, Chicago or New York. Seriously, there are so many different bars there with singles ages 22 to 40."

"Girls just want to get married, and no one wants to just get laid," Daniel complained.

They also criticized the lack of a bar scene here and said there were just three places to go where there was some semblance of nightlife: Westport (though they thought there were too many cops there), the Plaza and downtown.

"It's a cliquey town. I'm glad I came back," Daniel added sarcastically. "This interview has depressed me. I need to get back to the West Coast."

Opinions were more varied at the Samples concert, which was held outside at 10th and Central. The jam-band melodies reverberated off the tall buildings hemming in the venue, making impossible any conversation quieter than a shout. Small children ran wild, quickly followed by their stroller-wielding parents.

Matt Molli, 27, thought it was easy to find dates because so many people know other people here. "It's a big small town," he said. "It's like the Kevin Bacon game -- the degrees of separation are lower in Kansas City than in St. Louis." But there are fewer options here, he added, because there aren't as many singles.

As we roamed about, we noticed a group of women, one of whom actually made eye contact and smiled at us in a friendly way. Encouraged by this, we crashed her circle and asked if we could interview them about the singles scene in KC.

"Oh, my God!" they exclaimed. "We were just talking about that!" They had been discussing the Forbes.com list and thought it was pretty much right on. "No one talks to each other here. There's no mingling," said Monica Rademacher, 27. She had just returned from a trip to Chicago, where she said the vibe was the opposite. According to Monica, Kansas Citians suffer from a lack of social skills.

"No one approaches anyone," agreed Nicole Jacobs, 32, who's originally from New York state. "They stay within their circle of friends." Both Monica and Nicole were puzzled as to why people are more reluctant to mingle here; they speculated that perhaps it had something to do with personal mindsets.

Because of some weird alignment of stars -- or poor planning -- the Chamber of Commerce event overlapped with the Samples show, so we hoofed it down to 19th and Central. Unfortunately, we got mysteriously drunk there after just two plastic airline cups of cheap wine. We did note through our haze that it was a great turnout, and we had fun because our coworkers and friends were there as well. Indeed, we stayed within our comfort level by talking to them instead of meeting new people, therefore becoming Those People and a part of the problem ourselves. Then we started to stumble, and Brett, our Date/Not a Date, had to support us as we walked out. We now have a phobia of wine served in airline cups.

After recovering from that experience, we resumed our research a week later at Harpo's. It was Tuesday quarter-draw night, and the crowd was primarily made up of people in their early to mid-20s.

"It's not hard to meet people," said John Gilo, 23, originally from Arkansas. "Look around -- it's a real good-looking crowd here.

"It's very easy to hook up," John went on. "It's great. There are a lot of fuckin' hootchies running around."

Amy Appleton, 23, was apparently not one of those fuckin' hootchies. "You don't go to bars to pick up," she said. "I never go out with people I meet at a bar. Ninety-five percent of bars are filled with dipshits. You don't know where they come from or who their parents are. Plus, the alcohol skews people's personalities." Alas, she had no suggestions about where else to meet people. "Is it possible to meet people at nonbar places?"

Jay Finks, 28, whom we encountered at Have a Nice Day Café, thinks so. Jay, who was dressed as an '80s goth guy, with black lipstick, eyeliner and a stud bracelet, agreed that the friend-of-a-friend method (FOF) was the best way to meet someone, but he also recommended becoming a regular at a place where you like to hang out. And, unlike the boys at Forbes.com, he thought KC was a great town for singles.

"I've spent a lot of time in Denver, and I'd rather be single in KC," he said. "In Denver, people are very friendly and great, but in KC, they're just as nice and very attractive. They have the total package."

That's all well and good for Jay, who said he had a girlfriend he met through friends in KC. But why can't anyone else meet these seemingly mythical people with the "total package" here?

From all of our conversations, we derived three theories explaining why Kansas City is not a great place for Singletondom:

1. The clique factor. Most people grew up here, so they have their set circle of friends. Plus, we see the same crowd out at bars, and it's tough to break into new social circles. We may be friendly by day, but we're aloof when out at night -- everyone is ensconced in their urban tribes, and those tribes are as inert as a Group VIII element on the periodic table. (Man, no wonder guys think we're weird.)

