FARGO — First dates can be kind of awkward.
You try to look your best, use your best manners so it doesn't seem like you were raised in a barn and strike up conversation so the other person doesn't think you're boring.
It's something millions of Americans do every single day. And it's something West Fargo resident Mark Berntson did over 275 times in 2019 alone.
But it's not what you think.
"Well, I'm a Facebook guy," the guitar teacher at West Fargo and Sheyenne high schools says. "I really like Facebook. I didn't at first, but for professional reasons, I started getting on Facebook to spread some stuff about what we were doing in a group that I was in. I had the idea in December of 2017 that some of my former students would probably be in town over this holiday break and I would love to see them."
He posted an invitation on Facebook, asking his former students out for coffee. Seven or eight people responded — including some who weren't even his students. They just knew who he was and jumped on an opportunity to enjoy a cup of joe with him.
"So I got together with them that month and I thought, 'Man, this is awesome! This is great,'" he says.
Those seven or eight coffee "dates" sparked a trend for Berntson that would allow him to meet new and interesting people almost daily over the next two years.
To Berntson, a coffee date isn't a date-date.
"I define a coffee date, for me, as me and one or two other people get together somewhere, consume something, I pay for it and we talk about you," he says.
It isn't anything crazy, just two friends — or even acquaintances — getting together and sharing a beverage along with the ups and downs of life.
"So if someone says, 'Yeah, I got time for you,' and it's noon on Saturday, I say, 'Well, would you rather have lunch?'" he says. "Sometimes it's lunch, sometimes it's pizza, sometimes it's ice cream in the summer. But about 60 percent of the time it's coffee."
Still, Berntson says it's not "confined" to coffee if people don't like it, like with a school friend.
"We decided the best time for us to have coffee dates was during our prep time at school," he says. "So she would come to my office when we both have prep and drink a LaCroix. That was what she was into, so we would drink that and talk for an hour."
Berntson truly enjoys the time he spends on his coffee dates — he gets to learn what makes people tick and maybe even help them along the way.
"I basically just let people talk about themselves," he says. "Almost all of us wish people would listen to us, and I've got time, I don't have a family or anything, my job is fairly easy, I have more money than I need, so I take people out for what they want and I pay for it almost always and I just keep asking them questions about themselves."
And it's no "waste of time," he says.
"I don't mind that investment of time," he says. "I feel that I am investing in them, and it's making me understand people better and hopefully making them happier and better and it's become my thing."
Sometimes, he doesn't even know his coffee date — they're just friends of friends on Facebook.
"Some of those people ended up being really good friends of mine that I didn't know I would have a good connection with," he says. "I don't want to be selective about it. That's why I put it out there as, 'Who's got time for me?' I don't care who it is. It could be my favorite person or someone who is very needy or annoying or whatever, it doesn't matter. I want to make time for them."
Our own coffee date
Like any semi-decent journalist (I am a Minnesotan, even writing "semi-decent" felt like bragging), finding out there is someone in town who went on almost 300 coffee dates in one year sparked my interest.
My editor told me about Berntson on a Thursday, and the next day we went on our "date."
We met at Atomic Coffee in downtown Fargo, ordered our drinks and sat at a table near the windows. I asked my normal interview-y questions and we chatted for 15 or so minutes about those questions — while Forum Photo Editor Michael Vosburg snapped photos in the background.
But this wasn't your typical interview, so I needed some not-so-typical questions. Here's how he responded.
Oh, and I bought the coffee.
I have four questions that I thought up that are not the typical interview questions. Ready?
What is something people would never guess about you?
Well, one of my dark but not super-dark secrets is that I am way into pro wrestling.
Like WWE. But more so like people who wrestle upstairs at Dempsey's or the Harwood Civic Center. People who have normal jobs and once a month or once a weekend they go and wrestle for $100 and barely cover their expenses. Those are some of my favorite people because I am fascinated with the business.
One of the people I've had several coffee dates with is one of those guys. That's how I got to know him. I sent him a message on Facebook and said, "Can I take you out to coffee some time and ask you how wrestling works?" And he said yeah. I've done that a dozen times with him and it's fascinating.
What is one fad you wish would just die?
Well, through being a coffee date guy, I've become tolerant of a lot. If somebody is into this thing or that thing, I just want to know about it and try not to judge it and say, "Ew, I wish you wouldn't do that." So, I don't know. I'm not sure I can think of any. Coffee dates have actually made me more tolerant of almost everything.
Everything that anybody does, there's some kind of reason for it. It might be a really good reason or a really bad reason or a really heartbreaking reason, but if I kind of know what it is, I can understand them better and try not to be judgy about it. As a teacher, my students often frustrate or annoy me. But I can usually tell why they're doing the thing they're doing. I don't necessarily want them to do the thing they're doing at the time they're doing it, but I can usually understand it and try not to feel like, "OK, can you stop that forever?"
Sometimes, I want them to stop it temporarily so I can teach them, but most of the faddy or strange things they're doing doesn't matter. But like, vaping. I would like vaping to stop. Self-destructive fads, things that ruin your life, absolutely. But if it doesn't ruin your life, I am OK with it.
What is the funniest name you can think of for a pet?
Well, I've heard of people naming their pet just Cat or Dog or whatever. When I was a kid, there was a puppy next door that they just called Puppy. I'm not really a pet person, but I try to understand pet people. I understand that it's therapeutic and helpful and unconditional love. But I don't know, Puppy.
What is the most useless product that you can think of?
I was just talking to someone last night in Grand Forks. There's a golf course in Grand Forks now that will deliver food to you on the golf course with a drone. Like, drones are great and interesting and so forth, but I was telling them that I wish we were using our expertise on stuff that mattered more. It's really cool, but what if these people who don't have a place to live could have a place to live because we weren't wasting our money on something like that?
I often feel like we misplace our ambition and our work and our expertise for luxury when we could be spending some of those resources on things that matter more.