Strangers, sushi and an atheist sandwich: Weekly dives into the world of Meetup.com

Photo: Marvin Lucas

We hear it all the time: It’s hard to meet people in Las Vegas. The casinos are full of tourists; the bars are full of drunks; if you want to make friends or find a relationship, the prevailing wisdom goes, your best bet is leaving town. How depressing.

And, honestly, how ridiculous. With around 2 million people living in the Valley there’s no shortage of interesting strangers ready to share a sushi lunch or strum some Coldplay and prove the naysayers wrong. How do you find them? We turned to Meetup.com and got ready for dorky nametags and awkward socializing. What we found was up, down and even sort of awesome.

    • Ukulele Club of Las Vegas

      Thursday, March 13, 7 p.m.

      It turns out that singing Coldplay and Hank Williams songs while strumming ukuleles in a church sanctuary is awesome.

      There are 30 of us busting through recent gems from the Western Canon: Santana’s “Evil Ways,” Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira” and Tom T. Hall’s “Little Bitty.” Three verses into Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” our leader breaks into a surprisingly impressive kazoo instrumental, and I realize there are no limits to what can happen at the Ukulele Club of Las Vegas.

      This laid-back, amateur orchestra/jam session welcomes pickers and strummers of all skills, and founder Lynn Weaver leads us through the genre-crossing anthology with a voice so soulful and kind that it would carry anyone home on a dark night.

      “Well, that’s all right now, mama/That’s all right with you,” we sing in unison to blues musician Arthur Crudup’s late 1940s tune “That’s All Right,” which Elvis released in 1954 with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the B-side.

      Weaver dabbled in musical theater in Vegas in the 1970s and ’80s but had little experience actually playing instruments. An Internet video of a ukulele sucked her in, and she went on a two-week bender to teach herself how to play. Tired of strumming alone, she formed the Meetup group in 2009. It now has more than 400 members.

      “The ukulele is a universal instrument,” Weaver says after Doug Parsons, a uke player in town from Florida’s Space Coast Ukulele Club, plays a song for us. The group regularly gets out-of-town visitors. Like the members, they take a seat in the sanctuary, pull out their ukes and join in the song progression, sprinkling it with conversation and jokes.

      “Ukulele players are friendly.” Weaver says. “I don’t think you can be unhappy and play a ukulele.” —Kristen Peterson

      Next strum session: Uke Can Jamm, Thursdays, 7 p.m., the Nazarene Church.

    • Henderson/Las Vegas Magic: The Gathering

      Friday, March 14, 6 p.m.

      “I need four dragons,” Simon Sung, 25, tells Bryan Jenkins, 26, outside Action Comics & Games just off Boulder Highway. Friday Night Magic, the universal name for Magic: The Gathering tournaments held this time of week, is about to begin, but Jenkins has bad news. “I don’t have any dragons.”

      Inside, Brian Jew, 35, is instructing a relative novice—and one of the few women in attendance at this particular tournament (where, as it turns out, I’m the only one who’s found the event through Meetup): “It’s just like sorcery speeds. Like you want to counter it or something. ... You want to get rid of Kira? She summons 999 Krakens.”

      The more I observe, the more something becomes clear: The Magic community is one in which sites like Meetup.com are completely irrelevant. You don’t casually discover this game while looking for weekend activities; you find the game first, become enmeshed in its fantastical world, then seek out like-minded types who may or may not have the dragons you need.

      Paul Linton, co-owner of Action Comics, says there are 22 comics and games stores Valleywide, and all have Magic-related events going on. His store alone holds eight tournaments a week. In fact, Linton designed the 4,000-square-foot space so that shoppers are on the periphery and Magic players are in “the pit.” He pauses to grab a megaphone: “Also live today: Jace vs. Vraska. Very exciting. Ooh-aah.” —Ken Miller

      Next tournament: Friday Night Magic, April 4, 6 p.m., Action Comics & Games.

    • Vegas Beer Lovers!

      Saturday, March 15, 1 p.m.

      I got stood up.

      No, I wasn’t at Firefly hunched over an order of stuffed dates, tears dripping into my La Fin du Monde. I was waiting for six strangers to show up for Joseph James Brewing’s monthly brewery tour—a planned outing for Meetup.com’s Vegas Beer Lovers! group, which I had joined earlier in the week.

      Thanks to previous experiences with local off-roading and electronic dance music Meetups, I knew this website really could forge friendships—something that can be tough in this transient town. But glancing around the Henderson warehouse, none of the faces matched the thumbnail photos I kept double-checking on my iPhone. A quick (and perhaps inappropriate) look at the brewery’s RSVP list confirmed it—my beer-loving brethren had left me imbibing alone.

