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It’s Six A.M: Do You Know Where Your Sanity Is? Seven Years (and counting) Staffing Anime Conventions by Gabriel Ricard

I started attending Anime conventions along the east coast in the fall of 2004, and I staffed my first convention a year later in 2005. For some of the people I work with at conventions like Katsucon, Anime Mid-Atlantic, Anime USA, Balticon and others, that’s a single drop of water in a very deep bucket. For me it has encompassed several years of writing, acting, traveling, love, emotional breakdowns, good decisions, bad decisions, deliberate insanity, extraordinary coincidence and entirely too much else to cover in a simple rundown of activity.

These things are not necessarily related to the conventions I’ve worked at, but when I look at a lengthy period of time in my life one of things I like to pay attention to, for whatever reason, are the consistencies. The things that stayed more or less the same as everything else seemingly became subject to ridiculous, wildly unpredictable change. Being on staff for so many of these conventions over nearly eight years would definitely be one of those consistencies. And when I think about how much I’ve managed to do in nearly eight years, my time at the conventions seems considerably longer than just shy of a decade.

It stands to reason that I would have learned at least a few critical life lessons within all that time. I have, or I’d at least like to imagine I have. More specifically you would think that almost eight years of conventions would have revealed a lesson or two about life and people. That makes sense, too. I’ve worked with and met an extraordinary range of people, have been privy to moments hilarious, surreal or some deranged cocktail of the two, have maintained even worse hours than I do in my day-to-day life and have walked around monstrous convention centers until I have blisters on my feet the size of Andre the Giant’s thumb.

And I keep coming back. It’s hard not to leave things like that without at least a few realizations.

One of them I can share with you right off the bat. I don’t know if you’re ever going to run into this situation yourself, but should it come up, it might be worth to consider the advice of someone who has been there before.

It’s also probably one of the most important things I could possibly impart. As both a life lesson and good rule of thumb for conventions.

Bill Hicks once remarked about how much he enjoyed sharing wisdom with people. I don’t have nearly as much to hand out as he did, but I can leave a little bit on the table, and you can do whatever you want with it.

Do not, I repeat, do not attempt to best a Japanese rock band in a whiskey shot contest. Seriously, don’t do that shit. It’s not going to end well. I promise. You might pride yourself as someone who hold their liquor, handle a couple of drinks, and that’s fine if you do. Keep that illusion deep within your heart. It’s a nice one to have, and it would be a shame to have it completely obliterated by a group of men who drink bourbon as casually as I drink water when it’s about two hundred degrees outside.

That’s not to say that drinking and parties featuring old faces and new ones is the only thing about these conventions. It’s not. It’s not even the main thing. I would just say that the moral mentioned above is something I wish someone had told me beforehand. I could have saved myself a lot of grief.

The evening took a strange turn around 1 AM. We’ll just leave it at that.

There’s more I could tell you, but I’m not going to just run down a list of everything I’ve picked up from these things. Something tells me it would only be interesting to a small group of people, and I think even that guess might be a wee bit too generous. We’ll just say that this article is a lot like the one I did about Wrestlemania, Triple H, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels.  In the sense that I’m going to ramble a little about something that has maintained tremendous influence and impact on my life over a certain number of years, and that hopefully somewhere within that you’ll find something interesting.

And if you don’t you can just tell people that I lured you here with the promise of pictures of sexy cosplaying girls.

I can live with that. You have no idea.
I’ve always liked this hotel. I’ve been here a few times at this point. AMA has called it home for a few years now, but it was here that I attended my first connection in 2004. Nekocon is at the Hampton Roads Convention Center now, but at that time they were here, and I was an attendee based largely on a whim. Conventions had always been something I wanted to attend as a bonus to a lot of my interests. Horror movies, Star Trek and Anime were the three big ones. Until Neko 2004 it was something I just couldn’t seem to make happen. Then I met someone Halloween of that year, and they asked me if I wanted to tag along. I didn’t know this person in the least (we’re still good friends), but I figured, what the hell, why not? If it was a way to finally attend one of the damn things, and if it got me out of town for a few days, then where was the harm with throwing my lot in with a person I knew absolutely nothing about?

That’s been the prevailing logic for much of my life, and it’s had results both good and bad.

On this occasion the results were obviously pretty kind to me. Nekocon isn’t anywhere near the largest conventions on the east coast, but that’s not a bad thing. Some people, and I’ve grown to become one of them, prefer the smaller conventions. Smaller is simply a matter of how many people show up. It doesn’t really have anything to do with quality, or how much fun you might have.

I’m honestly not sure how I would have reacted to my first convention being something like Otakon, which as of 2011 has somewhere in the vicinity of 31, 000 paid attendees. Something tells me I would have been rather overwhelmed. My first-time convention experience taking place at something intimate like Nekocon was probably the best call.

Because no one can say I didn’t have a hell of a lot of fun. It was the first time I had ever really surrounded myself with a physical version of something to do with my geekdom, and that quickly became something special. I overspent my budget in the vendor’s room, gawked in amazement at the great cosplayers, men and women, who rocked some pretty elaborate outfits from their favorite shows, films and comics (and some of those costumes didn’t have a thing to do with Anime, but were amazing nonetheless), met some extraordinary people, discovered comics, shows and films I had never heard of and tried every step of the way to ignore fact that it all had to end out of my head.

Of course, I failed at that last one, and I was already making plans for a convention several months away, Anime Mid-Atlantic.

I started going to as many as possible. That didn’t turn out to be a ton (I only went to two in 2005), but I didn’t need a lot of motivation to become completely addicted to the atmosphere, the energy, the late nights with weird, wonderfully engaging folks, and, certainly, the Anime and general Japanese culture itself.

