20070328

Year of the Famine Dogs








(A speech delivered to the “Competitive Eating Association of America” by Coach Ahmet Winter. Winter went way over his allotted time, but he was impossible to remove from the stage. Gary Furler tried everything: tapping his watch, turning the lights on and off, even prematurely clapping and approaching the stage magnanimously. Nothing worked.)

Where are my notes?

I first got to know James during the year of the hot summer. The Dead Summer, people call it, but I only remember the heat. We were forced together during the riots. We learned to eat from a pack of wild dogs. Anyway, I am jumping forward.

Many of you do not know who I am, so I have been I instructed by Gary Furler -- this year’s organizer -- to introduce myself.

My name is Ahmet Winter, and I am the eating coach for James “The Hole” Jannet, who has been the overall points winner in the CEAA for three out of the past five years. I have been his coach since he was fifteen and he first started getting into the sport at local fairs and village picnics, and I have known him most of his life. I was his next door neighbor before he became famous, and I share a restaurant with him now in our later, conjoined adult life. It is called “Champions.” It is wonderful, high-class cooking.

I am godparent to James Jannet’s children, and I have seen him grow from a sprite to a man. You have all seen me around, but (because of the silence of James) you may have thought I was his father, or even worse: just another fan. No -- I am his coach. Our lots have been pitched together like playing cards drawn in a game without throwaways.

I am here to talk about eating. But not just eating: I am here to talk about eating FAST. About eating so fast that you win contests, and amaze common people who have common ideas about eating and what it means.

I am here to talk about eating enormous amounts of food so very fast that you defy the tiger and the shark, and about how to keep the food down so that you do not get disqualified for vomit.

Many competitive eaters do not have coaches yet. They do not know how to train, or even if they should. I respect their fear and choices. But let me just say: James “The Hole” Jannet is not a natural eater. He is as plain a man as any chap off the street. He has become the best because that is what he wanted to be, and it is a mistake to treat competitive eating as if it is a freak show.

We are not freaks.

We are artists.

(weak applause)

Or at least athletes.

(weaker applause)

You do not understand?

That is okay.

I will instruct you.

Reams have been written about James Jannet’s hard life, and there has been much speculation – since this year’s explosion in eating contest popularity – about why James does what he does. There has been broad, outlandish conjecture regarding his childhood poverty and the suicide of his mother when he was so very young. Naturally, there are huge dark places in his history. But stories have been circulated that are outright lies. His true story must be told.

Much has been said about James’ refusal to speak – either to the press or his fellow competitors. Much has been said about James’ determination, and people who have seen him eat try to analyze him by saying that growing up poor has given him a constant need to consume. But they are wrong.

James Jannet is hard at work when he is eating. He is not happy. He has a goal and a purpose. He is alive and electrified inside his beautiful work. As his coach, I share in his victories, but I am ultimately only a tool in his box.

His story is long and winding, like the digestive system itself, with many frustrations and failures. Most of you already know about his climb to the top through years of hard work and patience, turning his grim determination to eat into celebrity and a comfortable life. So I will not talk about that.

Instead of that story, today I will tell you about the famine dogs.

You see James here now.

Silent.

Imposing.

Cold. Voracious.

But he wasn’t always this way.

Remember the Dead Summer? That was when I first met James.

The whole countryside baked under the blaze of the relentless sun. The corn belt popped in the fields like friction blisters before wilting altogether into black husks that crunched under tractor wheels as if they were the brittle bodies of pubating cicadas. Fires swept across the forests -- cracking timber and tombstones -- and sending the grizzlies down from the mountains into the suburbs, panting and choking, the fish gone with the water, the water gone with the drought.

I first met James in his father’s apartment during the Dead Summer. He lived next door to me in a sagging wooden tinderbox with two rooms on bottom and two rooms on top. We lived upstairs.

I remember him perfectly. There he sat on the lone rug in his father’s apartment, stacking old macaroni and cheese boxes into dungeons and castles, parapets and labyrinths.

