It’s 8:10 p.m. and I’m sitting in my car, preparing for my undercover assignment. I’ve donned my costume — plaid pants, careful swipes of kohl eyeliner, a trendy gold bag. I’ve prepared my story: I’m Emily Ocean, single, a freelance writer and arts administrator and I live in Santa Barbara.

Right now I’m gathering my strength, and watching my targets.

I see two of them, a parking row away, traversing the sidewalk toward the wine bistro. They’re both balding. Both wear button-down shirts tucked into dress pants. Both are in their late 30s. This is scarier than I expected. I take a deep breath.

These are the men I will soon be pretending to date.

If, that is, you can actually call speed dating “dating.” What I’m about to do is meet ten different men and talk to them for six minutes each before deciding who, if anyone, I’d like to talk to again. Sure, the word “dating” is in the name of the event, and in the name of the company running it (VC Fastdating), but the word seems a bit too strong for what we’ll be doing — kind of like calling a trip to the In-N-Out drive-thru dining. This is more like “pre-date screening;” which is exactly why it appealed to me in the first place.

I’ve been interested in intentional dating methods ever since my mom tried video dating in the ’80s. And I was intrigued again when, much later, my cousin found his now-wife on Match.com: he’d requested a “punk rock librarian” and got a stylish hipster redhead with progressive politics and degree in library science, which tickled me. I imagined it like ordering sushi or maybe a sandwich at a deli: “I’ll take a smart Jewish boy, easy on the over-involved mother, extra sarcasm and a side of rhythm, please. Oh, and I’ll take passionate infatuation to start, thanks.”

Speed dating had a similar appeal, though I was more ambivalent about it. I liked the idea of meeting lots of people in a short period of time, rather than wasting an entire evening with someone I knew I didn’t like after five minutes. But it also seemed a bit juvenile, like grown-up musical chairs, and also so American: How can we make dating bigger, better, faster?

I couldn’t decide if speed dating was the perfect example of everything that’s wrong with American culture, or if it was the best thing to hit the dating world since the invention of booze.

From the start, I knew that I couldn’t go in as myself: a curious reporter in a long-term relationship. The company would probably let me, but I still wouldn’t know what it’s like to participate in speed-dating, to actually meet people this way.

So I lied.

I chose a pseudonym, I opened a yahoo e-mail account with my new name, I signed up on the web, paid my $35 dollars and then tried to talk my boyfriend into going with me (undercover, too, of course).

Instead, he made me dinner, kissed me goodbye and shouted “Have fun on your dates!” as I left the house.

The ten-ring circus

The idea is to act and feel as if I’m really single, and it works. I’m nervous. I consider bailing about 20 times on the drive to Cousin’s Wine Tasting Bar, a new Camarillo establishment in the same shopping center where my family has bought their groceries for 15 years and where, as a teenager, I used to steal cosmetics and cigarettes. It has that shopping center feel on the outside: nondescript, roof too low to the ground, stucco walls that don’t discriminate between here and there.

And inside, the small place is almost full. The older group (ages 40 to 55) is just finishing up, so it’s hard to tell who will be in my peer group, who’s in the older group and who’s just a regular bar patron. I, on the other hand, feel completely exposed and transparent. Not only do I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m a good decade younger than most of the people I see, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one here who had her first kiss at a Ministry concert and who doesn’t own a house.

I sign in with Kimberlina Andre Fouché, the warm, friendly co-founder of VC Fast-dating, and get my nametag: “Emily #6.” And then we wait. I escape to the bathroom, and then to the wine counter, where I meet my first match.

A man in a dark sweater has just ordered a drink and I’m relieved to see him. Straight teeth. Nice smile. About my age, or a little older. I ask for the wine list and it turns out he’s drinking beer. “Perfect!” I think, “We’re already compatible,” as I order a Levitation Ale (the place has a great selection of beers, by the way).

