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Emerald City Part 1: A Week in Pre-Show Hell

by  in Comic News Comment

As regular readers may recall, every year my middle-school Cartooning Class has a table at the Emerald City Comics Convention. We’ve been going to the show as a class since there’s been an Emerald City Con and tabling there since the second one.

This was our eighth year of actually exhibiting, and it was the most challenging one yet. Every year the show gets a little bigger and the chore of putting our booth together gets a little more complex. This year, it was like trying to mount a military action.

For one thing, the show had expanded to three days — Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. So that brought with it a whole new set of logistical problems of the class doing the show as a field trip — because whatever student crew worked on Friday, we’d be pulling them out of school to do it. So of course all the kids wanted to go on Friday. (Are you kidding? Skip school to go to a comics convention? I could have auctioned off that one.)

What we ended up doing was setting up a list of requirements including attendance, grades, and “citizenship.” Then any students who wanted to go on Friday would have to get their regular during-the-day teachers to sign off on the Friday absence, taking those various factors into account. (I didn’t want it to be based on just grades or homework because I didn’t want to penalize any student who was a good hardworking kid that just happened to suck at fractions, or something.)

I had been worried that we’d still have too many applicants, and thought we’d have to draw straws or something among the qualifying students. However, my boss Katie assured me that I was way overestimating the students’ ability to follow through, and she was right. In the end we only had two of my sixth-graders, Lexi and Eli, that managed to remember to get the form filled out with their teachers’ signatures, and I was happy to let them have the Friday slots.

Then there was the trauma of getting our books produced. I’ve already written about producing the 64-page one-shot comic book we did as a fundraiser. But we also had to produce the regular student ‘zines that the class does to give away at the show, and since there’s some overlap between my Young Authors class and Cartooning, I thought it might be nice to have a couple of those books on hand, as well.


I only figured on putting together a couple of dozen of the Young Authors books at most. That was largely just because the initial printing of it was long gone and I knew our friend Lorinda would want one, and along with Rin’s I thought it might be nice to have a few extras around if my students Lilian or Abby wanted to be able to hand out a couple, since they both had work in the book.

No, my real worry was the student comics, our standard convention giveaway. This is the special anthology ‘zine my students do every year to give away at shows and school events, and usually I have it done in January. Every student does a page based on the idea “Introduce yourself.” Then I collate those into a comic and print a bunch, and presto, it’s a snapshot of the class in comics form.

This year, though, I’d had to push the printing back because of the alumni book, and then we had a late semester change in February with a whole bunch of new kids joining the class, and obviously I wanted to be sure they each had a page in the book too. (When we are at a show, people invariably ask the kids, “Which one of these is yours?” and have them sign that one, so of course I try to insure that every kid HAS a page they can flip to.)

In the middle of all this, the week of President’s Day was also the Seattle School District’s midwinter break. So no school that week. All of these factors combined so that the final art deadline for the kids to turn in their finished pages was the Tuesday before the show. (That started Friday night this year, remember, not Saturday morning.)

As a rule, we give away somewhere around 300 books during a typical day at Emerald City, but some years it’s gone as high as 400. So every year it’s a guessing game to try and figure out what a good print run should be. This year the con was going to be three days, so I was trying to psych out how busy Friday would be and if we should print low or high. We’d also need an extra thirty or so to take to school on Thursday, because not every student was going to be able to go to the convention but they still needed their contributor’s copies.

I was sure Friday night would be light. Bearing in mind we had a bunch of books left over last year, and I wanted to avoid that if possible, I finally settled on a figure of 850 for this year’s print run, with the three days broken out as roughly 250, 300, and 300 for each. To add to the fun, Rin’s flight was getting in Thursday evening around six, and I’d be in class that day till about five, so there was no way we’d be printing anything that night.

That left Tuesday night and Wednesday night to run the actual books, because we use the school’s office copier to do them, and we have to wait till after hours to get access to it. Half on Tuesday and half on Wednesday, that still left 425 student comic books each night to run, fold, and stitch.

We’d paid for the bindery on the alumni fundraiser book, but for our regular student books we do it all ourselves. This sounds worse than it is. This year’s student book was 28 pages, or seven sheets folded in half. Katrina and I usually just hand-fold them as they’re coming off the copier and then I take the box of folded books home and stitch them on the saddle-stapler in my office, putting something interesting from Hulu up to play on the computer while I work. It’s actually almost restful.