2. The lack of a bar scene. Not enough bars equals too few places that attract large numbers of singles. And even the "real" scenes we have suffer from identity crises: The Plaza is more of a shopping-and-restaurant area for old people with money; the bars downtown are scattered across too wide an area, so there's no cohesive scene; and Westport the only place in the city with a high concentration of neighboring bars (THERE ARE JUST fourteen in the area within walking distance of one another), is constantly fending off bad publicity about the noise and crowds and has brought in more cops to control the situation, which just feels oppressive.

3. Rampant coupling goes on here, to the point that it's almost a stigma to be single. According to the 2000 federal census, married-couple households make up about half of the total households in the metro area, at 51.6 percent.This figure was slightly higher than several other cities to which we compared it, such as Forbes.com's No. 2-ranked Denver/Boulder (49.9 percent), and first-place Austin, Texas (48.3 percent).

So how do we go about being a more minglerific city, aside from adopting the Seinfeld suggestion of all wearing name tags? We decided to test Theory No. 1 -- the clique factor -- at an event that seemed to have massive clique potential: a Young Friends of Art happy hour, which was a fund-raiser and preparty for the group's annual Party 'Arty event.

The happy hour was at the Levee (actually, in the party house next door). After paying our admission fee, we bought drinks and worked with Research Assistant Brett on concocting fake identities; we wanted to be undercover while conducting our little social experiment. We decided to be “Jackie,” a food stylist at the Star; Brett said he would be “Charlie S.,” the name of his cousin. We decided our icebreaker would be, “Sooo ... you like art?” which turned out to be quite hard to say with a straight face while drinking. We told “Charlie” that his should be, “Wichita High class of ’93, right?” We thought it was nice and random, just strange enough to work.

“There is no Wichita High,” he said. “I went to Wichita East.” Yeah, yeah, semantics.

After concealing our notebook, we went to work. A woman in a red-and-white Banana Republic dress chatted with us briefly. However, we felt guilty after giving her our fake name (and we also didn’t want to later deal with the awkwardness of saying, “My name’s not really Jackie”), so we dropped the charade.

Then Lawrence, a lawyer from Overland Park, stopped to talk to us while going to the bar.

“Sooo ... you like art?” we asked.

“I like art. And I like art parties,” he replied flirtatiously. “Are you a nurse? You look like my ex-girlfriend, and she’s a nurse.”

Hmmm. Any icebreaking line involving ex-GFs -- as well as the specious transitive-property argument that, because ex-GF = nurse and Night Ranger = ex-GF, NR = nurse -- was not good, especially for a lawyer.

After Lawrence left, Brett remarked, “Your [clique] theory’s shot to hell. Two people came up and talked to us.”

After a couple of more drinks, we started interacting with more people and were surprised to find ourselves having fun. Though it wasn’t a pickup scene at all, it seemed that if we came back on a regular basis, we might get to know some nice people. And, as if to prove that this was a big small town, we ran into a woman we had met through a friend at a wine-tasting several months ago. We found out that her sister-in-law, who was also at the YFA function, was a high school classmate of ours.

We started chatting with a woman named Dena about our little project. “What town is good for singles?” she countered, then agreed that it can be cliquey here. She recommended that people not limit themselves by hanging out with the same group of people.

“If you’re not outgoing, it’s hard,” Dena said. “You have to go to everything, not just go to bars. You can’t close yourself off, especially in a midsized town. People need to expand their horizons. You don’t know what you’re going to find.”

Exactly. And you never know whose ex-GF you’ll be compared to, either.

To test Theory No. 2 -- not enough of a bar scene -- we checked out the debut of Saturday Night Live in Westport, for which the streets were blocked off and a dollar admission was charged to enter the area. Westport seemed like the logical destination -- as opposed to the Plaza or downtown -- given its reputation as the only entertainment district in town.

