Nathan's Famous

Coney Island. Around me, the boardwalk is hibernating. Autumnal breezes have blown
small mounds of sand against the garbage cans. A lonely plastic bottle tumbles end over
end down the planks, running from an unseen predator. It is cloudy. The wind and the
wave and the squawk of the seagulls circling overhead are the only noises besides the
intermittent low rumble of the elevated line of the F train a few hundred yards behind me.
That, and the occasional passing of a pair of old Russian men, deep in conversation about
the way things were, and the way things should be. Shuttered up, the haunted house
looks scarier than it ever would when open. It feels like a movie set on a day they aren’t
shooting. Grey drips down from the sky and forms in large puddles around me, swathes
of non-color which obscure the reality beneath them. In this part of the world, the sand
and the sea have a knack of adopting the same toneless hue. If the only coastline you
ever saw was on the Atlantic Ocean in the Tri-State area, you’d wonder what all the fuss
was about when people romanticized about the beach.

White noise fills my head. A low hum, ebbing and flowing with the tides. Sometimes
the hiss gets so loud it’s hard to think. A few people pass speaking Spanish. A few more
in the opposite direction, speaking Ukrainian. I don’t understand anything anyone is
saying. A jogger plods by with a look of confusion on his face, like he doesn’t know why
he’s come out today.

A few blocks down from the Cyclone, I find a bench next to a pavilion where I once saw
a dog get its leg broken when its careless owner tread upon it. I was with my father, and
our mutt, Molly. Molly grew apprehensive at the whelps of the other. She understood a
language that we couldn’t. The animal’s cries were shrill, bitter. Nauseating. I threw
away my ice cream, and I didn’t sleep well that night. Perhaps the dog with the broken
leg is dead now. Molly’s dead now, too.

The Sopranos filmed here. Songs have been written here. People have fallen in love here.
A sepia photo of my grandparents during their courtship was taken not so far from here.
Back when going to New York from Hackensack would have been ‘a trip’. A few
generations ago, this was a playground for the people. But today it is boarded up,
bundled in grey, forgotten until warmer weather returns and makes people remember it
again. And even when summer comes, the thousands that fill the place know it’s seen
better days. Today, here, my isolation is palpable, tangible. Like being locked in a
museum after closing time.

At one point, as a child, this place signified hope. These rides, these waves, the salt in
the air mingling with the scent of hot oil; deep-frying potatoes, plump hot dogs
glistening with meat sweat, spinning in lazy pink circles awaiting their trip to the bun.
Screams of kids high atop the Wonder Wheel and the pop pop of balloons signaling
another lucky winner. The salt in the air mixed with the salt on the fries and sunburn was
just an 8-year old’s hangover from a day spent ankle-deep in the sand. I look out towards
the water and see myself running towards the tides. Me and Harry, him screaming at
something or other, sand I threw in his face or a plastic shovel I wouldn’t return to him.
If I am 10, he is 5. If he is 5, Mom is healthy. If Mom is healthy, we are still a family. It
is a few years before the bad things start happening. It is the time of life when a ‘bad’
day means Mom won’t buy me both of the Matchbox cars I want at the Woolworth’s.
When a bad day means waking up with a scratchy throat and still having to go to school,
because she is a nurse and she knows what’s serious and what’s not.

A bad day before I know what ‘bad’ really means.

I notice my face is becoming wet, and I reach into my bag for the cheap umbrella I’ve
brought with me. But when I pull it out, I look up into the sky, and I do not open it.

It is not raining.

Wavy strands of brown hair blow into my face, stick to the tracks of my tears, obscure
my vision like random Etch-A-Sketch lines across the grey screen that is the sand, the
ocean, and the sky in front of me all faded into one swathe of monochrome. I wipe my
face with my sleeve. I smile at a seagull standing on the beach 20 feet in front of me. It
is standing with one leg tucked up underneath it.

I remember a time when I asked my mother if a seagull just like this one had only one
leg. “No,” she had laughed. “He’s just resting the other.”

“But wouldn’t it be hard to stand on one leg?” I’d persisted. “And why does a seagull
need to rest its legs anyway? They just fly all day, right?” I’d pushed, precociously.

“I don’t know, Bryan. Why don’t you look it up in the Encyclopedia?” The
encyclopedia we’d paid $1000 for in the early eighties. When such a purchase was ‘an
investment’. When we had money for such extravagances. This was before the dying

It’s too cold to stay here. So I don’t.

On the corner of Surf and Stillwell, the ‘Original’ Nathan’s, 257 days remain until the
next hot dog eating contest. Under the clock, the list of winners since 1984. 9 of the last
10 champions have been Japanese. When I lived in Japan, I don’t think I ever saw
someone eat a hot dog. I don’t even think they exist there.

From 1984 to 2000, the winning tally increased only modestly each year. From 9 ˝ in
1984 up to 20 in 1991, varying one or two dogs a year, reaching 25 1/8 in 2000. But in
2001, one Takeru Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs. 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. The winning
tally went from 25 to 50. Kind of like what Mark McGwire did in 1998, except that,
instead of hitting 70 home runs, it would have been like he’d hit 109. Do steroids help
you eat hot dogs? Did anyone question Takeru Kobayashi’s gargantuan effort? When a
record is shattered by a factor of two, wouldn’t we want to know how this is possible? A
hot dog from Nathan’s weighs about 5 ounces. So that means Takeru Kobayashi eats 15
pounds of food in 12 minutes.

