YOU SEE THEM EVERYWHERE, side-by-side photographs taken weeks apart. The first is a fat person in fat clothes. The second is a thin person in hardly any clothes—before and after. I’d present this illustration of myself, but it is too early for that. It is still before.
As the summer of 2000 began, I found myself at my all time heaviest. The last time I had weighed myself I was 155 pounds. That had been three years ago. At the time I had been running five miles a day and eating nothing but pasta in preparation for the New York Marathon.
So what happened? The past few years I had been busy on the morning of the Central Park Line-up. I had been unable to submit my application for the Marathon. Without official entry in the race, I found it impossible to motivate myself. I stopped running completely.
To compliment my lower activity level, I broadened my diet. I stopped working in Italian restaurants and began to enjoy the local take-out kitchens in my neighborhood. I carefully assembled my meals from the four food groups:
- Ice Cream
From day to day, I couldn’t see how these changes were affecting my body. Yes, my hamstrings and joints were getting tighter, and so were my jeans, but I thought it might have been something Mohamed was doing to at the wash-and-fold.
When cousins greeted me at family parties with, “Hey, it looks like you put on a few pounds there,” I thought nothing of it. I took it as a compliment. After all, I had grown up scrawny.
Long before Sally Struthers and Bob Geldoff introduced us to videos of the starving and impoverished in Africa, my father’s name was on the mailing list of a dozen Catholic charities. We’d receive magazines dedicated to the emaciated—page after page of skeletal people with bloated bellies walking the parched, cracked earth, praying for the day they would have enough water to make mud. Every time we received an issue, my physique was compared to those of the starving. These comments didn’t come from teasing neighborhood children, but from my mother. She had me convinced that one day a bus full of Marynoll missionaries was going to pull up and take pictures of me for their next magazine.
From that time on, the slightest word suggesting I had put on weight rang of encouragement. And though the comment is the same, the subtleties around it have changed. “You put on a few pounds,” used to be followed by a grabbing of my shoulder or a hearty slap on my arm. Now it is followed by a poke at my belly.
This past spring, contractors working for the city began to replace the water main beneath Atlantic Avenue. Mornings I was awoken at 5:30 to the pounding of jackhammers, the growl of excavator treads, and the beep-beep of a dump truck’s reverse warning. Evenings I would walk down the street in a haze of dust as bulldozers buried the day’s work so it could be dug up again the following morning. Every sixth day they would shut off my water for eight hours. Every third day, the excavator would break through the water main, filling the street with mud and flooding every basement on the north side of the street.
The worst of the floods happened the last week in May, knocking out my building’s water heater for the Memorial Day weekend. Grabbing a towel and razor, looking like a resident of a college dormitory, I walked three blocks to shower at my friends Frank and Lorraine’s.
I don’t keep a scale in my bathroom. Frank and Lorraine do. After showering, I stepped on the scale. What? I stepped off the scale to make sure it was set to zero. I stepped on the scale again. I dressed and walked into the living room.
“What do you think I weigh?”
Frank looked me up and down, “I don’t know, 175, 180?” 190,” I said. Is that a lot for you?” Lorraine asked. It is the heaviest I’ve ever been.” Wow,” Frank said. “190.” What is that anyway? Light Heavyweight?” I punched the air in front of me as if a few pints of Ben and Jerry’s had made me a contender.
“It’s up there,” Frank said.
“Do you want to be 190?” Lorraine asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just recently I’ve started exercising, a little jogging, some sit-ups, but 190—it seems ridiculous to get this close and turn back before I reach 200.”
“You’re going to put on ten pounds intentionally?” Lorraine asked in disbelief. Two hundred pounds,” Frank said. “Now that’s some real weight.”
Women were outraged. Men applauded me. Men respond to bulk. Weight, mass, it is the very essence of existence. Ask any man why he considers Di Niro a great actor and he will say because he put on 40 pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, a movie about an otherwise forgotten middleweight. Middleweights disappear, but names like Joe Louis, Ali, Frazier and Foreman are etched in our minds. Heavyweights endure.
At summer barbecues I announced my intentions and stood right by the grill. I stayed clear of light beers and each time I was offered a hamburger, I would ask for a cheeseburger. I found myself reading the nutritional information on packages. Snack foods have changed. Chips are made with fat substitutes, and some are baked instead of fried. When you are trying to gain weight, you really have to watch what you eat.
I never got around to buying a scale, so gauging my progress proved tricky. I made great use of Macy’s One Day Sales. It has always been my habit to go to Macy’s fully clothed, especially during the One Day Sales. I knew this would throw off the accuracy of my weigh in. Fortunately, the house wares department sits just on the other side of the escalator from bedding and bath. The solution to my problem presented itself in the form of a terry-cloth bathrobe.
Bathrobes have always been alien to me. Growing up in my house, I showered, I dried off and I got dressed. There were no intermediate steps. I wore neither robes nor cloaks. If I disrobed at all in my life, it was just a fancy way of saying I took off my underwear.
I tried on a plush bathrobe. What luxury! I felt sexy and mysterious, like Hugh Heffner and Obi Won Kenobi (God rest his soul) all rolled up in one. Maybe a bathrobe was the one thing that has always been missing from my life. I wanted to stay at Macy’s until the One Day Sale was over.
