The day after Dragon*Con 2011 finally ended, it finally ended. For the first time in a week I woke up with no where in particular to be. This is when "the end of Dragon*Con" started to feel real. There was no panel to attend, no line to queue up for, no crowd to beat. It was just time to go.
As usual, I arose before my roommates, showered, and left the room so as not to disturb them. When I walked to the elevator, there was no one waiting, which was a first. The elevator arrived in less than a minute, and I took it all the way to the ground floor with no stops. I didn't meet anyone along the way. The few early risers or all-nighters still in the lobby weren't in costume -- another first since Wednesday afternoon -- and I could walk freely through the skybridge to the Peachtree Center food court, where I snagged a pastry and some OJ. There were some D*C folk about, but the area had reverted to a center for business pros, not megafans. Our grip on the city was giving way, and normal life was once again taking hold.
I eventually made it back to the room, again without any serious crowd impediment, to where my friends were waiting to see out the end of this tale. It was time to pack.
My magnificent hosts, Bubba Chuck and Bubba Hickman, had plowed through a truly prodigious amount of alcohol and a modest number of non-fermented foodstuffs (mostly 5-Hour Energy shots) in our previous five days, and what few consumables remained had to be hauled out for refuse or return home. After that, we had to transfer a small repertory theater's worth of costumes down from the 21st floor of the Marriott, along with various travel sundries for my D*C sherpas, to Hickman's car. And then, after all that, we had to return the room to some semblance of factory original condition, which included disassembling the small quasi-bedroom nook the guys had built for my rollaway cot. The whole process took three hours.
This is why you pay for the extra day in the hotel and leave on Tuesday. Departing Dragon*Con is hard enough. Trying to leave Dragon*Con while 30,000 other people are doing the same thing -- on the same elevators, in the same garages, and using the same surface roads and highway on-ramps -- is akin to coating yourself in brown gravy and running naked through the final act of a zombie movie. It won't end happily, and the best outcome you can hope for is a bizarrely inexplicable brush with death.
Taking apart D*C HQ was a bittersweet affair. Doing a full Dragon*Con is draining. Bubba Chuck said it best in that it becomes your job to be a fan at Dragon*Con, complete with schedules and meetups and strategies. But on Tuesday, when the hotel room comes down, it finally sinks in that the gig is over.
My flight home didn't leave until mid-afternoon, so I had some time to kill -- time I intended to spend taking in a few sights around Atlanta, or at least as many as the MARTA train would allow. Once I had my guys ready to leave and check out, I planned to say my goodbyes and let them start the long road-trek back to Nashville and then Lexington, KY.
The guys were having none of it. All it took was one off-hand mention of seeing the Coca-Cola museum and I was stuffed into the tiny remaining space in Hickman's Volvo and we were all of us on our way to Centennial Park to meet Kayla LaFrance and Alex Caldwell for one final geek hurrah.
The two hours we spent in the shrine to carbonated/caffeinated sugar water were the perfect end of our week at Dragon*Con. We ran into the most artfully articulated human puppet I've ever seen, learned a little bit about our consumer history, sampled an obscene number of soft drinks, and genuinely had a wonderful time. I knew one of these people when I left home on Wednesday. Less than a week later, we were all fast friends.
The goodbyes we tried to delay, sadly, eventually came -- not long after we exited through the gift shop. I bid my new ladyfriends a sincere adieu, then simply asked for directions to the MARTA station. Again, John and Charles wouldn't hear of it, and offered to drag me all the way out to the airport -- the exact opposite direction of their drive. We compromised, and they drove me back to Peachtree Center -- the urban mall above a MARTA station where my Dragon*Con experience took root. It was just one more act of generosity for which I am eternally grateful.
The boys disappeared onto the highway as I walked past the Westin hotel and into the same escalator I rode up when I met my first Dragon*Con sherpa six days past. I took one last look around the food court and, unable to resist, ate one last meal at the Farmer's Basket. There were no more slogan t-shirts or swag-laden luggage trolleys to be seen. Dragon*Con was all but gone from this place, and soon I would be too.
I took one last walk over the skybridge into the Marriott Marquis, to see the lobby that had once been the epicenter of Geek Mardis Gras just one day before.
The wide open spaces were filled with small seats and tables, an apparent and surprising shift from the unfurnished expanses I had been accustomed to. Workmen were cleaning signs that had been caked with fingerprints and repainting baseboards that were scuffed black by too many costumed boots and heels. The world was erasing the geek imprint our people had left over the last week. It stung more than I expected.
I let it sting for a moment, the better to remember, then I reversed course, and walked the same path that had taken me into the heart of Dragon*Con mere days ago, back over the bridge, through the array of fast food landmarks and shortcuts, down a series of stairs into a subway stop filled with everyday people -- who were not my people. What little of Dragon*Con remained grew further distant with every step.
At the entrance to the station, I dug into my backpack and pulled out the MARTA ticket I'd bought on Wednesday, the simple there-and-back-again return fare that would see me to the airport. I slid it into the slot in the turnstile. The machine merely chirped, but did not return my slip. I didn't need the token any longer.
My train ride back to Hartsfield was quieter this time. No rowdy, excited teenagers arguing over costumes and party plans. Just businessmen and students and parents, quietly going about their days. In a half hour's time I was to the airport, and a half hour past that I was through security and waiting for my plane. I called my wife and told her I'd be home soon, that there were no delays. I missed her, and wanted to hug my daughter and sleep in my own bed. These were all true things, or at least mostly true. I was leaving Dragon*Con, and going home. Happier, richer in memories, and richer still in friends.
My first Dragon*Con was over, and it was bittersweet. Then I smiled, and made a little promise to my wife, my daughter, my friends and myself.
My first Dragon*Con was over, but not my last. Someday, I would walk this way again.
[To be continued...]