"'Go On, Jump In,' They Said, 'The Water's Not Cold'" by Stephen Leigh
“Go On, Jump In,” They Said. “The Water’s Not Cold.”
A FIRST CON COMMENTARY: MIDWESTCON 1977
(written in late 1977/early 1978...)
My first con – although at the time I lacked the correct mental set, the proper nuances of fannish contractions. I thought of it as a con-ven-tion, with all three syllables neatly laid out and intoned with pontifical reverence. I’d appeared in Analog a few times the previous year and this year (my first stories in something other than semi-pro magazines) and the then-current issue of IASFM contained one of my efforts. I’d received some kind letters from andy offutt commenting on the Analog stories, and I was aware that he was generally at Midwestcon – and I’d been thinking about going to Midwestcon in any event: it was nearby; I could always retreat back home if it were something exceedingly boring; and I would finally see what a con-ven-tion was like. The fact that Dale Tarr and Michael Banks, two local fans, had called to ask if I were the Stephen Leigh who had just had a story in IASFM only strengthened that resolution. I was known. People involved with the con-ven-tion had asked if I were attending. Yes, I would go. Yes.
But I wasn’t a fan. I knew nothing of fandom.
Banks had invited me to a pre-convention party on Thursday evening at the hotel. Yes, I told him, I’d be there. He gave me the room number and approximate time. Thursday evening found me, then, in the lobby of the Norwood Quality Inn – about a ten minute drive from our apartment. Nervous and hesitating as usual, I tried to look as if I belonged there, for the clerk at the desk has accusatory, predatory eyes that wandered about the lobby in search of unwanted carrion, and those eyes glanced at me often. I ruminated, shriving myself of stupid questions. Why had I come? I didn’t know any of these people. What if neither Tarr nor Banks was at the party? What would I say to this room full of complete strangers? “Hi. I’m Steve Leigh.” Hesitation. The blond giant holding the door stares at me in dumb question and thumbs the keen edge of his battle-ax. I stammer in confusion. “Uh, a Dale Tarr called, you see, well, he didn’t invite me to the, uh, party… I mean, Banks did, and…” More confused looks from the giant. He licks blood from his slashed thumb and glances at it meaningfully. “Banks?” he says finally. “Never heard of him. Not git.”
I looked at the fellow denizens of the lobby, the impressions of their faces slowly making their way through the paranoia filter that hangs between myself and the rest of humanity. Are these sf people? I ask myself. The older gentleman in the suit coat and pants that don’t match, a dusting of cigarette ashes coating the rough fabric – is he perhaps a Famous Author? I shrugged my shoulders, attempted to be unobtrusive, and walked down the corridor toward the room, vision s of unfriendly giants before me.
Outside the room, then. I leaned against the wall opposite the door and looked at the brass numbers tacked to the plywood. Yes, they match. But there were no signs, no clues giving further verification. Steve: here’s the party. Or -- SFWA members welcome. Or – Midwestcon Party That You Were Invited To. I would have even been content with the improper grammar of the last. Listening – body slightly inclined toward the door, but not so far that I couldn’t straighten guiltily if someone hove into view down the hallway – I could hear murmured conversation. Laughter. Unrecognizable voices. I gathered all my resident courage…
…and walked back into the lobby. Cigarette Ash was talking to a wide, short woman in a red smock. She wheezed on the couch like a broken, blood-stained radiator. She laughed overmuch and hysterically. I smiled at the vulture-eyed clerk, showing my obvious sense of belonging, and walked downstairs. Busboys were putting chairs away, and I glanced at the bulletin boards outside the party rooms. A realtor’s meeting. A wedding reception. No mention of Midwestcon. Am I in the right place at all? I went back upstairs, undecided. Cigarette Ash and Red Smock had been joined by The Beard – a younger man with an extraordinary growth of facial hair. I carefully cemented an intent and serious frown on my face as I strode down the hall toward the party room once more. People were still talking inside. I raised my closed fist, knowing that this time I would really knock, and closed my eyes in preparation…
…and found that when I knocked, I only hit open air back in the lobby. Cigarette Ash was gone, though Red Smock and The Beard were holding an animated conversation. I smiled at the clerk as I walked from the lobby and out the door.