This year, not so much. First of all, Katrina had begged off on the printing this time because of her own pre-show preparations (costume stuff) and she’s a volunteer so I had no choice but to just wince and take it. Worse, though, I’d forgotten to get the special heavy-duty staples we need for the saddle-stitcher, and when I stopped by Staples on my way home Tuesday night to pick up a box, they were out.

Yes, you read that correctly. Staples was out of stock. Of staples.


Understand, these aren’t exotic or anything. They just need to be heavy-duty, or the stitcher jams up. But neither store near us had a box of standard quarter-inch staples.

I have to give the Staples staff props here. The girl waiting on me immediately went and got the manager, who in turn went to her computer to check the inventory of all the stores in the Seattle Metro area, and then called the one store that had them to tell them to, for God’s sake, set aside a box for the desperate customer they had driving up from the south Seattle store. Great customer service.

But still. Staples, out of staples.

Thus it transpired that Tuesday night I called Julie from the car to tell her I was going to be late. “Because I’ve got to go driving clear out to the Westwood Village store to go get a goddamn box of quarter-inch staples,” I fumed. “…because it’s not like it’s the thing the goddamn chain is named after or anything!”

When my bride recovered from her fit of hysterical laughter, she offered to stitch the books for me when I eventually got home. Which ended up being somewhere around nine PM.

But even the book-binding snafus weren’t really major trauma — that’s just typical small-press stuff, anyone who does any kind of black-and-white indie book has similar war stories about photocopies and bindery. I always kind of expect that part of things to go pear-shaped at some point.

No, the thing that almost gave me a breakdown was the same thing it is every year — transporting children. Moving students from point A to point B is the bane of my existence. (Previous incidents of the nuttiness that ensues with Cartooning trying to get the use of the YMCA minivan are recounted here and here.)

This year it was more important than ever to get this all worked out in advance, because first of all, I had Lexi and Eli — remember, those were the two that had earned the special leave-school-on-Friday slots– and I needed a bus and driver to bring them down to the con Friday afternoon. It took a little finesse but we worked out that Rashida, from the Madison Y office, would pull the kids out of school on Friday and bring them down, and then their parents would pick them up that night.

Then on Saturday I had four kids that were going to need rides, and one of those four was DeMario. It was DeMario that was worrying me.

DeMario is a special-ed student of mine at Aki. A couple of months ago, his teacher, Sarah Ashton, had asked me if I would be willing to work with him. DeMario’s a huge hulking black seventh-grader, thirteen years old and already taller than me and almost twice as wide across at the shoulders. Honestly, talking to him always reminds me of the big kid in that movie with Sandra Bullock.


Sarah had asked me if I could figure out something for him because he was already doing his own comics, and it was the only thing that really lit him up. So I’ve been making it a point to get to Aki early on Mondays so I can spend a little time with DeMario and go over his pages with him.


Technically, he’s not in the Cartooning class, because he’s not allowed to stay after school (Transportation issues, again. Aki doesn’t have after-school activity school bus runs like Madison does, and so those kids have to ride city buses if their parents aren’t picking them up. That’s more than DeMario can do on his own.)

But the kid is a factory, he’s always got new pages for me and his output is easily more than any of my other Aki students. Certainly DeMario had earned a seat at the show, and we’d had really good luck with special-ed kids in Cartooning before. Sarah was emphatic that this would be great for him, and so I put in for the van on Saturday, knowing that DeMario’s mother wouldn’t be available and city buses were off the table. Both Julie and I had been on the phone to DeMario’s mother and briefed her on what to expect, assuring her that we would make it a safe environment for him– and also making sure we would know what to look for in terms of any danger signs that the show was too much for him, and working out an exit strategy if we had to get him home early.

I’d even briefed the student crew scheduled for Saturday. “DeMario’s special-ed, but he’s not stupid or anything,” I’d explained. “He’s just kind of hypersensitive, he experiences noise and light a little differently than we do. Now, Mrs. Hatcher and I are both going to be right there and we’ll be watching, but you know how it can get at the show, there’s always distractions and we might not catch it right away. So if you are there with DeMario and you see that he’s starting to shake, it’s really important that you don’t freak out. Just let one of us know and we’ll hustle him out to somewhere quiet.” I added, “I’m counting on all of you. Special-ed kids don’t get to do a lot of stuff, they don’t get to do drama or band or anything like that, but they can do this. You can see from his comics that DeMario’s just as good as anyone in here. He’s one of us. So the best thing you can do is treat him like one of us, okay?”

