Friday, July 28, 2006

Is lunch ready? Hot dog!

I don’t consider myself a jock by any means but I’m a firm believer in sports participation. I work out actively at my health club, play tennis, golf and am willing to try just about anything that doesn’t involve heights, the possibility of drowning or getting large objects thrown at me (read: Dodgeball). More important, I encourage my kids to actively participate in athletic pursuits, also known as “sports.”
However, after flipping on ESPN this past weekend, I may point them towards learning a musical instrument, drama, the chess team or some non-athletic pursuit.
The reason for my sudden repulsion with “sports” is that ESPN, the 24-hour SPORTS network, was televising the World Hot Dog Eating Championships from Coney Island, New York. The rules are simple: eat the most number of hot dogs in 12 minutes and you win. There are cash prizes awarded which, I’m sure, are used to pay medical premiums.
By the way, I was watching a rebroadcast of the event. Apparently this was such a riveting spectacle that ESPN was showing it again. The Super Bowl, the world’s most watched event period, is only shown once. But throwing hot dogs into the mix and is worth multiple viewings in the eyes of cable executives.
I had heard of these people who dub themselves “professional eaters” and even saw the reigning hot dog champion, a meek looking, Japanese punk rocker type named Takeru Kobayashi, appear in an ESPN commercial. Wearing a headband and looking remarkably similar to that kid who stood in front of a tank during the Beijing uprisings o a few years back, Kobayashi eats three hot dogs in the network cafeteria while one of ESPN’s plastic, perfectly-coiffed anchors looks on bewildered. The commercial was funny but I still find the whole idea of competitive eating repulsive, particularly in light of the horrible famine problem that persists in our world. Millions of people in Ethiopia and the Sudan desperately need food; what they DO NOT need is cable for they should never be forced to watch this sordid excess of gluttony.
Nevertheless, I was transfixed when the show came on. It was 11 p.m., my kids were asleep and I had eaten dinner about six hours previous. I was not hungry – merely curious.
The World Hot Dog Eating Championship occurs on July 4 because, according to Nathans’s Famous COO Waynbe Norbitz, “it epitomizes the spirit associated with summer each year.” Of course it does Waynbe, if that’s your real name (my spell checker disagrees). After all, what better way to celebrate our nation’s independence and freedom from tyranny than with a massive waste of food? The only thing missing from the event was the “Trump” logo.
Unfortunately, Trump didn’t move fast enough on this contest. Nathan’s Famous, which also owns Miami Subs and Kenny Rogers Roasters, won the bidding rights. No word yet on whether the company is planning a “world subs eating contest” or a “world roasters eating contest” but I’m sure the suits in charge are eyeing Christmas morning as a possible date because “stuffing your face with chickens epitomizes the spirit of giving and celebrates the birth of our Lord.”
What kept me from pressing the TV remote in search of better cable fare, like watching Titanic for the 84th time, was the excitement surrounding this alleged “sporting event.” Nathan’s and ESPN had pulled out all the stops to put hot dogs right up there alongside March Madness in terms of spectacle. Numerous cameras were positioned, not only to capture the contestant’s every chew, but also to pan the crowd, consisting of THOUSANDS of people who weren’t invited to any Fourth of July festivities in their neighborhoods. And no ESPN event is complete without an ANNOUNCER. For this event, ESPN rolls out some guy named Paul Page who, according to Wikipedia, has “called” the event for two years. Page’s background is in motorsports announcing and he has called several Indianapolis 500s for ABC, ESPN’s parent company. I can only assume Page’s reassignment is due to the fact that he’s losing his edge or he has some serious dish on a high-ranking ESPN executive and therefore must be kept on the payroll.