I went home. End of Day One.
Second day: Friday noon. I returned to the scene of last night’s defeat. The lobby was full of people now, groups of them wandering about, while a knot of serious faces sat on the ring of couches bordering a coffee table burdened with full ashtrays. Again the question – are these sf people? I saw Cigarette Ash getting into an elevator and almost smiled at him. Old friend, remember me? I walked slowly about the perimeter of the room, seeing if I could detect that elusive aberrant strain in their words that would declare these people to be readers of science fiction. No, the dominant topic was politics and the hot weather. I went back to last night’s party room, but the door was shut and nothing could be heard on the far side of the wood – though when I walked back to the lobby, a person bearing a tremendous load of Styrofoam cups walked past me and into the room. He looked like an overgrown panda with glasses. SF?
I wandered downstairs, and there found the first tangible evidence that this was the convention and not a gathering of the Teamsters. A sign shone in the firmament: MIDWESTCON REGISTRATION. HUCKSTER ROOM. I breathed in an audible sigh of satisfaction cum trepidation, and entered the indicated room. Three people blocked the entrance, talking loudly of some con they’d put on years before. They glanced at me as I sidled past – and here I noticed that when one sees another person whose face isn’t familiar, one looks at his/her chest. I realized that I lacked the one accouterment that made this tradition viable in our society: the name badge. I moved to rectify that error. At the registration table was a lady with one of the most interesting faces I've yet to see. She looked, at alternate moments and sometimes at once, either twenty or fifty. She smiled, one of those rare smiles that appear to be at home in the muscles of the face. I had to smile in return – poor payment. To her left was a bearded man with a stack of magazines bulwarking him from the common run of humanity. Quantum. I stepped up to the table, glanced at the name badges they wore, adorned with a too-cute cartoon of a dragon. Grimacing at the artwork, I read the names. Cincinnati Fantasy Group: Bea Mahaffey. Cincinnati Fantasy Group: Al Curry. Ms. CFG asked my name as she picked up a pen. The moment had come. I licked dry lips and spoke.
“Stephen Leigh. L-E-I-G-H.”
I waited for the dawning of recognition on her face, the thunder from the heavens, the light arcing and dancing in the skies. Author! Author! Bea glanced up from where she’d written my name, her eyes aglow, and said…
“And what’s your address?”
The light dimmed, the thunder faded into the burping of last night’s supper. I humbly finished registering, gave Mr. CFG my money, politely looked through a stack of Quanta without buying, and went back upstairs.
With the name badge, it will be different, I told myself. Everyone will talk with me now that I have this powerful talisman. I am part of the con-ven-tion. Such is folly. I wandered about the lobby, doing a fair imitation of the Flying Dutchman, and watching people glance at my chest, roll their eyes back in inward contemplation, and – striking nothing – shrug and walk past. Bodies with their attached names flitted by in mutual strangeness. Then, with a shock of familiarity, like stumbling across your name in a phone book, I saw DALE TARR printed in neat block letters, attached to a gray-haired man holding a drink. He didn’t appear particularly fearsome, so I went up to him. And – glory of glories – he recalled talking to me. Praise what gods there be, I was saved!
The CFG will forever have Dale to blame, err, thank for having rescued me from a quick gafiation. Dale and I talked for awhile, and he entertained me with tales of fandom past. Then followed my Period Of Introduction, with Dale as mentor.
