So in the summer of 2001 I found myself an unemployed victim of the tech-bubble’s bursting, a situation which exacerbated pretty much all of the fundamental problems of my marriage, and by Labor Day I had moved away from Virginia and back to New Jersey to live with my mother, ostensibly because I had made no headway in the DC-area job search and perhaps would have better luck in the NYC-area market, but tacitly (and more importantly) because separating from my then-wife was a good idea given how things were deteriorating on the home front. Come the dawning of 2002, I was at least gainfully employed (though just barely) and also, with no small relief, no-fault divorced.
I ended up staying at mom’s for a little over a year, which was good for me in a lot of ways, but the hardest part was being geographically separated from my social support network in Virginia. I visited VA a couple of times, including Halloween 2002, on which occasion I attended a costume party (wearing an extremely low-budget homemade costume of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons) and ran into an old college acquaintance who found out I had little love for my current lousy job and offered me a much better one. I also had the license plates on my car reclaimed by the police – they were VA tags which had expired, because I had never gotten around to registering the car in NJ – and that struck me as a sign that I should take the new job and get back to Virginia, which I managed to contrive within a week or so.
And I very quickly got back into my old social circles, which included the gaming group I had played with on a weekly basis earlier. The group had changed somewhat in my absence, incorporating some new faces, but all were positive additions. One of those new guys (who truthfully was only new-to-me, since he had gone to high school with several of the other gamers and then drifted away for the better part of a decade only to re-emerge and be welcomed back into the circle during my year of exile) was actually such a hardcore geek that one night per week of gaming was not enough for him, nor was one style of gaming. While my old group was still gathering on Wednesday nights for pencil/paper/dice roleplaying games, the new guy was attending those sessions and also hosting Xbox HALO parties at his house on Friday nights and also setting up impromptu tabletop miniatures games at his place on other random weeknights. And since I am something of a hardcore geek myself, and much of my motivation for moving back to Virginia was to be able to hang out with peers with common interests again, and I wasn’t necessarily yearning to date or even meet romantic prospects yet (not to mention little did I know that I had already met the person I was really supposed to be married to, years before), I gleefully got on board with the expanded gaming schedule.
The tabletop miniatures games are the ones that feature multiple levels of addictiveness because they are also hobbies of acquisition. You buy an Xbox, you buy a HALO game, and you can play all you like and get the complete experience. Pretty much the same deal when you buy the core rulebook for a roleplaying system, though they offer periodic supplemental materials as well. But minis (some of them, including the ones featured in this anecdote) are like baseball cards, sold in small sets where you don’t know what you’re getting until you’ve bought and opened a pack, and you have no guarantee against getting duplicates or of ever getting every last piece, and collecting and trading becomes just as much part of the game as actually playing. When I first started attending these games using the minis (all of which were based on comic book characters, as if the whole concept needed another barbed hook to sink into my brain), I didn’t own any myself and would borrow from the vast collections of others, especially the host. But of course I started buying my own soon enough.
At that point there had been a core set of minis released when the whole game was launched, plus one expansion set. It wasn’t long after I started playing before a second expansion set was announced. And on the heels of that announcement came another, that before the nationwide retail release of expansion #2, limited quantities of packs would be available at a comic book convention in Orlando, Florida. The latter announcement soon became the subject of a great deal of speculation, rumination, and wild-ass blue-sky fantasizing.
The mini-gaming host, whom I have just now remembered I once christened “Clutch” for blogging purposes because he has always been there for me in tight spots, was and is a family man, happily married with … well now he has three kids but I believe at the time this story takes place, early 2003, he only had two. But part of his domestic bliss seemed to be an understanding between himself and his wife that they should each be allowed a great deal of latitude and freedom in following their own bliss, within the bounds of their wedding vows and other laws of the land. So his gaming nights were never a source of conflict, nor were her girls’ nights out, and if one or the other wanted to do something really outlandish every now and then, which didn’t bankrupt the family or anything, so be it. Therefore it quickly came to light that Clutch could, conceivably, go to Orlando for a comic book convention if he really wanted to. And I had no reason not to go, myself, since I had no significant other, no kids, nary a pet or houseplant. For the three years or so of my mistake-marriage I had felt decidedly not-myself, and getting laid off and taking a crappy job when unemployment ran out and living with my mom didn’t do a lot to ameliorate that. Getting back to Virginia had been helping, but I was still susceptible to thinking along the lines of “the old me was always up for anything, even eager for poorly-planned adventures, and generally defaulted to saying YES to things when there was no good reason to say no.” So when Clutch said, “I’ll go to Orlando if you’ll go with me,” despite only having really known each other a few months, I agreed to share the drive-through-the-night roadtrip.
It was a bit of a mad dash, since we both worked on Friday, met up that afternoon at his place, threw duffel bags in his Mustang convertible, and set off down I-95. We took turns behind the wheel (my turns may have been foreshortened because Clutch was always slightly agitated at my tendency to take my hands off 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock to gesticulate while I talked) and arrived at the convention center just before dawn, slept in the car for maybe an hour, changed our shirts and got in line so that as soon as the convention hall opened we could dash in and head straight to the booth where the new mini figure packs were on sale, because the only way the trip could be a failure would be if we drove all that way only to find the limited supplies had been depleted before we could pick any up. We may have been a bit overzealous but I can report the trip was not a failure. After we had obtained our new minis we enjoyed the rest of the day in a much more leisurely fashion, headed to bed fairly early, and then hit the road the next morning because it was already Sunday, we were 863 miles from home and we both had to be at work on Monday morning. We did, however, make time to stop at South of the Border on the return leg of the trip.
Anyway, before we roadtripped to Orlando, Clutch and I were acquaintances with common interests who were willing to take a chance going on an adventure together that neither of us could have pulled off alone. The trip itself was what really cemented our friendship, as we passed the time in the Mustang exchanging life stories more or less in their entirety, partly because there was nothing else to do, partly to stay awake (not that that tactic would work now; it’s astonishing what my 28-year-old self was physically capable of), and partly because everything’s connected. Clutch didn’t really know the details of my recently-ended exile, only snippets he had heard from the rest of the gaming group, so I told him how I ended up making the mistake of marrying the wrong person, which I felt only really made sense if you knew how my childhood view of my parents set my expectations and how my life unfolding messed with them. Clutch didn’t have his own divorce sob-story to relate, but he did get married fairly young, after a childhood and adolescence overflowing with cautionary tales, and I was fascinated to hear all of those details. Not to mention I’ve always found that asking someone “so how did you get into comics/roleplaying/pick-your-geek-poison?” will usually wind its way around their entire life story along that whole we-are-the-things-we-love (especially when the things we love are outside the mainstream) axis.
But good bros with a tight bond and at least one insanely impulsive shared experience between us or no, Clutch very nearly strangled me to death while I was driving (my own car this time, at least) and recounting to him how mind-numbingly awful the movie Hackers is. And he would have been totally justified, too. Live and learn.