I haven’t eaten meat in 12 years. If I tried to eat one-half of one hot dog, I’d quite likely

I go inside.

The fluorescent lights cast a sickly glow on the sparse crowd of diners around me. Half
the patrons seem only to be there so as not to be stuck outside. This time of year, nobody
can lay claim to being down in this neighborhood by choice. I approach the counter,
where I stare up at the back-lit menu hung on the wall behind it.

“Can I help you?” asks the mustachioed counter clerk, named Joey because he has to be.

“I don’t know.”

Joey looks at me with exasperation, even though, with no one else behind me, I am
inconveniencing no one by my indecision.

“What - comes - on a hot dog?” I enunciate, slow and deliberate, struggling with the
foreignness of the question as it leaves my mouth.

“Well, we got chili, cheese, sauerkraut. It’s up to you, man.” He reaches his arm behind
him to scratch his back and give himself something to do.

“It is up to me, isn’t it?” I ask, for no particular reason at all. Now I am the strange one.
Joey is uncomfortable. Now he’s wondering if I’ve just washed in with the tides or if I’m
the one who’s carrying a gun today. He’s thinking how it would feel to end up on the
cover of tomorrow’s Daily News. On page 5 there will be a photo of him with his wife
and children. Donations to some Italo-American fund in lieu of flowers. His manager
will be quoted as saying what a good worker he was. “He didn’t ask for this,” he’ll say.
They never do.

“Just plain, I guess. I’ll put some mustard on it myself, if that’s ok,” I order.

Calm returns to his face. “Where you from?” he breathes out, because now he can. “You
never had a hot dog before?”

“Hackensack. And no, it’s been a long, long time.”

“Well, enjoy it,” he says as he turns to grab a foil-wrapped bun from under the glow of
the heating lamps. “$2.37.”

Tray in hand, I shuffle over to the nearest of the many vacant tables like a mental patient
in the ward dining hall. I wonder if I look as pathetic as I feel.

One time when I ate mushrooms in college, I thought the trip was over and I went to the
campus dining center only to find that I was wrong. Sitting there with chicken strips and
a small pool of mashed potatoes on my plate, I began to play with my food like a child.
Pushed the back of the spoon into the mashed potatoes, just to see how they would move.
How they would sound. And when I did try to put some in my mouth, I quickly returned
them to a balled up napkin when they turned to sawdust in my mouth. A chicken strip
writhed and began to slide off the plate and onto the tray. I got up and left the hall.
Hallucinations are cinematic when portrayed in the movies. But in real life, tripping balls
isn’t fun.

I am staring at the soft pink flesh of an unwrapped Nathan’s famous hot dog in my hands.
I feel not unlike I did during that mushroom trip now. I open a packet of mustard and
spread its day-glo yellow onto the pinkness of the tube of meat. It smells like a truck
driver’s belch. Like a Yankee Stadium urinal at the end of an extra-inning game. I lift it
to my mouth and bite down. The hard skin gives a bit before it pops.

There is pig flesh in my mouth.

Immediately it feels wrong. I want it gone, but I force myself, I don’t know why, to
choke it down. Instinctively I look for a drink I did not buy, swallow hard, drop the rest
of the dog back on the tray, and stand up as a wave of nausea hits. In the annals of
Nathan’s contest lore, “2006 - Bryan Fox, 1/8” will probably not be recorded. Grabbing
the tray, I stumble to the bin, and Joey calls out “What’s wrong? No good?”

“No, I - think - I need to wait - a few more years,” I respond, and run out the door.
Perhaps this makes no sense to him. But that’s ok. The beauty of New York is that you
can be as crazy as fuck and still rest easy, knowing whatever you do won’t be the worst
thing anybody around you has seen today. Eight million people means you have to go
pretty far to turn heads. On the street, I am hit by a gust of wind and immediately pan my
head left and right, in search of some other place to sell me some other food, some drink,
something minty, to rid myself of this foul mistake. I belch a truck driver’s belch. A
processed meat belch.

Stupid. I am stupid for trying to change. Stupid for not listening to my body, stupid for
doing things I know will hurt me and then wondering why they do. I am ill and confused
and lost and senseless, and I’ve just jettisoned one of the only defining characteristics I
had for the point of fulfilling a curiosity. 12 years without meat and I decide to eat a hot
dog. There is a metal garbage bin abutting a shuttered US Army Recruitment kiosk in the
middle of Stillwell Avenue. Rushing to it, I grab it with my left and jab the two long
fingers of my right down my throat. The hot dog chunk comes up quick and virulently,
and I spit out the last specks of it in disgust. So many things feel so very wrong I don’t
know where to run. Cancers I’ve caused and ones the doctors couldn’t cure. Questions I
didn’t ask before and can’t ask any longer. Mistakes for which I’m unrepentant, train
wrecks at which I’ve laughed with sardonic delight. Fuck Nathan’s Famous. Fuck
Takeru Kobayashi. Fuck 12 meatless years. I kick the vomit-filled can so hard I nearly
break my big toe, and as it rolls away, its contents vomit forth just like mine did a few
seconds earlier.

This has to stop.

After 9 years spent abroad crafting his own private bildungsroman, Bryan Fox returned to
the United States in 2005. He currently lives, works, and occasionally sleeps in Brooklyn,
NY. He is the author of several travel articles and a largely unpublishable but extremely
cathartic memoir, "Scripting Ends". He can be contacted at scriptingends@gmail.com.

© 2007 Underground Voices