I wandered about with Dale, and whenever he ran across someone he knew, that unlucky person was treated to an introduction. “This is Steve Leigh. He’s had stories in Analog, and he’s in the current issue of Asimov’s SF.” I’d smile modestly, nod or shake hands, and immediately lose my graps of the other person’s name. At one point, we were sitting on a couch when Gordie Dickson, Robert Asprin in tow, walked by on the way to the bar. Dale blockaded Dickson and performed the now-famous introduction. I glanced modestly at the floor – wondering what I could say and not appear to be a total fool – when Asprin exclaimed to the world “Hey look! He’s blushing!” If I hadn’t been doing so before, I did now. I could feel the heat on my cheeks. I mumbled something or other and was very grateful when Dickson and Asprin went quickly on their way.
It was about that time that andy offutt arrived. Dale saw him first, and suggested that we go say hello to him. I demurred, not feeling up to a second humiliation quite so quickly. Dale wandered over as andy checked in, while I remained on the couch at the far end of the lobby. I crossed my legs, leaned back…
A call shattered the air.
Dale. “Hey, Steve! Over here!” I looked up to see him standing next to andy and waving. I sighed resignedly, and walked over to them. Oh, hell. What do I say now? Offutt’s the damn SFWA president. He doesn’t want to talk with every neo-pro in the world..
I shook hands with andy and smiled. I thanked him for the encouragement his letters had given me – yeah, I had that much to say, at least – and he shrugged away my thanks. And I abruptly couldn’t think of anything else to say. So I said something that sounded rather inane and boorish and excused myself, feeling more than vaguely stupid. This was not going well. Not at all. Get out of here, kid. We don’t allow mental defectives at science fiction con-ven-tions. I don’t want to see your face around here again. Hear me? The life of a recluse began to seem more and more attractive. I mumbled old Latin prayers. A monk. That’d be good – preferably a Trappist. Vows of silence, y’know. I wouldn’t have to speak at all, couldn’t ever sound like mental five-year old.
I went downstairs, checked out the setting-up of the art room, decided that I didn’t like most of the art, and went back upstairs. After performing my famous wallflower imitation for a time, I left. I gave the congregation a blessing from the doorway. My robes rustled softly, and I fingered the beads of my rosary with reverence.
That night, though, I brought Denise to the con – not an altruistic gesture on my part at all. Denise is a social creature. Strangers are, to her, just friends waiting to be met. And – as I thought she might – she proceeded to fit in as if she’d been a fan all her life. In five minutes, she met more people and had more conversations than I’d managed in three and a half hours that afternoon. We stood/sat in the CFG suite and talked to those revelers there --- um, in the interest in accuracy, Denise talked and I listened, throwing in the odd line or two. She registered with Bea and we stayed much longer than we’d anticipated after I’d given her my description of the con that afternoon. I even began enjoying myself.
The next night, I had to play at a local club. Denise went back to the con. She must have done well, by all the varied second-hand reports I heard at later dates. She managed to finagle her way into the banquet and sit at Joe and Gay Haldeman’s table, met many of the CFG people we now (reluctantly) call friends, got drunk, was attacked b the familiar of a certain tall (well, not short) BNF, and in general had a hell of a time. I wish I knew how she does that so easily – and when do I get to see all those incriminating photos everyone claims they took?
All of the above meant that by Sunday afternoon, all I needed to do was stay in Denise’s general vicinity and meet all those people I’d seen but not talked with. Sunday was a good day. We sat around the pool and chatted with Sally Sellers, andy offutt, Al Curry and Ric Bergman. Bill Cavin surfaced from the pool long enough to give a wet hello – Bill, for good or ill, is one of the most amiable creatures it has been my pleasure to meet. We contacted a plethora of people that I’ve come to know better in later times, though they were, at the time, more a quickly-moving blur of faces that I only badly managed to match with names. I enjoyed Sunday. I finally, grudgingly, enjoyed Midwestcon.
Huh, I’ll be damned, I muttered to myself, leaving the hotel that evening.
Yes, replied that implacable voice inside me, you probably will be.