It’s tough to admit, but I’m not as cool as the steampunks. They’ve got the pith helmets, the goggles, the swagger and the swagger sticks to prove it. And there I am lumbering around in a misbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and workpants.
The steampunks have taken over the San Jose Doubletree for Clockwork Alchemy, their annual confab, but they do more than just occupy the space. They transform it.
The hotel’s 5,000-square-foot Bayshore Ballroom is now a war room hosting remote-control airship races and an array of martial arts classes. Tom Badillo, of San Bruno, Calif., teaches Bartitsu, the fighting style of Sherlock Holmes. Melissa Tosetti teaches Victorian ladies how to defend themselves with lace fans. It turns out you can gouge someone’s eyes out real good with a hand fan.
In Clockwork Alchemy’s telegraph room, a young woman in a corset monitors dispatches to find out if the Titanic has sunk yet. Her boyfriend sits in a corner wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap. He’s not as cool as the steampunks, either. He’s going to have to work on that.
I’m going to have to work on that, too. If the steampunks can turn a hotel less than a mile from the San Jose Airport into a Victorian-era sci-fi fantasy, they can surely class me up a bit.
I ask Kat Powell what it would take to make me into a steampunk while she takes a break from curating time machines in the science room.
“The first thing you’re gonna have to do is lose the Hawaiian shirt, and find one you can button up all the way,” she says, bluntly.
I turn to martial arts master Tom Badillo for aid after he’s done teaching a class on how to defend your dirigible from sky pirates. If anyone can help me go steampunk, it’s this guy.
“Oh my goodness. It would be quite easy,” Badillo says, restoring my confidence. “A man of your stature is quite prosperous.”
Badillo gets me a top hat, brocade vest and cravat. I try on several coats. None of them fit. We have to go with a heavy wool cloak. They say the clothes make the man, and something about this getup has me wanting to solve crimes or maybe mastermind them. I can’t decide if I’m Sherlock or Moriarty.
I run into Kat in the lobby not long after my steampunk makeover.
“You’d definitely be more likely to get someone to dance with you if you came to the ball tonight,” she says.
I go to the ball, but it’s a bust. The steampunks put as much effort into their waltzes as they put into looking like Captain Nemo. I stand with my back to the wall as the dancers go by, feeling like I’m back in high school again.
I go downstairs and pass by the war room. There’s a mad LARP (live action role-playing) session going on, which is like a combination of Dungeons & Dragons and community theater. I join in for an improv version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” where I spend most of the LARP shambling around as a crab monster never envisioned by the Bard.
Just like in high school, I can’t find someone to dance with, but I can still hang with the drama nerds.
Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit in—even when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.