Monday, July 21, 2008

Sunday Evening in Williamsburg: Alix Strauss's "Have I Got a Guy for You!" at Stain Bar's Sunday Salon

On a very hot Sunday, we dropped in for two brief visits to the McCarren pool party (it was easy to get in, unlike last week when we were locked out) and also stopped by the Giglio on the last day of the Feast, but lots of more articulate bloggers have written about those events.

At 7 p.m. we were a few blocks from Dumbo Books HQ at one of our favorite hangouts on Grand Street, Stain Bar, for the Sunday Salon reading series, which last evening featured the editor and four contributors to the anthology Have I Got a Guy for You!: What Really Happens When Mom Fixes You Up.

We've been to many great readings at Stain Bar, like this one a year ago -- and back in May 2007, we even inflicted ourselves upon an understandably restless audience there. Last evening's reading took place not in the cozy inside of the bar out at its beautiful backyard garden. With a large crowd of more people (2:1 female advantage) than chairs, we comfortably perched upon a little stanchion, using the grass as a table for our sparkling water.

Have I Got a Guy for You! was compiled and edited by award-winning novelist Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals) and social satirist (Britney Spears: An Unauthorized Biography), featuring 26 women's strange-but-true tales of dates from hell, all arranged by mothers determined to get their daughters married off to Prince Charming, Doctor Charming or Rabbi Charming.

If the five stories we heard last night are any indication, this book is not only hysterically funny but also a cautionary tale for all Jewish mothers (at least those with adult unmarried daughters -- our mom never set any of her kids up but then she was handicapped by giving birth only to three boys) -- and apparently in this, you don't have to be Jewish to delude yourself into calling Robert Chambers "Mr. Right."

Sunday Salon's co-hosts Nita Noveno and Caroline Berger first introduced Alix Strauss, who said this book actually took longer to create than her well-received literary novel did: two and a half years turning the 163 submissions into the 26 personal essays that made the final cut.

The inspiration for the book came from, naturally, Alix's own mother, who set her up with a friend's son's friend, who stood 4'11", wore an unexplained black eye patch, picked his teeth with the edge of a Sweet 'n' Low packet and, oh yes, was married (but "only for six months, and it's not working out"). Alix's mom later said she "didn't think to ask" if he was married, apparently not noticing that deal-breaker.

Before bringing on the other contributors, Alix cataloged some of the bad dates they reported; my favorite was the guy whose apartment was filled with miniature Snoopy figurines so precious to him that he grew livid when his date tried to touch one of them.

Leora Klein, an eighth grade Manhattan English teacher whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The New Jersey Jewish News and elsewhere, hilariously described a date with a man her mom had seen a pic of on a friend's cellphone. Dan, suffering from a sore throat, talked mostly about his ex-girlfriend who he broke up with because after three years he "wasn't ready for marriage" and his other ex-girlfriend who he broke up with because after three years he "wasn't ready for marriage." After that, his throat was so sore, he decided -- no joke -- to stop talking and write his thoughts on a memo pad for the rest of the evening. No wonder Leora started looking around for a hidden video camera.

The moral of Adina Kay's tragically funny relationship instigated by her mother started when she broke her own rule: Never date Hebrew school teachers. Even if your mom says they're "not too Jew-y."

But Dan turned out to be, mirabile dictu, cute, tall, well-built, not hairy and polite. Unfortunately, when he finally seems more interested in Adina than in Nickelodeon cartoons, video games and her opinion of his Hanukkah lessons plans, he refuses to go down the block from his apartment to Duane Reade for a necessary purchase, saying he's "too big for condoms -- they hurt when I put them on." Did we mention the balled-up tissues all over Dan's living room floor and his telling Adina, "My room's not ready for you to see"?

Adina, finishing her MFA at Columbia and published in literary magazines, is obviously a hopeful type if she went out with this schmendrick four times. We suspect her motive was collecting some good material.

Next up was Katherine Wessling, whose personal essays have been published in Swing and Speak magazines and heard on WNYC's broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition. She grew up in West Los Angeles with an elegant, refined country-club-and-cotillion who, worried that her adult daughter is lonely in New York, sets her up with someone she's heard is "in banking."

This supposed banker, Sal, wearing a "monkey suit," turns out to be a boorish dese-and-dose goon who downs Long Island iced tea, says it's "fucking unbelievable" that Katherine has never seen The Godfather (his favorite film is Goodfellas and says he himself is involved with "The Family"), and deposits his used chewing gum on the restaurant floor.

Hey, Sal would tell Katherine, at least he isn't his loser brother Tony, who's stuck in graduate school in "Montana or someplace" trying to be a poet rather than usefully make big bucks. Give Katherine's mother credit, she says, for setting her up with "the world's most incompatible guy for me." At least mother and daughter, and all of us, got some good laughs out of her matchmaking.

Next, Heather Robinson discussed growing up in Pittsburgh with her glamorous mother, Judy -- nicknamed "The Dazz" -- who, still looking terrific, was a good sport enough to be at a nearby table. Determined to help her 20-year-old daughter, mooning over a breakup from her first boyfriend at the University of Washington during the summer, Judy sets up Heather with Barnet, who turns out not to be in his thirties but at least 40. But he seems good-looking and nice enough.

Their date related skillfully by Heather, a senior writer for the Daily News' Big Town Big Heart section who's also been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Post and Time Out New York, takes a weird turn when Barnet feels the need to talk about the cause of his divorce: domestic violence. And no, it's not what you think...but strange enough.

Heather interrupted in media res, so you'll have to read the book to find out if there was a second date. Her mom, after all, says "everyone in pants deserves another chance." Hey, Mrs. Robinson, you're not trying to seduce us with that line?

Finally, Eve Biderman, co-author of Letters from My Sister with her sister Faye, described several very funny dates with totally unsuitable (to say the least) men that were set up by her Orthodox Jewish mom (and, in one case, by her dad).

We'd say that the first guy's spitting out "excess" salad dressing into a glass he keeps at the restaurant table for that purpose deserves to be singled out for grossness on the second dates. But the second guy's using the New York Times as toilet paper on the third date gives him a run for the money -- as does the third dude's discussion of a mouse's "fecal matter" during dinner. And Eve's blind date experiences go downhill after that. But we can all laugh about it now.

After a big round of applause for all the evening's readers, some of us bought our copies of Have I Got A Guy For You! -- either the standard book or a deluxe edition that came with a little red man in a plastic bag that would, we were told, get a lot bigger if we immersed him in water.

That's probably more than can be said for any of the loser guys the contributors to this smart, funny anthology were set up with.

We have never been on a date as bad as any we heard described by these women. No wonder our life has been wonderful.

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