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My best buddy, a shundo Gyrados

If you follow me at all on the numerous podcast, zoomcasts and livestreams that have become commonplace in the Pandemic Era, you’ll know that since we went into this lockdown life, my main hobbies have been watching wrestling and playing Pokémon Go. Perhaps I’ll write about the former some day, but I’m here to tell you why I’m glad I picked Pokémon Go and specifically how last Saturday’s Kanto Tour event was a highlight of My Pandemic Era.

I live in Manhattan, so I’m lucky to have two PokéStops and a gym mere yards away – when the signal is right I can spin and raid right from bed. But Pokémon Go was a (relatively) safe way to get outside right from the start of COVID-19 and supplied much needed motivation.

Once again, living in a dense urban area there are lots of gyms within my range and when I see a hot legendary at a nearby gym it’s no problem to hop outside for a quick raid (remote raid passes came about a month into lockdown). I even recall the very last weekend before lockdown began, nearly a year ago, when I had some research challenge to complete and I tracked down a pesky Skarmory at the New York Life building. There was a teenaged lad there, also obviously playing Pokémon Go, and we gave each other the little head nod players exchange. Maskless, we nonetheless were already standing well more than six feet apart. “Social distancing,” the kid joked, because back in that day it was still unfamiliar and humorous. We got the Skarmory and then life skidded to a halt.

Leaving the apartment for the last 12 months has been, at first dangerous, then eerie, and now just the weird halflife we know. As someone who is by vocation glued to the screen, getting out for supplies and just…time away from the computer are crucial for physical and mental health. Walking around looking for a new Pokémon or Team Rocket stops for a challenge has been an essential tool for my survival. Instead of aimless wandering (although that is sometimes necessary as well) there is a purpose, and often the hunt for a specific Pokémon will take me to a street I haven’t seen in months. Get those Fitbit steps in!

With little need to spend money on going out, eating out or transportation, I’ve gladly paid $5 here and there in the game for coins to enlarge my storage, or for remote raid passes in a pinch. Sure Niantic and Nintendo are just big corporations, but real people work there, and I’m happy to support them with some money for something I truly enjoy. (I’m hardly alone: Pokémon Go made $1 billion in 2020 alone.)

The Pokémon Go Kanto Tour event ticket.

So I didn’t mind paying $11.99 for a ticket to the Pokémon Go Kanto Tour, held February 20th. There have been a few ticketed events over the last year and I think I bought them all. Sure, you are essentially paying $12 for a single shiny Pokémon (a rarer variant form of a typical Pokémon) but, hey it’s something to do. It is that simple.

The big GO FEST event in July lasted two days and was widely considered a bust – technical issues clogged the servers, and the set up of hours of just specific Pokémon didn’t appeal to players. I played it, finished all the tasks and got my shadow Mew, but it was a bit of a grind.

A big Community Day event in December was even more of a slog. I had dawdled in the morning, missing the hours when I needed to catch certain mons, and an unrelated meetup with an actual human, though delightful, took up more time. Walking home Sunday night in an early winter drizzle, a surge of determination hit me, and I spent the last hour grimly trudging up and down city blocks, trying to finish the last few tasks. I almost made it – only seven Magmars and 8 Electrovires down. I figured I’d find them eventually and came home exhausted.

The Kanto Tour involved the original 151 Pokémon that enchanted us all those many years ago, first on the Game Boy and then 5 years ago when PoGo debuted in 2016. San Diego Comic-Con that year was all about Pokémon Go – catching Pokés by the pool at the Marriott, hitting Hall H for a rumored Mewtwo drop during the panel (didn’t happen). PoGo was a social phenomenon then – you’d see gangs of people playing it everywhere, and all of a sudden this harmless, cheerful thing was bringing people together in a way that no one had seen before.

I played hot and heavy for a year and then drifted away when the new Johto Pokémon started showing up. I hadn’t even completed my Kanto collection, and it seemed like a big time suck. I started up again in 2019, again before Comic-Con, because I was rooming with Deb Aoki who plays the game a LOT. Since then, it’s been a regular hobby in my life, right up until it became my Pandemic refuge.

