by Jack Walsh
The shark drifts, its nose against the window, mouth open to reveal rows of teeth. On the other side, a woman mimics his movements, her own face separated from the predator’s by barely an inch of glass. Seemingly entranced with each other, they move, increasingly in unison, back and forth and up and down until it is no longer possible to discern a leader or a follower: just a single organism united in an elemental dance by some strange animal telepathy.
A few blocks away, Dragon Con hosted a night at the Georgia Aquarium, a chance to party surrounded by real sharks and, presumably, a great opportunity to get some rad pictures of your Namor the Sub-Mariner costume. But back here at one of the host hotels on the last night of the Con, a person dressed as the notoriously uncoordinated Left Shark mascot character from Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show is flirting with a woman in the smoker’s area just outside. Pressed up against the window, he resembles not so much a shark as one of those sucker fish that clean the glass in fishtanks. Frankly, I’m not sure what the woman sees in the shark, but maybe smokers at Dragon Con are getting desperate for companionship. Everybody seems to be vaping this year.
Being at Dragon Con can sometimes feel like you are in a musical. Not as an actor, I mean, but living inside a musical as a background character. You might wander into a scene where song and dance are already happening, or lavishly costumed characters near you may spontaneously break out into performance. Maybe you hang out a while, or even participate, but you don’t act like it’s anything out of the ordinary. If you stand and watch the escalators long enough, even they come to resemble something out of a Busby Berkeley movie: a kinetic, choreographed display of elaborately dressed performers. (I found a guy dressed as an airport limo driver waiting at the top of one escalator; he was holding a sign that said “Godot.” I feel like he deserves some sort of a prize, but only if he’s still there if I go back to check in a few weeks.)
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself; do I need to explain what Dragon Con is? If you’re reading this, I guess the odds are good that you probably have an idea. But, Dragon Con is a pop-culture fan convention that takes place in Atlanta every Labor Day weekend. I say “pop-culture,” but you would probably say “sci-fi” or something. Certainly, there is that element of fandom. (Oh, is there ever.) But, Dragon Con has grown to encompass nearly everything that might possibly generate nerdy enthusiasm, from gaming to science to podcasting to alternate history and beyond. And it’s massive. Official figures had attendance at 70,000 this year, and that’s not counting the people who just came out to watch the parade, which could easily double the figure.
The parade is the public face of Dragon Con: the moment when we geeks emerge, squinting, mole-like, in the light after a long night of partying, to meet the gawking townsfolk. Through a complicated set of circumstances involving my day-job and a commitment I forgot to cancel until it was too late to do so without seeming like a jerk, I signed up to be part of the Dragon Con Puppetry Track’s group in the parade this year. The Grand Marshall was to be Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer and actor behind Big Bird, although he would not be appearing in costume. To onlookers, he would just be an oldish gentleman in a car, albeit a canary yellow one. Our purpose was to escort him along the route, waving yellow feathers to signify puppet royalty.
Sadly, the feathers were underwhelming. I had envisioned the Palm Sunday masses welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem with a giant palm frond in each hand. But, y’know. With feathers. Instead, a small number of us assembled and were each given a single 12-inch feather. Of course, everyone besides myself dressed in wacky colors and brought at least one puppet to operate during the parade. I showed up with nothing but sunscreen, although this did make me briefly very popular with part of a scantily clad Xena: Warrior Princess parade contingent. Thankfully, a puppeteer whose puppet also had a smaller puppet on each hand (because why the hell not?) graciously offered me one of his just as we began to march out. This was good, because Awkward Guy in Khaki Shorts and Polo isn’t really the colorful character people come to the Dragon Con parade to see.
I tried to gauge whether little kids would be scared or delighted at being bitten by a puppet (it was 80/20, maybe), and then I just went after random children in the crowd. My sock-puppet furrowed his brow as he slowly moved in, Jaws-like. He gobbled their fingers. He tried to steal their snacks. He attacked a Spider-Man who was posing for pictures with the kids. This was all a hell of a lot of fun and you should try it sometime. (Although I would not recommend harassing people’s kids with a puppet outside of a parade setting. Maybe a birthday party, but only if you were invited.)