Nevertheless, professional that he is, Page brings a veteran announcer’s enthusiasm to the event, which has not been without controversy. Through the years disputes have erupted over whether contestants started too early or had actually finished entire hot dogs. That’s why the event employs “judges” who must peer into the mouths of contestants and pray nothing comes out.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that an ANALYST assists Page in the broadcast booth. “Perfect,” I thought as I sat in my La-z-boy. “I need a color man to explain the intricacies of jamming hot dogs down a gullet. Besides, what if Page can’t see all the ACTION? Another set of eyes will no doubt help.”
One by one, the roughly 20 contestants were introduced to thunderous ovations from the crowd. Two things struck me as I watched them take their positions. First, all were of average build, including the ladies (Yes, women take part in this event too and I’m sure there are men out there who find them attractive. This may have something to do with the fact these women are eating hot dogs). I expected at least one contestant to look like that guy from the Guinness Book of World Records who tipped the scales at over 1,000 pounds, wore overalls the size of a military tent, and was buried in a piano case. No, these contestants looked like they could easily say, “I’m full” after two dogs.
Second, many of the contestants had impressive resumes. Apparently hot dogs aren’t the only food worthy of a championship. Joey Chestnut, a 22-year-old engineering student at San Jose State, holds records for pork ribs (5.5 pounds in 12 minutes), waffles (18.5 in 10 minutes) and jalapeƱo poppers (118 in 10 minutes). The latter probably earned Chestnut the “bathroom” record (15 trips in 10 minutes) but I couldn’t find any documentation of this.
Suddenly, onto the stage strode the aforementioned Kobayashi, who is something of a God in the eating world. Nicknamed “Tsunami,” Kobayashi had won the event five years running, eating a total of 246 dogs and change. His best year was 2004 when he consumed 53 and a half. The previous year was his lowest total. Only 44 and a half. Perhaps he had eaten too big a breakfast that morning.
Unlike most sporting events held in America, there is no intimidation factor in competitive eating. No stare downs or trash talking. Kobayashi speaks no English but I was hoping Chestnut would at least add a little flair by hurling a few “yo mamma so fat” insults at his Japanese rival. Then again, what would he say? “Hey Kobayashi, yo mamma so fat she eat hot dogs as a sorbet.” If Kobayashi understood English, he would probably have smiled politely, bowed and thanked Chestnut for honoring his family.
Finally, the contest began and announcer Page was forced to begin his 12-minute workday. Under his watchful eye, I learned Kobayashi was on “world record pace” but Chestnut was closing fast. The “analyst” educated me on “chewing technique,” something that competitive eaters experiment with much the same way that Tiger Woods experiments with his swing. Supposedly doing chewing exercises increases jaw muscle strength. After all, who wants to go to the beach in summer with a flabby jaw?
In spite of Chestnut’s best efforts, Kobayashi soon jumped to a “two dog lead,” armed with only a glass of water. Kobayashi’s champion technique involves folding the bun slightly and dunking the dog before consuming it. This had to repulse the folks at Nathan’s. “Ah, there’s nothing like a hot dog from Nathan’s Famous. Lathered with mustard, sprinkled with celery salt and immersed in water. Mmmmm good!”
By the way, condiments were nowhere in sight during the competition. Neither was beer for that matter. Why have a hot dog eating contest if you’re not going to eat them the right way? Personally I think the contestants should have to grill the dogs over a scorching pile of charcoal before consuming them. Nathan’s does not agree.
In a THRILLING finish, Kobayashi retained his title and bested his world record by a quarter of a dog. Chestnut was a close second with 52 dogs consumed. I was repulsed that I was still watching but I had to watch the end, namely an interview with the champion. That’s right, Page actually had to stand next to Kobayashi and ask him questions through a translator. As far as I’m concerned there are only two questions one should ask somebody who has just eaten 53 hot dogs.
1) Are you going to throw up?
2) Are you going to throw up on me?

