How Soon is Two Weeks Ago?

There’s a club
If you’d like to go
You could meet somebody
Who really loves you

So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home
And you cry and you want to die

– The Smiths, How Soon is Now

You blew it. That’s on you. Talk to some people at the club.
-Paul F Tompkins, covering How Soon is Now

Two weeks ago I met John Hodgman, Justin Long, Tom Scharpling and Paul F Tompkins at The Bell House in Brooklyn. That’s the lead to this story, and I’ve spent a week trying to write something that does not bury it. It wasn’t until I heard Mr. Tompkins’ excellent cover of “How Soon is Now” that I finally found the proper hook.

Meeting fancy celebrities in Brooklyn clubs isn’t my normal life. I’m just a rank-and-file nerd, not a member of the geek aristocracy like the luminaries mentioned above. I think a lot of geeks tend that way, closer to the Smiths’ tragic protagonist than to Mr. Tompkins’ brash M.C., with his sexy Mark Twain mustache and three-piece suit. I spent the majority of the time at that club standing on my own, checking twitter or ordering drinks, while Hodgman and Long chatted with everyone and anyone, told stories, and were generally awesome. I had come alone, and watched everyone else arrive in twos and threes, so I was somewhat hesitant to break into any of their private klatches. I still have some stupid  school-day scars from times I tried to join in and only found out I was annoying people, and I try very hard not to repeat those experiences. I was often the life of the party at gatherings where I knew everyone, bu,t when I ventured out of my comfort zone, I was that stupid kid standing alone and leaving alone.

Here’s the first great secret of geek socializing: chances are at some point most of our geeky heroes were that kid too. They get us. I go to a lot of conventions so I thought I knew the celebrity drill: go up, say hi, tell them you like their work, don’t take up too much of their time. So, when I found myself standing at the bar next to Justin Long I said “Hi” and thanked him for being hilarious and assumed that’d be it. It wasn’t. He went out of his way to ask my name, shake my hand, and have a conversation with me. We had both come to see Paul F Tompkins preform, so we talked about the show and how awesome it was to see this geek pantheon arrayed around us. I told him it sounded like the setup to an incredibly obscure and geeky joke: “John Hodgman, Jonathan Coulton, and Tom Scharpling walk into a bar.” Unfortunately neither of us could come up with a punchline before our drinks arrived.

We talked for less than five minutes, but the conversation gave me confidence and made me realize something. I was in a club in New York City. People are here to meet people, to hang out. Sure they’re here to talk to friends, but they’re also unusually open to talking to strangers. I could barge into conversations and then barge right out again if they were private. The world was my oyster. That’s when I learned the second secret of geeky socializing:  you want to talk to your geek heroes because they are awesome but you are awesome too, for reasons you take for granted.

I was wearing my GDC T-shirt that night. I didn’t wear it to increase my geek cred, rather it was evidence of a failure on my part: I had intended to “get dressed up to go out,” but after trying on a few skirt and top combinations I realized I had never learned how to get dressed up and go out, so I resorted to my most flattering T-shirt and jeans. A cute guy in one of the scattered, late-night pow-wows noticed it, and we chatted briefly about video game writing and design. I trotted out my humble credits, and he gave me his twitter handle before running for the bus. I wasn’t exactly a superstar, but I was awesome in a very small way. The thing is, all the random people I talked to that night were just as cool, or cooler. The guy who noticed my shirt was a burgeoning stand-up who had his hand in a bunch of cool and geeky projects. I talked to a woman with an awesome publishing job, and a guy who wrote for a website I love.

I rattled around the rest of the night, still a bit awkward but feeling more like I belonged (or at least didn’t actively not-belong). I stood in Paul’s CD and autograph line and talked with him about the bewildering genius of his Ice-T impression. Scharpling went out of his way to introduce himself and include me in a conversation he was having with a few other comedians and some random club people. I heard Mr. Tompkins tell a great story about terrible crowds. I just generally had a great time.  But until the end of the night one goal lingered just out of reach: I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to meet John Hodgman.

I am going to let down my guard now, break my cool for a moment – yes, this stumbling awkward personal cheerleading has been my version of cool. I’m going to wax embarrassingly rhapsodic for just a moment, do not be alarmed.

There is just something about John Hodgman. He is the kind of celebrity I never thought could exist. He is the apotheosis of my specific nerd variety: bookish and comic-bookish, odd yet confident, arcane but accessible.  His particular brand creative nonfiction and lies was the crystallization of a mental game I’d been playing for most of my life, one that the bewilderment of my peers led me to imagine was impossibly strange.  He tells stories of past awkwardness and alienation with a charisma that should seem inherently contradictory but is instead inspiring. All right all right, I am done. Needless to say, I wanted to talk to John Hodgman.  In his Ted talk on alien abduction, he mentions that, as a child, he was pretty good at video games but not so good at socializing with humans. He seems excellent at it now, however – the entire night he was surrounded with friends and cheerful conversation and I, once again, did not want to intrude. At the same time I kept my eye out for an opening, because I now knew both the secrets of geek socialization.

Finally, about ten minutes before I had to leave in order to catch the intricate series of trains that would carry me home, I saw my moment. John Hodgman was at the bar, talking about nothing in particular, and there was a lull in the conversation. I stepped up and said hello, and thanked him on behalf of all the hyper-literate nerds out there, for providing us with such a marvelous public face.  I meant to dash away after that but he, like his Mac counterpart, would not allow me to trip over my own nerdiness. He, too, shook my hand, asked my name, and engaged me in conversation. He called Paul F Tompkins a SUPER GENIUS (I could hear the capitals in his voice) and I chatted a bit about my travels from the wilds of Connecticut. After an all-to-brief few minutes I had to run, or rather asthmatically speed-walk, for my train.

And that’s my story.

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