My Schwarzenegger Saga

The context

I was all of eight years old when my cousin, quite irresponsibly, took me to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It was one of the first theatrical experiences I can recall, and still one of the most indelible. The movie remains my favorite of all time. The action is breathtaking, the effects spellbinding. The story – simple in structure, complicated in implication – persistent and tense. And the cast of characters include the most memorable of the genre: the battle-hardened heroine; the relentless, terrifying villain; and the hero, an outdated machine bonded to a boy.

Over the course of my adolescence, I watched Terminator 2 dozens upon dozens of times. A local television channel in Los Angeles had a limited film library, and resorted to broadcasting the movie basically every other weekend. I undoubtedly have seen it more than any other movie, if in bits and pieces, and in edited form. Still, I couldn’t get enough. I purchased the metallic limited edition DVD when it came out in 2000. Even now, more than 25 years after its original theatrical release, I can give you a near scene by scene recitation.

The set-up

I don’t know if anyone in the world was more excited than I was when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came out in 2003. Judging by its eventual box office, I represented the exception. But I was psyched. I was old enough then – at 20 – to appreciate how rare an opportunity it was to be able to revisit my nostalgia. I basically had the chance to relive the experience of watching my favorite movie onscreen. I didn’t care that James Cameron wasn’t involved, that Linda Hamilton had moved on. This was essentially my Phantom Menace, except not shitty.*

*I saw Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine six times in theaters. In hindsight, I would say it’s a solid but forgettable movie, with a wonderful twist, and one jaw-dropping setpiece. Beyond that, it’s a poor man’s Terminator 2.

A few months before the movie’s release, I got wind of an event at the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention downtown. To my delight, it advertised a poster giveaway and centerpiece panel for Terminator 3: with director Jonathan Mostow, special effects wizard Stan Winston, stars Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, and yes – Arnold Schwarzenegger. The flyer even promised that the entire panel would stick around to sign autographs after the fact – even Arnie, “for a very limited time.” I could not have been more excited.

The story

Somehow, I had a friend who lived literally on the same street as the convention locale, a block over. He generously offered to let me spend the night at his place. I figured we would play some videogames and chill for a bit, leaving me a few hours of rest for my big day ahead (like the rest of the world, he didn’t care about Terminator 3). My plan was to then walk over to the convention early Saturday morning, jump to the head of the line, claim my free poster, sit through the panel, and reach the holy grail: meet Arnold and claim his signature. It was kismet.

After what felt like weeks of waiting, the big night before finally arrived. I had just a bag of essentials when my friend came to pick me up. I was psyched. As we turned onto his street, however, I noticed a few people already camped outside the convention – yes, a good 12 hours early. Immediately, I panicked. I didn’t gather my thoughts or think logistics, didn’t weigh my options at my friend’s apartment. Instead, with a self-created sense of urgency, I asked to be dropped off. Without a sleeping bag, without a blanket, without any kind of preparation or foresight.

As my friend’s car pulled off, I was left with five or six strangers who shared my mission. I felt relived, even proud, as I had assured myself a meet-and-greet. After all, even the most extreme interpretations of “very limited time” had to include the first ten people, I figured. Of the group, I was the youngest by at least a decade. These were convention veterans, many of whom knew each other. They acknowledged my existence, but not much more. Some had chairs, blankets, light sources, food and drinks. I had a single sweater. And 12 hours to kill.

It was one of the longest nights of my life. I had nothing to do, no light with which to read.* I tried to go to sleep, but without cover or anything to soften the sidewalks of South Central LA, it was impossible. I would be jolted awake by the cold every 10 minutes. Every couple of hours, I asked someone to watch my spot, then used the bathroom at the 24-hour fast food restaurant across the street: a Yoshinoya with barred windows. Over the course of that night, I came to re-evaluate my life choices many times over. Only the thought of meeting Arnold sustained me over the hours.**

*I might have had a cell phone, but it was 2003. The only entertainment it offered was ‘snake.’

**like Bart Simpson at Kamp Krusty.

Eventually, against all odds, morning came. The line behind me grew significantly, and a couple of people even jumped ahead, unbelievably, as apparently some of the night crew had the audacity to hold spots for friends. Still, I was too tired, too secure in my knowledge that I would make the cut, to pick a fight. As opening hour approached, the convention organizers came to pass out tickets confirming our line order. I was #9 or #13, in that range. They spread the word: yes, Arnold was coming. Yes, Arnold would stick around for a few minutes. My excitement returned.

The convention doors opened. We had some time to kill before the panel was scheduled to start, so I made my way around the sales floor, checked out the Terminator movie props that had been set up, pretended I cared about anything other than the chance to meet the star of my favorite movie of all time. Eventually, I made my way to the stage, to reap the benefits of a long, cold, uncomfortable, sleepless night on the street. I was in the front row. As the crowd filled in, my night crew brethren joined me up front – we exchanged knowing nods of shared experience.

We started a little late, naturally, but the panel participants were finally brought in one by one. Of course, Arnold drew thunderous applause. The panel took their seats, less than 50 feet from where I sat. I don’t remember much about the content of the discussion. It took every last inch of me to stay awake, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I did for the duration. I was too tired, too excited, too hungry, too everything. It was only as the panel came to its end that I became aware of my surroundings, that I became reacquainted with the situation once again.

Then I heard the moderator thank Arnold – and only Arnold – for his attendance.

I saw Arnold stand and acknowledge the crowd.

I saw Arnold move away from the table.

And I saw Arnold step toward the building exit.

All of this happened in slow motion.

There was a dreadfully slow churning of the cogs in my brain as the horrible realization finally seeped through. I glanced over at the other front row attendees, and they had the same quizzical look on their faces as I presume I had, as their brains put two and two together. One or two guys hopped up, but the rest of us sat in shock.* Arnold was leaving. I tried to process everything, but I couldn’t. No autograph, no handshake, no meet, no explanation. Nothing. The moderator’s voice droned on in the background, selling us on the idea of meeting everyone else.

*I learned later that they made a beeline to the exit door, and one was successful in acquiring an autograph as Arnold left. Like I said, veterans.

I ended up with a poster signed by everybody else who was there. I didn’t say much to any of them. A couple of the other night crew recovered, even thanked the panelists for sticking around. But I was in shock. I had spent a night on the street and ended up with a Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines poster signed by Jonathan Mostow, Stan Winston, Kristanna Loken, and Nick Stahl. There was no one to complain to: it was clear that the convention organizers had simply promised something they should not have. It was, as a naive 20 year old, a bubble burst.

The punchline

I ended up graduating college in June 2005. They sent my diploma over later that year. Having attended a University of California, there were four official signatures on it: the provost, the chancellor, the university president, and the president of the regents. The last was a position held by the state governor. In 2005, the Governor of California was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So I eventually got a printed autograph after all. Never got to meet him though.

The epilogue

In 2009, I tried to attend the red carpet premiere of Terminator: Salvation at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with a pass for non-guaranteed seats for the public. I drove 50 miles from home, arriving four hours early for the event. There were maybe 20 people in line when I arrived. But it didn’t move. At all. For four hours. Finally, they allowed two small groups into the 1,152 capacity theater. I was now fourth from the front. Then security came: No one else was getting in – go home. So I retrieved my car, paid the $10 for parking, and drove the 50 miles back.

(Photo by Gage Skidmore, Peoria, AZ, via Wikimedia Commons)

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