I hope it was a good time for the kids, too. Some of the other puppeteers walked along, announcing, “Big Bird is right behind us. See the car? Big Bird is in there!” I’d be interested to know what some of the children in the crowd made of this. I can’t help but imagine that, at best, this led to confusing disappointment on the part of kids who looked at the yellow convertible and saw no Big Bird, or worse, complete disillusionment for the ones who made the connection for the first time that Big Bird was really just a guy. Surprise kids!
Back in the late 70s, around the time I thought I was learning about what life in the city was like on Sesame Street, the real New York was a crime-ridden cesspool. So, of course, in the waning days of this, the Summer of Trump (more on that later), vestigial reminders of the Bad Old Days are wont to pop up. Foot-traffic around the Con can be very congested, and you quickly resign yourself to the fact that at some points you are going to come to a complete standstill and get whacked in the face by someone’s tail or wing. But one night, I found myself part of a confused crowd brought to a halt by nothing but a couple Guardian Angels. Do you remember those guys with the maroon berets? A citizens’ patrol and safety group that got a lot of media coverage during New York City’s really shitty, dangerous years? I hadn’t seen one in forever, and never outside New York. I asked them what was going on, and the shorter one told me we couldn’t use the stairs at the moment. A few seconds later, he threw a glance over his shoulder at the empty stairway and then said, “Okay, go ahead.”
Despite a follow-up inquiry, I haven’t been able to get a solid read on why, exactly, they were at Dragon Con. I can’t imagine that the Con got them to provide security; groups of enthusiastic amateurs with “Angels” in their name providing rule enforcement on a semi-volunteer basis is a dicey proposition. (Just ask the Rolling Stones.) So, were people only just cosplaying as Guardian Angels? If that’s the case, then, man, that is a deep cut. And a bunch of us did what they said out of some blind obedience to authority figures? Was this some sort of weird variant on the Milgram Experiment devised just to fuck with tipsy nerds? Well then, fool me once, Retro-Crimefighting Beret-Fancying Social Scientists…
I ran into them again at a concert by perennial Dragon Con favorites, the Crüxshadows, a “darkwave” band whose name I will copy and paste from here on out because I’ve already forgotten which keyboard combo finally yielded that umlaut. The Guardian Angels funneled me into an aisle toward the back (okay, fool me twice), but I was able to get close enough to see the band. The singer, Rogue, a tall, pale, rail-thin guy with complicated hair, appeared to be singing into a flashlight at times, but he also had a headset mic. I found myself defending headset mics to someone standing near me who derided them as being too Garth Brooksish. I said that David Byrne always uses one, so y’know. Because David Byrne.
This was the first time I’ve seen the Crüxshadows in concert, though I’ve noticed them and their fans (mostly female, raver/gothy, wearing fairy-wings) clustered around the band’s booth for years at Dragon Con; I can always tell I’m getting near because I think I’m hearing an industrial version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo, but then I realize that the synth bassline of at least one of their songs descends in similar intervals. And then I always walk around for a while with the “but Technicolor pachyderms is really too much for me,” part stuck in my head.
Musically speaking, I’m more of a hum-to-myself type than a bust-out-into-song sort, but to kill time before dinner one night, I went to the Elven Choir Workshop, mainly because it seemed to be the weirdest-sounding thing happening nearby at the time. The room was packed when I got there, and most of my view was obscured by an inconveniently placed projection screen. The choirmasters had already distributed the sheet music, so I had to fake it. Disappointingly, the lyrics were not in Elvish, though they might as well have been, because I couldn’t decipher any of the words. I just shadowed the melody as best I could with nonsense syllables, something I am perfectly accustomed to doing from the times I’ve gone with my wife to synagogue.
