An Experiment in Geekdom 06/18/11
Standing a few feet away from her, I can tell that Linda Blair is pissed. A last minute replacement for beloved zombie-movie director George Romero, she faces the indignity of being a horror icon at a convention where most of the attendees are science-fiction fans, there to meet Captain Kirk, River Tam, Commander Riker and—if they have time after waiting in all of those long lines—maybe, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The middle-aged woman who once masturbated with a crucifix in The Exorcist when she was 13 is a curiosity at best, and not worth paying $25 for a brief moment of her attention (especially after waiting three hours and shelling out $75 to do the same with Mr. Shatner).
In another place and time, she’d be the center attraction and have a line of autograph seekers as long as her fellow celebrity guests, but not today and she’s clearly not happy about it. It doesn’t help that hers is already a hard and somewhat humiliating task—charging folks for the nostalgic thrill that comes from a handshake and a signature from someone who used to be a lot more famous than they are now. The gentleman in front of me wants her to sign a Blu-ray and 3 posters (all for the The Exorcist, an inevitability she has clearly come to accept since all but four of the 20 or so photos she has displayed on her table are stills taken from that film and the four exceptions are all devoted to her first love—animals—and none of her other 60+ film or TV performances). He’s paid for three signatures ($75—she charges her fee every time her pen touches paper), but wants her to donate the fourth to a charity devoted to helping the victims of the devastating fire in Slave Lake.
An American, she hasn’t heard of the recent Albertan disaster. Plus, the gentleman doesn’t appear to be very bright and has difficulty getting his point across. He doesn’t tell her he’s already paid for 3 of the 4 signatures and she assumes he wants her to sign all of his items for free. Naturally she’s wary and asks if he has any documentation to prove that the charity he’s talking about is legit. For all she knows, he’s just a hustler trying to get some free signatures so he can make a quick profit on e-bay, which would mean money being taken away from her charity, an animal rescue organization to which the majority of her fee goes. After minutes of bargaining (there’s no hurry, only a handful of us are waiting) she discovers he only wants one free signature and gives it to him. He thanks her and leaves and I take his place at the head of the short line.
She’s clearly distracted by something and doesn’t make eye contact. I greet her with the same gregarious, “Hello!” I use for store clerks and bank tellers as a means to indicate that I am not another asshole customer to be endured, but a friendly ally grateful for their service and attention. She doesn’t respond. An awkward second passes and she looks at me and says, “Hi,” as if I’ve rudely refused to greet her first. I repeat my greeting and hand her the small poster I’ve brought from home. It’s for Roller Boogie, a guilty-pleasure she starred in six years after the film that made her famous and cannot escape. Without comment she asks my name, grabs a black felt marker and writes To Allan, Keep on Rolling, Linda Blair. She does not show any indication of pleasure signing something unrelated to the reason she has been invited to the Expo and it’s clear that I have received the rote sentiment she reserves for all Roller Boogie related merchandise. Having signed my poster, she proceeds to get down to her real life’s purpose and gives me two computer printed handouts devoted to the efforts of her personal charity. I thank her, wish her a good day and leave.
Unlike many other fans, whom I imagine would take her coldness far more personally; I find it impossible to begrudge her obvious displeasure. I understand that hers is a strange form of customer service job and—having worked those myself—I know how unfair it is for every random asshole you encounter to assume the honour of their patronage always merits a sincere smile and your heartfelt gratitude. People can be a pain in the ass and no Academy Award nominee (1973 “Best Supporting Actress” The Exorcist)—living or dead—is a good enough actor to always pretend otherwise.
Still, I cannot help but wonder why I felt compelled to put myself through that experience. I find my introductions to normal everyday people are usually awkward at best, why would I assume one with a celebrity I admire would be any different?
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. An hour before I met Ms. Blair, I had a brief encounter with Adrienne Barbeau that was just as uncomfortable, but far more satisfying. Her line was also short, but she seemed to be taking it in stride. Unlike Ms. Blair who had nothing to say about my Roller Boogie poster, she visibly brightened when I handed her a copy of her autobiography. “That’s what I like to see,” she announced to everyone within earshot, obviously proud of her work. Sensing this was my best opportunity, I launched into the spiel I had been preparing in my head since I found out I was going to be able to attend the event.
“You probably don’t remember this,” I told her as she opened up the book and grabbed a marker, “but I interviewed you last year for a website called Bookgasm.com.”
“What site was that again?” she asked me.
“That was the one where I answered the email?”
There was then a pregnant pause as I waited for her to make a comment regarding the quality of the interview or the fun she had doing it. Instead she broke the short silence by saying, “Of course you realize I don’t remember your name.”
Rather than be stung by her terse honesty, I couldn’t help but revel in it. It was the exact same quality that drew me to her performances and writing in the first place. Any other response would have felt false and insincere. I could honestly say I met the real Adrienne Barbeau.
I gave her my name and she signed my book before getting up and throwing an arm around my back. Her assistant took a photo with my cracked iPod touch and that was that. The line continued and I left happy. (That said, I must have made a tiny impression. The following Monday I found I had a message from a new Twitter follower. It turned out to be the assistant who took the photo.)
As happy as I was when I left, though, the point of the encounter still eluded me. Why did I want to do that? What did it mean to me? Why does this matter?
At least I got off lucky. As a b-movie horror fan, I didn’t have to wait three hours to share an uncomfortable moment with my idols (although I would have liked to have seen Cassandra Peterson up close) and pay a truly outrageous fee to do it. I enjoyed my awkward connection without much effort and for bargain prices. Still, why?
Of all my encounters that afternoon (not counting the moment where I literally bumped into a very attractive woman in cat ears, who I later learned was once the pretty young star of Hellraiser) the only one I “got” was the 10 minutes I spent as I watched Amanda Conner, my favourite comic book artist, doodle a portrait of one of my favourite comic book characters. For my time and money I got to see the actual creative process happen right before my eyes. I got to see someone I admire do something I myself could never do. It was beautiful and moving and I got to take the result home.
For all my confusion, though, I must admit to deeply enjoying my first geek expo experience. Part of this was purely the pleasure of the company of the friends from work who joined me on the adventure. Much male bonding was had and the joy of it cannot be dismissed. But on a larger level it’s always comforting to be reminded that you are not alone out there in your beloved enthusiasms, even if the downside of this reminder is the knowledge that you are not quite the precious snowflake you imagine yourself to be. Every time I saw another short, overweight dude with a beard in an amusing pop-culture t-shirt with archaic headwear and dress pants, my precious sense of uniqueness died just a little, but the toys and comics and clothes I brought home were worth it.
I think. I hope. I don’t know.