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Friday, March 31

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I'm undeniably a public radio/WBEZ fanatic. I've listened to "This American Life" since it was called "Your Radio Playhouse." At times I take the Brown Line when the Red or Blue would be more convenient, just so I don't lose the signal going underground. I look forward to NPR's April Fools' stories. I dream of a relationship where we listen to Will Shortz's Sunday morning puzzles. My upstairs neighbor in my previous apartment was a well-known WBEZ reporter. An ex-boyfriend does shifts every WBEZ pledge drive in hopes of schmoozing Ira Glass and others. My roommate writes fan mail to Steve Edwards.

And frighteningly, I like listening to pledge drives. Not all of them, just the moments when my favorite WBEZ personalities go off-script and get a bit loopy. But sadly, I'd only pledged a couple times in my over 10 years here.

At the $120 level, you get this card good for two-for-one (or other discounts) restaurant entrees, admission to museums and theaters, stays at bed-and-breakfasts. "It pays for itself," they insist in their constant pitches for the Membercard. The March 2006 drive had some gifts I wanted at the $180 level — they wore me down and I made my first-ever pledge over $100.

When I pledged, Tom and I had been dating for months. He's smart, funny, very educated, an impressive cook, reliable and quite cute; he's got a good job and shares many of my interests. And we dined out once or twice a week. But the relationship was more comfortable than passionate.

I finally paid my dues in May — not having a credit card, I couldn't pay in installments — and got my Membercard (and detailed benefits guide) in June. Right around the time Tom broke up with me. Although we slipped almost immediately into a platonic friendship close enough to have to explain to others we weren't still dating, we didn't go out to dinner much anymore. Who was I supposed to go to all these places with?

I am baffled by those articles in, say, Cosmopolitan, that reassure women it's OK to go out alone — even to restaurants! — without a date, or at least a gaggle of cocktail-swilling girlfriends. Dining (and shopping and biking) alone is my default state, although I do like a companion for places with unpronounceable food (i.e., pretentious and expensive, or unfamiliar-to-me ethnic dishes). Why should couples get all the perks? Why not 40 percent for single diners, or maybe a half-price entrée with a drink purchase?

Without a boyfriend, my Membercard use starts off pathetically slowly — in the first five months, I only go to Earwax Café with Tom and my writer friend Beth after a literary event.

My social life picks up in the summer and fall, but I don't have my first post-Tom date until November. My first and only Craigslist date. We weren't on "Casual Encounters," but there was a certain, um, urgency to our first phone call and date on the same day.

We meet in Wicker Park. He's reasonably cute but not really my type, and I don't get any flirtatious vibes from him. But we go to Northside. It's bleak and empty on a cold Sunday night, the food isn't that great, and he keeps harping on how "nervous" I seem. Just the thing to put me at ease! We finish up and he offers to drive me home.

There's an easy-to-make wrong turn at Damen/Milwaukee/North; I can see it coming, and I don't stop him. Sure enough, we're pulled over, and he tries to make our date seem more legitimate to the cop.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm driving my girlfriend home."
"Where does she live?"
"You don't know where your girlfriend lives?"
He dropped me off and of course I didn't hear from him again.

I finally try Cold Stone Creamery after a show with Tom. The employees don't want to bother with the card. They trust us, or just don't care. Since it's not marked off the card, I go to the same location on the first hot spring day with Liza, who I met through my roommate last year. This employee tries, but gives up. He trusts us.

Tom and I have a wonderful holiday meal and gift exchange at Tre Kronor. Beth and I go to Goose Island Brewpub on Clark (not during Cubs season, of course) and Ras Dashen, the Ethiopian restaurant near her apartment she hadn't tried. (She prefers the other one.)

In January I go to my first-ever singles event, a fun one involving board games and trivia and prizes. I meet Paul and we bond over nerdy city planning and architecture stuff. He works for the city in a job that impresses everyone I know — I at least want to be friends with him, and I feel a bit of a spark.

Our first date is at an early show and I'd like to use my Membercard for dinner after. I've already handily beaten him at trivia, and called and asked him out first, so why not commit the alleged faux pas of using a coupon on the first date? We have a fun dinner and "beer flight" at the Goose Island Brewpub on Clybourn. Paul belongs to I-Go car sharing, there happens to be a car in the Goose Island lot, so he drives me home (he barely drank).

I'm dating again, and I get to use the card! We eat at Thai Pastry before a friend's improv show, and Wishbone for his late birthday dinner. Early March, I hadn't seen Paul in a while, so we meet for brunch at Harmony Grill, the restaurant attached to Schuba's I've seen many times but never eaten at. Paul is late but we have a nice meal — the breakfast mac and cheese is big enough to be my breakfast for the next two days — and he brought souvenirs from a recent trip. We walk south, and he seems nervous. And breaks up with me. We keep walking have some very revealing conversations that bring us closer together, just not as a couple. But this tainted Harmony Grill for me.

I don't like what this card is doing to me. I'm obsessed with visiting as many places as possible. I'm trying to orchestrate the times I hang out with people to end up at Membercard places. I'm resentful when I'm dining with other people and we're not at a Membercard place (Clarke's? We should be at Nookies!) I'm not going alone to places I've always wanted to try (Amitabul) because I'm waiting to use my card there.

At the same singles event two months after meeting Paul, I exchange numbers with Frank, mostly to be polite. We talked briefly and didn't immediately have shared interests, but he calls when I'm out of town and I get back to him. What's the worst that could happen? We have an OK first date, no real chemistry, and an awkward second one. But I bring up the Membercard and offer to take him to Heartland Café — he's never been. I temporarily misplace my card and have to borrow my roommate's — he barely uses his, even though he has a girlfriend.

