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Another Portland Blog

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Among the Potter fans

I don't "get" Harry Potter.

And I have plenty of my own geeky fixations. I paid good money to attend a Goonies convention. I can't kick my video game habit and I've seen just about every comic book movie to hit multiplexes in recent years. There's a "Darth Tater" Mr. Potato Head sitting on my bookshelf and I write a blog for God's sake.

But Potter, which rules the geek roost these days, has an appeal that remains a complete mystery. I've seen the movies and made it through the first written installment in the series. For me, the books are derivative and hackneyed, completely indistinguishable from all the other fantasy novels that clog the Yellow Room at Powell's City of Books. The half "The Worst Witch," half the Oz books and as unoriginal as unoriginal gets. The series centers around Potter's struggle with his destiny as he treads the thin line between the light and dark sides of a mystical force. Where have I heard that one before?

Despite this, as I sit here typing in my cubicle, I can see no less than three copies of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" sitting open on nearby desks. The latest installment sold 6.4 million copies in 24 hours flat last week after fans, young and old, camped out in front of bookstores. CNN ran segments all days showing shots of crowded sidewalks outside of the nation's bookstores.

So with nothing better to do on Friday night and with a sibling with a Potter fixation in town for a visit, I headed downtown to get a closer a look at this super cult. Maybe a few hours with these people would finally explain the appeal.

We arrived at the downtown Powell's around 10:15 as the line began snake alongside Burnside. Blocks away about a thousand fans further down the line were corralled into a queue next to a stage on NW Couch. The street had been closed down for the store's gala midnight debut of the book and a line of Bavarian dancers were spinning in circles with someone in a troll costume. An actor dressed as a character named Hagrid was pacing around nearby on stilts. Two employees dressed as wizards from a local coffee shop were selling something called "Butter Beer."

I tried to buy a cup but they were sold out. Apparently, it was really butterscotch soda with a 0.0% alcohol content. All around us were full-grown adults dressed as witches and teenaged wizards. A guy with a mascara stick was running around drawing lightening bolts on everyone's heads. Weirdest of all, no one here seemed to be inebriated.

I was hoping for fireworks but the highlight of Powell's event was the arrival of "Dumbledore" in a white, horse-drawn carriage. He jumped on the stage and read a speech as the clock crawled towards midnight.

Behind us, an elementary school teacher was excitedly talking about how the Harry Potter books have encouraged her students to read. I wonder if she would be as excited if her students started picking up copies of People magazine. Parents and teachers alike herald the books for their magical ability to draw kids to the written word. What difference does it make if what they're reading is as empty-headed as any given episode of Spongebob? Sure, they might improve reading skills but wouldn't a comic book or a copy of Teen Beat do the same? It's not like the series is filled with lush prose or 6-syllable words.

I didn't challenge the teacher to a debate and instead tried to hide my head behind a copy of the Mercury as my sibling, haven grown tired of my lame wisecracks about the event, headed off in search of coffee. This didn't stop a guy dressed up like the main character, with a lightening bolt drawn in fake blood on his forehead, from taping me on the shoulder.

POTTER GUY: "Pardon me, kind sir."

ME: "Huh? What?"

POTTER: "A gift from Harry Potter."

He handed me this:

Creepy, huh? Maybe he had overheard my quips and picked me out as an imposter. My first impression was that he was a fan that had taken his love for the books a few steps too far and had developed an unhealthy obsession with the dark arts. Was this some sort of hex? Was I going to start vomiting uncontrollably like the chicken on the card? Or was that arrow meant to depict a cursed dildo that was about to appear from a vortex and begin choking me to death. Wait...choke...chicken...uh oh.

Before my mind could continue to speculate, I turned it over. The card was really an advertisement for some sort of upcoming poetry reading/performance art piece.

I kept my mouth shut for the remainder of the wait, careful not to offend any real witches or warlocks that might be hanging around. As the younger Potter fans drifted off to sleep in their parents' arms, everyone else started getting antsy. Midnight came and went and the line slowly drifted towards the store's back entrance.

Somewhere down the line a hipster kid in a red t-shirt and his friends showed up. Filled with disdain for everyone around him he decided to break a cardinal sin of geek fandom. With his hands cupped around his mouth, he repeatedly shouted out the book's ending.

"__________ kills __________! __________ kills __________!"

Everyone around us shook off his taunts, figuring he had made up this spoiler. Was the hipster kid telling the truth? Maybe. Click on the talkback link below if you want to know the answer but aren't willing to slog through the 600+ page "Half-Blooded Prince."

Around 12:45 we finally entered the back door, passed a virtual mountain of "Half Blooded Prince" books and scored an autograph from Dumbledore as he signed copies next to a stuffed phoenix and a bowl filled with dry ice.

After spending a few hours with Potter fans I can't say I have a better understanding of this corner of geek culture but I got a free box of oddly-flavored jelly beans out of the evening. It supposedly contains vomit and dirt flavored beans. I guess that's fodder for a future blog post.

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