Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
In 2019 my wife Anne and I attended our very first Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia. We returned home to Indianapolis with a plethora of new memories, hundreds and hundreds of photos, and a shared suspicion that we’d return someday. Not every year, but someday. In the year of our grand pandemic 2020 we attended exactly zero conventions for easily guessed reasons. In 2021 several cons made their comeback plans, but Dragon Con stepped up hardest and made us some offers we couldn’t refuse. We didn’t have to think long or hard before accepting the special rules under which this pandemic-era show would be held…
Once nice thing about dragging out a convention photo-gallery miniseries for weeks after the fact is, strangers have stopped searching for anything relevant that we might’ve had to offer them in the way of memories or cosplay photos that intersect with their own, so I can ease down, scale back, and touch on the smaller and more personal stories no one else cares about except us. Our arrival in Atlanta, for example, marked our return to comic-con life for the first time since November 2019. In many ways Dragon Con was easier the second time around if we disregard the parts most drastically affected by the endless pandemic.
We have a list of preferred cons we track via social media and e-mailing lists. Nearly all of them are a 3½-hour drive from home or less. After our 2019 experience, Dragon Con was the second exception added to the list. From there, our standard procedure for deciding which cons to attend is like so:
- Monitor feeds almost daily for guest announcements over months and months and months.
- Wish really hard they’d invite guests we haven’t met before who’ve made positive contributions to pop-culture works of arts that we’ve watched, read, or collected.
- If the guests who meet that criteria (actors and/or Artists Alley) crosses a certain threshold (somewhere above two such guests is preferred), check our humdrum ordinary adulting schedule for conflicts.
- Go for it.
In 2021 our reliable old Midwest cons have been choking at step 2. This year, just this once, we waived step 2 for Dragon Con and only Dragon Con. They announced early on that ticket sales would be limited as one of their first baby steps toward pandemic safety protocols. Among other changes, no Saturday-only passes would be sold, generally the busiest day of any con. Fewer humans would mean less potential for unwittingly harming each other. By the time we returned home from vacation, we felt comfortable enough after those ten days of travel in our fully vaccinated bods, further goaded by a year’s worth of restlessness, that we mutually decided the time had come for a Dragon Con encore. Two days later we bought tickets despite the modest initial guest list, of which 90% appeared to be locals who attend every year and shall be there annually until death do they part.
It was a gamble on many levels. What if they canceled in-person Dragon Con a second time in lieu of yet another virtual edition? What if no one from comics or Hollywood would touch a convention with a ten-foot pole and they had zero guests? What if ticket sales plummeted and they called the whole thing off? What if Georgia’s population screwed up worse than their southern neighbors and lockdowns became a thing again? What if COVID-19 murdered us before then, or just deeply clobbered us? What if we got nervous all over again? What if what if what if what if?
We breathed a little more easily when the showrunners announced even more restrictions, as we covered in other chapters. All attendees, no matter how many tens of thousands that might mean, would need to be fully vaccinated or produce negative COVID test results within 72 hours prior. All attendees would be required to wear masks inside all the participating buildings. As much of America surfed the crests of the treacherous Delta variant wave, D*C announced these new protocols two weeks before showtime. Surprise!
Predictably, some ticket holders were not happy. To sign up during all those months of ticket sales and announcements, only to have new stipulations whack you in the face like a stepped-on rake — and so late in the game, at that — was a sudden, sharp curve. In his chats about the current era, the head of my company frequently refers to the fact that “we are living in a TBD world.” As the science updates, as COVID counterstrikes, as infection stats and vaccine head counts fluctuate and improve and stagnate and back again, no status quo stays trending or affirms complacency for long.
The two of us never grabbed a single torch or pitchfork. We had vaccines. We had masks. We survived a ten-day vacation through multiple maskless states. We sallied forth and tally-hoed.
Masks aren’t my favorite thing, but cosplayers and first responders have weathered them for ages. As a direct result of state and county mandates back home in Indiana, from July 2020 to this past spring I got used to wearing a mask at work eight hours a day for months. I coped. I survived. I’m at peace and not raving about it. I could rewrite an entire essay about selfish conflations of “freedoms” with “privileges” and the dire contrasts between self-interests and civic responsibilities, but I will spare you. The too-long-wouldn’t-read-if-I-HAD-written-it-to-you version: comfort is not a virtue.
Our outlook on the whole “fun” aspect of this shindig brightened as they added more guests. Dozens canceled. Other dozens didn’t. To be fair, some names on the ever-growing “never mind” list had canceled months ago. Eventually, some of our trepidation subsided and made room for genuine excitement. Our fears that this might be a contender for the title of Worst Con Ever dissipated.
Our next steps were (a) surviving till then, (b) praying everyone around us could hold off on emergencies till then, and (c) getting there. Step (a) went perfectly, high-fives for us.
Step (b) threatened to become a comedy of errors. A few weeks before takeoff, one relative totaled their car and needed my chauffeuring assistance at several points. The week before takeoff, three other relatives tested positive for COVID, one of whom wound up in the hospital for two days. Barely two days into that crisis, in a comparatively minor slight in the cosmic scheme, our dryer died. We really, really needed everyone and everything around us to be okay in our absence, and signs kept trying to point the wrong way.
Somehow, though, in blessed sitcom fashion all our subplots were largely resolved or negotiated into dormant-interlude status before we left. The now-carless relative was squared away on supplies and arrangements made for a backup driver on one crucial day. Other family stepped up with the necessary assists on the three afflicted. (All seem fine as of this writing. The eldest of the three, statistically the likeliest to die from it, was also the only vaccinated one of the trio and non-coincidentally had the easiest time of it by far.) As for the pressing issue closest to home, Anne plundered the basket of quarters we normally reserve for Chicago toll roads and hit up the dryers at the laundromat. Life found a way.
