Valentine's Day, San Francisco. There's a line of cop cars arriving outside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, where some kind of love rave is going on, and a line of gay couples outside City Hall waiting to be married. "I should find a girl here and get married, just on principle," Kaya Oakes says as we walk past. Problem is, she's already married. Kaya's musician husband was playing a gig that night, so she opted to leave the comfort of her Berkeley digs and head over to the Rickshaw, a new club on Fell Street off Van Ness, where we find a bustling crowd in full flirtation mode, chatting in clumps with drinks in hand and playing party games to break the ice. In one corner, a few guys and gals sit around a crafts table making valentines. It could be mistaken for a V-Day singles scene, except that these people are here to celebrate the fact that they don't need a romantic partner at all.
They call themselves quirkyalones, and this is their second annual bash -- the International Quirkyalone Day Party -- complete with an "Ask a Quirkyalone" advice booth, questionnaires to encourage socializing (call 'em QA Q&As), and cute theme drinks. The quirkytini, which involves currant vodka and Japanese plum wine, tastes like a pep rally. At the mic set up at the far end of the large main room, next to the crafts table, singer-songwriter Stephanie Bernstein starts in on a rambling song she wrote especially for the occasion -- um, actually she'd intended to finish it in time for last year's event -- about getting over your fairy-tale Prince Charmings and that "once-upon-a-time state of mind." Kaya, meanwhile, spots what was advertised as the "Alone-Time Table," but is actually swarming with people piled on each other's laps -- "a mini-orgy," she calls it.
A disproportionate number of these assembled hipsters are writers, at least according to the first of many guys who try to chat up Kaya, herself a 33-year-old poet, essayist, and writing instructor at UC Berkeley. To further illustrate the guy's point, one roving reporter we run into immediately launches in with the tough questions: "Is this just a meat market pretending not to be a meat market?"
"It's not even trying that hard!" her friend adds.
The contradiction isn't as marked as it appears. Just because these people don't "need" significant others doesn't mean they won't go for a little TLC. It's not that they aren't open to the potential of romance, nor even that they prefer being alone. What makes quirkyalones quirkyalone is that they refuse to be in relationships for the sake of being in relationships. They chafe at the perception that they're supposed to be with somebody in order to feel whole, and are unwilling to compromise their sense of self for anyone. Because of these exacting romantic standards, they may spend long stretches of time single, and that's fine with them, because they enjoy their own company, and that of friends.
"People still seem to get tripped up on the 'alone' part and think that we're loners or asocial recluses," says Sasha Cagen, the thirty-year-old Rhode Island native and Mission District denizen who coined the term that spawned this budding movement. "The whole concept is about resisting social obligation or formula, but it's not about inhibiting your own legitimate desires. Nothing in what I've put forward I feel is exclusive of domestic relationships."
Cagen first unleashed her idea with an essay titled "People Like Us: The Quirkyalones" in the inaugural issue of her independent magazine To-Do List in July 2000. In it she posited a whole separate class of singletons, true romantics who would not sacrifice a whit of their personalities or their standards simply for the sake of snagging a significant other. The quirkyalone movement is envisioned as an alternative to the spinster/old maid model of lifelong singledom -- a response to the conventional message, to women especially, that a coupled state is the norm and that to be alone is to be lonely.
But in coming to terms with her own experience as a "deeply single" person, Cagen had little reason to believe she would start a revolution. To be sure, she played up the concept in her magazine, but it's so sporadically published -- only three issues to date, and on extended hiatus because of lack of time and funds -- that it seemed more than likely the idea would end there.
What's remarkable about the quirkyalone concept is how it has managed to spread, essentially through word of mouth, from the ephemeral pages of an underground national magazine with a circulation of 2,000 to Internet ubiquity. It certainly didn't hurt that Cagen's essay was reprinted in the September 2000 Utne Reader and on her magazine's Web site, which included an "Are You a Quirkyalone?" quiz. (Web junkies love personality quizzes.) Soon, sizable quirkyalone communities were springing up on popular Web sites, including LiveJournal.com and Bay Area-based Tribe.net, in addition to the more official forum at Quirkyalone.net.
The idea, in fact, spread as an online meme nine months before the essay was even published. "When I first finished a draft of the piece, I forwarded it to a friend of mine just for her to give me initial feedback," Cagen explains. "She sent it on to some of her friends without asking me, so then over the next few days I started to get e-mails back from people that I didn't know. It had taken on a life of its own already as an e-mail forward. And that's when I started to get those e-mails, like, 'Thank you, I thought I was the only one on the planet who felt this way. '"
It was through this overwhelming response from unexpected quarters that Cagen's sense of what it meant to be quirkyalone expanded from her own experience as a single, urban-dwelling woman in her twenties to encompass male and female quirkyalones, gay and straight, rural and suburban, teens and septuagenarians, innate "womb" quirkyalones and "born-again" converts, and even married quirkyalones, dubbed quirkytogethers. (Quirkytogether means different things to different people, but is best defined as a long-term relationship that caters to one's quirkyalone tendencies, whether that involves separate bedrooms or just the freedom to run off to pursue one's own projects.)
"The first roundtable discussion we had for the first issue of To-Do List was me and [senior editor] Annie Decker, and Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler from Bitch magazine," Cagen recalls. "It was weird for me, because they were chiming in with their own thoughts about what it meant to be quirkyalone, and it was different than my exact experience, and I felt very protective of it then. I was like, 'No, you have to have had exactly this experience in junior high and high school, and only this many relationships and X amount of time single.' It was just totally personal at that point, and now I've learned that that's boring, because that would just be me, and it's been more interesting to let other people define it and hear what they have to say. The married people, the born-again people. I mean, it started off that there were only born quirkyalones, and then the born-again people were a total revelation to me because I really didn't anticipate them identifying."
Cagen originally conceived of the quirkyalone as an innate core identity, affecting an undercurrent of people who just didn't need what they were told to need. She speculated they make up about 5 percent of the population. "You know, it's too bad we can't put quirkyalone on the US census," she says a teensy bit defensively when asked whether she stands by that number today, and then confesses she came up with the figure by thinking about how many people she could relate to in high school.
It's an open question whether quirkyalones really represent a breed apart or simply an unusually healthy way of thinking about the relatively common situation of being single, but it was clear to Cagen that she'd touched a nerve with all sorts of people, and that quirkyalone was more than just an identity -- it was a movement, one that would even hijack Valentine's Day, renaming it "International Quirkyalone Day."
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