PERSONAL ESSAY


I awoke—not from sleep, but rather from that unhealthy, deep unconsciousness reachable only through intoxication—to the sound of ringing. Consciousness slammed into me like a cold wave, the resulting disorientation leaving my thoughts insubstantial. The ringing persisted enough to keep me from falling back under, so I crawled out of one hell of a large, comfortable bed in search of its origin: a backpack. But it wasn’t my backpack. I strained to remember. Chris. It belonged to Chris. Not me, but Other Chris, the trouble- making transient whose path I crossed the night before. From within the depths of his backpack the phone continued to cry out. On a hunch, I unzipped the pack and fished around for the damn thing, thinking it might be Other Chris on the opposite end, attempting to solve the mystery of his missing gear. En route to the ringing phone, I found two cans of Miller genuine draft, a black Nikon SLR camera, an assortment of wires and pornographic magazines, and a taser. As I stared at the contents of Other Chris’s backpack, the phone still chirping away, fragmented memories of my first night in San Francisco began to stitch back together.

***

On Thursday, January 28, 2010, I found myself standing beneath Route 80 in downtown San Francisco. Had anyone asked me a few days earlier where I’d be that Thursday, I’d have replied with certainty I’d be at Drip Marketing Inc., a small-time marketing company with delusions of grandeur run out of my boss’s basement in South Jersey where I work as a copyeditor/proofreader, not on the complete opposite end of the country. See, I don’t lead a terribly adventurous life. Not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t afford to.

Employment at Drip Marketing, Inc. (DMI) was a compromise, a joke of a job managed by an obdurate employer. I kept it only to pay my bills, although the meager restitution it provided barely covered those. But my work there involved writing, so it in some way serviced the direction I was steering my life. In addition to working at DMI, I also juggled a handful of online writing gigs, none of them paying, of course, but at least providing much needed creative writing outlets. Among the sites I wrote for was a third-tier video game website called Kombo. It was Kombo’s then editor-in-chief, Ken Cauley, who messaged me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to cover a press event in San Francisco. All—well, most—expenses paid. The catch? It was a scant few days away.

When you lead a rather dull life, you unintentionally develop an aversion to spontaneity. And when coupled with an insufficient income, that aversion amplifies tenfold. Never because you are opposed to the impromptu, but because you can rarely afford to indulge it, or, when you do, are hindered by a persistent awareness of your funds dwindling. As a result, you tend to resist being uprooted, even temporarily—the proverbial rock and a hard place, which is exactly where I found myself after Ken messaged me. On the one hand, I longed to visit San Francisco, a city I regularly romanticized about and yearned to move to. On the other hand, taking time off work, even for one day, disrupted my financial stability between paychecks.

I desperately needed to get out of the mall-choked suburban sprawl that is South Jersey, if only for a few days. And since I couldn’t imagine any other opportunities to run off to San Francisco coming up any time soon, I accepted the offer. I was living with my father at the time, so even though missing a day at DMI would leave my wallet feeling lighter than usual, my housing arrangement was at least secure. It seemed, then, prudent to take the hit to my wallet if it meant clearing my head of the Philadelphia fog. It also meant surviving three days in a city far, far from home with only three hundred dollars—the sum of my last DMI paycheck—to my name. So cue the cinematic fast-forwarding, complete with Gaussian blur, and there I was, in downtown San Francisco, standing beneath that overpass, exhausted, cursing the Starbucks iced vanilla latte I called “breakfast” for not doing its job. I had arrived in the City by the Bay only hours earlier, at midnight, after being flown out of Philadelphia. After debarkation, I climbed into a black sedan-sized limousine that followed Route 101 to my hotel. When I arrived at the St. Regis, a five-star monolith seated beside the Museum of Modern Art on Third Street, I palmed my driver as generous a tip as my broke ass could muster and dragged my bags through the lavish hotel to my room, where I succumbed to jetlag-induced sleep.

All of this—the flight, the limousine, the five-star hotel—was orchestrated and paid for by video game publisher THQ. It was their press event that brought me to sunny C.A., to preview their upcoming post-apocalyptic shooter, Metro 2033. Now normally I wouldn’t allow THQ to curry favor by footing the bill—integrity and journalistic ethics and all that—but I was a destitute student. Still am a destitute student—one who does not get paid to play journalist. The opportunity to do so on THQ’s bill, well, that was just too hard to pass up.

