Monday, March 28, 2011

True Stories of John 8: Worst Convention Experience

After struggling with severe health problems for my entire teens, I was eager to go to a convention by myself. Independence, teen angst, nerdery – all those stupid reasons. So I got a train ticket, arranged a hotel room and set off for Otakon in Baltimore.

I departed from the Stamford Train Station in Connecticut. I got there early and descended onto the platforms early. This is a bad idea if you’ve never ridden a rail alone and don’t know which side your train’s arriving on. As one came up, I stopped a passenger and asked, “Is this headed to Maryland?”

In retrospect, the smile and nod he gave me were distinctly the “I don’t speak English” variety. I was too excited to lug my stuff on board, though. Half an hour later the ticket taker informed me that, no, this was not headed to Maryland. It was a Metro North train headed only to New York City. I’d have to get off at Harlem.

Hell no this sheltered, underaged white boy was not getting off at Harlem. I told the car my situation in the hopes to borrow a cell phone and calling home for advice. I even offered to pay cash for the time I’d use. They responded by not making eye contact. I went down some cars and found a phone that would not take coins, but only credit card information you had to speak into it. I still don’t understand how that was supposed to work. Seeing how inept I was, a couple of girls lent me a cell and advice that I actually would need to get off at Grand Central and go across town to Penn Station. I confirmed it with my relatives in Maryland via the phone while hiding from the conductor.

A few firsts ensued. First cab ride alone. First time realizing I’d overpacked. First time in three years my back began to crack, and I realized it might go out on me lugging far too many bags around Grand Central Station. Oh, and first time navigating Grand Central Station. Only getting lost in a city-sized subterranean transit system will teach you just how many pairs of pants you don’t need for a weekend.

It took me at least an hour to find the Amtrak station. I waited in the terminal until my train came up as "BOARDING." On the way down, I confirmed with three strangers and two conductors that this was definitely headed south. I spent the ride trying to keep pressure off my back, one of the spots my syndrome used to flare up the most. My grandmother actually met me at Baltimore’s Penn Station and was very sorry to hear about my incompetence.

We got to the door of my hotel room and Grandma couldn’t figure out the keycard. I put down my bags and swiped it for her. I bent, picked my bags up, arched my back, and something popped. Even she flinched at the sound.

I could not bend anymore. I had to drop my luggage without inspection on the floor and ducked in the bathroom for fifteen minutes. My back had either gone out or this was a wave of spasms; either way, bad. I had to hide this because I was convinced she would make me give up the convention. Priorities, you see.

Suspicious, she insisted we go to dinner. I spent another hour pretending my posture was always this good and no, nothing was wrong, I was just tired.

She spent another hour informing me about the grizzly murders in this city. Baltimore of Maryland, it seemed, was the murder capital of the United States. She begged me not to stay out after dark and not to talk to anyone. I had to stay in groups at all times. Between how addled my brain was from the train trip and the back injury, her ranting pierced my psyche. After she left, I slumped face-first onto my bed.

The next thing I knew, it was after six. I hustled outside and to pick up my attendee badge. With my back the way it was, I walked like I was trying to co-opt The Twist.

The line wrapped around the convention center. Twice. It was only overcast when I got there, and only began pouring and thundering after I waited for half an hour. We got soaked. Then we went inside where it was far too air-conditioned, and got the pleasure of being both wet and too cold. Every time I shivered, my back would spasm again. The people in line shied away from me like I was deranged.

I emerged with my badge and barely able to move. I was actually shuffling like a penguin when I realized it was pitch black out. I saw a single guy sleeping on a bench and was instantly convinced this city was out to kill me. I waited for the first couple to walk in the direction of my hotel and followed behind them.

I stayed close enough to ward off invisible muggers, while not too close as to seem annoying. They sped up.

I groaned in pain and kept pace. The couple huddled closer together and went even faster.

I couldn’t believe this. I was going to die out here.

Then the girl of the couple looked back at me. Her eyes were wide with abject terror.

That’s when I realized: I was disheveled from the day, grimacing from my back and effectively chasing this cute little couple. They thought I was a murderer.

I let them get away. When I got back to my hotel room, I laughed until my back popped a second time. I didn’t sleep that night. It hurt too badly, and there was a rave next door. I was half-delirious for most of that convention and could not tell you what I did for most of the weekend. Grandma says I was very happy when she picked me up Sunday afternoon. I went back for several years.


  1. How well you recall each minute detail - I'm sure they were anything but minute at the time - I was right with you on this journey, or better described I think as a rite of passage - you survived and lived to tell the tale - two things at the time I'm sure were in question

  2. "I let them get away." - This makes me wonder about your intentions. ;)

    That's a long list of scary firsts, and I'm impressed that you can recall them with such detail. It goes to show that even our most miserable experiences make good stories...eventually.

  3. I'm pretty sure I should not be howling with laughter by the end of this, but I am. I don't know how you made this much pain and misery funny, but well done, sir, well done.

  4. I had to cut out a lot of it, which might have undercut the actual story. I wrote this up for the Geektress podcast since they're farming bad convention stories. At the time it was so harrowing that it's scorched into my memory. It's good to reflect on what was bad and what was gross overreaction.

  5. Okay, I was really my office. Now my coworkers think I am deranged. Thanks. I love your non-fic stories and I'm sorry you had such a sucky adventure.

  6. Never been to a convention, so I applaud your bravery!

  7. Oh, the humanity. Gives me perspective. My number 1 concern when leaving the house is where and when I'll be able to pee. Through all your pain you know how to make a reader laugh. I admire that, sir.

  8. I think after that I'd never want to go to another convention. LOL You have a very vivid memory.

  9. I think it is awesome that you stuck it out. I've never had that kind of long term pain but I can imagine everything is more difficult. You took it in stride and didn't give up.

    You know the world is a small place. I am picturing that couple coming across your blog and laughing hysterically. The husband has probably been telling the story every chance he gets about how they were almost murdered that night. :)

  10. I've never heard this story before! Makes me feel awful for complaining of a headache mid-convention. ^.^;;;;

    Also, Amtrak trains only leave from Penn Station in NYC. ^_~

  11. Hilarious in retrospect, but what an agonizing story. Cheers to you for seeing it through (and for telling us about it!)


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