I tiptoed around the escalator into house wares and bumped into a Macy’s sales associate. I distracted her the only way I knew how, waving my fingers in front of me saying, “You do not see a man in a bathrobe,” in an Alec Guinness, “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” kind of way. I snuck into house wares and jumped on the scale. In the fever of a One Day Sale, who would notice a 195 pound Jedi Knight standing naked before them? Not a soul.
My weight teetered in the mid-190s, forcing me to realize certain things about myself: I am too casual with my goals; I procrastinate in the face of accomplishment; I postpone joy—I have yet to write the novel I’d planned, and I have yet to distinguish myself in any type of business. Now, after lowering my expectations to the point where my only goal was to become a big fat jerk, I wasn’t able to even accomplish that.
My brother Tom invited me to his house for a barbecue over the Fourth of July weekend. During the early part of the day, while other adults sat in the shade and drank beer, Tom and I trounced the kids in a water fight—owing our victory to our superior strength and fire power; I threw my opponents into the two plastic kiddie pools while Tom slammed them with his water cannon, one of the truly terrifying visions of summer.
I wouldn’t revel in the victory except that we beat a group of particularly mean children who were not pleased with just getting my brother and me wet, but who explored every option of spigot and hose to find the coldest water to throw on us. We beat them, and they should know they were beaten.
During the battle, the beer-drinking patriots in the shade offered color commentary. Among themes explored in their stream of semi-consciousness diatribe were how my skin was whiter and my stomach fatter than they had ever seen it before. The apple doesn’t fall far, does it?
They fueled my fire.
“Tom, do you have a scale in the house?”
Today was the day.
I decided to weigh myself after every course. I grazed on chips and dips while I waited for Tom to take the shrimp off the grill. I ate burgers and dogs with the kids while Tom gave the grill a quick brush and threw on rib-eye steaks.
What kind of cruel trick was this? I gorged myself on sweets but gained nothing. Everyone was ready to pat me on the back and say, “Nice try,” filing the evening away as something to bring up later, maybe at my wake— Remember that barbecue when Paul tried to eat until he weighed 200 pounds?” They didn’t realize what it meant to me. I was going to reach 200 pounds, but by now I knew it would not be a comfortable 200 pounds—there would be no more visits to the water closet.
I came up with a plan based on the little known Laura McPeake Ice Cream Theory. My friend Laura McPeake lives on the ass end of Prospect Park. She visits me every now and then in the Heights, mainly because I live over an ice cream parlor. We will meet for lunch or dinner, but the true point of Laura’s visit is ice cream.
“It doesn’t matter how much you eat at dinner,” she explains, “solid foods sit in your stomach like marbles in a jar, they touch, but there is all this space around them. Ice cream just slips into these spaces. There is always room for ice cream.”
I could have thrown down two pounds of ice cream, but there was none to be had. I decided on a less spectacular approach.
“I have two pounds to go,” I announced, “and I’m going to do it with beer.” Paul, really,” my mother protested. “Think of what you’re doing to yourself.”
Isn’t there a line like that in every epic movie? Someone tries to stop the inevitable. Someone tries to bring the hero to his senses. I smiled and cracked open a Budweiser.
It would take three beers, which doesn’t sound like much, but after three pounds of food, three beers offer quite a challenge. About half way through my second beer, I let out a little burp. No, it was more of a thunderous belch. A controversy erupted—guests at the barbecue argued back and forth over whether the burp cleared room for more beer, which was heavier than the air that had escaped, or whether the burp would set me back, ultimately leading to my undoing. I kept drinking.
Toward the end of my third beer I began to feel chills up my spine and over my scalp. I feared my system found something amiss— it was beginning to protest my water closet boycott—it was threatening to expel all the marbles from the jar.
I stood slowly, stepping on the scale. Since my last weigh in the sun had gone down. No longer able to see the numbers at my feet, I asked my brother Andrew to read it for me. He crouched down to see where the hairline crossed the dial.
“On the dot!” He announced.
My fists went up like a heavyweight champ. I thought to look at my watch.
“It is July second, 2000, 9:04 PM Eastern Daylight Time,” I looked at my mother, “and you’re scrawny Marynoll poster child is 200 pounds.”
To mild applause, I took a modest bow, and then I visited the water closet.
WEIGHT CLASSES IN BOXING
up to 105 lb . . . . . . . .Strawweight
up to 108 lb . . . . . . . .Jr. Flyweight
up to 112 lb . . . . . . . .Flyweight
up to 115 lb . . . . . . . .Jr. Bantamweight
up to 118 lb . . . . . . . .Bantamweight
up to 122 lb . . . . . . . .Jr. Featherweight
up to 126 lb . . . . . . . .Featherweight
up to 130 lb . . . . . . . .Jr. Lightweight
up to 135 lb . . . . . . . .Lightweight
up to 140 lb . . . . . . . .Jr. Welterweight
up to 147 lb . . . . . . . .Welterweight
up to 154 lb . . . . . . . .Jr. Middleweight
up to 160 lb . . . . . . . .Middleweight
up to 168 lb . . . . . . . .Super Middleweight
up to 175 lb . . . . . . . .Light Heavyweight
up to 190 lb . . . . . . . .Cruiserweight
over 190 lb . . . . . . . . .Heavyweight
Paul Hawkins, October 2000