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.”
So she started collecting people’s experiences and broad discussions of what it means to be quirkyalone for a slim, lighthearted user manual issued by HarperSanFrancisco in January. It must be said that Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics is, well, a quirky book, full of checklists, photo-booth strips, cute illustrations, more lists, profiles, quotations, affirmations, sections on self-matrimony and romantic obsession, homemade pie charts, still more lists, great quirkyalones in history, and some relevant Cagen juvenilia. But considering how far the idea has already spread, the book is liable to add more fuel to the fire rather than be the last word on the subject.
One person drawn to that fire was 38-year-old Megan Lynch, who read an article about the movement and later joined the quirkyalone “tribe” on Tribe.net, the SF-based networking site that combines Friendster-like profiles and Craigslist-like listings with interest-related message boards. A quirkyalone community may sound like a contradiction, but Cagen emphasizes the importance of finding your own urban tribe of like-minded souls — “significant others, plural,” she calls them. Besides, it’s not as though you actually meet anyone in these online communities; you merely swap ideas and experiences from the safety of your keyboard.
Megan got involved not because she thought she necessarily fit the profile, but because she felt she had something to learn from it. “I’m actually someone who was very much raised with the ‘You’re nobody till somebody loves you’ thing,” she says over corned beef and cabbage at the Starry Plough, a Berkeley pub where her friend is Irish dancing that night. “This is the reason I joined the tribe — lately I’ve been trying to fight my own tendencies to look for fulfillment from somebody else.
“It’s not like I have ultimate power over that,” she admits, “but I have a lot more power over changing that than I think I do. So for me, subscribing to that tribe was a way to get a window into people who naturally feel that self-sufficient and see what their secret is.”
The Berkeley-based singer has long dark hair and a natural intensity that commands attention — “I’m the eldest of fifteen kids, so I’m used to jockeying for attention,” she explains — and is at once amiable and reserved. She speaks slowly and deliberately.
“I think part of it is tapping into this real need that people either have to get an echo for something they already strongly believe is right — and they’re looking for their tribe, so to speak — or people like me who fight with intellectually knowing that it’s true but maybe in their hearts still having trouble feeling confident about that,” Megan says. “Because some of the social ‘shoulds’ are not keeping pace with what society’s actually becoming like. There are, I gather, more people like me who are staying single and childless later in life. However, the way society approaches us, pressure-wise, is still very much like my parents’ generation, where you’re getting married in your twenties and having kids, finding your fulfillment in this perfect partnership.
“I think people are looking for some validation,” she continues. “And I think somebody giving a word to it, whether or not that concept perfectly covers the way they feel about it or not, gives them something to hold onto and go, ‘Yeah, I knew I couldn’t be the only one. ‘”
Cagen, too, emphasizes the importance of just putting the word out there, though she is uneasy with the suggestion that words such as “movement” and “manifesto” might lead people to interpret quirkyalone as something that can be learned, as opposed to a state of existence. “The first intention was just to name this way of being and to point out there’s this whole huge population out there in the United States and even beyond that has never been identified before,” she says. “And to name something is powerful, because it starts a conversation that hadn’t existed before. So that was the starting-off point, to gather the troops — well, not the troops, but the people who are already out there. I never had any intention of trying to convert people, but maybe that is the natural leaning of a movement and a manifesto, because ideas spread outward. I was talking to someone recently who figured out that it is a new idea that hasn’t been put forward previously, and it brings forward all these positive qualities about being alone and being choosy and selective and self-determining.”
Cagen is hardly the only person not entirely comfortable with the idea of quirkyalone as a movement, at least judging from the Tribe.net quirkyalones, who numbered 134 at the time of writing. (The LiveJournal quirkyalone forum is larger still with 202 members, many of them teenagers, but despite the inherent exhibitionism of online journals, or perhaps because of it, the journalers did not respond to interview requests.) Melissa Kirk is a 33-year-old Berkeley native who works as an acquisitions editor for a local publisher and is active in the quirkyalone tribe under the Web moniker Honey B. Sitting at Berkeley’s Espresso Roma one week before the party, she is quiet and a bit shy, uneasy with the thought of being some kind of poster girl for quirkyaloneness.
“The funny thing about that tribe is they’re really iconoclasts or something,” she says. “The discussion is a lot about ‘Why this movement? I don’t want it to be a movement. I just want to be myself.’ It’s funny because they’re all disassociating themselves. They don’t want to be part of the hip scene or whatever — they just want a concept that they like but not Sasha’s groundswell of attention. I can see that; I feel like that a little bit. But I also feel that anything that makes it more acceptable to be a single woman who’s not dating for the sake of having a boyfriend — I’m glad the concept is getting out there.”
