37th Chattacon convention brings science-fiction fans to Chattanooga

photo Yvonne Williams laughs with a customer at Saturday's Chattacon. Williams and her friend, Deanna Lack, had a booth selling their handmade jewelry.

IF YOU GOWhat: Chattacon 37When: Today, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.Where: Chattanooga Choo Choo, 1400 Market St.Admission: $50 for a weekend pass; $25 for children ages 12 and younger when accompanied by an adult.Phone: 800-872-2529Website: www.chattacon.org

When you see his slicked brown hair, pale skin and Buddy Holly glasses, it's no surprise to discover John Roden's been going to science-fiction conventions for eight years.

The 24-year-old Nashville resident seemed a little miffed Saturday at Chattacon, the city's annual fantasy convention held at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Unlike the wannabe Robin Hoods, Professor Snapes and Batmen swarming around him, Roden looked like a regular dude on a Saturday -- jeans, casual shirt, relaxed shoes. In a bland way, he stood out among the superheroes.

But the girl on his arm effectively made him Chattacon's high school quarterback. A blonde wig, short dress and green tights turned Laura Houser, Roden's girlfriend, into the foam-sword-hoisting, female version of Link, the androgynous hero from the video game series Zelda.

"We didn't get my costume ready in time, but it's kind of its own reward to walk around and know that everyone wants to take pictures of your girlfriend," Roden said with a laugh.

That feeling of acceptance dominated during the second day of the weekend-long festival, where observers encountered a far-less-lopsided female-to-male ponytail ratio than usual and name badges that said everything from "Dr. Brain" to "Layla Antagonist."

"You get to be whoever you want to be," said Elaine Harrison, a computer consultant from East Ridge in a space-themed vest.

"There's a big disconnect between real life and coming down here," said Harrison's thickly bearded friend, J.R. Hicks, also of East Ridge, dressed like an Industrial Revolution version of himself. "This isn't real life. This is con life."

"Con life" is a little bit of everything. Serious-minded seminars like "Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse" shared space with a freewheeling vendor area, where one attendee stripped down to her underwear to see if a tight corset and $60 leather boa fit her frame.

A glance at the shirts for sale showed at least part of the convention's intended audience -- people who never showed up late for their college science classes.

"I have CDO. It's like OCD but the letters are in alphabetical order, as they should be," read one shirt at Sandwich, Ill.-based OffWorld Designs Inc.

But there was dissonance. At one point, a Choo Choo gift shop played Mary Chapin Carpenter's soft-rock/country smash "Passionate Kisses" as several Chewbacca-like creatures roamed by.

The 37-year-old convention is expected to draw 1,000 people with a citywide economic impact of $400,000. Part of that flowed into the Terminal Brewhouse, where a weekend visitor normally can expect glazed-over college students, couples in love, beer and heaping sandwiches.

But Saturday, it served as a watering hole for comic book collectors, temporary superheroes and space colonization experts, all taking a lunch break from the science-fiction festival next door.

"I've seen Zelda and Robin Hood, both of which are from my time, so I actually know what they are," said Jericho Michel, the restaurant's 32-year-old general manager. "We'll see quite a crowd tonight."