James’s dad was named Frank. Frank Jannet was a construction foreman for a tract housing settlement that was springing up on the south side of town.

Frank Jannet and I shared beers together in the hallway, and we once had a very long conversation while we watched the paramedics haul away the old woman beneath us after she fell down and stopped breathing. She made it to a phone, but she never made it back from the hospital.

There was something else. Frank Jannet had a bigger problem than raising his toe-headed little son all by himself. Frank Jannet was a drug addict. Okay, that’s out of the way. Sorry, James.

Frank liked me because we both had our secrets. I never pried into his personal business, and I never even thought about turning him in. I worried, but I am not a rat.

I liked James, though, so I would always give him a friendly wave whenever I saw him playing in the yard, or I would offer him something nice from my lunch whenever I came home from work at noon to find him hiding in the cool flowerbeds, digging holes and stacking pill bugs like cannonballs on the deck of a ship.

He had the right idea, hiding in the flowerbeds. You had to hide from the sun if you were outside during the Dead Summer. Hide or die.

And that summer only got worse and worse.

The street in front of our apartment building was made out of tar, like most streets. Thick black tar. Every day, there would be more and more stuck to the bottom of my shoe, and I would have to spend longer and longer scraping the tar off into an old coffee can I kept next to my “welcome” mat. Finally, I gave up and started carrying a pair of street-crossing flip-flops in my satchel.

It is hard to say when the drought became a famine, because we don’t live in that kind of world anymore.

Food comes from grocery stores, and paychecks are the new harvest time. But you would hear stories of people starving to death in their apartments down south, where it was even hotter and more horrible. You would hear stories of people dying in dusty back corners of empty abandoned shacks, where their desiccated corpses littered the ground like matchsticks, only found weeks later when somebody went looking for them to collect a debt.

But sunny little James was brighter than the day. He would always have a smile ready, no matter how hot it was outside, or how red and sweaty his cheeks were from laying in his oven of an apartment at night while his father raged and sunk by turns under the plunger of his drugs and his job.

One day I stopped seeing Frank altogether. I would only hear solitary James coming and going, headed to the grocery store for fewer and fewer groceries, the bounce in his step faltering by halves and quarters every day. Had Frank lost his job? Was he dealing now? It was something else I didn’t want to know about.

Besides, I had my own problems. I worked downtown on the line at the turkey factory across from the city’s power plant. The power plant was trying a new policy, where they were converting the remnants of old meat carcasses into biofuel. Gas, coal, and oil were nothing but old dead animals that had been sitting around awhile underground. They figured they could get fresh fuel from fresh corpses. Wheelbarrows full of chicken feet, eyes, feathers, and beaks marched steadily across the street, and the turkey factory was compensated with handsome chits signifying a steep credit on utilities. It was perpetual motion. Murder to make power, power to make murder.

The drought was killing business, though.

I may have been but a cog in this machine, but my paycheck was getting smaller and smaller – matching my shrinking hours – giving me more and more time to sit around worrying. Every day there were fewer and fewer turkeys. Every day, the brownouts got longer and longer.

Anyway, it was a hard life. But this story is about the famine dogs and the food drops.

I remember the day the famine dogs showed up, because it was the day the mailman fell through the street.

I hadn’t worked all week (against my will), and I was spending the day inside, watching TV, when I heard somebody yell from outside.

It was James.

I opened the door.

“The mailman! The mailman!” shouted James. “Somebody help the mailman!”

I ran down the steps and caught myself -- just barely -- before stepping off of the curb. James was standing on the sidewalk, turning in circles as if somebody had pulled off one of his antennae.

In the middle of the street was our local letter carrier, Jester Carey. He was on all fours. He was babbling incoherently. He was sinking into the hot black tar, which had melted clean through and was bubbling on top. He was mewling and confused, looking around the empty neighborhood with streaks across his face. It must have been a hundred and fifty degrees outside.

Jester’s golf cart was stalled out on the corner, and mail was scattered around him in a stamped and certified spray. The letters were too light to sink. Jester Carey, on the other hand, was going down fast.

