Revenge of the Nerds
At first glance, the girl with sparkly flowers painted over her bare nipples didn't seem all that out of place. We were in Las Vegas, after all, and if the city is known for anything, it's vice. A half-naked girl running around with barely-concealed breasts and a see-through miniskirt that showed more than it hinted at seemed like she belonged there more than we did, and who were we to tell her to go put something on? Her house, her rules, as they say.
Yet Miss Flower Nipples was no mere random Vegas hard body. She was the vanguard of a monstrous armada of semi-naked, skanky, flirty, voluptuous and strange women calling themselves performers, but who most of us know as "porn stars." They, along with their over-muscled attendants, were in town for the Adult Entertainment Expo, the annual trade show exhibiting porn of all shapes and sizes. I was in town for CES, the annual, international trade show covering consumer electronics of all shapes and sizes. Two shows, one expo center. It was a monumental clash of clichés; culture clash at its most extreme, and the first time in a long time that I've been proud to call myself a geek.
We arrived in Vegas on Sunday afternoon and, before we'd even left the airport, found ourselves surrounded by Silicon Valley's Finest, a collection of gadget-loving nerdy men, mainly between 18-35, mainly pale and mainly awkward, the likes of which anyone working outside of the industry (or a troglodyte cave) has never seen. One colleague remarked, as we waited in McCarran Airport's infamous taxi line, "I've never seen so few hot women in Vegas." And he was partly right. For every attractive woman waiting in line for a cab that sunny winter day, there were easily a dozen geeky, white males. I believe the affectionate term for this situation is "sausage fest," and, unless you swing that way, it's not as much fun as the name suggests. But the overabundance of testosterone had nothing to do with any dearth of attractive ladies. There were, in fact, a great many of them, some of them stunningly gorgeous. We just had them outnumbered. Even the porn stars refused to shine in the presence of so much nerditude.
Set aside your knowledge of foreshadowing for a moment, dear reader. For at this point in time, it looked as if our trip to the desert town was to be barren of eye candy. Little did we know we were entering a veritable oasis, and would soon be drowning in it.
After filing through the cab line's rope maze for an hour or so, my fellow weisswursts and I hopped in cabs and began the whirlwind tour of sand-meets-money that is the ride from McCarran to Las Vegas Boulevard. Along the way, endless advertisements along the roadside, atop taxi cabs and pasted across the sides of buildings announced the presence of the great white fleet, the nerdcore geeks to whom ogling the latest, greatest technology is as pure a form of sensory overload as a spoonful of the brown; every single one of which sent a cold chill of fear up my spine. I was, I believed, entering the lion's den, the geek Valhalla, and I'd soon be swallowed by it.
Now for the exposition. I've been a geek my whole life. In one way or another, I've appreciated, reveled in or espoused every single facet of nerd culture, up to and including writing for a video game magazine and producing a television show about computers and technology. I once spliced an IDE hard drive cable on live TV, with an X-acto knife, just to prove it could be done. Yes, I'm that guy. But you wouldn't know it to look at me. You wouldn't know it to talk to me, read my work or even be me. My geekitude is something I've willfully tried to hide for longer than I can remember. For years I've considered it my cross to bear, my dirty little secret and the one thing keeping me from being who I've often thought myself destined to be. I've covered it with culture and clothes, attitudes and affectations, style and substitutions. But last week in Vegas, coming face-to-face with a teeming throng of, one the one hand, people with whom I've always felt associated, and simultaneously attempted to disassociate myself from, and a veritable cornucopia of people who on many levels inhabit the exact opposite of the spectrum on the other, I finally realized that my inner geek was not a mark of shame, as I'd supposed it to be - wanted it to be - but rather a light I'd been hiding under a bushel. A part of myself I'd been denying on behalf of the world and for the benefit of others, and that I'd been cheating them as well as myself in so doing.
The buildup started slow. By the time we reached the hotel, I was convinced that I'd be in hell for four days, and I was, but not for the reason I'd supposed. The occasional room-sized poster of scantily clad ladies, and the Adult Entertainment Expo's obnoxious signage advertised the presence of the vast majority of the porn industry's finest as loudly as the bevy of HDTV billboards belied ours. CES had rented a hall in the Sands to house a select few exhibits, and as we filed in Sunday afternoon to begin the long march toward covering the whole of CES, we saw our counterparts beginning their own long march, hauling signs, cut-outs, video machines and each other into the adjoining hall, backs straight, faces proud and assets, if you will, bared for all to see.
The next day, the halls were filled with silicone-injected females and men whose limbs can only be described as "bulbous." The two crowds, we with our logo-emblazoned swag bags and pasty faces, they with their over-tanned skin and facial muscles lax from extended expressions of ecstasy, eyed each other warily. Some of our crowd were surely looking for familiar faces and perhaps daydreaming, but there was no mistaking what they thought of us. Time after time, as timid geek eye met brazen performer glance, the latter responded, not with indifference, and definitely not deference, but scorn. As if we, with our penchant for gadgetry, were the freaks. After the eighth or ninth time I endured the same look from a similar performer, it occurred to me to be offended. I was being judged, and not for who I was, or what I was, but for not being one of them. For being, as hard as is this is to believe, normal. For that, in the eyes of a porn star, is what I was. What we all were. And they hated us.
The realization struck me to my core and unearthed a near lifetime of recrimination, doubt and regret. Is geekery only skin deep? If so, from whom have I been hiding mine? To what standard have I been holding myself, believing I've been attempting to pass as "normal"? If, in a crowded room, I, who've lived a lifetime in the throes of nerd ecstasy, can be looked upon with scorn by the wandering eye of someone who has sex for money, in front of cameras, for the enjoyment of people they've never met, can be considered a freak, then how stupidly vain, how arrogantly ignorant have I been to fear judgment from my peers for playing games? It was then I realized that I'd been dousing enthusiasm with cynicism and ruining my own fun in the process. That I'd been suppressing my dreams for the sake of a reputation, all the while advising others to simply "be themselves." I was a hypocrite, and worse, a betrayer of those whose support I'd sought and whose company I'd kept. I decided that enough was simply enough.
By the last day of CES, the ratio of porn star to geek was more than 5:1. Bare breasts were everywhere, and instead of being elated, as many a man in my position would have been, I was ashamed, but not by the spectacle - by myself. I resolved to stop worrying about who might be judging me, and why, and most of all to not judge myself. I resolved to enjoy my inner geek, to revel in it, give it what it wants and not be ashamed of thinking spaceships are cool and playing games, alone, in the dark, on a Friday night, is a good way to be. I resolved to lighten up and try, for once, to be myself. So far, it's working out quite well for me, and I feel better about myself now than I ever have, regardless of how "normal" I may have appeared. I went to Las Vegas and all I got were two sore feet, a handful of published articles and a life-changing realization about myself. And I have a porno convention to thank. Yes, it is a mad, mad world, but I'm happy to be a part of it.