      No matter. I decided Meetups were like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: The member who had arranged this particular excursion dropped the ball, but with many events ahead on the calendar (some already with RSVPs and comments), I chose to look at the (pint) glass half-full.

      Plus, the umbrella group, Nevada Beer Lovers, has its own gear and stickers to identify members at events. Next time, I’ll show up in a group-branded T-shirt; I just hope someone else is wearing one, too. —Mark Adams

      Next chance to beer-geek out: SNAFU Home Brewers Meeting, April 11, 7 p.m., Aces & Ales Nellis.

    • LEZ Vegas in Motion

      Tuesday, March 18, 7 p.m.

      As a bi/queer-identifying woman, it can be difficult to find spaces that don’t define you solely on the sex of your partner. So when I found a group that said it welcomed all LGBT people and their allies, I wanted to be a part of it. That’s how I ended up at Pool Sharks pool hall for a Meetup with the ladies of Lez Vegas in Motion—even though I could probably fly a plane better than I hit a cue ball.

      I arrived alone and nervous, repeating to myself that I would not play pool, hoping instead to find someone to chat up along the felt’s perimeter. Luckily, the group’s then-organizer, Nadia Charles, spotted and quickly welcomed me, making the whole “meeting new people” thing far less sweat-inducing. I even played a game of pool.

      Created years ago, Lez Vegas has grown into a group with a varied demographic and multiple events every week, from hiking to Sunday coffee to trivia night. I walked out of Pool Sharks slightly better at billiards than when I arrived, and with the knowledge that there’s a community outside of Vegas’ male-dominated gay clubs where lesbians, queer women and allies coexist. Most importantly, I found that Lez Vegas lived up to its description—and that’s what Meetup’s all about, right? —Leslie Ventura

      Next night out: Trivia Night, April 8, 6:30 p.m., the Beat Coffeehouse.

    • Las Vegas Atheists

      Tuesday, March 18, 7 p.m.

      What is the most atheist sandwich at Jason’s Deli? The bespectacled brunette beside me is not sure. “Is there something with bacon and shellfish?” she asks with a sarcastic smile.

      The Las Vegas Atheists have been gathering here to talk about not God for a while, and some form of this group has been meeting for more than 10 years.

      “It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I actually thought, ‘Whoa, I’m an atheist.’ And back then, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it,” Dennis says. “Now we’ve got the Internet, and also a larger group of people making headlines.”

      Indeed, some prominent atheist figures are mentioned in tonight’s casual conversations—Bill Maher, for example, and Richard Dawkins, who’ll be speaking at Cox Pavilion tonight with guest host Penn Jillette.

      The Las Vegas Atheists have several regular events, and this weekly Meetup might be the most casual. Two men who look like college professors are talking about Putin and Ukraine; later, one of them will ask me: “How do we know you’re not a spy?” Dennis, who describes the group as “half bleeding-heart liberals, half objectivists,” warns me about another member. “She’s hard-core. If she sneezes and you say, ‘Bless you,’ she’ll yell at you.” I chat with several super-nice people about the perceptions of atheism, and Bill tells me his sorta-Catholic mother mistakes him as angry and intolerant. “But I don’t drink and I’m a super-nice guy, so other people think I’m Mormon.” These atheists … pretty quick with the punch lines.

      Chuck sought out the group six years ago, when he first arrived in Las Vegas, having participated in similar gatherings in LA and started a group in Jacksonville, Florida, 15 years ago.

      “That group is still pretty strong despite all the Baptists and others,” he says. “It’s like here. I knew Las Vegas had a strong Mormon presence, but there are always a lot more atheists than the numbers show. It makes sense here, because here we’re all sinners, right?”

      “Only if you believe in sin,” says the brunette. Touché. —Brock Radke

      Next non-God discussion: Atheists Anonymous Monthly, April 12, 3 p.m., location shown to members only.

    • Sushi & more

      Saturday, March 22, 11:45 a.m.

      “Raise your hand if you want tuna … garlic tuna … seared tuna … super white tuna … yellowtail …”

      Thus began my first foray into Meetup.com’s get-together culture, specifically the Valley’s popular Sushi & More group.

      Eight of us descended upon Goyemon Sushi House on a Saturday, arriving minutes before the west-side all-you-can-eat favorite opened at 11:45 a.m. Once we were seated, the ordering began, with organizer Jeff running down the nigiri list, and each of us pointing an arm toward the sky if we wanted in on Cajun albacore, salmon, smelt eggs or fresh scallops.

      For a lover of sushi—both the serious, pricey kind available at Kabuto and Nobu, and the cheaper but still delicious sort available at spots like this one—this felt like the very reason Meetup exists, to bring together fans of a food meant as a social centerpiece. We spent the next hour chatting about our favorite spots to soosh, why Spanish mackerel trumps the regular type and how, for some of us, cream cheese is a deal breaker.

