Sunday, August 7, 2011

Furry Safari

I think they thought I was kidding.

When asked, in the weeks and days leading up to the Anthrocon 2011 conference in Pittsburgh, what time would I be going downtown to watch the furries, I replied, “I don’t know…11 [a.m.]? 11:30?” The friend or coworker asking would usually chuckle and then proceed on with the conversation. Sometimes, though, he or she would pause to utter an expression of trepidation. Those were the precious few people who really know me, and who realized I wasn’t fucking around.

Two years ago, my friends and I had a life-changing experience. It was a balmy Thursday night in July, and—spurred by The Ex—we’d gathered at Bossa Nova for caipirinhas, mojitos, and salsa dancing. Then, overwhelmed by the first two and bored with the latter, a casual and spontaneous suggestion was made: Anthrocon was in town—we should go look at furries. Up to that point, furries were a nearly mythical subculture to me. My closest encounter with one had been watching Drama help a squirrel find a nut on “Entourage”. But, by the end of that night, we’d had so much fun that we knew furry hunting would be an annual event.

Last year we designated the Friday of the conference to be our day of safari. I met up with Dupa and “Hostess”, an old friend of his from high school, at Tonic Bar & Grill for a late lunch at around 2:30. Tonic is Furry Ground Zero; located on the corner of Liberty Avenue and 10th Street, it sits directly across 10th from the Westin Hotel, which more or less becomes a kennel the weekend of Anthrocon. All of us having taken a half-day off from our respective employments, we grabbed a spot in Tonic’s sidewalk seating and spent hours watching the herds pass, occasionally stopping one or more of them to take pictures with us. Throughout the rest of the day we were joined by just about every one of our brothers-and-sisters-in-arms, some of whom carried the party on through the night.

How can you possibly improve upon that type of impressive showing? Well…you start three hours earlier the next time.

I was the first to arrive at Tonic on Furry Friday this year, and I locked down a large table right at the corner while I awaited my comrades. Hostess was there within minutes, and after another ten Dupa was pulling up in a cab. All of us soon had mojitos, plates of food, and cameras with the safeties off in front of us.

Over the next couple of hours we drank and ate—and drank some more—while mingling with furries, fellow gawkers, and random friends who happened upon us as they walked to or from their lunch break destinations. Chappy eventually became the fourth member of our party, pulling up a chair after calling off work for the afternoon. Armo, too, made a similar executive decision to forego work for a seat in the eye of the furricane. TK, who worked in a building adjacent to the Westin, made frequent visits. He had recently decided to move to Tampa, and was now finishing off the first of his final two weeks in town. His senioritis had kicked in, and although he was to spend his remaining time with the company training his replacement, he found himself distracted by the warm weather, cold beers, and furry fun going on outside his skyscraper window. And so, about once every hour, we found TK strolling across the street in our direction, looking for a few sips of Corona and some fun.

Early on, Dupa made it known to us that he had set a goal for this year’s event: He wanted his picture taken lying across the outstretched arms of three or more furries. In other words, the ultimate leisure pose. When a group of four furries dressed as various cats and dogs stopped for us to take photos, Dupa’s face lit up with the anticipation of a dream coming true. That gleeful smile soon turned to a disappointed smirk when the pack of critters denied his pose request, claiming that the lack of grip in their hands paws would make it too difficult to hold him. Not much later, however, our friend struck gold: three more furries (also dressed as various animated canines) stopped for pictures, and they happily agreed to his pose idea. Dupa beamed in ecstasy as he laid awkwardly in their arms while our cameras clicked.

Last year, a large group of furries (as well as a mix of civilians) gathered in front of the Westin to play vuvuzelas in tribute to the ongoing World Cup. This, in turn, caused me to exclaim, “The furries have vuvuzelas! THE FURRIES HAVE VUVUZELAS!!!” as I sprinted through traffic and fumbled with my camera phone. This year, another demonstration of sorts took place. A long, white stretch Chrysler 300 limousine pulled up in front of the hotel, and out climbed five or six furries. I regret not heading over to get to know these particular fur-lovers better. They could have been the key to me pulling a Johnny Drama.

