I was recently coming off the tail end of an all-day community organizing conference (yes, my life is chock-full-o'-thrills) when I happened to catch the eye of a bright-eyed young idealist from some local political party or another.
"Hey," I said, elbowing my coworker. "He can get it, huh?"
She looked at me, then looked over her shoulder, then back to me again. "Uh," she began. "Well. Not really. Really?"
"Oh, c'mon," I said. "Look at his shirt! It's all soft-looking. Don't you wanna rub your face all up on it?"
"Yeah, Kate," she said. "Because shirt softness is really what I look for in a dude."
"It's … not?" I said. "Oh. Yes. It's not."
She was right, by the way. He wasn't cute.
Like most people, there are certain aesthetic qualities I naturally mouth-breathe after when it comes to entertaining daytime makeout thoughts about strangers. Well-defined forearms. Wide smiles. The feeling that they might blow over in a strong wind like a tumbleweed. These days, a bit of a booty. I have a bit of a type, and that type is Constantly Laughing at Own Joke, Does Squats.
Even more than that, though, I am such a sucker for props. Hence the shirt thing; to style-bite Her Highness Tina Fey, you could put a soft, well-worn gray V-neck on a water heater and I'd probably try to fuck it.
Same thing with girls in Katniss side braids or dudes thoughtfully eating nectarines: I have to physically hold myself back from perching near them and staring at them like a beady-eyed overgrown crow on public transit. I have been straight-up reduced to frantic dry-swallowing by the sight of someone stuffing a well-loved paperback into their back jeans pocket. Nngh.
It's not just me, either. According to two separate studies, dudes just holding guitar cases are evidently more fuckable to single women, even if they can't play a single Sufjan Stevens song (maybe even especially because of that).
A lot of this, I think, is the tendency of a lot of people these days to fall back on Personal Branding culture when trying to present themselves to strangers. It's the OKCupid technique of getting dressed in the morning: you put alluring snippets of yourself and your interests out there for everyone to see and hide the weirdo stuff, like the granola in your bed or your preferred state legislator sexy pet name, for the fourth date.
Our instinct when it comes to first impressions has become to look for discrete, easily digested signifiers of hobbies and personalities rather than the entire picture.
This makes sense, and it's not necessarily an In This Time of Social Media quality. In every timeline, in every universe, there will be dudes who have learned that walking a stumbly, chubby puppy around on a leash is going to get you chicks. But I have noticed myself trying to parse bits of possible compatibility from the "props" that people use, and using signifiers myself in turn.
Take the guitar case thing. As much as I hate to admit it because it makes me sound like a Jonas Brothers groupie, dudes and ladies who play instruments are hot. If I see someone lugging around a guitar case, my mind immediately does this excited fizzing like a Mento dropped in a Diet Coke bottle.
Like, "Ahh! They have hobbies! They're creative! Clearly they have the patience to pursue something that, despite 14-year-old weirdos' ability to master it, is actually kind of fucking hard!" And, naturally, "Maybe they'll play me The National and tell me I'm pretty!"
(Side note: I recently saw a dude just lugging a baritone around the Mission like it was no big thing and I almost asked him out right there on the spot. He gave me the Fearful Eyes, though, so I refrained.)
Same goes with all the other props I get weak in the knees over. "Ahh! They're wearing giant glasses! They've clearly strained their eyes from staying up into the wee hours biting their lip and squirming over 'Pale Fire!'"
"They have an undercut! Maybe they also wake up every morning and play 'Thrift Shop' and enjoy having their heads rubbed in a sensual manner!"
"A T-shirt with the slogan from that thing I like! We can talk about it for hours and I can stop bothering my loved ones about that thing I like!"
You get the idea. This is probably dint of having an overactive imagination, but while admiring attractive physical characteristics takes me to a mental makeout place and basically nowhere else, props like guitar cases and the like lead me to active fantasies about the awesome sexy friendship I can have with this stranger before, during, and/or after said makeouts.
It is kind of funny, though, to imagine the degree of prop absurdity that I would put up with in terms of imagining our awesome dates.
"A ball python! Perhaps they are a traveling street performer who will whisk me away to loll on a nest of soft, well-worn T-shirts and lionskin rugs!"
"A baseball bat! Maybe we can go on a breaking and entering spree!"
"A monocle! They are either from the past or future, but regardless, they may have a lot of time on their hands to talk to me about gears."
"A toy dragon! They are probably a larger dragon wearing a human skin. Kind of them to give me the signal!"
And so on, and so forth. When it comes to Imaginary First Dates, my brain has no bounds.
Prop-ogling isn't any less shallow than staring at the calluses on a stranger's thumbs and imagining them pressing them into my soft parts, of course. For me, though, it is a bit more effective in terms of actually interacting with another human in a favorable way.
It's worth treading with caution, because the conscious nature of prop-selection means that the constructed personality a stranger is presenting could be entirely artificial. But even if the person actually has nothing going for them but the prop (a frequent concern, what with all the guitar cases floating around this fine city), at least it's enough potential conversation fodder to get you from one bus stop to the next.
Or, let's be real, to get you from the dance floor back to their place. What, I said I was a sucker for them.
Kate is carrying a kite to demonstrate her whimsy: @katchatters.