“He was walking and then he got stuck,” said James. “And then he went down on his hands and knees. He was calm at first, but then he slowly started to freak out. I think he’s fucked up.”

“I see the cities!” shouted Jester. “The cities beneath us!”

“He’s crazy!” said James.

“It’s the fumes,” I told James. “Run and call 911. I’ll try to grab him out.”

James took off into the apartment.

Jester Carey looked at me and I saw that his tongue was dripping with tar. Had he been eating it as he squatted there hallucinating? Had he been steadily going insane all day? As I watched, he lowered his face into the tar and started pushing, his blue uniform bunching around his shoulders.

“Stop!” I shouted. “You’ll choke yourself!”

He raised his head out of the muck, but he couldn’t hear me. He would be dead before an ambulance arrived unless I did something.

I needed something flat to toss out there to him. Something that wouldn’t sink.

I ripped up a carpet of dead St. Augustine sod that had been planted months ago and had fried into a hard, flat plate. The roots hadn’t taken. One wasn’t enough, so I ripped out another. I flung both carpets of grass out near both of his hands and tried to get his attention by shouting.

“Come on! Get your face out of the tar!” I shouted. “Come back to reality! You are going to die in the street!”

He couldn’t hear me, so I knew what I had to do. I pulled up a whole strip of grass and tucked the sheets of sod under my arm.

I got down on my hands and knees and crawled out into the street on the mats of grass, dealing them out in front of me like beer coasters. It didn’t take long for me to reach the mailman and take him under my arm. He was sobbing by this point, but it seemed like human contact managed to pull him back into some semblance of reality.

I couldn’t even imagine walking around all day in this heat with the melting tar, trying to do your job and earn enough money to pay your electricity bill so you could sleep at night under cool sheets.

The fumes were nauseating, but I didn’t puke. Jester did

And it was then, at that moment, while Jester was puking his guts out with my arm around his shoulders on a square of dead grass in the middle of our bubbling black street that the famine dogs showed up. I remember it so vividly.

There they were: a whole pack of them. Looking at us from the other side of the street, sliding in from between the houses. Hungry. Growling. Calculating the chances of us fighting back. Smelling our weakness through the febrile haze of tar.

“I saw the cities,” said Jester. “The cities underground! They were filled with people just like us, only they were made of bones. And the people were frozen, screaming. But their cars kept going, and their lights kept turning on and off. And there were huge creatures down there, eating them one by one. All teeth. No tongues.”

The famine dogs were a pack of domesticated dogs that had all gone feral. There were about ten of them – once loyal and happy animals that had lost the light in their eyes for people and now only trusted one another. The biggest dog among them was a mud-flecked golden retriever, and the smallest was a terrier the size of a toaster. They all still had their dangling ID tags, although the collars on some of them were chewed. They must have gnawed on each other’s collars at night like escaped gladiators. They were helping each other. Comrades of tooth and claw. And they were hungry: starving: the kind of hungry we can only talk about here.

Carefully, slowly, I pulled Jester Carey into the dirt in front of our apartment building. The dogs on the other side of the street paced back and forth, growling. They tested the hot tar with experimental paws. They couldn’t reach the mats of grass, even by jumping.

James was at my shoulder with wet towels. We began cleaning the tar off of Jester Carey.

“There are no police or ambulances,” said James. “All I got was a busy signal.”

The food riots had begun. Finally, the droughts had hit home and had hit the bottom first. First the poor people’s pets, and then the poor people themselves. The church food pantries and soup kitchens had slowly been dwindling in their reserves, but today they had nothing.

Hungry people won’t just starve. Somebody threw a brick. Somebody took a chance, and then got shot by a cop, maybe. I can’t say. Anything you read about it is lies. It just happened: all of a sudden there were full-scale riots downtown. All of a sudden the city had stopped in its tracks, and here we were with a dying mailman, a river of tar, and the famine dogs.

Jester Carey went crazy that night, sitting straight up in my rocking chair and staring at my door, shivering and mumbling.

That night, while the grasshoppers shrieked and the tar cooled, the famine dogs crossed the street.

