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Sunday, March 6, 2016

B Fest 2016 Part I: The Calm Before The Films

Every year at B Fest I make the same joke:  "Hey, I gotta have something to keep the gunmetal out of my mouth". And yes, it is indeed a joke but like a lot of them there is a grain of truth to it. B Fest is a chance to watch a ton of crappy movies, eat junk food (though I've slowed down on that score considerably in recent years), stay up too late and freestyle some Mystery Science Theater 3000 style jokes in a crowd full of people considerably like me. It's also, more significantly, a chance to see my friends that I only get to see once a year. This being my sixteenth consecutive B Fest, it's pretty obvious that I keep going back for a reason. That reason, more than the chance to see Chicago again, eat diner food and check out book stores by the handful, is the annual family reunion that takes place in a tiki bar and a student union auditorium.

And the best thing about that family reunion is that there's new people joining the family every year. I believe every single time I've gone to B Fest it's been someone else in the Telstar Faction's first B Fest. When attendees write up the wrap-ups every year, we must make it sound pretty enticing.

This year things were slightly different; I did a fundraiser to buy blank CDs, labels and cases for my annual B Fest mix disc via GoFundMe, and commemorated the effort by writing "Wasting Someone Else's Money For a Change" on the labels this time around. Incidentally, if you supported the fundraiser but never got your giveaway CD it's because I emailed you via the GoFundMe site and you never responded. The last one that I had anyone's address for went out earlier today (March 5, 2016) and I've still got several left. If you were supposed to get one but didn't, I can be reached at TelstarMan at yahoo dot com.

The event started early when my friend, former City of Villains crew member and now two-time Fest attendee Sam arrived at my apartment. We'd decided that if he showed up on the Monday of the vacation week he could couch surf at my place and not have to get up stupidly early on Tuesday for the drive down. After going out for dinner and watching The Raid:  Redemption he decided to hit the hay. This was actually a really sensible idea and just watching that movie will wear you out, since it's both a John Woo bullet-storm action movie and a brutal kung-fu epic once everyone runs out of bullets. I probably would have thrown in The Cabin in the Woods next for a change of pace if I'd had that option, but with six days of driving, tourism, and a screwed up sleep schedule this was a much better idea.

Tuesday morning we packed the car (and I managed to forget the soundtrack LP to Can Hieronymous Merkin Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? that I was going to donate to the raffle, because you never remember everything). We hit the road bright and early and drove to the Travel Court in Battle Creek, the traditional B Fest breakfast stop for Captain Telstar and any of his passengers. This used to be called the Te-Khi Truck Stop but it went out of business (the recession and brutally high gas prices in the mid-2000s put paid to it as an independently owned service station) and it reopened as part of a chain. Even back when I was going there for the Fest it wasn't decorated in even a remotely Polynesian manner, but if you do something twice it's a tradition. Another tradition of the Fest is that I have to treat for breakfast there as an offering of generosity to the capricious gods and demons that watch over all travelers (and decide whether or not to fuck with them--I added "and tip very nicely" to the list after getting horribly, horribly sick several Fests ago and I haven't had a repeat of that particular disaster).

Arriving in Chicago earlier than anyone else in the faction, it was time to get a late lunch somewhere (I didn't take notes, so I'm betting it was the Seven Brothers restaurant a couple blocks from the hotel) and await other Fest attendees' arrival. This year, by the way, the manager of the Best Western hotel in Morton Grove gave us a discounted rate on rooms because he got used to seeing the big group of doughy nerds in Godzilla t-shirts near the end of January and wanted to give us a deal--we're polite, we don't mess the rooms up too bad and I asked politely, which counts for a hell of a lot. Ravi, thanks a million. Everything that keeps the cost of the vacation down helps us all a great deal. Plus it let me say "Captain Telstar takes care of his people" as the only explanation for why we got a room discount.