Page, professional that he is, asked neither. Instead he peppered Kobayashi with questions about “the wall,” an apparent reference to a moment in the contest which every eater experiences. Eaters hit “the wall” when they feel they just can’t eat another hot dog but have to fight through this absurd feeling in order to continue. I would have hit the hot dog wall just watching the employees at Nathan’s Famous bring the hot dogs to the table. I have hit the wall with other foods simply while preparing them. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese comes to mind. My kids love this stuff and we serve it to them at least once a week. But I don’t eat it because that would mean consuming a packet of bright orange powder that the engineers at Kraft call “the cheese mix.” It looks like something astronauts eat.
Kobayashi, a little short of breath but looking none the worse for the wear, patiently answered Page’s questions and then left the stage, presumably to stick his finger down his throat. Chestnut seemed dejected but vowed to return next year and wrest the title from his Japanese foe. I turned off the TV, went downstairs and ate a cracker. It was satisfying.

Monday, July 03, 2006

I know a guy...

It was two hours before showtime and I was halfway through a shower. Suddenly, the thought occurred to me.
“Did I remember to pack pants?”
I don’t know why I had this thought mid-rinse. Why does anybody have those types of thoughts? It’s like when you’re at the airport, ready to board the plane for a two week vacation and you suddenly wonder if you turned the stove off? It’s not as if you passed a stove in the airport that triggered this thought. It just…happened. And quite often, the answer to the question that just popped into your head for no apparent reason is, “no.”
That was the answer to the pants question.
I spend about 100 days living out of suitcases. Percentage-wise, I think I’m a pretty good suitcase packer. But about five percent of the time, I show up and realize that I’ve neglected something that is vital to the show. Some items are easy to replace; socks for example. I can do without a tie for if I have to. Ditto for underwear. But shirts and pants are a different story. I usually travel in the most comfortable clothes possible, meaning a T-shirt and jeans. I often take the return flight still wearing my stage clothes if it's a morning or afternoon show. Of course, I always feel sorry for my seatmate because, whether a show is good or bad, comedy makes you sweat just slightly less than your average marathon runner.
Needless to say, a T-shirt and jeans aren’t the best attire for doing a corporate comedy show, unless the corporation happens to be the Truck Stop Owners of America. I once had to perform for a bunch of insurance agents in my T-shirt/jeans attire because the airline lost my luggage. Other than funeral home directors, insurance salesmen are the last consistent suit wearers in the world. Every other industry has adopted the “business casual” approach, meaning khakis that make all female employees’ asses look too fat and shirts with the company logo. I always thought “business casual” attire was supposed to make you feel more comfortable at work as opposed to make you feeling like a clone that could be replaced at any moment with somebody else who looked just like you.
But insurance guys still wear suits. And, judging from the tepid reaction I received when I bounded onto the stage in my T-shirt and jeans ensemble, they only feel comfortable around other people in suits. I tried to make a joke out of my attire but the audience just looked at me as if to say, “you’re not one of us.”
The audience on this particular night was Nikon Instruments, a bunch of people who sold microscopes. I assumed they would not be wearing suits. After all, they probably spent most of their day in dark laboratories where nobody could see them anyway.
But they still wore pants, thus I needed them for this job. Sure, speakers are supposed to imagine the audience in their underwear but you don’t say, “and vice versa” after that. I dashed to the bell desk at the Doral Hotel in Miami and inquired where the closest mall was. “About three miles,” was the reply.
The bell captain hailed a taxi. I dived in and instructed the driver to take me to the Dolphin Mall. “And wait there,” I ordered. Never in my life had I instructed a cab driver to wait. I thought this was something that was only done in movies. In spite of my panic, there was something cool about my instructions. It was almost like jumping into a cab and saying, “follow that car.”
The driver looked at me, sensed my panic and asked what I needed at the mall.
“Pants,” I replied.
“You need pants? For you?,” he said.
“Yes for me,” I answered. Trust me, if anybody besides me needed pants, I wouldn’t have been sweating profusely.
“Forget the mall,” he said in heavily broken English. “I’ll take you someplace closer. I know a guy.”
“I don’t need a guy,” I said. “I need pants.”
Seriously, when has a transaction that included the phrase, “I know a guy” ever included a happy ending? And yet we fall for it all the time. We all have a relative or a friend who, no matter the request, “knows a guy.” This friend/relative/soon to be enemy never misses a chance to brag about what I call his “labor network.”
“Need your satellite dish installed? I know a guy.
Want a better deal on a car? I know a guy.
Can’t get your son into Stanford? No problem, I know a guy.”
I think the only transactions that should involve the phrase, ‘I know a guy,” should be for cable, stereo equipment or any product that could get you 10 to 20 in a state penitentiary.
The “I know a guy” conversation also usually includes the tagline, “and when you call him, mention my name.” As if this is going to make “the guy” drop everything he’s doing and move you to the top of the list. "Oh you know Jimmy? Great. I’ve been waiting for one of Jimmy’s friends to call. I haven’t worked in a couple of years because he keeps forgetting to mention me."
Naturally, the “guy” the cab driver knew was accessible only by taking the most heavily trafficked streets in Miami. I nervously looked at my watch every five seconds, wondering if it would have been smarter to ask the concierge if I could borrow his pants for a few hours. Heck, this was the world famous Doral Golf Resort. Weren’t they supposed to do things like that?
“Just past this light,” said the cabbie, motioning to a red dot ahead that looked as if it might as well be in South Carolina. By the time we reach that light, I thought, the audience will be heading to their rooms for the evening.
But we made the light and the cabbie turned sharply into…The Men’s Wearhouse! This was where “the guy” was located, I thought? He knows “a guy” who works in a chain clothing store? What if I had forgotten my toothbrush? I’m sure he knows a guy who works at a Walgreens.
I dashed in, picked a size 36x32 pair of khakis (so I’d blend in with the group) off the rack and paid for them without even trying them on. I was back at the hotel in under an hour and onstage shortly thereafter. Crisis averted.
I’m heading to Atlanta tomorrow. This time, when my daughter comes into my bedroom when I’m packing, I will tell her wait for a few moments until I’m absolutely sure that I have everything. And if, by chance I forget something, I’m sure there is a guy waiting who can get me whatever I want.