Frank's surprised to hear from me. It's a Sunday and I've been hanging out with Paul (we may have something casual between us, but this doesn't work out). I don't want to date Frank, but I don't want an abrupt ending like with Robert.

Dinner is OK, but still no spark. I'm annoyed that he just orders a sandwich and I order a $10+ entrée (the point is to order similarly-valued items to get your money's worth, right?). We sit outside after dinner and he asks if I just think of him platonically. I murmur agreement, but keep sitting there, and then we're at the beach, kissing, and... let's just say the rest of the night/morning I did quite a poor job of showing him I wanted to be "platonic."

I realize later — I'm in a friends-with-benefits relationship that only happened because of my Membercard? Some might judge. But I imagine a promo: "Not only did I get great discounts, but the Membercard really brought out my slutty side. Thanks, WBEZ!"

I take Rick, another recent friend — Tom and I met him in December when we all went to a certain reading series for the first time (Tom and I ducked out early for a 2-for-I at P.S. Bangkok) — on a whirlwind tour of the old Maxwell Street area, and finally try the famous deli, Manny's. For once I'm with a guy I haven't dated — he moved here from Ohio with his wife last fall. He lost a lot of weight on a low-carb diet and orders accordingly. We sit underneath an old newspaper story touting how you can even get diet food at Manny's — a bowl of strawberries, mixed vegetables, turkey pastrami — all three are on Rick's tray, along with a salad and a potato pancake he can't have and gives to me).

I catch up with Paul at a West Loop breakfast place I've been eager to try. Their dinner menu is limited and pricier than I expect. After we order, the server tells us they're not in the program anymore, because their well-known restaurateur "gives back to the community in other ways." True — but if I were the server I'd offer us free drinks, at least. Definitely check every place on the Membercard website first from now on. I'm short on cash and have Paul cover for me. It's all a minor disaster — but sitting outside is a Paul's friend/rival from his college newspaper. He hasn't seen her in 17 years — and he'd just Googled her to see what she'd been up to!

I see a play at a Bucktown theater with Beth and her friend Andrea, who I've met before, but I forgot she brings pot along. We smoke some in the alley after the show, and I'm super-nervous about smoking outside for the first time. (Nervous again when we have some outside a Red Line stop later.) We go to Feast in Wicker Park and figure out how to make the two-for-one work with three people — we split two (absolutely delicious) entrees and have drinks and dessert. They've imbibed more than me so it's a little tough to carry on conversation.

On a muggy Saturday Frank and I go to Huey's, a hot dog place, but neither of us has hot dogs. I get my money's worth with the float — a cup 90 percent full of ice cream, which I struggle for a long time to mix with root beer from the fountain.

Times's running out! My card says "6/07" and I call the hotline to make sure that means good through the end of June. Memorial Day weekend, Tom and I have a superb dinner at Indian Garden, one of several Devon Avenue Membercard choices. I take Frank to Heartland again (my card now). Again I get a $10+ entrée and he gets a $6.50 sandwich. This ruins the whole point of two-for-one! I'm getting frustrated with our quasi-relationship; he hardly asks about me and my interests. Weeks later, I think about dumping him at a two-for-one, but instead, I talk with him at his place. Things improve but I still wouldn't say we're "dating."

Late birthday dinner for Beth at Salud Tequila Lounge (good food, tasty drink specials, not the kind of place I'd ever go in without the card — but I was happy to see they posted the Membercard in their window). Lunch at Uncommon Ground and exploring Graceland cemetery with Liza. A brief first tour of Chinatown and lunch at Joy Yee's with Rick.

Then it's the last day of the card. Theo (the perpetual pledge drive volunteer) and I dated for over a year but almost never went to restaurants, and nearly every trip was a fiasco in some way. We talk every week at least but it's very hard to make plans with him. I drag Theo out of his place and on two buses to Kitsch'n, where I'd had a couple dates with Tom. We admire the obviously kitschy décor, but we've both got much more impressive collections. He has steak and a "Huggy Bear" cocktail, I have salmon and a $1 PBR, and he likes all of it, even the fennel on his plate that looks like shriveled cornhusks. I feel terrific — this cancels out all our bad restaurant experiences.

A few hours left! I'd like to kill some time and then go to Nookies (three locations open late) but no one is available. They were on a date, at a party, working late for a big deadline, reading the sixth Harry Potter book, having medical complications. I could grab a random stranger for Cold Stone (corralling a stranger, or posting a platonic ad on Craigslist for a card companion were running fantasies all year). Or I could let the damn thing run out and do something else with my night. It's over!

I listened to hours of the summer pledge drive this year, held early, just as my card was running out, and I froze with indecision. Should I get another one? Is it worth it when I have to work so hard to make plans with people? Is it keeping me from non-Membercard dining? Now I can go to my been-meaning-to-try places: vegan fast food, Central American storefronts, cutesy-yuppie brunch spots and authentic soul food. It "paid for itself" around the dinner at Feast — 10 months into my membership. That's too much work. If you're seriously coupled, or have a friend you hang out with all the time — or, you're able to give $100+ out of the goodness of your heart, not scrambling to earn it back, then get the card. For me, it was a constant glaring reminder of my uncoupled status, lack of a sitcom-style female best friend, and obsessive need to save money (while unnecessarily spending it). I don't know when I'll pledge at that level again.

At least for now I can use my roommate's card — good through November. The madness hasn't quite ended.


About the Author(s)

Hazel J. is a longtime Chicagoan. She does some of her writing under her real name, and blogs about sexual politics/health/culture and other awkward topics. All names (besides WBEZ personalities) above were changed to protect their identities.

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