They were there waiting for us in the morning.

As soon as it was light outside, Jester Carey wandered off. I didn’t try to stop him. I told him to go see a doctor, but I know he didn’t hear me. Anyway, there was nothing I could do. The dogs chased him, and I watched until they were out of sight. When they returned, some of them had bloody muzzles. A little dog dropped a chewed-up fabric flag next to the mailbox. But I think Jester got away.

When I stepped outside the apartment building to go to work, I took a baseball bat with me and started swinging. But the dogs were on me like religion in the desert. I only made it three squares down the sidewalk before I had to run back inside. I sat there in the apartment doorway, heaving – checking my legs for holes.

James joined me and sat down on the steps by the beveled glass front door. He was wan and sickly-looking. I hadn’t noticed how sunken his chest had become. He smiled at me bravely, and I noticed that a few of his yellow teeth were missing. God knows we all lost some teeth in those days.

“Where is your dad, James?”

“He won’t wake up,” said James. “It’s been a long time, too.”

“When he does, tell him we’ve got wild dogs outside. Is your phone working?”

“No,” said James.

“Me neither,” I said. “But those dogs have us cornered.”

“They are just housepets,” said James. “I bet all they want is food.”

“Do you have any food?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I need to go to the grocery store.”

We watched the dogs snarl and pant in the grass all morning. We were all alone. Isolated.

Around evening, the famine dogs disappeared. Baked mailman notwithstanding, it was apparent that we were not coming out. The famine dogs edged further down the street, in search of easier prey, nosing in and out backyards and snapping at the occasional car or bicycle.

James slipped away soon after. But he returned quickly. Empty-handed. Slumping.

“The grocery store got cleaned out,” said James. “All that was left was toilet paper, and that’s the last thing I need.”

“Not even any dog food?” I asked with a hitch in my throat.

“Nothing you could eat,” said James. “And what’s more, people thought I had food to spare. I had to go three streets out of my way so they wouldn’t follow me home. You should see them out there. You can count their ribs as they stand.”

“I didn’t know things had gotten so bad.”

“Also, I think my Dad’s dead,” said James, hanging his head. “He hasn’t moved in days, and he is starting to stink.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I keep calling for help, but no one is around,” he said.

I was already wondering if I could get sympathy door to door if I passed James off as my child. God help me, that’s what I thought. But I was wrong.

There was no sympathy left. There was no one with anything to spare. People started dying faster. In huge numbers.

It was the Dead Summer, after all.

And then the food drops began.

We took care of Frank Jannet and buried him out back. He looked pretty healthy, all things considered. It was an overdose that got him -- not hunger. He was lucky. He still had some drugs left, and we traded them for potato chips and stale French bread. They didn’t last long, even though we rationed them as if they were bullets in a trench war.

For some reason, except for the famine dogs, our city block was immune from the riots and the fires that ravaged other sectors of the city. It was one of the poorest parts of town, pretty much deserted, and I think the dogs came there because no one would hunt them and try to eat them. They could hide, and band together. But they were stronger than we were, and we had no place else to go.

And then came the first food drop.

It was a Wednesday. I had been hearing helicopters all day, and they had plastered the city with neon red flyers. I still have one. “FOOD DROPS: WEDNESDAY MORNING,” it says.

It was Wednesday afternoon by the time they got to our neighborhood. But that was okay. It was free food. I never found it where it came from, or what country was sponsoring it, and I didn’t care.

The helicopter hovered over our street like a tethered box kite. There was a huge crate attached to runners on the bottom by yellow ropes.

Those who were left in the neighborhood gathered round, furtively creeping out of their houses to see. Some people carried plastic bags. Others had crude weapons, sticks and knives, but they seemed more interested in self-defense than in aggression.

Anyway, the soldiers in the helicopter had machine guns, and no one could compete with that. If anybody had a rocket launcher, they would only blow up the food, too. We all just wanted to eat.

Slowly, the soldiers lowered the crate by winching out lengths of the yellow rope by jerks and fits. When it hit the ground, people started crowding around, but the soldiers fired a few rounds until people scattered.