Below Route 80, on Howard Street between First and Second, is Temple, the local nightclub where THQ decided to host their Metro 2033 event. In addition to myself, THQ flew out thirty or so other writers hailing from 1UP, Destructoid, GamingNexus, GameRevolution, and a handful of other Web sites I’m not as familiar with. We waited in the shade of the battered underside of the overpass, which looked like someone had waged war at and then abandoned. The sort of place where, late at night, when shadows blanket most of the chipped concrete surfaces and detritus and the moon is obscured by the highway above, something illegal would take place—a drug deal, prostitution, pick your poison. In the daylight, however, it had a more post-apocalyptic feel. Desolate, forgotten—save us intrusive gaming geeks snapping photos and capturing video and scribbling in our notepads. I jotted down observations in my Moleskine, wondering if waiting outside of Temple in a semi-dystopian slice of San Francisco was merely coincidence or some psychological component to THQ’s marketing meant to get us in “the mood,” so to speak, to play Metro 2033.

Eccentric PR events are not uncommon in the video game industry—or any industry, for that matter. But it seems, at least to me, that the video game industry is especially prone to it. This has everything to do with the adolescent state of video gaming. Gaming is such a relatively new art form that it is best compared to the film industry in the early 1920’s—so fresh that it is far from being fully explored, and as such rife with potential. But in the meantime, it awkwardly emulates the more “adult” mediums, such as a film, and like film, pumps out endless clones of whatever happens to be selling best. So as a result, video game publishers tend to hold events that, usually, notably, include copious amounts of alcohol and more often than not end in partying that has little to do with whatever is being featured.

As we were shepherded into Temple, daylight gave way to darkness. Absorbed in the absence of light, our only available sense was that of sound, the scuffle and shuttle of footfall as we made our way down a flight of stairs. At the bottom, the darkness was broken by harsh red lights mixed with roiling, manufactured fog. We emerged in a basement turned Russian fallout shelter. There was barely any lighting, and people dressed in Russian paramilitary garb had taken over the place. The walls were adorned with thick piping that hung exposed. At the far end of the room was a raggedly dressed man, playing guitar beside a rusty oil drum that was aflame—really aflame and bound to be a code violation, not that flickering, blue-and-red plastic fire used in theater. Adjacent to the guitar-playing man and the fiery oil drum was a boy, maybe ten years old, whose face was dirty and whose clothes made relief victims seem fashionable. In the gulf between us were tables set up with dozens of 22-inch monitors paired with Xbox 360s. A bar was cut into the wall to my right, while an arrangement of foldout chairs sat facing a large projection screen to my left.

At this point, a tall, gaunt man dressed in jeans, a white tee shirt, and a New York Yankees baseball cap coalesced from the shadows. He introduced himself as Luis Gigliotti, creative director at THQ, and began a well-rehearsed cut-and-paste PR diatribe filled with platitudes and bullet point statements you’d expect to find on a fact sheet.

The gist of Gigliotti’s speech, as reduced from one hour to one paragraph, was that Metro 2033 is, in video game lingo, a first-person shooter. As the name implies, the player experiences these games in the first-person perspective, seeing the world through the eyes of the character they control and interacting with the virtual world typically via firearms. Now first-person shooters are as old as the video game industry itself, with 1974’s Maze War and Spasim considered two of the earliest documented first-person shooters. Since then, the genre has enjoyed a smorgasbord of variety—first-person shooters that pit players against dinosaurs on lush jungle planets, first-person shooters in which players pierce the heavens and breach space to combat alien forces hell-bent on invading earth, and everything in between. With Metro 2033, players experience a first-person shooter that has been stripped down and laid bare. Players are left only with their gun and whatever bullets they can scrounge up to brave the harsh wilderness Moscow has become.

I wound up engaging Metro 2033 hands-on for roughly five hours, my playtime punctuated with glasses filled with cheap rum and diet coke brought to me by female servers (naturally). When I finally put the controller down, I was thoroughly—and most pleasantly—buzzed. And, after five hours of exploring the desolate ruins of virtual Moscow, in much need of a break. During the time I played Metro 2033, I accumulated dozens of pages of notes in my yellow legal pad—more than enough to produce a substantial article for Kombo. I decided it was as good a time as any to focus more on the event itself, a story far more interesting than putting together yet another first-person shooter preview. This led me to relocate to the bar, which in turn led to meeting Chris Hudak: Other Chris.