The plan was to meet Research Assistant Casey in front of Harry's so that we could each check out different entry points. We ambled to the barricade at the corner of Broadway and Westport Road, where we encountered a line that wasn't moving, inexplicable considering there were only about ten people in front of us. When we finally got to the front, we gave a yellow-shirted "event staff" guy our dollar, got a wristband and met Casey at the appointed spot. He had entered by Panera Bread (aka "Pantera"), and though he was ID'd, he was not charged a dollar and wasn't given a wristband. "It's seemingly impregnable but vulnerable," was his assessment of the new setup. "I would encourage anyone under 21 to be creative and sneak in."

We wandered around the empty streets, which was a surreal and discombobulating experience; we were used to seeing Westport bustling with people. Casey spotted Nick Vasos from WDAF Channel 4; apparently, he was out for some good, clean fun. KFME 105 was blasting its "retro to right now" hits, Aquafina had a booth, and there was an officially sanctioned hot dog stand. We missed seeing and smelling the various food trucks that usually ply their trade with the bar crowd. Frankly, it was all as sedate as a bad block party and, as Casey pointed out, was decidedly whiter, too.

We decided to conduct our research at Kelly's, a well-known meat market. We were soon befriended by Charlie, a guy in his forties who had a fake tattoo on his forehead. It was a green-and-white Kelly's stamp with a shamrock the size of a silver dollar. Charlie was quite lit. By that point, he was drinking water.

As we tried to query him about the tattoo, he kept trying to rub it off. "Get it off," he said. "Do it!"

We co-opted Charlie as a Research Assistant and deputized him to help investigate the singles issue. The three of us made our way to the back, where we encountered Sharon Roberts, 40. She was there with Craig, whom she had met at Buzzard Beach on Thursday. "Now we're at the same bar on Saturday!" she said. Sadly, Craig was about to move to Columbia, which led Sharon to conclude that even though KC is a good place for singles, a lot of people here are in transition. However, her style wasn't cramped at all. She expressed a fascination with Casey's curly hair and sprang out from her bar stool, barefoot, to dance with him. "He needs a Mrs. Robinson," she said.

In the meantime, her friend Michelle was also at the table, so we introduced her to Charlie and were pleased when they started dancing to Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69." Hoping to have made a luv connection, we left them and started talking to Mandy, a 21-year-old bachelorette wearing a veil festooned with small, plastic penises. She and her friend Nicole, 21, were at one of the ubiquitous bachelorette parties being held at Kelly's. They were also the purveyors of the fake tattoos, which had been given to them by a Kelly's official who deemed the women better ambassadors of the tattoo than anyone else in the joint. They had embraced their job enthusiastically. They offered us one, we accepted, and Nicole set about applying it to our general breast area, all the while asserting that KC is "the best" for Singletons because it's easy to meet "every style and every type" of person.

This claim came true when we were alerted to the presence of C-list celebs Don Harmon and Loren Halifax from Channel 4 News. (What was it with the Fox 4 run-ins that night, and why can't we ever run into Channel 9's Jeremy Hubbard instead? Grrrowrr!)

While that encounter was going on, we thought we saw Charlie and Michelle making out back at the table. Excitedly, we went to question Michelle, but she debunked the makeout theory. "He wanted to," she said, but she wouldn't let him. Furthermore, she was not interested in him at all. Saddened by that, we decided to leave. We took one last look around for Charlie. Alas, he was nowhere to be found.

After Casey bought a sanctioned hot dog, we meandered through the still-empty streets and reflected on why we usually just do a walk-through at Kelly's on weekend nights (go in the front door, walk to the back bar, do a Jell-O shot, then leave through the back door; approximate time: ten minutes, depending on the crowd factor) and how many of the Westport bars were walk-through places, mainly because of their cheesoid, meat-market vibe. We decided that we'll continue to support Westport for its independent stores and diverse drinking establishments. But we wished it would just stop fucking around with its newfound yuppitude and embrace its bartasticness wholeheartedly.

