Nebula Awards 2005 – Chicago

May 2, 2005

This past weekend, kayleigh and I went to the Nebula Awards in Chicago. Having never been to Chicago, it was a bit of a learning experience for both of us. Chicago is a very busy city to someone who grew up in the country, away from traffic, noise, and towering buildings. Chicago traffic also looks to be pretty horrific. I made it to the hotel without issue, but within 2 minutes of unloading our luggage we witnessed an irate truck driver leaning out of his window, cursing and screaming and gesticulating at a cowering woman in a midsized car. He questioned her "fucking ability to fucking drive" loudly and with variety. The truth be told though, except for a few smirking and unconcerned clerks, his outburst was the only anger witnessed. Of course, I didn't drive the entire time we were there, not seeing our car again until the hotel brought it around again when we were leaving. The luxury of not driving was costly though, at $36 per day parking at the hotel.

The Allegro is a classy hotel, with beautiful decor, luxurious lobby, and a dazzling banquet room, in our case, the Walnut Room. Our hotel room was small but nice and looked out on Randolph Street, but was painted an odd sort of pink. Apparently we're not alone in our amazement at this color. Tobias Buckell has an entry on his blog mentioning the same thing. Room service, including doormen, bell boys, and the cleaning service, was prompt, efficient, and friendly.

After we unpacked and got our bearings a bit, kayleigh and I walked up Randolph to Michigan Avenue in a sometimes brisk wind. Michigan is "the Magnificent Mile," a street of shops and restaurants. We admired the Wrigley Building and I especially enjoyed the Chicago Tribune building. This is a fantastic old style architectural beast, with spires on top, and carved with designs and gargoyles. Cemented into the outer walls are stones from places around the US and the world — a piece from the Great Pyramid in Egypt, Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, stones from various battlefields, a rock from Mammoth Cave, even possibly a moon rock. The interior lobby was impressive too, great wooden walls, designs, and quotes on the walls.

This was my big issue with my first visit to Chicago: nothing but buildings and shops. Yes, there was a huge park nearby, and I was entranced by the Virgin Record store and the modern, airy 2-story Apple retail store which had dozens of customers oohing, aahing, and fondling iMacs and iPods, but what the hell else is there besides stores, monster buildings, and theatre? I know I'm a country boy but I did more walking to nowhere here than I ever did in Boston or any other city I've been in. Another aggravation: most of the shops and restaurants closed fairly early, so if you got hungry around 8 PM, you were limited to a sub shop usually housed with a Dunkin Donuts (which, by the way, were on every block, with a Starbucks on every other corner). Everything else had closed, though during the day there were restaurants of most every ethnic variety from Asian to Arabic, Greek to Mexican.

Friday we hit the Sears Tower for tourist-like exercise, and had a burger and some chips at Billy Goat's, a little bar and grill across from and under the street from the Tribune building. This is a relatively famous Chicago landmark where journalists and employees of the Tribune grab a bite and a drink. The burgers are thin and greasy — two burgers equal a quarter pound — served on a massive Kaiser bun. You pick it up yourself from the grill, load it with thick onion and pickle slices, ketchup or mustard, and drip your way across the room to sit in under newspaper articles pasted on the walls, mostly about William "Billy Goat" Sianis, the founder of the restaurant and source of the "Cub's Curse." Billy proclaimed that because his "lucky goat" was ejected from a World Series game in 1945 (for smelling bad), the Cubs would never ever again win a Series at Wrigley Field. They went on to lose that Series, and though Billy's descendants have tried to lift the curse for years (they still own the restaurant), the Cubs have never again made it to the Series. The restaurant may be more recognizable as the inspiration of the old John Belushi SNL skit, "cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger — no fries, cheeps — no Pepsi, Coke!"

But the burgers were pretty good, especially while warming up out of the wind kicking through the streets off Lake Michigan.

From there, we went to the pier, the outside rides and booths mostly closed due to the early spring weather. The big ferris wheel was going, as was the ride with chairs attached to the end of rope which spins you around, the vomit machine. The inside of the pier building consisted of expensive little shops selling everything from Asian and Russian items to leather goods and magnetic clips you put on your fridge, as well as a plethora of food, coffee, and ice cream.

