Weekend!Nightlife: On the Rocks
Audrey Goldfarb and Nate Hogen are watching an elephant in a cage at the zoo.
A camera crew is watching Goldfarb and Hogen. And I'm watching the camera crew. It's not the most awkward date in the world - believe me, I've seen worse - but it's all just a little forced.
That's especially true when producer Chris Foster breaks in, as he occasionally does.
'Talk about the elephant,' he tells the young couple, who met last night at a singles event at the Hilton Portland.
The event was sponsored by Comcast, whose On Demand cable service airs, among other things, videotaped personals ads.
If you have on-demand cable service, it's worth scrolling through the ranks of hopefuls, although it's more likely to satisfy your urge for cruel mockery than your longing for a soul mate.
Branching out, the same channel has begun filming reality-TV dating episodes in various cities across the country.
Four couples from the Hilton event were chosen to be on the show, taped on the quick over two days in Portland. And Portland, I'm sorry to day, fails to make a good first impression.
It's raining hard, and rivulets run down the sides of the 25-year-old Goldfarb's hat. She's a student with some acting experience - it was her agent who steered her toward last night's singles event.
Now she stands at the entrance to the Oregon Zoo, smiling into the camera and saying, No, she's never done this before. 'I like to have a good time,' she says. 'I like adventure.'
'Can you tilt your hat back a little?' Foster asks. 'What are you looking for in a date?'
'I like a hot guy,' she says.
No one notices Hogen, who has sauntered up behind the camera crew, and is watching the interview.
Is he hot? It's a little hard to tell behind the artsy glasses and fuzzy turquoise hood. Goldfarb lingers behind a pillar while Hogen is interviewed.
He prepared for the date by doing yoga and drinking a latte, he says. He's also 25, a performance artist who believes that the highest purpose of art is to heal, he confidently tells the camera.
Things seem to be going well on the way to the elephant enclosure. Goldfarb and Hogen stand beneath an overhang, chatting, while the crew of sound, light and camera operators lays out a strategy and captures a few location shots along the way.
There are two producers and a cameraman here from Philadelphia. The remainder of the 10-person crew is local, so everything has to be orchestrated on the fly.
We all file into a sort of bunker, where an elephant is making a ruckus by banging a metal food dispenser against the bars of her cage. An animal handler leads us all through an office area, a couple of concrete holding tanks and into an outdoor yard, where Chendra, the zoo's smallest elephant, is waiting for what has been dubbed the 'Animal Encounter' part of the date.
Goldfarb and Hogen offer Chendra chunks of carrot from a bucket.
She picks up the pieces with her trunk, and places them in her mouth. Even a very small elephant is pretty big - this one probably could face down a charging SUV - and while the tip of her trunk is remarkably agile, it tends to leave a slick of mucus on anything it touches.
Is being slimed by an elephant a bonding experience? Maybe - it definitely makes good television.
It's no date without dinner
Feeling wet, cold and hungry, I decide to skip Lorikeet Landing and rejoin the group later on, for dinner at the Greek Cusina.
'Two?' asks the hostess as I approach the podium. Of course it can be lonely, and it also can be embarrassing, to be single. No wonder people are willing to subject themselves to just about anything in the hopes of finding a partner.
'No,' I say, 'I'm looking for a camera crew.'
They're pretty hard to miss. Two superbright lights are trained on a table near the back of the restaurant. Goldfarb and Hogen are facing each other over hummus and olives.
Imagine eating dinner with five or six people looking on, listening to your conversation and even, occasionally, laughing at your jokes. There are plenty of curious glances from the other diners in the crowded restaurant as well.
I sit down next to Foster, a couple yards from the daters' table. He's listening in on headphones and watching them on a video monitor. I can hear most of the conversation.
Hogen has decided to use this moment to plug some organizations he's involved with. He's handing Goldfarb a brochure for a biodynamic farm called Rain Fire Ranch.
Foster removes his headphones and asks the waiter to bring more olives. He directs the couple to talk about the zoo.
This leads all too quickly to a discussion of global warming, which leads to Hogen's theories on creating your own reality. I can tell this isn't the repartee that Foster is looking for.
'Does it always get this metaphysical at dinner?' I ask him.
'No,' he says. 'This is Portland.'
Dessert makes sweet ending
The meal is rushed through. Everyone is tired, and the gaffer already has a beer in his hand. With dessert half-eaten, Goldfarb is hustled outside for an exit interview.
I hang back and ask Hogen how he feels about the whole thing. 'It definitely felt unnatural, that's for sure,' he says. 'I think we'd get to know each other better outside of this context.'
He's hoping Goldfarb will come along with him after dinner - he and his friends have plans to hit not one, not two, but three different underground dance parties later tonight.
He's unapologetic about bringing a pile of handbills and brochures to dinner: 'It's all interesting stuff. I figured this was going to be on TV. … I want a broader audience to know what's going on in Portland and be inspired by that.'
He goes outside, and Goldfarb comes in. What does she think of being on camera? 'It's nerve-racking, especially at first,' she says. By the time dinner was winding down, she says, she felt pretty relaxed.
'Well,' she adds cattily, 'it's easy being comfortable when you're not worrying about trying to attract a guy.' She's already made plans to go out with girlfriends later tonight.
After a few false starts, the couple is filmed walking out of the restaurant, hugging goodbye, and walking in opposite directions down the street.
They have to turn right around and come back, though, to return the microphones they're wearing.
Some might consider today an exercise in contrivance and futility, but I don't think either Goldfarb or Hogen sees it that way. They leave, not as singles who have failed to make a connection, but as two aspiring performers with a bit of screen time to their credit.