“Orderly,” said one of the soldiers. “Nice and orderly. Or we’ll be back and shoot you all.”

People started to queue up around the crate in a tense and careful line, but we could all see that there was enough for everyone. There was no need to push or fight.

As soon as it was clear that there would be no violence, the helicopter took off, slapping across the afternoon sky like a huge motorized fart.

We opened the crate, and we started to dole out parcels according to need and circumstance. And then, there they were again. The famine dogs were back.

There were more of them this time, and they were skinnier and meaner. Maybe twenty dogs. The little ones were gone. They hadn’t made it. All the dogs were big, and there were a few particularly nasty Dobermans and pit bulls that were leading the pack. They had all lost their collars by now, except for some of the Dobermans who had chains around their neck.

People started screaming and took off back to their houses as the famine dogs whirled out from behind trashcans and from the alleys. Pell-mell, paw-over-tail, they went tearing for the food, snapping in twos and threes at anyone who made a pitiful stand.

James and I got on top of a beat-up old station wagon and watched.

The dogs ripped into the crate and started eating, sending sprays of carefully packaged fruits and vegetables in jugular spurts over their shoulders and howling with victory. They snapped at each other and circled the crate like flies brushed from a cow’s crack by a flicking tail.

We watched them gorge and gorge, shaking open bags of caramel popcorn and spilling kernels all over the street. They wolfed down all they could eat, and destroyed the rest. Pissing on it. Scattering rice in the grass. James started to get down from the car, and I had to hold him back.

“It’s all over,” said James. “We’re going to die now.”

“They will be back next week with more food,” I said.

“Yeah, but so will the dogs,” said James.

“We could hunt them,” I ventured.

“They would kill us,” said James.

“We have to make a stand,” I said.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said James.

I wanted to argue with him, but I knew he was right. Why spend time debating the obvious?

The next week, the helicopter returned with another crate, right on time. There were fewer of us now. Many had died or taken off, deciding to risk it in another section of town. James and I had survived that week by breaking into people’s houses and scouring for old flour or corn meal. People forgot about that stuff. They forgot they could cook it.

The next Wednesday, I said that we should stay away from the drop. That it was too depressing. But James insisted, and so we went.

Everything happened just like the week before. I tried to argue with the soldiers, but they couldn’t hear me.

“You have to stay!” I said. “There are wild dogs!”

“What?”

“Wild dogs!”

“We have to go. We got to feed this whole city, man.”

“You have to stay!”

“You’re welcome! We’ll be back next week!”

As soon as they were gone, we could hear rustling in the alleys and behind the fences as the famine dogs gathered.

That was when James Jannet became the man you see here before you, the man who I am proud to coach. That was when he became “The Hole.”

oHole

James slipped out from my hands and tore open the crate.

“What are you doing?” I shouted. “Have you gone crazy?”

“I’m hungrier than they are!” shouted James back.

“They will tear you apart!”

But James didn’t say anything. At first he started gathering boxes in his arms, but then he saw that the dogs would be there too soon. They had already massed in a heaving swarm and were closing in on the crate. Instead of trying to make a break for it, James tore open a sack of bread and began stuffing himself. He started screaming. The dogs backed off -- whimpering, confused.

James ate like a wild fire. Anything he could touch went in his mouth and down his gullet. He ripped through paper with his teeth and ate whole handfuls of sausage links without bothering to untie them from one another. He merely swallowed the links as if they were a bicycle chain and he was the gear.

You’ve all seen him do it.

The dogs snapped at him experimentally, but he punched one Doberman in the nose accidentally with one of his wild arms, and the dog’s eyes filled with tears as its tail dropped between its legs.

James ate and ate, opening cans of tuna fish with his bare hands and squeezing fish down his throat as if it were toothpaste onto a brush. He only slowed down once, but then he saw how many dogs there were, and he made room somehow. Room for blocks of cheese. Room for hunks of raw oatmeal, pressed together in bricks and coated with chocolate.