She flashes a brief, conspiratorial smile. “There are lots of people who want to do their work and not worry about if they’re not gonna have a date on Friday night,” she says. “It’s not really that abnormal, it’s just not okay.”
Melissa is an old-school quirkyalone, one who read the original essay in To-Do List and promptly hopped aboard. “It just struck me as being a really cool thing,” she recalls. “I always felt that way anyway, that I don’t really want the same things about a relationship that other people I know do — get married and have kids and blah de blah. If I meet somebody cool that’d be good, but I’m not going to sit around and worry about it.” She actually has a cameo in the book, in one of the many questionnaire profiles scattered throughout, although she doesn’t make it much of a point of pride. “I feel like such a goober. I’m really not this groupie person, you know. I just filled out their little questionnaire on a whim because I saw it on Craigslist. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I really want to have my picture in this crazy book!'”
But at the party the following week, Melissa is in top form, decked out in an evening gown and long white gloves. “I’m having fun,” she says. “Everyone’s really friendly. Usually I’m the one at parties nobody wants to talk to. I didn’t think I’d stay so long.” She rushes off to mingle some more.
Kaya, on the other hand, is being mingled way too much. Despite clearly being a quirkytogether — she’s wearing her wedding ring, although she’d fretted beforehand about whether it would seem insensitive — she keeps running across guys who are here because they heard there would be a lot of single women, and who are looking to get quirkylaid tonight.
In truth, there’s nothing verboten about quirkyalones having a casual hookup: Cagen even created the term “quirkyslut” — someone “who maintains high standards for a romantic relationship but becomes more flexible for the Saturday or even Tuesday night encounter” — and says it’s not uncommon for a respectable quirkyalone to turn quirkyslut every now and again. At this party everyone is given nametags on which they’re to indicate if they’re quirkyalone, quirkytogether, quirkyslut, or “in support of quirkyalones,” which would perhaps facilitate prowling.
Versions of this very party are taking place in at least a dozen cities tonight — London, Seattle, St. Paul, and Madison, Wisconsin, to name a few. The San Francisco bash is getting increasingly crowded as the night wears on — Cagen later reports that there were more than 350 revelers. “It seems like it’s about 50/50 men and women,” Kaya estimates during the party. “I had a feeling it’d be all women.”
There’s no question quirkyalone is a ladies-first philosophy. It’s perfectly possible for men to be quirkyalone, but the movement isn’t targeted at them precisely because it’s always been okay for men not to wrap up their self-worth in a relationship. In Quirkyalone, Cagen writes, “Our culture is already rife with archetypes for male loners: Odysseus, Western cowboy, geek, James Dean, solitary indie-rock boy, and so forth. The scant few labels that describe a woman alone are pejorative: spinster and old maid.”
That it is even economically possible for a woman to live alone is a very new thing in this country, and by no means the norm elsewhere in the world. But as both Megan and Melissa point out, prevailing social attitudes haven’t really caught up with this reality, and are still rooted in the sense that a woman is supposed to go from the safety of her family to the care of her husband with as little time in between as possible.
“The fact that women entered the workforce in the last fifty years is changing our ideas about how relationships are structured, or what being single is like, in ways we don’t even understand yet,” Cagen later agrees. “We can be more romantic in our relationships because women have financial independence. And I think it’s a positive thing to name that choosiness that hasn’t been available to previous generations because the stigmas were so unbearable. Most women, at least middle-class women, were trapped in marriage. We’re going through a social revolution, and all of this is new.”
But even as some things change, others never do. Though the quirkyalone aspect gives the IQA Day party a fun, casual air as singles scenes go, there’s the usual contingent of pretty people posing to be seen, and at least some seemingly creepy older guys on the prowl. A gal named Kate, who appears to be in her mid-twenties, has the name “Christina Ricci” pinned to her back. She says she’s supposed to ask people questions to find out who she is, but it turns out she doesn’t really watch movies or TV so she’s at a distinct disadvantage. Even when she figures out who she’s supposed to be, she hasn’t the slightest idea what her name is. An older bearded guy named Dave walks up and joins the conversation. “I think they assign us people we look like,” he says, turning around to show us “Janet Reno” on his back. He has a point. Kate does resemble Ricci around the eyes. At first he seems like one of the aforementioned creepy guys, but then it turns out he was at last year’s party and knows what this is all about, unlike Kate, whose roommate told her about it just today. “I think this idea is really going to take off,” Dave says with enthusiasm. Then, as soon as Kate wanders off, he turns to Kaya and asks with great urgency, “Did she come with you?”