Sam wanted to crash out so I drove off to the Mean Weiner in Highwood Park in order to have dinner with Edward, who started going to B Fest the same year I did, but also got married and had a kid recently so he doesn't have time for our immature shenanigans any more. I gave him a copy of this year's Fest disc as well as a box of books I'd scrounged up at various used book sales; Edward's obsessed with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy during WWII like I'm obsessed with pre-Beatles instrumentals named after satellites. And he hadn't already had copies of the stuff I got this time around--which is not always the case with my curatorial efforts. The Mean Wiener makes a hell of a pulled pork sandwich, Melanie (Edward's wife) is a charming and effusive person to hang around with and Winston, Edward's son, is amazingly cute. After dinner Melanie and Winston retreated to Casa Edwardius while my friend and I walked around Highwood Park for a little exercise and conversation (and, because we're both giant nerds, we stopped at a comic shop to browse--I got the first volume of New Lone Wolf and Cub, which is much better than I dreaded it was going to be).

Wednesday morning saw Sam, El Santo, Juniper and I driving to my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois (where the Left Behind post-apocalyptic right-wing wank material is published). We were going to check out the preserved mastodon skeleton on display in the science center at Wheaton College for Christ and His Kingdom, and I also wanted to take my friends to the Seven Dwarfs Restaurant, my dad's favorite breakfast place in town as well as one of the sterling examples of a diner run by short Greeks. The food, as always, was spectacular and I was a little disappointed that I wasn't recognized when I went there (which did happen about eight or ten years ago, but time moves on for everybody and I can't honestly expect to be noticed if I only go someplace once a decade). At the college, everyone was duly impressed by the bones and tusks, and shocked by references to the universe being older than 4400 years. Considering that Wheaton College most recently was in the news for firing a tenured professor who also happened to be their first and only black woman on the teaching staff, we were doubly shocked. There was also a massive collection of carved stone frogs owned by a former geology professor that we found pretty endearing. Also endearing in a crackpot way was the Gravity Research Foundation stone monument by the old science building; it was installed in 1962 and makes reference to harnessing gravity for the good of mankind (subtext:  by reducing the Soviet Union to a continent-wide smear of blood and meat no more than 1/16" tall).

After poking around the Wheaton library's book sale room (nobody in my group can resist a book sale, but I don't believe any of us found anything to take home) we drove off to the Lizzardro Museum of Lapidary Art (which El Santo found to be the highlight of last year's Fest rambling, and to which Sam had never been). This year's temporary exhibit was brooches and pins from Scotland (apparently meant to keep cloaks and hoods pinned shut if I remember right). They were pretty neat, but there weren't that many of them. The permanent collection was still awesome, but going twice in two years was probably more than we strictly needed to do.

By the time we got back to the Best Western a few more members of the faction had arrived--Bryan (who runs Cinemasochist Apocalypse), Bill Smiley (a first-timer to the Fest who curates Psychoplasmics in his spare time), Lisa--who runs Rabbit Reviews--as well as the St. Louis duo of Jacob and NaTasha. And around that time it was time to think of getting some dinner, which we'd planned out earlier. Jacob and NaTasha are huge wrestling fans and had lobbied to go to a Chicago restaurant called the Squared Circle, which had a wrestling theme and was owned by a semi(?)-retired WWE performer. Thanks to research on the CTA web site I figured out a way to get there via the Blue Line on the L and a brief walk. Since nobody in the group likes driving in the city this motion was passed by general acclaim. It didn't hurt that a used book store that was open till eleven in the evening was on another Blue Line stop near-ish the restaurant so we could eat, drink, be merry, take a train and then buy cheap books before going back to the hotel.

While waiting for the train at the L stop I made a joke about the CTA employing a guy who wears a miner's headlamp to look like an approaching train from a distance, but he just runs up doing a goony-bird dance, silently gives you the finger and goony-bird dances away while you wait for the train. According to the joke, all the commuters in Chicago know about the guy, but tourists get taken by surprise a lot.