Now, I think I speak for the rest of the guys in my crew when I say that sex with a furry isn’t very high up on the ol’ bucket list. But if the opportunity—and a reasonably attractive female furry—presents itself, I’m certainly game. TK had been approached by a furry earlier in the week; she even went so far as to say, “You would be hitting on me if you could see what I look like under this costume” (when he asked if he knew her, she quickly walked away without an answer). And then, for the first time in our furry-hunting years (that we know of), we actually happened upon a woman worth consideration. A small fox (irony noted), running with a pack of plain-clothed handlers, sat down at a table near ours. When the costume head came off [remember, this was late June in Pittsburgh; temps hovered in the mid 80s with a healthy dose of humidity for much of the afternoon, which isn’t very kind to those wearing large, heavy, fur-covered outfits], we found a cute, petite girl in her mid-to-late 20s wiping sweat from her face and matted-down hair. But, at the risk of disappointing my dear readers, I have to report that none of us actually played “Tony” to this Anthrocon “Maria”. We all just admired from a distance, too wrapped up in the numerous platonic attractions going on around us.

When one furry wandered near our table, holding a staff and dressed as a creature that resembled a lion with horns, we snapped several pictures. Later, a heavyset guy in civilian clothing came strolling past, carrying a bag from a nearby sandwich shop and the same staff with which the lion had been walking. When asked, he confirmed that he was, indeed, the same person. I inquired about the lavish costume, and he revealed that it cost him about $3000. And the maker, a specialist in Boston, had undercharged him. “She probably could have asked for about $5000 for a costume like that.” “Lionel” (heh…) had brought another costume designed by the same woman with him to the conference as well. In all, he had brought four different getups for the weekend. He assured us that, after he had gone inside and eaten his dinner, he would be back as one of the other three characters.

The weather, though, soon prohibited that. As bad as heat and high humidity are for furries, the inevitable result—a summer rain shower—isn’t any better. It also doesn’t work for civilians on safari, watching from uncovered sidewalk seating. Our posse (which now included Jay Swag, Mitch Canada, TD, and her sister, “Green Pants”, among others) moved inside Tonic, to the upstairs bar and lounge area.

It was now after 5 pm, and downtown office-dwellers, fresh from the workweek, began pouring into the bar. A large percentage of those people were coworkers of Dupa and TK; had my brain not been on a Corona-and-furry high, I would have recognized this as a bad sign. Among the thousands of local men and women in that particular corporation’s employ, is one person who is guaranteed to suck the fun out of my Furry Safari: The Ex. In the nearly two years since our breakup, we’ve taken careful measures to avoid running into each other—at least I have; some of hers have been described as more “stalker” than “dodger”.

I was sitting at the bar talking to TK, when I saw a look come over his face as he stared towards the top of the stairwell behind me. He leaned over to me and said, “It just got bad.” Sure enough, as I glanced past him, I saw a familiar head of brown hair bounce by on its way to a table across the room. My reaction, in true Neil McCauley style, was to immediately turn and head downstairs.

All of ten seconds after I’d stopped in the downstairs bar to take a deep breath and consider my exit strategy, TD came chugging downstairs to my aid. “I couldn’t understand why you left—then I saw her!” After a few minutes of kvetching, I once again located my testicles and went back upstairs. Once there, I posted up at the bar with my back turned to The Ex’s side of the room, did a shot of American Honey with TD and Green Pants, and then gathered our crew and moved the party to August Henry’s.

Despite the last-chopper-out-of-Saigon-like retreat from Tonic, we had actually been planning on heading to August Henry’s (just not quite so early). The decision had been made hours earlier, when we learned that they would be hosting “Furrioke”—a.k.a. karaoke featuring furries. We found a table and ordered ourselves some dinner, and I fought off a newfound paranoia that made me look around every few minutes to see if we’d been followed. Tony soon joined us, and started tossing back beers and shots to catch up. Unfortunately, hardly any furries were there, making my daydreams of watching someone dressed as a wolf sing “Life is a Highway” feel somewhat unrealistic.

After a seemingly innocent trip to the bathroom, Dupa admitted to us that he’d thrown up in a urinal. And he was still rocked. Every experienced drinker knows that—sometimes—vomiting will clear your mind, freeing you up for another few hours of boozing. That didn't happen for Dupa, and he fully understood the gravity of that fact. He bid us adieu, walked outside, and caught a cab home.

And it wasn’t even dark outside yet.

The rest of the night came at me fast and furiously. Swag, TD, Tony, Mitch, and I eventually found our way over to Rumshakers, where our standard fare of beers and shots took on a much more sinister tone after a full day of drinking. A blackout had finally taken hold of me, and I was more than happy to relinquish command of the ship. My next clear thought came as I strolled along Grant Street alone—I was downtown again. After sleeping off some more of my drunk in my parked car, I came home and flopped onto my bed like I was shielding friends from a grenade. When I awoke the next morning, I was a little surprised there wasn’t a squirrel costume on the floor next to my bed.

There’s always next year.

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