The weird folks turned out to the biggest gain of them all. It’s entirely up to those who know me to say if I’m even a little personable, charming and charismatic (and I’m not fishing, so get that thought out of your head). I don’t see those things. I will fully admit that I will talk to anyone I meet for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Some people are fine with that. Others find it a little off-putting, but they might come around eventually. Others still find me to be extremely creepy, so the gesture of randomly saying hell of is therefore treated with extreme discomfort and suspicion.

I’m not offended. I’d probably feel the same way meeting someone like me.

The ones who are fine with that are people who have been close friends, good acquaintance or just a great conversation to run into a few times a year. Even the second group has given me some relationships I’m grateful to have. You know, after it was agreed upon by all of us that I’m pretty harmless.

Over time I would go so far as to say that the people I’ve known, the people I know at present and those I’m about to meet constitute my favorite thing about these shows. Meeting someone at Nekocon in 2004 was what led to staffing conventions in 2006.

Actually I had volunteered at Anime USA in 2005, but that was only because I needed a hotel room for the night, and it only took up a few hours of the weekend.

Staffing would turn out to be a completely different deal. It happened at MAGFest in 2006, was a complete accident and only came about because a friend from Nekocon 2004, who remembered me from every convention, I had been to up to that point.

Big Ben had personality and charm to spare. He was the kind of guy who could take anyone into anything, and make it seem as though it had been their idea all along. It didn’t take me long to realize that a lot of people felt the same way. Everyone knew him, and it seemed as though everyone counted him as a friend. I know I did, and I was pretty sure I felt that way about ten minutes after meeting him at a random party at Nekocon 2004.

I could pretend it took a lot of convincing on his part to get me to help out with the security at MAGFest 2006. I don’t recall. It probably took him about five minutes. I know it seemed as though it took a blink of an eye to go from planning to just hang out all weekend, to checking badges at the game room and not being entirely sure what had just happened to me.

Working security for one of MAGFest’s amazing concerts (and they’ve only gotten bigger and better over the years) was a highlight. Being asked by Ben to staff Katsucon a month later was another. It didn’t seem to faze him a whole lot that I didn’t have a ton of experience. What concerned him more was that he wanted me to experience that particular convention.

By the time he brought me into Anime Mid-Atlantic in 2006, I felt like I had joined the mob. People just assumed I was going to come back next year, or that I would be working at other conventions later on. I liked that. One of the easiest ways to appeal to my silly, pointless vanity is to make me feel like I belong. Conventions bring out the best in that camaraderie, and that can apply to anyone who goes. The way I’ve gone about it just happens to be through staffing one after another.

The best stories I can share would probably be the ones I can’t remember. Enjoying an absolutely (at that exact moment) critical conversation into the early hours of the morning is nice, and it’s always fun to act as though the sunrise is intruding on your goodtime (the cocky bastard), but it’s always worth saying that it’s just one part of the whole great show. It’s the energy that never leaves any of the hotel or convention center rooms of one event or another. It’s saying hi to a friend in passing because you’re both busy with thirty things at once. Are you figuring out the pattern here? It’s going to the staff dinner. It’s laughing at in-jokes, or just anything that strikes you at random as being hysterically funny. It’s stumbling into what turns out to be the best Japanese movie you’ve ever seen.

It’s a lot of stuff, and I won’t bore you by listing even more. Hopefully you’re getting the sense that what you get out of these are whatever the hell you want to get out of them. And that’s not limited to Anime. If you dig something enough to go a get-together of like-minded people then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You also won’t have a lot of trouble coming up with reasons of your own.

I miss Big Ben. A week or so before his death in the summer of 2006 he called me up to say hi, and we spoke at length about hooking up for a beer at the next convention in a couple of months. I took for granted that he would be there. Same as everyone I had grown to become friends with by then. It’s not like he ended the chat by telling me of his plans to jump from the balcony of his apartment building. A long time has elapsed since that happened, and I still hit every convention with the thought that I’m going to turn a corner, and see him hitting on four girls at once.

Faces come and go in the TV series that seemingly makes up your life. Ben is obviously just one of many, but I miss his friendship, and I wish I could thank him for the things he brought me into. There are indeed a great number of people I’d like to thank as far as the conventions go. Like the stories I don’t want to drive you nuts with a long list of names that only some will recognize. All I can do is hope those names know who they are. If not, I should get around to them someday. It doesn’t seem like I’m going anywhere.

Seven years goes by quickly. Seven more years going by just as quickly? It’s possible. The stretch of my imagination picturing myself at these things five, six or seven years down the line is not a large stretch by any means. Some conventions go better for me than others, but I keep coming back, keep finding more good than bad and always find it impossible to imagine never going to a single one ever again.

You wouldn’t believe that by talking to me at the end though. By Sunday I am absolutely exhausted, cranky to the point of making it a religion and swearing to anyone dumb enough to listen that I will never, ever go near an Anime convention ever again.

By Monday I feel a little better, even if I’m still at the goddamn hotel. I love still being at the hotel in the very earliest hours of Monday morning. I go outside, light a cigarette and find the silence more surreal than anything else off the top of my head. To imagine the hotel’s lobbies, parking lot and elevators filled with a constant stream of human traffic is almost impossible. It’s like being only faintly aware of two completely different worlds. Except that it’s the exact same place. Just at a different time.

“Until next year,” I usually say, if only because I seemingly love the sound of my voice. Or I just want to hear how that voice holds up amongst so much sudden, creepy silence.

It’s interesting. You should try it sometime.