Well...we didn't see the goony-dance guy but I guess I didn't tip enough at the Battle Creek truck stop because once we got off the L train it turned out that we had a half hour walk through Chicago to get to the restaurant. The various members of the group handled this with various levels of panache (I tried not to complain even though my face was going numb because it was my set of directions that led us merrily astray. We eventually got to the restaurant (and Sean, who stopped going to B Fest several years ago, commented to Bill that he was happy to see the Fiasco Field still in operation when he heard about this). The restaurant was nice and warm, which we all enjoyed, and I have to say their hand-crafted lime soda gave Green River (the other thing I make sure to visit every year in Chicago) a run for its money. Pretty much everything on the menu was too carb-intensive to eat but the six-cheese calzone looked safe enough. And it was also delicious, especially after a lengthy hike to get to the restaurant. Sam, who decided to just chill out at the hotel due to fatigue and shyness, probably didn't feel too bad about that.

Getting back to the L station took much less time, as our 24-hour-pass train tickets also turned out to be bus tickets. Wish I'd figured that out BEFORE the hike. Anyway, Myopic Books was the kind of place I could get lost in for hours but everyone else found something to buy before I finished power browsing. Feeling guilty over the forced march, I picked up Un Lun Dun by China Mieville and beat feet with everyone else. While going back to the L station, Juniper pointed out that the train-track supports and the Fifties-style diner we were standing by looked like scenery from Streets of Fire, which improved the mood considerably. As did the ride back to the end of the Blue Line and the retreat to the hotel, where Jacob showed us a goofy-ass video game level and Santo inflicted the "Spock's Brain" episode of the original Star Trek series on us. I'd never seen that episode before and it set the tone for B Fest spectacularly well. After that I tapped out and went to sleep the sleep of the exhausted and overfed, because the next day we were gonna do more tourism stuff.

Thursday morning, armed with the knowledge that train tickets were also bus tickets, the newly arrived Melissa and Kelvin joined Bryan, Bill, Lisa and myself on a trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Jacob and NaTasha were going elsewhere, and donated their still-valid CTA passes to the new arrivals because they are nice people. According to my mom, I've been to that zoo before but according to my memory banks I've never set foot in the place. Well, I'm an unreliable narrator (though you'll note that I'm letting you know when I screwed things up on this trip) but I really don't think I've been to there before. There was also a conservatory on the same campus, which meant that we could look at some plants before we went to look at animals. And there was an art project where some fool attached solenoids to the plants, which made them twitch and make clicking noises at irregular intervals. Are they trying to make Triffids a thing? Because they should not be a thing.

The zoo was a lot of fun, if confusingly laid out (we consulted the zoo maps multiple times and set off boldly in the wrong direction while looking for stuff) and I was able to induct Bill into the church of the Mold-A-Rama when we saw the one at the primate house. You got a wax statue of a gorilla in a nice deep shade of green for two bucks, and after some internet sleuthery we deduced that the other vending machine in the zoo would give you a statue of a cow. Then we utterly failed to find the petting zoo section of the zoo, gave up, and caught a bus back to the El station and went back to the hotel in preparation for the tiki bar that night.

Also at the hotel by now was the sadly depleted Nebraska contingent; I'd set up a system to room with Mike and Chad so that we'd all be paying a third of the room rate for the week; Chad got horribly sick right before the trip and wasn't coming and Mike had a room with Matt instead, which looked like it was going to stick me with the full bill for my hotel (which was much more than I could afford). But Ravi, again, came to the rescue and let us play Three-Card Monte with the room reservations and Matt and Mike moved into my room after their own reservation was cancelled. Somehow it all worked out, and Chad paid me for his portion of the room anyway (which he did not have to do, and meant that I could buy a T-shirt at the Fest this year).

