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Labor (Day) of Love:
Cooking Instructions for a Grillside Romance

or, Would This Be an Appropriate Time to Ask You If You Have Any Condiments?

by Todd Levin

Summertime in Manhattan is a kind of gift. Most of the creeps have weekend homes, and the less-financially solvent can enjoy free Saturday nights without fighting for cabs or barstools or urinals. But, even with the possibilities cracked wide open, New York City can still be daunting if you're trying to meet new people. The next few minutes you spend here at the Big To Do could help you refashion your Labor Day weekend barbecue into your own custom-tailored singles scene.

Those who warn that it's difficult to find romance in New York are probably speaking from true, painful experience. (Or from casual viewings of one of the many hilarious films and TV programs that perfectly mimic the kooky ups and downs of life in the big city, like Sex and the City and Friends, and Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.) Those few bright-eyed social bumblebees who disagree, insisting it's easy to meet wonderful people, are either terrible judges of character, condemnable liars, or my ex-girlfriends.

Learn the Way of the Spatula

Meeting someone new is hard enough. Just getting inside where someone new might be is often impossible. Yes, there are bars and clubs and other meeting places on every corner of most major cities, and several more between corners. But each establishment is governed by unique, autonomous codes of social order that you must memorize and adhere to in order to apply for citizenship. For instance, your baseball hat-topped head is not likely to make it past the elaborate web of velvet ropes protecting the constituents of Club FancyPants from 'normals' like yourself; on the other hand, that same cap might be your admission ticket to The Village Idiot right down the street.

For all these reasons and more, isn't it time to eschew the rigid concrete nightlife of your big city and really take advantage of summer's freedom? Forget the cosmopolitans and steak frites. Crack a Schlitz, throw some dogs on the grill, and serve up the love with a side of slaw at a backyard barbecue.

[NB: This writer cannot in good conscience condone throwing actual dogs on the grill, but merely suggests gently placing hot dogs on a flame-heated surface. "Dogs" was intended as slang, in order to make good with a younger generation of reader/meat-enthusiast. Apologies. Now put down that schnauzer, please.]

Why are you trying so hard to date in the too-hip city when you can fall into happiness effortlessly beneath a backyard patio tarp? Let's face it: would you rather compete with the professionally fashionable in a tightly packed, smoky bar or chat someone up next to the giant fat guy eating a six-burger stack on a dare? Bringing the easy suburban constant to your otherwise granite-hard urban life is a fine way to bring your guard down, keep your wallet in check, and maybe make new friends without any self-conscious trappings. Oh, and baseball hats are absolutely welcome.

Dress to Ingest

The only reason we don't walk around dressed in sweatsuits or oversized garbage bags every day is because of the off chance that our tidy appearance will be acceptable to potential mates. (And garbage bags are extremely hot. Have you ever... oh, nevermind.)

Given the choice, dressing down always helps strip away layers of uncomfortable formality that prevent you from being you. If you live in a big city where 'cool' people aren't just in the pages of magazines, you can take your personal appearance habits and the normal anxieties associated therewith and multiply that by ten thousand. If you live in one of these cities and are really interested in (and committed to) attracting others, you will likely struggle over your appearance before approaching even the most casual hangouts. In cities like New York this usually means applying the following equation:

First, imagine yourself in your most comfortable, relaxed state. Then add pants, for everyone's sake. Now combine that with accessories such as a presentable and difficult-to-maintain haircut that always looks freshly washed, stylish but cruel shoes, toothpaste, a trendily untrendy scent, etc. By the time you've completed the twelve steps to a Socially Palatable You, you're a basically a mannequin with birthmarks. Fun!

Now go back to the beginning, the part where you were incredibly comfortable and at ease with yourself. (If you're picturing yourself in your mother's womb, you've probably gone too far.) Remember that T-shirt you were wearing? The one with the peeling Mr. Bubbles decal on the chest? Put that back on, because you're going to a barbecue, and no one really cares what you look like there.

The dress code at a cookout is casual enough to let you pay attention to more important things than the drape of your shirt, like people's personalities or that last ear of sweet, succulent corn. (And stay away from my beautiful corn!) Being cookout-casual lets the superficial formality of dating melt away and carries you into the stage where you no longer feel compelled to circle each other and sniff. Instead you see things as they are: two human beings, face to face, enjoying extruded pork.