He was the Jesus-looking type: average height, long brown hair that fell to his shoulders, bearded, not really thin but far from out of shape. Like Gigliotti, he dressed with little regard to his appearance—a plain white tee shirt (dirty, perhaps even unwashed), with black jeans tucked into shoes left untied and haphazardly laced, their tongues hanging out like a dehydrated dog’s. Slung across his shoulders was an enormous black backpack.

In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how I wound up under Other Chris’s charm. Corrupted by unhealthy amounts of rum, I suppose I found Other Chris’s self-destructive nature somehow appealing. It certainly beat geeking out about games. As important as video games are to my life, there is something inherently isolationistic about them. This isn’t a bad thing—I champion escapism. It’s why I read so much, and it’s why I used to game so much. But I could game back at home. I was here to live, or at least live differently than I did trapped in the rectangular prison that was my bedroom at my father’s house, which represented all that I hadn’t accomplished in life. If nothing else, Other Chris was the incarnation of an uninhibited lifestyle. He was, in so many ways, the guy I wished I could be. Maybe not the grimy look, but the freedom it conveyed. Here I was, an entire continent between me and my established life, yet I was still desperately and pathetically letting my insecurities, my preoccupation with perceptions, hold me back.

So I let go. I let Other Chris drop bombs on me: Jäger Bombs, Irish Car Bombs, and just about ever other liquor-based bomb-in-a-cup you can imagine. This sped up the night cinematically, drunken idiocy punctuated by snippets of awareness: a conversation with the bartender about nerds hitting on by her asking if she played video games; a cigarette break for Hudak during which I met GameSpy’s Will Tuttle and asked him who I needed to perform fellatio on in order to meet Tyler Barber, a relative nobody I unexplainably venerated; totally innocent conversation with a woman whose husband turned out to be at the event and all manner of insecure.

Concrete memory returned when the event started winding down. It was nearing two o’clock in the morning, but soaked to the bone with liquor, a group of us were intent on keeping the party alive by moving to a new venue. I left Temple in the company of seven or eight other writers, Other Chris among them. All of us were fucked up, unreasonably so, but Hudak ... Hudak was beyond gone. His speech had devolved to some guttural, slurred approximation of English. His motor skills were shot to shit. We traveled maybe a block before he was facedown on the ground. He laid there, writhing, mumbling incoherently, an absolute drunken embarrassment to himself. While the others were content to abandon him, some bizarre out-of-towner kindness stirred within me, so I stayed behind. I implored him without success to tell me where he lived, where I could safely deposit him to sober up. This went on for the better part of an hour. Over and over I yanked him upright with blatant disregard to his comfort, shouldering as much of his weight as I could, until eventually mounting his backpack across my shoulders to make dragging him through San Francisco more bearable. Slowly I pulled him towards the only place I could think to take him—the hotel where I was staying, the St. Regis. Hell, besides Temple, it was the only other place in San Francisco I knew.

By the time we reached the St. Regis, Other Chris’s drunken stupor was in full swing, enough to draw attention from the hotel’s doorman, who by the looks of it was also security. This would prove fortunate, as the bouncer-sized doorman was able to strong-arm Hudak into producing his license. Together, the doorman and I wrestled Hudak into a taxicab and, at the added expense of another twenty dollars I could not afford to give up, sent him on his way.

***

That same morning, just a few hours later, ringing pulled me from the depths of unconsciousness. In all the hassle of dragging Other Chris through the streets of San Francisco and jamming him into a taxicab, I had forgotten to return his backpack. I figured, without any real rhyme or reason, that it was Other Chris calling in an effort to reach whoever might be in possession of what seemed to house most of his worldly belongings, not to mention an assortment of other peculiar artifacts. I answered the phone, my instincts on the money—it was Hudak.

By the time I returned to snowy Philadelphia, I had burned through three hundred dollars in less than three days, despite most of my major expenses taken care of by THQ. Returning to the East Coast proved jarring. The adventure was over. I was broke, and would remain so for a full week. On paper, my excursion to San Francisco was nothing short of a huge disruption to my life. I had nothing tangible to show from it beyond a few trinkets and a wallet that yawned with emptiness. But how things seem on paper rarely represents real value. Sometimes, you just need to get drunk in a city you’ve never been.