The famine dogs watched, and then slowly, by degrees, they slunk away – defeated.

We collapsed in on James. He was covered in food. He was exhausted. I picked him up and put him over my shoulder and carried him to bed.

While he slept, I went back and gathered up enough food from the crate so that we could make it through another week. Other people were there too, but they let me have the biggest share. I took it, gladly.

Some weeks the famine dogs would win, and some weeks James would win. We cheered for James every time he went for the crate, and during the weeks that James beat the dogs, he was a neighborhood hero. Not that it ever affected him. He only became more withdrawn. More quiet. More of a shell. A hole.

THE “Hole.”

The famine didn’t last, and eventually the famine dogs were rounded up by the authorities and shot. We got to watch. I thought I would cry, but then I looked at James and I saw how much hate was in his eyes, and I tried to be like him. They were competition, and we had survived.

That’s the story.

So the question is: why does James eat for money? Why does he participate in a sport that glorifies the waste of tremendous amounts of food when he should know better than anybody what it feels like to starve? How can he sit down and eat a hundred hot dogs in one sitting for a cash prize, when he knows that there are people starving to death somewhere in the world right now, as we speak?

I know the answer to that question. Or at least, I think I do. Eating like James does is incredibly painful. Imagine being so full that you are going to burst, like during the holidays, or if you order too much food at a nice restaurant. Everybody in this rich country knows that feeling. And they see him keep eating, far, far, past that point, and they say: my God, he must be ready to die. He must be superhuman.

People in this country who watch these contests may never know what it is like to starve to death.

But that’s what it feels like. It feels like eating one last cherry pie, and feeling like your soul is going to explode. But it feels like that all the time.

So be like James. Wear his t-shirts. Stuff yourselves. Stuff yourselves and suffer.

And know. Know how it feels. Paralyze yourselves with your riches. Call it victory.

Thank you.

4 comments:

Bert said...

The second clause of the fourth para has one too many "I's" in it, "...so I have been I instructed by Gary Furler...".

Concerning "...she made it to the phone, but not back from the hospital...." which is in your 33rd para, this is when your writing is great. If you wrote sentence after sentence like this, the overall might go down a notch, but you don't, so great! If you included too many sentences like this, it might get a little sing songy--and believe me, I've gone through a stage like that!--but you seem to include just the right number of these zeugmas or semi-zeugmas or whatever you call them, so again, cheers.

I've got business, so I'll continue commenting at another time.

This story looks pretty good so far.

Bob Hurt Jerber said...

"He was on all fours. He was babbling incoherently...." Followed by two more sentences that also begin with "he." My suggestion? Having four sentences in a row begin with "he" can be improved upon.

I'm getting the feeling this is a global warming story. So far so good.

Calling them "beer coasters" reminds me of a girlfriend who called a coffee table a beer table. I think they are coasters or drink coasters... maybe if they were larger you'd say they were half the size of manhole covers? If you are including beer for a particular reason, then fine; otherwise, they are coasters.

"I never found it where it came from" or "I never found out where it came from"? Where did those food drops come from? A place called Jerico perhaps, hmm?

Better yet would be "I never found out where it came from, nor what country sponsored it, nor did I care."

Again, the kettle is boiling; gonna have to finish this next time. Am still enjoying this story.

Bob E. Bhurt said...

Great ending. Your last two words, "Thank you," fit perfectly. Parts of this were funny, a little intriguing here and there; I like how it's so many parts global warming, so many parts Jerico (but not too much Jerico), and some other touches. That cogs would melt in a blast furnace all day long just to enjoy cool sheets at night... well, isn't that special. (Yes, I copied that joke from Saturday Night Live's Church Lady.)

Aside from the corrections I've already noted for this story, there are fifteen or twenty other klunkers in this, which is noticably more than your other stories. I say this needs more polish.

Overall, pretty good story, but I honestly don't remember as many klunkers in your other articles.

tcotton said...

I just reread this story after many months; this time listening to Canon in D Major, on repeat, forever. I think it's the best story I've read. Made me cry both times I've read it.