At the Crepeville round table

When meeting strangers for the first time, it helps to look your best. Unfortunately, my packed schedule didn’t allow for that option. In order to make it to my first Sacramento Salon last Tuesday night, I had to moped to the Curtis Park Crepeville straight from my dance class in Midtown. Good news? The wind resistance dried my sweaty clothes. Bad news? Helmet hair and chapped lips. I hastily applied ChapStick at a stoplight, only to have a gnat suicide-bomb into my lips and leave its battered carcass stuck in the peppermint balm as I sped up 2nd Avenue.

Outside the alpha-numeric structure of the grid, I’m geographically hopeless—which is why I’d MapQuested the restaurant. After scraping the gnat away and determining my computer-generated directions were faulty, I realized I’d have to add “late” to the growing list of reasons I was about to make a bad first impression.

Then again, MapQuest difficulties could work to my advantage. The conversation topic for that night’s salon was the “digital divide” and the online navigational service certainly had divided me from my destination. I hadn’t read the articles salon moderator Cinamon Vann had sent me to bone up on the subject (add “unprepared” to the list), but I thought the anecdote might serve as an ice breaker.

Of course, by the time I finally got there, the ice had melted completely. I found the table in the back of the restaurant with a small globe on top, where eight adults, ranging in age from 30s to 50s, already were involved in intense discussion. I ordered a tofu burger and took a seat.

Since its first meeting in July, the Sacramento Salon has accrued more than 80 members—although the average meeting attendance is closer to 12. Vann, who was part of a similar group in Santa Cruz, started the salon to provide in-person conversation in an increasingly isolating urban environment.

“I think it fulfills a need that people have in the Internet age for ‘old-fashioned’ face-to-face, very genuine human interaction,” she explained. Though the group rotates moderators and locations, Vann maintains the overall connection via Yahoo Groups. She collects topic suggestions from the members and solicits votes before each meeting to choose the subject. Vann tries to avoid political topics and, as she says in her Craigslist activity posts, “If you are looking for Toastmasters, a lead-swapping group, religious converts, or weapons of mass destruction, the Salon is probably not for you.”

Fair enough, but was the salon for me? Feeling shy, I eavesdropped behind the safety of my burger as the participants discussed China’s Internet revolution, the dearth of pay phones for non-cell customers and whether cheaper computers mean greater Internet access for the poor.

As a high school debate-team veteran, I still get post-traumatic-stress twinges when I hear the words “devil’s advocate.” I kept waiting for someone to start bullying the dialogue, but I was relieved to find that no one seemed intent on “winning.” In fact, people seemed genuinely interested in others’ opinions, saying things like, “Let me lob this back to you, because I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.”

Which is not to say the conversation wasn’t spirited. Once I felt confident enough to speak, it became tough to get a word in. When Vann noticed me opening and closing my mouth like a fish, she leaned over and whispered, “You have to be aggressive!” Occasionally, she’d gently break off a long-winded monologue by pointing to someone: “What were you going to say?”

As soon as I started contributing, I was surprised how easy it was to have an intellectual discussion with people whose names I hadn’t yet learned. For 90 minutes, the conversation never flagged.

Afterward, several of the articulate people who’d been discussing the digital divide with authority admitted they thought they’d have nothing to say. I never would have guessed! First impressions can be deceiving—and that’s a good thing, since I later discovered I’d had food wedged in my front teeth all night.