The Ambassador Hotel has played a role in several momentous occasions in my life. Near the end of 1984, I attended my first Fangoria Weekend of Horrors Convention there, where I watched a pre-release screening of Return of the Living Dead, met Jewel Shephard, and bought a pile of Robotech toys in the no-minimum bid auction. In early 1985, I filmed the television pilot Long Time Gone there with Paul LeMat, on the same day that some sort of porn award show was happening in the Cocoanut Grove. Though I didn't know what a pornstar was at that time, I was surrounded by them that day, and only by looking back as an adult can I understand why the crew and studio teacher worked so hard to keep my eyes focused on my script and interesting things like the deep red carpet that covered the floor.
But it was in 1989, just before the Ambassador was permanently closed, that it played its most important role in my life . . .
Because we lived out in comic-deprived suburbia, far from palaces like Golden Apple Comics in Hollywood, or the shops that catered to UCLA students in Westwood, my best friend and I would ride in his VW Bug, and then my Honda Prelude (si with 4-wheel steering. Awesome.) to monthly conventions put on by a guy who called himself -- and I am not making this up -- Bruce Wayne. It began at the Ambassador Hotel on Miracle Mile, then moved to the Bonaventure Hotel in Downtown LA, before settling into its current location, at the Shrine Auditorium Exposition Center near USC.
It was at the Ambassador Hotel, then, in 1989, that I first saw Sandman.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was early in its second season, and my character (and by extension, me,) was already reviled by large portions of the audience. This audience crossed over into all of the geeky things that were huge parts of my life, most notably gaming and comics. Despite our intelligence, and despite our status near the bottom of the social pecking order, teenaged geeks in 1989 were incredibly cruel, and did their best to drive me away from the things I loved. I was greeted by a chorus of Shut up, Wesleys and other insults when I went to game conventions, and after leaving one con nearly in tears in the fall of 1987, I gave them up entirely until SoCal GenCon two years ago.
However, while I could play games with my friends at our houses, or in my dressing room at Paramount, I had to go to the cons for comics, and I wasn't willing to give up that monthly escape into the worlds of Gotham City, Metropolis, or wherever the Silver Surfer was currently hanging out. So once a month, I put on a dorky Batman cap, avoided eye contact and studied the same floor I'd been encouraged to study when I was 12, and braved the Ambassador hotel with Darin.
The main room had dull white walls, with heavy curtains drawn closed over their windows, glowing at the edges with the dull grey light of an overcast Los Angeles day. The ceiling was low and water stained, the carpet was deep and red, and folding tables stretched from one end of the room to the other, covered with comic books in bags, comic books in boxes, comic books resting on other comic books, and sci-fi novels, bootleg video tapes of Japanese Anime, countless action figures and collectibles, and several bumper stickers and hand-made buttons that one could purchase to express his disdain for one "Wesley Crusher." We wandered the aisles the tables created, stopping every few feet to pick up the latest issue of Justice League, Daredevil, Batman, Classic X-Men and all the other short-lived books and mini-series that were out at that time.
Eventually, I stopped to talk with a vendor whom I trusted to introduce me to new titles. He knew that I was a fan of DC Comics' mature-themed Prestige Format (now Vertigo) and told me that I should pick up this new book, written by the guy who did Black Orchid. He put Sandman #1 into my hands, I put some money into his, and I continued on my way.
I didn't read the book right away once we got home -- if my memory is correct, this was around the time the Batman: A Death in the Family story arc was happening, and I, along with my friends, was consumed by Batmania. But when I finally sat down on the floor in Darin's downstairs den and slid Sandman and my other purchases out of its thin black plastic bag and began to read, something in me, previously slumbering, awoke . . . as if from a Dream, if you'll allow me this bit of literary license.
I had always liked the superhero stories in comics, but after reading The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen and Swamp Thing, I felt like the superhero stories were a little . . . childish. I still read them to stay current on the story arcs (especially in Justice League) but felt like comics could be something more than they were, and I felt like this Prestige Format was heading in a direction I was all too willing to explore. Sandman had a dark story, instantly compelling characters, and lettering -- oh my god, the lettering -- that was unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
Over the first eight issues, I could relate to Dream's persecution, and his imprisonment, and I was intrigued by his power -- if this guy could march straight into Hell and win a battle of wits with a demon, maybe I could walk into a convention or a game shop and suffer the slings and +5 arrows of insecure geeks.
Dream was cool and he was sexy and he was mysterious, and cerebral and unflappable, and powerful and Endless. He was all the things I still want to be, and when I read Sandman, when I was in those pages, when I was in the world Neil Gaiman created and artists like Sam Keith & Mike Dringenberg and letterers like Todd Klein brought to life, it didn't matter that I was afraid of girls (besides, none of the girls I knew in real life were as sexy or smart or patient as Death, anyway) and it didn't matter that Trekkies treated me like shit because I was Wesley Crusher.
Sandman provided for me the escape that I've heard Star Trek provided for a lot of other people, and over the years, it proved to be a source of Endless (sorry) inspiration. I was so captivated with Dream, I started the first Sandman fan group on GEnie, an online community owned by General Electric, similar to Compuserve, that pre-dates America Online, way back in the late 80s. Though I wasn't aware of it at the time, and didn't even know that I wanted to be a writer, I was so entranced by every single issue and every single story, that it gave birth to the drive I have as a writer today to impact other people the way Neil impacted me (and David Sedaris impacted me, and Alan Moore impacted me and Warren Ellis impacted me and on and on.)
Over the last seventeen years, I've read fewer and fewer comic books; mostly because I just don't have the time, after being a husband, father, and writer, to keep up with books as they come out, and comics have become an occasional pastime, rather than a weekly ritual. There are a few titles I've read in collections, like Preacher, Fables, Transmetropolitan, and Planetary. While I've enjoyed them all, none of them have had the same impact; that same sense of crossing a literary Rubicon, as Sandman.
It's not going too far, in other words, to say that Sandman had a significant impact on my life, in ways that I never expected when that long-forgotten vendor put issue #1 into my nervous hands on that drizzly winter day at the very beginning of 1989.
(This post has been edited slightly since it was first published.)
 Though he had the ID to prove it, we later found out that his name was a far less Dark Knightish Bruce Schwartz.
 I was a huge geek for The Prisoner then, and eagerly picked up each issue of the four-issue mini-series as soon as it came out.
 The same bags, incidentally, that are used at porn shops. Oh, you won't admit it, but you know the one I'm talking about.