We staged the path to Atlanta as a comfy two-day drive, leaving home Wednesday and arriving Thursday. D*C would be a two-day soiree for us, Friday and Saturday only. Retreat to Indy would be an eight-hour Sunday marathon, leaving Labor Day to recuperate. We made stops on the way down at tourist attractions in southern Indiana, Louisville, and central Tennessee that will someday star in their own entries apart from this very special MCC miniseries. The important thing is, the Goldens were on the road again.
The path on Wednesday wasn’t bad. Thursday’s was. Afternoon construction gridlock in Chattanooga delayed our arrival in downtown Atlanta until precisely the worst evening rush hour we’d seen anywhere all year. We have zero nostalgia for those remnants of the Before Times. I gritted my teeth for several miles, but we persisted.
We checked into the same hotel we’d loved in 2019. It isn’t one of the official D*C hotels along the main stretch and sits a bit off the main thoroughfare. It’s cheaper and not too far away from the action. Some folks wore masks inside; some didn’t. The clerks and valets were as friendly as ever, but housekeeping seemed to be working through the same pandemic-era struggles that now bedevil other American workplaces across myriad fields. Key amenities were all but missing, Saturday breakfast went totally awry, and someone left an ozone machine in our room, part of an unfinished effort to eradicate the nasty cigarette stench left by the previous guests. We’d never seen an ozone machine before. We’d never heard of ozone machines. I had to Google “ozone machine” and confirm it was neither a fancy humidifier nor a deadly weapon whose presence could get me framed like Richard Jewell. I remembered that time in 2008 when we could’ve used an ozone machine in Roanoke. Now I wish I had an ozone machine, but pocket-sized and less ugly than theirs.
Thankfully we’d arrived in town a few hours before D*C badge pickup ended at 10 p.m. We walked a few blocks over to the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel and on the way realized, as we reacquainted ourselves with Atlanta’s streets, on foot everything seemed smaller and closer this year than it had in 2019, when the city daunted us and got us lost more than once. I’d kept my digital Dragon Con Newbie maps on hand just in case. This time I never needed them to navigate outside.
The Sheraton grounds were a block party, crawling with con-goers wandering all around, swarming over food trucks and making new friends. We joined the badge line in progress as it encircled the entire block, and felt reassured by its brisk movement. We donned masks while waiting, took the selfie/lead photo, chatted with a pair of young guys behind us about Invincible, and soon (by con standards) entered and segued to the line’s next phase, a ballroom serpentine.
Everyone masked up. No one fought the law. We all won.
In olden times we used to print our con tickets on actual paper and we carried them with us like priceless artifacts. Today’s events, not just cons, rely increasingly on digital tickets you can pull up on your phone. The new style kills fewer trees and uses far less overpriced printer ink, but it can flummox anyone who doesn’t save copies on their phone’s internal memory and instead naively assumes they’ll be able to access their internet email and retrieve said tickets at any time without fail. Hilarity ensued as we marched deeper into the ballroom and our internet connections evaporated. We weren’t staying at the Sheraton and therefore couldn’t access their Wi-Fi. We panicked and took turns fighting to pull up our precious entry token on either of our devices. After much growling and snarling I realized I could get a signal on one side of the room but not the other, which of course the line kept alternating between. We’d walk and walk, signal, no signal, signal, no signal, signal, no signal, and so it went until we reached a booth at last and redeemed our QR code and ourselves.
Yep, we are officially olds vexed by technologies that are not actually newfangled but might as well have been for all the success we were having with basics. I blame the long day and the longer drive.
Total badge pickup time was 80 minutes, pleasantly acceptable. By then it was sundown, people were still everywhere, and restaurants were either closed or possibly full. After eyeballing and declining a few nearby options, we ducked inside Hsu’s Gourmet Asian Cuisine, proven reliable on our last visit. Their management required masks only while walking around. We waited roughly 60-90 seconds for a table and were seated next to a rather boisterous young group. The intermittent vulgar shouts among their drunker members would remind us olds that some geek circles intersect less than others, and there are reasons why our comic-con photo galleries never contain closeups of after-hours party people or their treasured liquors.
(Sometimes I wish we had more chances to hang out with fellow geeks at cons. Other times, I’m at peace with not fitting in. The number of places where the two of us do truly fit in seems to shrink with each passing year, in geek spaces and normie spaces alike. Pardon me while I pause for melancholy sighing.)
Service was refreshingly speedy. The food hit all the right notes. We ordered nothing extraordinary enough to capture on phone. That’s partly because the menu was much shorter than their 2019 edition, and partly because we’d had a long day anyway. We sought comfort food; we got comfort food deluxe.
The nighttime jaunt back to our hotel was short and well lit, but a bit less ldyllic as we left the Dragon Con crowds behind. We looked forward to rejoining them over the next two days and, in whatever brief interactions might come, to remembering what it felt like being around other people who “get” some of the same stuff we do. How we’d missed that.
We had not missed the part where our hotel’s location is apparently a choice drag strip for local street racers with volume-16 radios. Sleep doesn’t come easily when the hills are alive with the sounds of an all-night Dom Toretto family reunion.
To be continued! Other chapters in this very special MCC miniseries:
Part 1: Return of the Jazz Hands
Part 2: A Cosplay Sampler
Part 3: Some Cosplay Parade
Part 4: More Cosplay Parade
Part 5: Still More Cosplay Parade
Part 6: Cosplay Parade Stumpers
Part 7: More Cosplay Parade Stumpers
Part 8: Last Call for Parade Cosplay
Part 9: Winding Down the Parade
Part 11: Day One
Part 12: The All-Star Saturday Grand Finale With Wall-to-Wall Paneling