At Cafe Macondo in the Mission a few days after the party, Cagen conducts a postmortem. “Yeah, there were a lot of people who knew about quirkyalone and already had the book and were really excited and came up to me and that kind of thing,” she says. “And then I think there were a number of people there who really didn’t know anything much about quirkyalone at all and had just heard that it would be a singles party on February 14. And not to stereotype a single group, but it seemed to me there were a number of older men that were maybe more in that category. I did hear of one hookup, which was different from last year — I didn’t have any hookups last year.”
Cagen is friendly, with an easy laugh and a slight interrogative lilt, as though checking to make sure she is being understood. She has chin-length blonde hair and a loose black sweater, and is wielding a blue backpack and a paper cup of coffee she brought in with her. She has been run ragged lately promoting the book and shoehorning five interviews a day around her job as a proofreader. A few weeks ago she sounded pretty much at the end of her rope, but now she is more relaxed.
Even now, the crown doesn’t always rest easy on the queen bee of the quirkyalones. The trouble with writing about relationships, even in a playful or breezy way, Cagen says, is that people expect her to be more of an authority on the subject than she really is. “A lot of people ask me for advice at these readings, like, ‘Well, I’m in my fifties, and what do I do if most of my friends are married now?'” she says. “And I’m like, well, maybe make new friends? Find some other quirkyalones or quirkytogethers? It’s so hard for me to say, because I am not a self-help guru. I don’t want to write an advice column; that’s not who I am. I wrote an essay, it struck a nerve, and then I brought these stories together. People want advice, they want a sort of pronouncement on whether they’re quirkyalone or not, and that’s hard for me to give, and it’s not really my job to do that anyway.”
Her job, as she sees it, is to write personal essays. “You know, I write from my experience,” Cagen says. “I’m not a sociologist; I’m not even a journalist. I compiled everyone’s stories as much as I could into this book. The reason for the book was the phenomenal response. It wasn’t because it was my plan to write one. But ultimately I have to do things through the prism of my experience because that’s the way that I write, that’s how my best writing comes about.”
Her experience may dictate her writing, but she’ll be damned if she’ll let her writing dictate her experience. “The main thing is, I don’t know what most of these people expect in terms of me being single forever, but I don’t think that is my responsibility in any way,” she says. “There has to be a separation between the private and the public in this instance. It’s not unquirkyalone to want to meet someone or to fall in love or even to get married if that’s what you want to do. Not that getting married is my priority, but there’s no quid pro quo with me being single, and there shouldn’t be.”
The trouble with coining a new word doesn’t stop with people expecting its inventor to embody their misinterpretations of its meaning. People latch onto these terms, but in a much more simplistic way than Cagen would like. “Another thing that’s sort of frustrating is that now it gets cast as like a fad,” the writer says, “like this year’s metrosexual or something. Which is not really what it is because I don’t think metrosexuals set up online groups to talk about being metrosexual; there’s no metrosexual philosophy. It’s not a complicated term. Quirkyalone is very hard to sum up in one sentence in a way that I think metrosexual is not.”
If the quirkyalone ideal could be summed up in one person, it might be Rebecca Lippert, who goes by SugarBunni on Tribe.net and is an active member of the quirkyalone forum and scores of others. She is as close to the ideal of a happy, highly social, self-fulfilled quirkyalone as a person could ask for. A 28-year-old performance artist with a shock of pink hair on an otherwise shaved head — a recent development — Rebecca exudes confidence and a strong sense of self, and is about as far from shy and retiring as is humanly possible. She performs in a women’s wrestling troupe and creates conceptual fashion shows that always involve nudity of some sort. As for her alone time, she doesn’t really know what the big deal is.
“I find it interesting that there’s been so much written about the quirkyalone thing, because I can’t comprehend what’s to write about other than some people like to be alone and are okay with it,” she says, hanging around at the Starry Plough the night after Megan’s interview. Rebecca, too, had a friend performing — at an open mic in this case — so our conversation is punctuated by hoots and hollers, the occasional electric act, and insistent requests for “Rubber Ducky.” To the various truisms and affirmations in Cagen’s book (“Quirkyalones have vibrators.” “We are sociable people.”) we can now add this one: Quirkyalones like the Starry Plough.
Rebecca’s quirkyalone identity is so innate, in fact, that she has little time for the concept. “Maybe there are people who take it very seriously and really identify with it, but for me it’s just like another word,” she says. “‘Movement’ to me implies it’s going somewhere, and I guess in some regards it could branch out and encompass other people and teach other people it’s okay to be alone. But I can’t see this quirkyalone movement taking me anywhere, because we just all like to be alone and that’s okay. I mean, okay, best-case scenario, I meet another quirkyalone and get married! Hahahahaha, I’m joking. And have babies!”
