Late Tuesday afternoon, Thomas C. Knox sat at the University City SEPTA Regional Rail station at a small table, playing Connect Four. A few feet from where he sat wearing a black fedora and a bow tie made of Scrabble tiles spelling “great” was a sign displaying his initiative: “Date While You Wait.”
Despite the name, Knox’s efforts are not so much a romantic pursuit as a way to invite people to talk to one another — in person, not by phone.
He came up with the idea in New York City in 2015 after noticing a lack of people connecting. He initially created a pop-up on the New York City subway with a table and chairs, but then he added board games. The idea was to take away the pressure of making conversation for anyone who just wanted to take a break. He has since held events in cities all over the world.
“The idea was to connect with people while they commute,” he said. “To give people the opportunity to do something other than be on a mobile device and have great interactions.”
He came to Philadelphia later that year after Hector Nuñez, founder of online lifestyle magazine Wooder Ice, came across an article about Knox.
“I was like, ‘That is such a dope idea, I want to bring that to Philadelphia,’ ” Nuñez said. “There’s no other intentions behind it, it’s just a grassroots movement. He’s not selling anything.”
From there, Nuñez partnered with SEPTA and held the first Date While You Wait event in Suburban Station in 2015.
“We support what they’re doing … and we’re happy to continue that relationship,” said Gabriella Schrier, a senior marketing specialist for SEPTA. “We’re happy to provide a platform to facilitate conversation.”
At the University City station, there was more space allotted than before and a pleasant atmosphere on Tuesday among the gentle breezes and chirping birds.
Yet this time, only a few commuters engaged with Knox during the three scheduled hours playing Guess Who and Connect Four. Mostly people stared, occasionally making conversation from the sidelines or taking pictures.
Despite their reluctance on this day, Knox’s effort is making waves, having been mentioned by the New York Times, Huffington Post, and CNN. He recently made Date While You Wait an official limited liability company, and also teaches a workshop at high schools and universities on the importance of human connection. His class at Victory Collegiate High School in Brooklyn instructs students how to “develop an idea from the ground up.”
“I think it’s amazing. It’s awesome,” said Richard Keller, one of the commuters who actually sat to talk with Knox. “Especially in a world today full of such hate, to just sit and talk with somebody. Normally you’re just sitting there playing on your phone. And now all of us are having a great conversation.”
After Knox posted a picture of Keller on social media, his wife commented on the photo with the hashtags #thatsmyhusband and #toofunny.
It turns out she follows Knox on Instagram.
Commuter Kelly Drozd remembered playing Perfection with Knox at last year’s pop-up and has followed him on Instagram since. “People were kind of hesitant, and I was like, ‘I’ll do it,’ ” she said. “It was great.”
Knox took it all in stride.
“I don’t care how many people sit down. I could care less,” he said. “I want people to want to connect that are interested in it. … I think that’s where a lot of the successes come from. I don’t go around saying, ‘Hey, come sit with me.’ It’s like ‘Hey, you’re walking by. Tell me a little bit more.’ ”