Resist the New Economy

In Manhattan, particularly in warmer weather seasons when you're antsy to be outside the confines of your overpriced apartment, you practically sweat cash. Everything adds up, from drinks to food to transportation to the adult videos you may likely go home with after dealing with the ugliness of the singles scene.

Take cabs, for instance. If you think you're traveling to just one locations, you've clearly never been dragged through this before. Figure in at least three cab trips (a conservative estimate) with $5 - $7 cab rides between each one. And add another one for your trip home. If you're drinking in swankier places, expect to pay between $6 and $9 for each and every beverage you purchase. Worse still, most places are completely unwilling to refund you a nickel off your tab for each recyclable bottle you return to the bartender. Depending on where you live and where you prowl at night, an average evening out might cost you between one hundred and two hundred dollars.

Compare that to the fixed costs associated with a cookout. Since you're not particularly dressed up, don't bother with a cab; public transportation will do. As for amenities, the host (and bless the sweet, beefy heart of that individual) will likely supply the bulk of food and drinks. That makes for a happy guest.

If, however, you have a guilty conscience, you will want to kick in with food or drink contributions. If you've brought more than $20 with you, you've planned poorly. But even if you have, you've gotten off fantastically cheap, haven't you? Expect that the good-time feeling surging through you is a consistent force moving through any cookout, and take advantage of it. Smiling, lounging party guests are significantly more approachable than barflies guarding their overpriced mojitos.

Congratulations! You're Pre-Approved!

Perhaps the most satisfying and distinction between an evening of bar and club-hopping and a long afternoon of grilled meats and heavily lubricated salads is your relative sense of ease among strangers. If you are among complete strangers, there are a million unpredictable factors associated with every social situation. For instance, if you want to say hello to someone you have to consider things like their dating history, or whether it's just an undercover cop trying to penetrate a social subculture in order to gain information about recent criminal activity. All that before you've even opened your mouth.

Cookouts are significantly easier. Like any organized gathering, your inclusion, however peripheral, means you have been pre-approved. You are among friends, even if the majority of them are strangers. Because of this implicit fact the cookout is more than just a pleasant social situation; it also creates an environment that enables you to do unlimited reconnaissance work on any invited guest.

Since you are all loosely tied by only a few degrees of separation, you can find out someone's current dating status, middle name, and affiliations with communist organizations in a matter of minutes. Better still, once you've completed a background check, making contact is easy. Start with something charming like, "I think you have mayonnaise on your cheek." The point is, you have very little to lose because you're safe here.

Everyone's Your Friend When You Run the Grill

Better than attending a cookout is, of course, hosting one. Most people living in a large urban center still hold vague childhood memories of long-gone things like grass and flowers and silt and oxygen. These memories eventually morph into an aching feeling of nostalgia. This nostalgia often makes city-folk act stupid.

But it also means that one of the most coveted things in a sprawling city is a patch of lawn. The lawn hearkens back to more innocent times. And if you have a lawn, it is imperative that you take these last fleeting moments of summer and fill that lawn with party guests.

By hosting a cookout, not only are you being amazingly generous; you're potentially making your own home a haven, an alternative to the awkwardness of dating. Make sure you encourage your guests to each bring a friend or two, as it keeps the social dynamic more interesting and insures you'll see some new faces. And, of course, with natural turf being such a precious commodity in the city, at a good barbecue there is no better opener than, "You know, I should really do this more often." Trust me: by the end of the night, you'll be canonized.

Now how would you rather finish out your summer in the sun-baked city? Fighting crowds and bouncers to stand elbow-to -elbow in dry-cleaned cottons, or helping a new acquaintance ease a marshmallow on a pointed stick for s'mores? (If you'll pardon the expression.)

Shouldn't you be calling a few hundred friends and purchasing a "Kiss the Cook" apron right about now?

Your friend Todd Levin thrills and grills in the city that never sleeps. Last time out, he gave you what for on the topic of mix tapes in the year 2000.

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