She actually yells this last part, she finds it so hilarious.
“I think I like it better just as this little floating concept than a whole movement,” she says. “I’m putting it in a word category with weirdo. Weirdo is a word I identify with very much. Am I going to start a weirdo community and weirdo support group? No. You know if you’re a weirdo or not — you just are. And I think you know if you’re a quirkyalone or not — you just are.”
Rebecca speculates on what the Quirkyalone Day party will be like: “Are these alone communities full of extroverts who also like being alone, like me?” she wonders. “I can’t imagine the introverts really bothering with coming out for something. It will be interesting, especially given the whole Valentine’s Day-ness. Like if it turns into some weird meat market, I’m gonna have to bust heads.”
No heads got busted, if only because Rebecca wound up missing the Quirkyalone Day bash. She’d planned to drop by the party early in the evening — mostly because she wanted to meet Honey B. — and then head over to a circus act and DJ night elsewhere, but ended up helping with a Valentine’s Day party in her building instead, even though she usually shrugs off the holiday as “invented bullshit.”
And so, to the list of truisms, we can perhaps add this one as well: A truly self-realized quirkyalone need have no fear of traditional Hallmark holidays.
Are You a Quirkyalone?
This simple personality test, courtesy of Quirkyalone.net, is designed to help determine whether you are quirky, alone, quirkyalone, or possibly even normal! Keep score, then see results at the bottom of the quiz.
1. Do you like walking (alone) at night?
A. Yes, I’m fascinated by the interactions between strangers. (10)
B. I think of walking alone in utilitarian terms: It’s a matter of getting from A to B. (5)
C. Long walks alone at night don’t appeal to me. They seem dangerous and/or boring. (2)
2. Has anyone ever called you quirky?
A. Yes, people often do. (10)
B. Once or twice. (6)
C. No. (0)
3. Which do you have more of, numerically speaking?
A. Past boy/girlfriends. (0)
B. Current amigos. (10)
4. Did you go to your senior prom?
A. Yes. I went in with a date. (0)
B. Yes. I went alone/with friends. (10)
C. No. No prom for me. (10)
5. How often do you pursue extracurricular activities?
A. I write, draw, organize, throw pottery, sing, or cycle a few times a week. (10)
B. I take classes every so often. (6)
C. Not so much these days. (2)
6. What kind of movie would you most like to see?
A. Romantic comedy. (6)
B. Indie movie about a fucked-up family. (10)
C. Action thriller. (4)
7. What is your chosen family?
A. Friends. (10)
B. Significant other. (2)
C. Pets. (8)
8. Would you rather be lonely alone or lonely together?
A. Lonely alone. (10)
B. Lonely together. (0)
9. Would you rather have a predictable vibrator or an inconsistent partner? (Assume you are a woman.)
A. Vibrators are a woman’s best friend. Vibrator, please. (10)
B. Inconsistent partner. I prefer the human touch — even if he/she isn’t that dextrous. (0)
10. Have you ever gone to a movie alone?
A. Never. (0)
B. No, but I would try. (5)
C. A few times. (8)
D. More than a few times. (10)
11. What is the longest you have gone without a significant other?
A. 1 – 3 months. (0)
B. 4 – 8 months. (5)
C. 8 months – 2 years. (5)
D. Two years plus. (10)
12. When you go to a bar to meet somebody, whom are you looking for?
A. A nice person to talk to. (5)
B. Your next boy/girlfriend. (5)
C. A certain feeling of possibility. (10)
13. You spot a perfect J.Crew couple holding hands. What do you feel?
A. Nothing. (5)
B. That’s nice. (0)
C. It must be so easy for you. (10)
Quiz Results Score
Your Quirky Status
(15-39) Not quirkyalone: And that’s okay. Just remember that coupledom and quirkyalonedom are equally complicated states of being; don’t let society lull you into that smug, superior attitude that gives some normals a bad name.
(40-85) Somewhat quirkyalone (otherwise known as quirkytogether): You are probably part of a mysterious group of people, the quirkytogethers. You share many of our quirky qualities, but you manage to find yourself, on a regular basis, in a coupled situation. Interesting.
(86-129) Very quirkyalone: Relatives may give you quizzical looks, and so may friends, but you know in your heart of hearts that you are following your inner voice. Though you may not be romancing a single person, you are romancing the world.
(130) Loner: Hang yourself!