It always smells like shoes.
I don’t know why, but O’Hare to me always smells like the Keds I had when I was five. It’s not a horrible smell – not smelly socks. It’s the smell of well work rubber soles and stretched canvas. It’s oddly comforting. I find a seat at the bar of the Red Carpet Club. I fire up my laptop, prepared to waste an hour deleting email and consuming random information which I will quickly forget.
I nod to the gentleman at the end of the bar. He’s perhaps 50, with the sandy brown hair and carefully shaven face of a terminal businessman. His laptop is open, but his eyes aren’t fixed in the glaze of information consumption. They’re darting around the screen. I look at his hands. His right hand on a small, silver Microsoft Optical mouse. The movements are minimal – there’s no rapidfire clicking. His left hand hovers in a claw over the WASD keys. Fingers dart methodically to the function keys at the top of the cramped Lenovo keyboard.
I’m sure of it. He’s playing World of Warcraft.
Until my early 30’s I was shy in public. I’d be loud, gregarious, even egomaniacal with friends. But in a bar, at a party, or at a business function, I would be reserved – the first one back to my room, making excuses to avoid the after-dinner drink. As I headed towards the ridiculous age of 40 I started realizing I had nobody left to impress, and decided to be someone else. I decided to become my friend Jason. Jason has always been aggressively cordial. He shakes everyone’s hand, tells everyone a story, and smiles at dogs. He knows everyone’s kids birthdays and seems completely immune to self doubt.
And so at times like this, at the bar, sitting next to a stranger, any natural inclination to hide stayed hidden underneath layers of Jason-inspired bravado.
“What server?” I ask.
The man’s eyes dart up from the screen. His eyebrows pinch in, and he pulls the laptop screen to half mast. “I’m sorry?”
“You’re playing WoW right?” I ask. “What server? I’m on Blackhand.” I haven’t actually seen his screen, so it’s possible I’m mistaken. But now I’ve flown the flag. I just have to wait and see if he salutes.
His eyes relax. A touch of red hits is cheeks. “Oh, umm, yeah. Cenarion Circle.”
“I have an old Tauren on Cenarion Circle,” I say.
Part one of the secret handshake has been successfully made: we've established the first point of common ground. “How long have you been playing?” I ask. This is not-so-subtle code for “what’s an old guy like you doing playing WoW?”
“My Son got me into it,” he says. “He’s at college and thought it would be fun to play together.” He chuckles under his breath. “And here I am in the airport playing by myself over a beer.”
“Yeah I know, it’s pretty addictive,” I say.
Secret handshake part two: we have both acknowledge the intensity of our common ground.
“That’s cool though, that you play with your son. My daughter will sit and watch but I haven’t gotten her hooked yet.”
“How old’s your daughter?” he asks.
"Great age." "Great age" is code among parents for "thank god I've got those years behind me."
The handshake is complete. We’ve established the common ground of gamer. We've acknowledged our self-aware and possibly indefensible love for the state-of-being that is geek. And now we have, like newcomers to a 12-step program, acknowledged that there is a power greater than ourselves: our children.
We spend the next half hour talking about games. He’s a secret junkie – nobody he knows plays games other than his son. His wife doesn’t particularly approve. She feels it’s childish. And yet, here he is in the bar, gaming in plain sight, albeit with a bit of embarrassment. I tell him about my not-so-secret addictions, about turning a hobby into a career, about my commitment to mainstreaming the medium. He’s paternally amused.
He looks at his watch. “Oops, I’ve got to run, plane’s boarding.” He closes the lid of his laptop, slams the last of his beer and starts reassembling the bits and pieces of his road warrior armament: laptop, mouse, power cord, blackberry, glasses, headphones. Each item disappears into a designated compartment of his black leather Tumi case. He extends a hand.
“It was nice meeting you,” he says. I shake his hand – for real this time.
“Pleasure’s mine,” I reply. “Stop by the site some time.”
“Sure thing,” he says, turning and walking out through the maze of haphazardly deposited luggage and tan leather chairs.
He won’t. Somehow, I know that he will go back to playing in his carefully constructed home office. His wife will be at her bridge group, his son won’t be online, but he’ll still be grinding his Human Priest. To break from the game and visit a gaming website would be to admit to himself that he’s playing the game for reasons other than paternity. It is, I fear, one step too far for him right now.
Perhaps when he retires, he’ll have his own “What Would Jason Do” moment. He’ll let go of the geekshy and just decide to embrace it, realizing he has nothing left to lose. Perhaps he’ll say “What Would Julian Do?”