The kids, several of them targets of bullying and stigmatization at school themselves, have very strong feelings about fairness and decency, and they all wanted me to be sure I knew they would do right by their colleague. I was really proud of them. We’re ready, I thought.

Then…. the van thing blew up again.

Rashida called to assure me that we were all set for Friday, she just needed to square away the times so we’d be sure to have the van. I told her the schedule and added, “What about Saturday?”

“Oh, I’m not taking the van on Saturday, I was just going to drive down in my own car.”

“I know,” I said, patiently. “I mean me. I was going to get it myself Saturday. I’ve got four kids to pick up.”

Long pause. “I better get back to you. I don’t think we’re down for Saturday.”

I should have known then.

Let’s recap, for those of you that haven’t got the facts at your fingertips. I’ve been trying to get this van-driver certification okayed for three years now. For those keeping track, so far I’ve…

–filled out a fairly large set of paperwork TWICE because the first set got thrown away.
–done the training with YMCA staffer “Dan the van man” where he actually rode around with me while I drove the thing.
–spent a day getting RE-certified in CPR and first aid after being told my cards didn’t count because they weren’t from an official Y training provider.
–been asking my admnistrators repeatedly about getting the van reserved for this outing, these exact dates, since before the first of the year. I was sure people were probably sick of hearing me ask about it at this point.

And yet, here we were again. After a day of back-and-forth emails and phone calls, eventually it developed that I was still, according to my bosses, not van-certified. Why? Because — wait for it — the first-aid class they’d sent me to? It was the wrong one. The CPR card was good. But the First Aid card wasn’t current. Instead, I had a card certifying me in Emergency Procedures for Bloodborne Pathogens.

“But it was a First Aid class,” I spluttered, helplessly. “Roderick at Aki was there with me, ask him, he’ll confirm it. There was bandaging! And splinting!”

Katie shook her head, sadly. “There’s splinting in Bloodborne Pathogens class too. I did call Roderick, and he agreed with you, and so then I called the woman who did the training and she said it was Bloodborne Pathogens.”

“But it was the class the Y SENT me to!”

“I know, and I am truly sorry about that.” Katie sighed. “We will fix this.”

“By tomorrow?” I was livid, and trying very hard not to explode all over Katie, because it wasn’t her fault. Nevertheless, there was a definite edge in my voice. “I can’t call this kid’s mother and jerk this out from under him. I can’t. We have to make this work. We just have to.”

I will spare you the narrative of all the twists and turns we went through, but finally Aurora, a Y employee who is van-certified, volunteered to give up her Saturday so she could shuttle the kids in the morning and again in the afternoon. Including DeMario. All he had to do was get to the school.

When I picked up Rin at the airport Thursday night, I recounted this whole story to her, to her increasing incredulity. “The van thing blew up again?”

“Every year. It’s a curse.”

When we got home Julie greeted me with, “You better check your email. DeMario can’t come.”

“WHAT!??”

I checked and there was a terse note from Roderick that when he’d called to tell DeMario’s mother about the van arrangements, she’d said that wouldn’t work and canceled.

Clearly, Roderick was done. But there had to be more to it. I knew Roderick was already annoyed with me (he’d been yelled at for not being certified as a van driver, as it turned out) and he wasn’t nearly as invested in getting kids to the show as I was. I’d probably already burned a bridge there by getting him in trouble with his bosses over the van thing– inadvertently, but the trouble had still been caused by me making such a stink over the van. So he’d be no help.

I called DeMario’s mother and found out what was going on. The number we had for her was a cell number. All the time she’d been talking to us the last few days, she hadn’t been home. She’d been up at the hospital with DeMario’s sister, who was undergoing surgery. That was where DeMario was going to be Friday night, as well, along with the rest of the family.

And the van wouldn’t pick DeMario up at the hospital. Only at school. There was no way to get DeMario from the hospital to the school by nine-fifteen Saturday morning.