Walking a lot, especially in cool weather, burns calories, so we stopped at a bar & grill called Dick's Last Resort. We had some crab cakes and a drink. Dick's was recommended by kayleigh's brother from the memory of an apparently buzzed-up tour of Chicago some time back. Dick's has a bit of fame for abusive waiters wearing t-shirts saying "Dick U" and "Certified Dick," among other things. Female patrons can exchange their bra for a Dick's t-shirt. kayleigh got a shirt saying "No one remembers the good girls," which made me snicker a bit with its validity. There are no plates. Paper is put in front of you to place your food on, but the utensils are wrapped in linen, an odd bit of irony. Paper hats are made for choice patrons out of that same type paper. kayleigh received one on which the waitress had written, "Help, I lost my bra at Dick's!" A few tables over, a group of teens with a couple of adults received hats which said, among other things, "I'm with stupid," with the arrow pointing down, and "I like smelly poop!" Another small-chested girl was obviously embarrassed by her hat, crossing her arms in front of her chest and slumping a bit. She had been given a hat which said, "I stuff my bra with socks!"

A couple of souvenirs later we were back at the hotel for rest and naughty relaxation. Later that evening, we attended a brief reception for the newest SFWA Grand Master Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders of Pern series and a former president of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), and the nominees for novel, novellette, novella, short story, and screenplay.

I attended panels Saturday afternoon on marketing, editing, and what editors are buying. I made the mistake of having a gyro before heading into the panels so I sat there squirming a bit as my stomach began to sound like the songs of whales. Paul Melko's very pretty (and pregnant) wife Stacy rescued my Swiss Army knife which had fallen out of my pocket. I've had this knife for several years, a present from one of my best friends, and I was grateful to her.

After a bit of rest and more naughtiness in the hotel room, we dressed and went to the banquet. While many of the tables were reserved by groups such as Locus, Dell Publishing and other publishers, the other tables were open and could seat ourselves. We ended up with a good view of the podium and sitting with some publicists, fans, writers, and the picture-taking "newsmaster" for the SFWA website, Keith Stokes. Our picture is now on the Nebula site, with me looking somewhat like a doofus and sporting a shit-eating grin, according to kayleigh (hmmm). Our previously requested salad, entre, and dessert were served in order. I know tenderloin medallions are supposed to be pink but kayleigh's was bloody enough to moo, so she didn't eat much, nor did several other people when they noticed the blood on their plates. Dessert consisted of apple crisp with ice cream for kayleigh and a very rich chocolate truffle cake for me. We ended up sharing desserts and me craving milk to accompany the chocolate. After screamingly strong coffee, the chair of the Awards gave a brief introduction to Neil Gaiman who then took over as toastmaster for the evening.

Anne McCaffrey's son Todd gave a little speech about his mother, thanking those who had helped her, and causing a burst of sobbing from her by turning to salute her and give congratulations in Irish brogue from his deceased grandfather, uncle, and father. Lightening the moment then, he and his children sprayed silly string high into the air signifying the importance of "thread" in her novels, and covering a now-laughing Anne and the podium (much to Neil Gaiman's dismay: he picked string off his shoes and the podium periodically throughout the remaining presentations).

Awards were given, humorous reminisces spoken, memorials to deceased members of the SFWA made, and bids taken on the stuffed finger puppet dragons on each table, and the banquet was over. I took a handful of pictures but was disappointed that my attempt to be courteous by not using my flash effectively ruined several pictures. Annoying that. But I still got a few nice ones, and there are many good pictures on the SFWA site at www.sfwa.org.

After the banquet and more photos, we adjourned to the hospitality suite, munching on the 40th birthday cake for the SFWA and chatting. Jack McDervitt succeeded in spilling cake on a chair and his jacket, and then turned good-humoredly to blame me. ("After doing something stupid, immediately look for someone to blame," he said. "You looked guilty.") His wife made an unsuccessful attempt to clean his jacket while we sat there chatting. We were joined by Mike Moscoe, who was wearing a bright vest covered with green aliens and monsters that his wife had bought him. Both Jack and Mike had been nominated for awards this year though neither won. They joked about SFWA politics, discussed naval history, and Mike told us about some adventures with the IRS after his father-in-law passed away not having filed returns for years.

Since this was a gathering of members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, obviously there were a good many writers there, but among the authors and editors who immediately caught my attention were those I knew from the past, like Joe Haldemann, Frederick Pohl, Connie Willis, Stanley Schmidt, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Gordon Van Gelder, and Lois McMaster Bujold (who won the Hugo last year for her novel "Paladin of Souls," and the Nebula for this year — her publisher must be ecstatic). Gene Wolfe gave me a chuckle not only with his presentation for best novellete but by also running a mustache comb through his wild mustache after his presentation. Janis Ian was also there the full weekend, wearing red gym shoes, with little glasses on her little fuzzy grey-haired frame. The top of her head hovers somewhere around my chest. I think I remember reading she was 4-10 back when she was singing "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen," before she started writing fiction. On the way out, kayleigh stopped for a moment to tell Mike Resnick that the Cincinnati contingent had been rooting for him (he lives in Cincinnati, as we do). He laughed and said, "We need a bigger contingent!"

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