I wonder if I’m breaking some kind of rule by talking to this guy before the official dating starts. I already know he’ll be a match, and I’m sure that’s obvious to everyone else in the room. And I know it’s not paranoid to think I’m being watched — that’s what we’re all here for.

As we chat, some of my nervousness washes away. This guy is so nice, so normal — and not in an over-the-top kind of way but in an I-could-spend-an-evening-with-you kind of way. He doesn’t seem desperate or creepy or lonely at all. He’s just done with the bar scene and likes to meet new people.

It turns out a lot of the men I meet later are in a similar situation. Many are homeowners, or plan to be soon. Many are fairly settled. They are engineers and consultants. They work in computers or real estate. They own their own businesses. They’re successful, busy and mostly in their mid- to late-30s.

What happens next is a whirlwind. We’re told to go to the numbered tables that correspond with our nametags. The women will stay seated and the men will rotate around.

Fouché later explains to me why the women usually are the ones to stay stationary. “Women carry a lot of baggage,” she says, but she means it literally. “They have their purses, they have their jackets …”

The effect is like ten princesses in a room, receiving our suitors six minutes at a time. I can’t see the other women very well. Some seem around my age, others a little older. None are particularly striking — not overly flashy or overly fat or overly ugly or overly pretty. Most are just normal people, it seems. There’s an Asian woman facing me, and I’m sharing a table with a black woman who seems as disoriented as I feel. We all have carbon-copy worksheets for marking who we meet and whether we like them as a “match” or a “friend/business” contact.

And then the game starts. I talk to man after man, our mini-sessions ending with whistle blasts that remind me of circuit-training in junior high school P.E. While they’re moving from one table to the next, we’re all desperately trying to write shorthand notes so that later we’ll still be able to match names with first impressions.

By the end, I’m sure I’ve done it all wrong. I should’ve written different, more useful notes instead of “real estate guy” or “likes to travel” or “40.” I should’ve prepared questions ahead of time instead of resorting to my usual ways of talking to strangers (trying to be a good, charming hostess; trying to find common ground; trying to make them feel comfortable). I shouldn’t have ordered beer, which then gave me a buzz for half the night.

But Fouché disagrees. She says the less prepared and more natural you are, the better.

The six-minute date

So how much can you really learn in six minutes? A lot, it turns out.

One of the men I dated, Sean (who’s been doing this for five years), later told me that it hardly matters what he and a woman talk about — he never remembers anyway. What he gets is more of a general impression. Is he attracted to her? Does their conversation flow? Does he feel comfortable? One of the reasons he chose me as a potential match, he said, was because I seemed interesting, a little nervous and sincere. More importantly, it seemed, I smile a lot. Something he finds attractive.

This is exactly why he prefers speed dating to internet dating, which seems too distant and too unpredictable to him. After having had an experience where a woman he met online ended up much chubbier in person than her picture led him to believe, he’d rather just meet the woman face-to-face right up front.

And as someone who’s a little shy, he much prefers speed dating to meeting women in bars. There, “you don’t necessarily know who’s single and why they’re in the bar … they’re more likely to shut you down or roll their eyeballs at you,” he said. And that’s if he approaches them at all. More likely, he wouldn’t. At speed dating, “you’re forced to talk to someone, whether they’re your type or not.”

As for the time limit, Sean says six minutes is plenty. “We have a map in our head of qualities we like in people — the way they smile or the way they laugh or their physical build,” he said. “You get a feel for someone much quicker in talking to them for five minutes as opposed to trying to write to someone.”

And I have to agree with him. Though I couldn’t tell you much about any of the men I met, I could tell immediately if I was physically attracted to someone and if we had any chemistry. Some men sat across from me like interrogators and some got so close I instinctively moved my chair back. Some men sat straight in their chairs and others hunched over. With some men, six minutes was eternity and I was just trying to fill up the space with words. With others, we’d only just gotten started in six minutes and I was sad to see them go.