The Samoan pub preparation was a little more extensive than years, because I got it in my head that it would be funny to go to Hala Kahiki (which had been built around 1962 and never redecorated) wearing hideous old suit coats and ties. I spent spare time on weekends going to various thrift shops in the Ann Arbor area looking for awful jackets and grotesque ties in my friends' sizes. (A parenthetical note here:  I'm 41 now, which means when I grew up going on vacations you only got to take as many pictures as you had film in your camera, and I also didn't own a camera. Therefore it's not in my mental toolbox to remember that my phone is also an infinite-storage camera, and explains why you aren't going to see any of the pictures of me and my friends at the tiki bar with our awful coats and ties on.)

Here's a selfie that I took in the hotel, though:

This was the second-worst ensemble of the night. Bryan's jacket was bright red, plaid, and matched with an orange shirt and olive drab / purple / orange tie that exactly matched his shirt and failed to be in the same conceptual time zone as the jacket. I take full credit for the whole thing, because the Value World in Ann Arbor was my scavenging ground, not his. Once wearing this horrible thing, I found myself saying "Ladies..." to everyone in the sleaziest lounge-lizard tone I could produce. Including the two women at Hala Kahiki who were sitting at the bar and laughed openly when they saw what I was wearing. If I'd been rocking this ensemble unironically that would have really, really stung. Thankfully I had emailed the bar earlier in the week and reserved the back room for our loud and nerdy group so we were self-sequestered and didn't have to listen to people make fun of our sartorial choices--other than us, and that's all right because you can always take shots at yourself.

The Hala Kahiki isn't just a tiki bar, though; it's also got a Polynesian knickknack shop in the same building. And that shop has a woman at the cash register that will describe every single item in the place to you if you don't get away fast enough ("This shirt is blue, and this one here is grey."). It's important to go in a group and peel away when you get a chance, or to prearrange someone to come in and get you after a period of time. One of my high-school friends, also named Tim, stopped by the tiki bar and somewhere around his second Miami Vice I told him we should check out the Hawaiian shirt selection at the souvenir shop. I then abandoned him to the explanatory woman when I had the chance, because I'm kind of a coward that way. When I announced what I'd done back at the bar there was general acclimation. Other Tim wound up buying a shirt as an escape plan, but he did look great in it.

After everyone who wasn't driving hit their limits for giggle water we returned to the hotel and camped out in the lobby to watch crazy-ass B movies. I brought Tarkan Versus the Vikings, a Turkish action movie where the villains are Vikings wearing bath mats and the bloodshed is insane. The desk clerk at the Best Western really got into the movie, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him at B Fest next year.

My jacket doesn't look quite so ridiculous now, does it? Yes, yes it still does...

When Gymkata got thrown into the DVD player as a ridiculous follow-up to the Turkish action film, I decided that it was time to get some sleep rather than be completely wrecked for the Fest itself and tapped out early (only about 1 in the morning) while other people made their own decisions for bedtime afterwards and Melissa made sure to secure my DVD player and discs before retiring herself.

The next day was Friday, where we all went to our traditional Power Breakfast location:  The Omega Pancake House in Niles, a brief drive from the hotel and the only place I've ever been where you get appetizers of fruit and coffee cake before your breakfast. I went for my traditional chopped steak and scrambled eggs breakfast, because B Fest is an event where you want to have plenty of protein in your system to counteract all the fatigue toxins and sugar. I then went back to the hotel to take a nap, because I'm middle-aged and wanted to stay up till three AM to catch everything I wanted to see (and to sleep through two movies that were being shown at the crack of dawn and also did not look interesting at all). After that it was time to gather up the people who needed a ride to the Fest in the Puce Moose and make our way to the shore of Lake Michigan and get our seats at the Norris Auditorium.

And that, Dear Reader, brings us to the close of Part I and the promise of cinematic delights in Part II.


  1. I'd say we all cut a pretty handsome, nerdy swath in our 60's and 70's finery at the Hala Kahiki this year. And good call on reserving the back room this year.

    1. I'll be looking for more hideous coats and ties for next year, because if you do something twice it's a tradition. And it's amazing how good you get at something with sixteen years' practice. By B Fest 2022 or so it's all going to go like Swiss clockwork (with a handful of sand thrown in by the Fates).