I told DeMario’s mother that I wasn’t giving up, that she’d hear from us. Then I hung up the phone and scowled at Rin and Julie. “I refuse to give up. This is ridiculous. It’s one kid and a five-minute car ride. There has to be an answer. The trouble is that none of the usual Y solutions work. We can’t give him bus tokens because he can’t ride the bus by himself. We can’t have parents carpool because there are no Aki parents driving.”

“I could get him,” Rin offered. “I don’t like the idea, I’m nervous about the roads here…”

“No, no. You aren’t driving, wheelchair girl. You’re not up to it. And Julie’s excluded for the same reasons as me.” I sighed. “Maybe we could put him in a cab. I’d cheerfully blow the money for it at this point. Or maybe…” I remembered something. “We have one last thing we can try.”

There weren’t any parents from Aki that I could recruit. But, I suddenly realized, there were parents from Madison. In particular, there was Gus’s mother, Marilyn.

Marilyn is one of our really great parents. (We do get a few.) She’d been to the con before, she was completely supportive of the Cartooning program, and — ace in the hole– she was a kindergarten teacher at Schmitz Park, she knew exactly what I was up against when I was trying to transport kids for a field trip. I ran into the office and banged out this e-mail:

Hi Marilyn…

It’s Greg, from Cartooning. I just had a transportation thing fall out — there is a whole long convoluted story about this with which I won’t bore you — but I have a stranded student on Saturday.

The catch is, he’s not one from Madison, he’s from Aki. But he’s a really good kid, a hardworking Special Ed student named DeMario. Cartooning is one of the few things he can do; you know how it is for Special Ed students, they get cut out of a lot of stuff. But he’s worked enormously hard on his comics pages, and he’s certainly earned a trip to the show. Both his mother and his teacher think he could handle sitting and doing the booth thing with the other students, and it would mean a lot to him.

Here’s my problem. He already has his ticket for Saturday and I thought I had the bus thing all lined up, but it turns out the bus will ONLY pick him up from school. Well, DeMario isn’t at school, he’s at the hospital with his mother, they are staying up there while his sister recovers from surgery, and they have no way to get him clear down to Aki Kurose in Rainier Valley from Harborview or whichever hospital they are at– I think it’s Harborview– by nine AM Saturday morning. I can’t go get him in our car because I’m told I’ll be fired if I do that, and Julie can’t do it either. Apparently spouses are also covered under the “no kids in the car” clause of all the oaths I swore when I took the job.

But it occurs to me that the hospital is a lot closer to the convention ANYWAY, and the solution they always throw at me is “have the parents carpool.” Would you be willing to swing by the hospital and pick him up on Saturday on your way in? I could give you his mother’s cell number and you could make whatever arrangements suited you. Pick him up on your way in, drop him on your way out — or we could even put him in a cab to go back up to the hospital, it’s just GETTING him there that’s the issue.

As for what you’d be getting into: DeMario’s in special ed because he’s what they call “high-function autistic.” In his case it manifests mostly as killer shyness. He’s a big hulking black kid who’s pretty much exactly the same as the one in that Sandra Bullock movie. He’s really good-natured, as excited as any cartooning kid would be to get to do the show and also to be in a group of fellow kids that make their own comics… and I thought we FINALLY had the whole transportation thing wired until an hour ago when I got told no, the bus will only go to the school. I don’t think the shyness will be an issue; if he gets to go to the convention, I’m sure he would manage.

I don’t know what else to try. I completely understand– honest– if you can’t do it or you’re not comfortable, but I’m hoping you could help us on this. So this is my hail-Mary throw from half-court.

Call me — tomorrow I disappear into the show, so no e-mail or home phone, but the cell number we’re using is Julie’s, you can reach me on that one.

Thanks in advance, either way.

“That’s all we’ve got left,” I told the girls. “If Marilyn can’t do it, I’m out of ideas.”

And then Julie’s cell phone went off. It was Marilyn. She must have called me the second she’d gotten the email. All she wanted from me was DeMario’s mother’s phone number, she’d take care of it, stop worrying.

That’s why Marilyn’s such a rock star. I wished I’d thought of that solution first instead of spending three days of escalating hostilities with my YMCA colleagues.

But at least it was covered. That was my last worry, handled. We were ready.

*

Well, that ran way long, so I better stop there. Next week: show day. See you then.