I don’t feel fireworks or rose-petal rainstorms with any of the men I meet, but there are definitely some I connect with more than others. It’s clear who my matches will be:

1. Adam. I liked him within five seconds. He was attractive, friendly, and I liked his style: black blazer over a black shirt. It turns out he grew up in Moorpark, and used to attend daycare in this very shopping center. I told him how I puked in the McDonald’s sink the second time I got drunk. He confessed he’s probably pissed on a tire in the restaurant’s parking lot. We smiled and laughed and the words came effortlessly. I wasn’t sure if we’d be compatible in a relationship — after all, I don’t puke in sinks anymore (as he, presumably, doesn’t piss on tires, either).

2. Miles. Though we weren’t quite as flirty when the teacher made his way to my table, I still liked him — and felt that he was already my ally at the event, which seemed like a good sign. I liked that he’s educated; and he seemed like someone with long-term potential. He also seemed to have good boundaries.

3. Greg. There were two things about Greg that initially put me off — he sat so close our knees touched, and he told me about his ex-wife and ex-fiancee right off the bat. But as far as I could tell, his values and interests were more in line with mine than anyone else there, and he seemed genuinely interested in me. He also spoke German (a huge plus), and it didn’t hurt that he had those ski-instructor good looks.

4. Joe. He was the surprise. Though thinner and more conservative than I usually like (he, too, had a button-down shirt tucked into slacks), Joe dazzled me with intelligence and good conversation. He worked in some kind of media, though didn’t want to specify what company, and he offered me a potential job. When he got up, I wrote on my worksheet, “I like him.”

Everyone else goes under “friends.”

And, after an hour is up, the whole thing ends just as quickly as it started. People get up, turn in their worksheets and leave. A few couples stay at their tables, and Greg comes back to mine. I genuinely like him, and I feel bad that I’m not being totally honest with him. I’ve been careful to be as authentic as possible with everyone — with my interests, values, goals. I treat them all exactly as I would if I were single — flirty with the ones I like, friendly but distant with the ones I don’t. But I start to sense that my ruse is working too well, and I don’t like it. I wonder if I should come clean, but the experiment isn’t over yet. Greg walks me out and we hug. I expect that he’ll probably hate me before all this is over.

I’m exhausted. Ten dates is a lot of work. I’m grateful the whole thing was so quick and smooth. I’ll be in my pajamas by 11.

The next step is just to wait for the results by e-mail. And, of course, tell my boyfriend how it all went.

The two-mornings after

It later turns out that my instincts are right. When I get an e-mail two days later (which, by the way, feels like a cross between Christmas morning and getting your slambooks back from your friends), it seems my four favorites have chosen me as a “match” as well. There are another four who’ve also chosen me as a “match,” though I’ve only picked them as friends. I also get a list of the men who listed me as a potential friend or business contact. Next to everyone’s name is their phone number and e-mail address. A day later, I start getting phone calls and e-mails.

Greg is first. Then Adam. I get an e-mail from Joe, who can’t remember who I am, and another from one of my “friends.” Miles e-mails, too. All of them want to talk again. I wait a few days to break the news of my true identity to them, mostly because I’m chicken. I really like these people, and I’m afraid I’m going to hurt their feelings. I finally send an e-mail, explaining that I’m writing a story but also assuring them that I’ll respect everyone’s anonymity, that I was as authentic as I could be without giving away my cover, that I’d like to talk to them for my story but understand if they never wanted to talk to me again. Then I wait.

Joe opts out of staying in touch. Miles commends me on my acting abilities, and good-naturedly agrees to talk to me for the story. Another on the “friend” list also says I did a great job of staying undercover, after feigning indignation at my gall. Another man, who has chosen me as a “match,” is very upset. “How could you do this?” he asks in his e-mail, and then suggests that I redeem myself by introducing him to my single friends. The first man I talked to, who also chose me as a “match,” also wants a trade: his cooperation with the story in exchange for one evening of my time, taking him to places in Santa Barbara where “STRAIGHT, QUALITY TWENTY-SOMETHINGS regularly hang out, preferably LARGE NUMBERS [his emphasis].”