Anyway back to the day of the Kanto Tour. Although opinions differed among players as to its quality, it was mostly a hit. The event ran from 9 am to 9 pm, and I set my alarm for 9 am, an hour much earlier than my usual time to awaken.

To my surprise, I woke right up, and started catching Pokémon. Squirtle and Pikachu and Diglett, all the old gang. After the first collection was knocked off I realized I was going to have to spend most of the day really focused on this task – and I loved it. I made a hearty breakfast, did some chores, played for 30 minutes, did a few more chores, etc, until in the afternoon, I hit the mean streets.

One of the elements of this particular event was that you needed a trading partner – you had to choose either the Red or the Green team, and would have to trade with someone on the team you didn’t choose to get all the Pokémon you needed for the event. I’d already coordinated with Beat writer Taimur Dar, who lives uptown a bit, to meet up to trade. I girded up for a long outing – a water bottle, extra phone charger, extra mask, warm socks, fingerless gloves. It was winter out there and this was no game. In fact after a few blocks I realized that my fingers were freezing and I went to a Duane Reade to snag those “hot pockets” hand warmers hat they use at football games. I was loaded for bear!

Taimur and I met up at Hotel Chocolat (highly recommended!!!) for some epic hot cocoa and then decided to head to Bryant Park to do some raiding and trading.

The Park was busy with a skating rink and a rather incongruous leftover Holiday Faire bedecked with Christmas bunting and tchotchkes. Time grinds slowly in 2021, I guess. There was still snow everywhere, some in big piles. Taimur and I found relatively dry seats at a table and did some intense catching. Both of us needed only Kangashan, the Pokémon exclusive to Australia, to complete our Kanto Pokedex and we caught a couple, celebrating our new medal and achievement with an elbow bump.

Even the Pokémon Go avatars got fresh face masks for the event. Photo: Avery Kaplan.

We’d picked Bryant Park because it was convenient, but we soon realized that so had dozens and dozens of other Pokémon Go players. Everywhere we looked there were others like us, phone charging cords dangling from pockets, busily staring at phones and spinning. Gangs of kids, all masked, laughing and planning.

(Important note: all of this was done in accordance with social distancing. Groups were far apart, Taimur and I were masked and kept our distance except for the elbow bump.)

I was also in contact with a group of friends scattered around the world that I do remote raids with and as the clock ticked down, we coordinated on the legendaries we needed to complete the set. It was fast and furious and Taimur and I ranged around the park, timing raids and knocking off task after task. We sat down to get all our trades done and then went back to catching more Pokémon.

After a while, we realized we’d been doing this for well over two hours and we were both cold and exhausted.

And exhilarated.

As the music from the skating rink floated over the snowy park, I realized I hadn’t felt like this in a year – mentally spent but excited, being in the moment, and sharing the moment with others.  I felt as wiped out as I normally do after a day on the con floor – an experience I haven’t felt since C2E2 2020 and won’t feel again for months to come – but also part of a community, part of a shared fan experience that is bigger than one person.

After Taimur and I parted ways, I headed down Fifth Avenue to walk home, and it dawned on me that I really was frozen solid. My fingers and feet had long since passed the Weeknd’s can’t feel them moment. But there were still some Pokémon to catch! After going down some side streets to nab that final Kabuto, I decided to grab some Korean kalbi fried chicken at BBQ Chicken in K-Town (also highly recommended) and then gave myself the ultimate luxury – a cab home, something else I have probably done about 3 times in the last year. After eating the entire bucket of chicken, I was still chilled and had to take a long hot bath to warm up and feel my legs again.

I was alive.

The last 12 months have changed our lives forever, and I’ve had it better than a lot of people – a job I love with people I respect, friends and family who are healthy that I see on Zoom regularly. But I’d needed this event so badly. And I realized so did all the other people I’d seen out playing. There was a joyful community in the air I hadn’t felt in a long time – New Yorkers have been incredibly resilient through COVID, but communal experiences are by their nature the very thing we can’t do in a pandemic.

Pokémon Go gave it back to us – SAFELY – for an afternoon. And that was awesome.

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—Heidi MacDonald


 

 

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