We make our way to the cafeteria on the second floor via elevator, which Nick uses as an opportunity to mess with unsuspecting museum patrons. As the elevator begins to lift us, Nick moves to the front of the car and places his face inches from the steel door. “Watch this,” he says.
The door slides open to reveal a family waiting for the elevator, and all four of their bodies recoil with horror as they’re met by a sneering Darth Maul inches from their faces. Nick bares his mossy teeth at them and there’s a brief standoff, until he steps aside and whips his Light Saber around, ushering them into the elevator car like an air traffic controller.
Once he exchanges creepy waves with the still-stunned family and the doors close, Nick turns to me and chuckles.
“Man, that shit never gets old,” he says.
The cafeteria is ready-made for my entertainment. Everywhere I look, Star Wars characters are in various stages of their meal. A pair of Storm Troopers put ranch dressing on their salads; a clone smothers his chicken sandwich with mustard; a Snow Trooper bends at the waist to reach his pizza because he can’t sit down. Nick and I walk through the buffet with our trays, and I giggle as he delicately plucks tomato slices from the fixings bar and puts them on his hamburger. “Don’t want to ruin the makeup,” he says.
There’s a bit of jockeying for an appropriate seat, which I imagine is because it would be incongruous for Darth Maul to sit next to Charles the Jedi or the X-Wing pilot. It felt very high school; god forbid we sit at the wrong table.
We take a lap and end up at a table with a female Trooper scrolling through Facebook and another bad guy I can’t identify wolfing down a slice of pepperoni. When we sit down, the dude nods and says “Us Siths have to stick together.”
Rylo Ken — the same guy who previously expressed his interest in eating the fuck out of some lunch — joins us as well. Nick tells me his costume is one of the best in the area, and he’s the perfect height to play the character.
“How do you like playing Rylo Ken?” I ask him.
“Oh, I love it,” he says. “But it’s Kylo Ren, not Rylo Ken.”
Mother. Fuck. I’ve been saying that name wrong all morning. How did Nick not correct me a single time?
My confidence killed, I shut my mouth for the rest of lunch and watch the bad guy across from me field strip and polish his blaster.
Our bellies sufficiently full of cafeteria-quality beef, we hit the floor again. Most patrons here for the event have already left, so there’s not much left to do.
I get a little excited when I see Boba Fett, as he’s one of the half dozen characters I actually know. I point him out to Nick, and he goes, “oh yeah, you want to meet him?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, kicking at an imaginary pebble. “I’m sure he’s busy. I don’t want to bother him.”
“It’s cool. He’s got one of the sickest kits here. Super expensive and detailed.”
I meet Fett and shake his hand. I start to formulate some compliment about him — Boba Fett is one of my favorite…bounty hunters? — but I realize I can’t even recall what movie he’s in. To my horror, I discover the only reason I actually know the character Boba Fett is because Peter Griffin makes a joke about him in an episode of Family Guy. “Not Boba Fett; I never bet the Fett,” Peter says.
Nick and Fett stand and talk for awhile and I take some pictures for them. Then, I help him fish a straw under his helmet so he can take a sip of his Fresca.
That’s right, kids. Boba Fett drinks Fresca. From a straw.
Later, Nick meets a civilian wearing a rebel pilot uniform and compliments him on its authenticity. “This is really good,” he says, looking over the seams of the pilot’s jumpsuit. “Just a few minor improvements and you could be in.”
“Really?” the pilot says. “You really think so?”
“Oh totally,” Nick says. I can’t tell if Nick is telling the truth or just being polite, given the pilot’s helmet is constructed from duct tape.
“You hear that honey?” the dude says to his wife. “He says I could be in the 501st!”
“That’s fantastic, sweetie,” his wife replies, her tone flatter than a week-old Pepsi.
After being here almost four hours, the first kid with some balls approaches Nick without hesitation or backup. He’s wearing a t-shirt that says “Mom is Cooler than Dad” and sticks his hand out to meet Darth Maul head on.
As I frame the pair up for a photo, Cool Mom and Less-Cool Dad flank me. Dad wears a Marine Corps t-shirt and is in a wheelchair. He has no legs.
“Thanks for coming out and doing this,” Dad says to Nick. “He’s been talking about meeting Darth Maul all week.”
And you know, I just about fucking melted.
For the first time since I got here, I understand why Nick does this. Why it’s worth shelling out the thousands of bucks and hours of tedium to get the costume just right, why he doesn’t mind spending four hours putting on and taking off makeup for a four hour event, why he doesn’t mind supergluing fake horns to his scalp.
Seeing the mom, the dad, the kid all so happy to meet a character from a movie they hold dear; that’s what it’s all about. They feel the same way I’d feel if I met Paul McCartney. I get Sir Paul is a real person and Darth Maul is a character, but is there really that much of a difference? Are the two any less abstract in my mind?
Nick more or less confirms his motives when I ask him about it on the way home. He sees it as community service, a way to give back. To him, he says it’s no different than adopting pets from shelters and giving them good homes.
For the most part, these cosplay jokers aren’t virgins living out some arrested development fantasy of being Jedis and Sith Lords. They’re genuine, well-adjusted people with legit jobs and families, and they do it to get a smile.
Not long after the Semper Force event, Nick tells me about visiting a young man with an undiagnosable autoimmune disease receiving treatment at the Ronald McDonald House hospital in Baltimore. A couple of the Garrison members found out the kid’s favorite Star Wars character was Darth Maul, so he made arrangements to kit up and visit. When he arrived, he showed the boy an Instagram video that Nick had gotten Ray Park to record just for them.
“It was incredible,” Nick said.
Despite immense pressure from the Garrison and multiple invites from Nick following the event, I don’t think I’m going to be suiting up anytime soon. Yes there are some weirdos, yes there are some that take things a little too far. But it’s nice to know that in the end, even the nerds are doing it for the kids.