As for Theory No. 3, we weren't exactly sure how we were going to prove there's rampant coupling going on, aside from citing census figures. Maybe it's just that we're at that age when it seems like most of our friends, who are in their midtwenties to early thirties, have permadates, whereas in bigger cities, there are more singlets in this demographic. Maybe it's also because KC prides itself on being great for families, and given our Midwestern sensibilities, settling down is the norm.

Back in February, we went to check out the open tryouts for Temptation Island 3 at Lucky Brewgrille. (We hasten to add that we were there to look for story ideas, not because we were trying out.) The casting director told us she'd thought KC would be a good place to find auditioners but added that it was proving hard to find anyone. People here tend to settle down early, she decided.

Screw the census. If the woman who casts Temptation Island 3 says people get married early in Kansas City, that's proof enough for us. Then again, it could just be that no one wanted to be on her crappy show.

So, what have we learned from all our exhaustive research? We've concluded that there are some elements of truth in the Forbes.com list. However, we also recall Dukcevich's admission that he wasn't dating anyone despite living in eighth-ranked New York City. He was right: It is all about who you are rather than the statistics.

We've realized that we've often been guilty of staying within our own urban tribe when going out and of going to the same places and hanging out with the same people -- something we've been trying to change. Which raises the question: Is one solution to this perpetual problem of how to meet people really as simple as being more outgoing?

That might not be a bad place to start. One of our favorite resources, breakupgirl.net (aka the great Lynn Harris, who brilliantly writes about "love and the lack thereof"), recommends that "to maximize your returns, you must diversify your portfolio." That means doing a bit of everything, whether it's taking a class, doing volunteer work or going to bars. This, in turn, will lead to the Flirtation Continuum, "where there is no longer a vast gulf in your life between Me Projects and Mystery S/He projects; where you keep a general flirty, fizzy buzz going as an end in itself; where no one venture is the be-all -- well, end-all -- of your love life as you know it." Or, as Bridget Jones put it in her shorthand style: "Develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend." (Not that we're necessarily looking for a BF, much to the dismay of Night Ranger Mom.)

Dukcevich had his own recommendation: "The place that I almost prefer meeting other people -- preferably singles -- is parties," he said. "The more singles there are, the more parties ... especially in New York, [where] the bars are just sort of anonymous."

Of course, bars can be anonymous in KC as well. It's hard to strike up a conversation without having it seem like a bad pickup line. (Even something as innocuous as "Did the Royals win tonight?" can sound like a come-on while in bar mode, depending on the delivery.) But as long as the initiator isn't reeking of creepiness and sheer desperation, general bar chitchat should be encouraged. And to the initiator: If you're getting no response, abort mission and leave social circle. Do not hover in hopes that time will change the target's mind.

As for us, well, how about this: It's five months later now. We're still gingerly dipping our big toe back into the murky waters of dating, but we've realized that the breakup has forced us -- in a good way -- to branch out. As a result, we've met many cool friends of friends, such as Brett, the Date/Not a Date, who has now been upgraded to Date. He makes us dinner and humors our wacky tendencies. Really, what more can we ask for?

We've also realized that we definitely prefer the FOF method of meeting people as opposed to the bar or SunFresh pickup (which we didn't think actually happened in real life until the day we were asked out by a fellow shopper). We also intend to chat up random people at places where alcohol isn't the primary focus, such as schmoozefest happy hours and First Friday gallery walks, and perhaps also at mellow, nonmeat-markety bars. We're not expecting this to lead to anything, but it's always good to meet more people, right?

Recently, we went out with some friends of the ex-BF. Daniel, an FOF who was new to the group, asked how we knew everyone there.

Well, we explained, we used to go out with a guy who worked with all of them. Then he moved away, and we stayed in touch with his friends. It was funny how normal it seemed to refer to the ex-BF as being part of our past.

"Wow," Daniel said. "You lost a boyfriend but gained six or seven friends."

And we're happy to report that the Rex Hobart CDs, which got us through a sad time, have been temporarily put away. We're now drawing inspiration from the sage words of Young MC in "Bust a Move": Every dark tunnel has a light of hope, so don't hang yourself with a celibate rope.

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