I never hear back from Greg or Adam, which doesn’t surprise me. They’re the ones I connected to the most, and are probably the ones who most justifiably feel betrayed. Or maybe they’re already on to dating one of the other ten women they met that night, and have forgotten me already.

The bottom line

Sean, too, is more than happy to talk, even though he chose me as a “match” and I put him as a “friend.” When he hears that a few of the other guys were upset, he’s surprised.

Speed dating “isn’t that big of a deal,” he says. As for the event we attended together, the veteran says it wasn’t the best, mostly because of the turnout. Every event is different, and everyone who shows up impacts the total experience.

Fouché agrees, saying that every event has its own flavor. The demographic skews younger in Westlake and Thousand Oaks, for example. People dress up more when it’s on a weekend. In Santa Barbara, it’s harder to find women to sign up for the younger group and men to sign up for the older one. And once people try VC Fastdating, they often come back — sometimes driving from Ventura to Westlake for an event.

The reason? “It’s fun,” says Sean. Even though he’s only chosen about five “matches” out of the 130 women he’s met this way, and only gone out with 12 (including some he didn’t choose as “matches,” of course), he says it’s a great way to meet new people, learn about how to interact and increase his odds of meeting a true match.

What’s more, says Fouché, it does work. Though she’s single, her best friend met her soon-to-be husband at a VC Fastdating event. Another couple live together. Countless more pairs have met, dated, split apart. Fouché doesn’t always hear about them, partly because many people are shy about having met through fast dating.

But that idea makes no sense to Fouché. What’s embarrassing about wanting to meet someone? How is it any different than going to a bar with the explicit purpose of meeting someone? When it’s suggested that people assume speed daters are strange, desperate or lower-class, she laughs. And so does Sean, who’s met doctors, lawyers, Amgen employees and a whole lot of schoolteachers through speed dating. “If you’re trying to figure out what kind of person really does it, I don’t think you can narrow it down,” he says.

Fouché agrees. In fact, many of the people she sees are the opposite of what stereotypes might dictate. They’re successful, busy people who don’t have time to go out and prefer not to meet people at bars. Many of the women haven’t been out in a while and like the safe, controlled environment as a way to meet men (no one’s allowed to ask for personal information or ask each other on dates at the event; you must wait until you get your results). Most share a common goal: they’re serious about meeting someone. Occasionally, people are “on the prowl” for something a little less wholesome, but not that often. And she tries to weed out anyone creepy as quickly as possible.

“It’s not as scary as it looks,” says Fouché, and I have to agree. In fact, I liked it. And I’m sure it would be more fun the second or third time around, when I’m less nervous and know what to expect. Of course, I’m not planning to be in a position to try it again any time soon — or possibly ever. But if I were to suddenly find myself single, I would actually consider this as a way to meet someone (although I’d be more likely to do it in a larger city, where there’d be a greater diversity of age ranges and backgrounds).

I liked the no-hard-feelings, no-holds-barred philosophy and the fact that you don’t have to sleep with your date before you find out he’s a pot smoker. You don’t have to get emotionally invested before you realize he doesn’t ever want to have kids. Hell, you can even find out if he’s an early riser before you ever share a meal together — and all without the pressure of being alone together for a long period of time.

The bottom line is that speed-dating reminds me of a friend who always schedules a coffee or lunch date for her first meeting, because it’s short (by definition) and easy to get out of if the guy’s a dud. That always seemed like a great idea to me, and speed dating is just a streamlined version of that: The Coffee Date Version 2.0.

The verdict is still out, though, on the result of my experiment as an undercover lover. Were I ever to do something like this again, I might do it a little differently. It’s hard to know, but I’m not sure gonzo journalism is quite my thing. Then again, there is a lock-and-key event coming up …