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On the 17th of March, the British government authorized the country to enter the third stage of its roadmap out of lockdown. To the despair of underpaid and overworked service workers (it me), indoor dining is back, baby. While the polite-but-uncontained distress of this TikTok accurately depicts the contemporary malaise of working in the restaurant industry, I have enjoyed being able to observe people as they reintegrate themselves into a social life.
Between frantically disinfecting ketchup-stained tables and sweeping flattened peas off the floor, I get to witness friends, lovers, ex-lovers, families, and strangers navigate the unruly reality of human interaction. But there remains a perceptible uncertainty in a lot of the gestures that are exchanged. Maybe our bodies are still partially obstructed by the cocoon of isolation, its residue a molasses-like slime that’s inhibiting our full motor capabilities, leaving our tongues tied as we stumble over articulations and complete sentences. It’s kind of like we’re all on first dates with each other.
Our temporarily corroded rhythms remind me a lot of Amelia Dimoldenberg’s Chicken Shop Date, a UK interview series on YouTube. Even though most of the 5-minute-long clips were filmed pre-lockdown, the show parallels our craggy attempts at communicating effectively after months of pixelated happy hours, meetings that could have been emails, and three-hour classes on Zoom.
For context, chicken shops are found primarily on the high streets of the UK’s more multicultural cities. They’re where kids go after school when they don’t want whatever their parents have prepared for them at home or where I go with my brother when it’s one in the morning and I’m too high to make him food. The lights are a blinding fluorescent, the entryway a graveyard marked by discarded bits of cartilage, and if there are tables there are rarely more than five. It’s probably the last place you would take a romantic interest on a first date considering your time there is limited to how long it takes to deep fry six chicken wings.
In the chicken shop near my old apartment, there was a 36-inch tv inside that only played music videos by UK grime artists. These grime artists often feature in Chicken Shop Date, which sees Dimoldenberg sit down with some of the UK’s biggest hip hop and grime stars in a speed-dating style interview. The conversations oscillate between disaster date stories and DM slide-throughs, and the questions are some variation of the profile prompts Bumble asks you to fill out when you’re setting up your profile: nightclub or Netflix? After work, you would be? What’s your pet peeve? Guests who are unaware of the show’s patterns might mistake it for a preliminary meeting for a potential marriage, and some are so persuaded that they have to clarify their relationship status as taken.
At times the show is too painfully cringey to watch. Dimoldenberg’s humor is deadpan and unassuming; she rarely breaks into a smile, swiftly moves on from displeasing answers, and silently glares at her dates when a topic feels too burdensome to continue. Instead of picking up on conversational cues or asking open-ended questions, she severs all possibility of further investigation by answering with a distant “okay” followed by a loud slurp from her can of soda. When she proclaims to rapper Digga D that she thinks their date is a 10/10, he gives it a substandard 4. In a recent date with Brighton-born Ardee she deflects his attempt at a cheeky wink by telling him his eye is twitching. She’s the awkward white girl who doesn’t appear in the aesthetic or cultural currency of modern hip hop, and she embodies how I currently feel when I’m thrust into an in-person dialogue that I haven’t prepared for weeks in advance.
Dimoldenberg’s awkwardness is heightened by the show’s sharp editing. Each question and answer is cut with shots of chicken shop furnishings like eyes shifting around the room hoping a menu or light fixture will help propel the conversation. Bottles of garlic and hot sauce; wallpaper of a blown-up chicken fillet sandwich; a display case of stacked sodas and waters. It mimics those intervals between eye contact where your brain starts to calculate, interrogate, and analyze everything in relation to each word that is said and retained. In the next second the camera lingers on the owners and workers of the chicken shop beaming happily into the camera, shifting slightly from side to side. They’re often caught eavesdropping, giggling softly and rapidly turning away when the weight of their eyes has been felt.
Despite Chicken Shop Date’s success in capturing the prickly moments shared between two people, there is an undercurrent of pure connection that carries each episode to the next. By the end of the short segment Dimoldenberg is struggling to contain an already suppressed laugh and her guest has their face buried in their hands as they chuckle at an off-handed joke or side comment. They exchange gifts and share their food, collaborate on really bad improvised rhymes and consider new artist names; a bond emerges, eventually.
I think of the show as a compressed timeline for what our rehabilitation into in-person meetings will look like: initially plagued by tense silences, distant stares, unintended elbow bumps, and a few too many glances at our screens. Eventually we’ll remember where to put our hands and how it feels for our thighs to be pressed up against each other when we’re squeezed into the corner of a restaurant booth. We won’t flinch at the light brushing of fingers when we’re handed our receipt, and we’ll move past the late-pandemic cycle of “how are you?” “I’m doing bad but I’m alive,” and get back to asking questions that aren’t contaminated by more than a year of grief, anxiety, anger, and frustration. Dimoldenberg could probably suggest a few: What would you do if you were prime minister? What’s your favorite feature about yourself? Have you ever been in love? — By Sasha Cordingley