      I wondered if, as a married man, I’d feel out of place at a Meetup mixer. I didn’t. No one seemed to be looking for anything more than sushi camaraderie. Some, like myself, were new to Meetup, sitting in on our first or second gathering; others were veterans, like Jeff, who’d been to more than 40 Sushi & More events in less than three years.

      I can see the appeal, and I plan to return, for good food and good food talk with folks who share one of my core beliefs: Life without sushi would be far less fun. —Spencer Patterson

      Next sushi binge: Sushi Wa AYCE, May 6, 6 p.m., Sushi Wa.

    • VegasHikers

      Monday, March 24, 9 a.m.

      First, we talk about the owls. Standing under the massively gaudy Fiesta Henderson marquee that hulks over Lake Mead Parkway, VegasHikers Meetup organizer Doug Schmidt assures us it’s fine to hike with the owls—never mind that rogue post on the event page about nesting birds and being able to look at ourselves in the mirror. Doug has called the national park rangers, and yeah, it’s cool.

      So 17 of us divvy into carpools and hit the trailhead, where we go over the basics: We’re all adults, responsible for ourselves; the hike will be easy; when we hit the slot canyon, we might want to be a little quiet—you know, the owls.

      As we take to the path in single file, I’m transported back to summer camp days in the Berkshires, only with more hydration packs, less off-key singing and an average group age hovering around retirement. It is 9 a.m. on a Monday morning.

      This is just one of many VegasHikers events this week. There’s a sunset hike on Kraft Mountain followed by a potluck, a camping trip to Joshua Tree over the weekend and five different hikes on Thursday alone.

      Today is an easy one, a leisurely out and back through White Owl Canyon inside Lake Mead National Recreation Area, mostly flat and very conducive to conversation, which ranges from hiking permits to Vegas restaurants, yesterday’s wicked Red Rock scramble to—what?!—Doug actually meeting his wife Brenda through VegasHikers!

      Occasionally, Doug pauses to point out a small nest, owl pellets filled with tiny white bones or creosote, a scruffy plant with petite yellow flowers that he says causes the rain smell in the desert. Without the stress of navigation, I focus on the undulating walls of the slot canyon, the cactus in full bloom and the sheer awesomeness of a free, loosely guided hike before lunch.

      As we head back toward the cars, Meetup regular Rita—also known as Superwoman—asks how many other hiking clubs I’m in. I chuckle, “Just this one,” and almost add, “just for today,” but suddenly I realize I really like it out here, hanging with these friendly strangers, exploring local trails. Maybe she can tell that I’ll be back, because before I know it she’s slipped me a card for another local hiking club. Looks like membership has its perks. —Sarah Feldberg

      Next trek: White Rock Loop at Red Rock, April 5, 7:45 a.m., meet at Red Rock Casino west garage fourth floor.

    • How to Meetup

      So you want to join Scooter Nite (“good company, good food and good times”) or for your kid to learn the ways of the Force in Jedi Scouts (picture foam lightsaber duels and fun with science and Jedi philosophy). But how do you check out a group and get in on its next event? Meetup.com makes it so, so easy.

      What is a Meetup? “Neighbors getting together to learn something, do something, share something …” You don’t have to be actual neighbors, you just have to have an interest in common. Like beagles, hot tubs or learning French.

      Can I start one? Yup. “You just need something you care about and a desire to bring people together.” And $12, $15 or $19 a month, depending on the plan you select.

      How do I find local Meetups? Pick a city and let the database search all groups nearby, or narrow the field with categories like “Fitness” or “Singles.” And you can use the calendar feature to see everything happening every day in your area.

      With so many Meetups, isn’t it hard to sort through them? Not at all. If you’re browsing on the homepage, Meetups are displayed by title, with a photo and the total number of minglers, adventurers, foodies, gearheads, fantastic friends, ramblin’ riders, thirsty girls, soakers, sensual explorers (you get the idea), as well as the date of the next activity.

      Once I choose a group, what will I find on its page? Content running along the sides includes basic info, organizer contacts, alerts when people join or RSVP and a message board for commenting. The central feed is all about upcoming and recent events. Click “Join us!” and you’re in.

      Don’t I have to sign up for Meetup first? You’ll be prompted as soon as you try to join a group. You can create an account through Facebook or email. All you really need to supply is your name and a password, although some groups will ask you to fill out a profile, as well.

      Is it all on me to seek out groups that align with my likes? Nope. Meetup will send you emails announcing newly formed groups and letting you know what’s happening in interest categories you select when you sign up—everything from “Pubs & Bars” to “Adventure.” —Erin Ryan

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