I went to youth choir camp with my church growing up, and the Elven Choir Workshop was strikingly reminiscent of that. I don’t mean that the choir at camp was populated by Hobbits and people with elf ears and one guy in a full Christian Bale Batman getup, but that everyone was mostly unfamiliar with what they were singing yet still doing their damnedest. At Dragon Con, I would have given us, say, a C-. Maybe.
But then, the choir director, a woman I still couldn’t see, told us that we would be performing that night at the party hosted by the Tolkien’s Middle Earth programming track. Suddenly, the length of the suite we were rehearsing seemed overly ambitious for a one-hour blind rehearsal. But, the director said they especially needed men, so, high on the choir camp nostalgia, I figured I was up for it. The time of the elves is over, my friends, and I would see them off into The West with song and revelry. I was actually pretty jazzed.
Another seat opened up, and I moved so I could see past the screen. Apparently, the choirmasters were two bearded women, or possibly, women cosplaying as hobbits or dwarves, although one of them was just wearing jeans and a t-shirt, so who knew? While one plonked away at an unamplified keyboard, the other pounded out a rather martial tempo on the table with maracas. The rhythm suggested prisoners rowing in the galley of an ancient warship where it also just happened to be Taco Tuesday.
In my notes from this, I’ve found the phrase, “I seen a lotta elves that got it, Kid. And Kid? You don’t got it.” I guess this is the point, which evidently caused me to imagine a conversation with a talent scout from Middle Earth’s equivalent of the Borscht Belt, where I decided that, for the good of the choir, it was best if I did not attend the performance. But, truthfully, my incompetence hasn’t really stopped me from sabotaging choir performances in the past. In all honesty, the deciding factor was when the director said we had to line up more than an hour before the doors opened, because the party would likely reach capacity and there was no guarantee that choir members could get in. I looked across the room and saw that Batman had already slipped out. Good move, Dark Knight.
You don’t really have to wait in line to party at Dragon Con. The most interesting ones just happen. Early one morning, I found the valet parking area in front of one of the hotels in the throes of anarchy, completely shut down by an impromptu rave. Fifty or so dancers, most in costume, orbited a portable sound system as many more drifted around the edges, walking haphazardly through the porte cochére, ignoring the few cars that were left.
I wandered into the core group just as people started thrusting their prop guns and swords into the air in time with the harsh techno music. Then, everyone began chanting “USA! USA!” I couldn’t decide if this was reassuring in its banality or just made the whole scene even more apocalyptic. The best costume I saw at Dragon Con this year was Immortan Don, a mash-up of Donald Trump with the villain from Mad Max: Fury Road; patriotism with a strong hint of Doomsday just seems to be in the air right now.
Before I left, I heard a guy politely ask someone, “Excuse me. Do you know where the drugs are?” Considering we were in a motor lobby that had turned into the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars, I would have to guess that he was getting warm. However, given the way he was asking, one could have reasonably assumed that he was either a narc with the worst come-on ever, or an Amish kid awkwardly kicking off his Rumspringa.
Sometimes Dragon Con may just seem like an excuse for nerds to cut loose, but at its core, it’s about shared passions and connecting with others. For some, though, barriers remain. Later, as I watch the courtship ritual of the Left Shark unfold, the woman swaying in cosmic synergy with him stops, takes one last drag off her cigarette, and opens the door to go inside. Left Shark turns to greet her, person-to-shark, no longer separated by the window. The woman walks right by, not even turning her head to acknowledge her former dance partner, the magic once between them now trapped somewhere in the glass or dispersed into the atmosphere with her cigarette smoke. Left Shark’s shoulders (or, whatever the shark-equivalent of shoulders are) slump as the woman walks off into the hotel lobby, leaving the crestfallen shark behind as she vanishes into the crowd. But, sharks have no choice but to keep moving, so this one turns back to drift alongside the window, eyes once again turned outward to whatever other possibilities the night holds.