The restaurant was a specialty house: steak, lobster and pizza. It was a hyped-up place with things that looked real and weren't. The barn-wood walls turned out to be press-board paneling, and the cotton-weight napkins were paper. But the throngs at the tables were in some space/time transport of chowing down. The lobsters and steaks were being consumed as if the Chinese army were in Kansas City and due any minute.
The waitress looked like my mom. She looked like Taylor's mom, too. Her name was Lois, written in carnival stitching on a lavender hankie pinned to her uniform. Lois was very happy because a 101-year-old man had come in for his birthday dinner. "He ate an anchovy pizza and a helping of spumoni and left under his own power," she glowed. I hoped we'd be as lucky.
I experienced a certain uselessness in telling a 450-pound man "this is on me." He began to read the menu as if later he was going to be examined on its contents. Lois arrived with mugs of beer to help us in our deliberations.
There is always some doubt about the authenticity of a man as big as Taylor. Maybe he isn't an honest fat guy at all, perhaps he has maddened glands, maybe this is a fraternity prank, or elevator shoes, or some disease so rare it is unknown outside certain villages in Nepal. But Taylor's credentials are without peer. "When I was a boy I went to the University of Michigan medical center on and off for quite a while. It cost thousands of dollars of insurance money, and my family had to pay a lot on top of that. When they were done, all they said was, 'Either you've got a gland problem, or you're a giant.' I wanted to say, 'Well, I knew that.' "
The restaurant grew noisier as the fever pitch of lobster, steak and pizza demolishing reached a crescendo. Lois arrived with salads served in great Vermont wooden bowls that said MADE IN THE PHILIPPINES on the side. And the salads appeared to have veins and arteries, as if they were separate organisms with TVs and children of their own. In the dim light it took me some time to discover that it was merely shreds of red cabbage, a favorite Midwestern ingredient. The salads were capped with several dipperfuls of Thousand Island dressing. No portion control on these brutes. The terrified desk clerk had told the truth. After the war we would repatriate him back to his own country of computerized innkeeping. As we worked on the salads, Taylor talked about his childhood.
"I've had a potbelly since I was a child," he confessed. "My mother would worry once in a while, but you can't put a kid on a diet. And diets never work for me. I go on them for a week or so and then start cheating. I probably have to lose about 75 pounds. I'll do it, but I don't know how."
Did Taylor have any fat heroes when he was a boy? "Not really; you know, Mickey Mantle and the usual ones, but I did like Baby Huey in the comics. He was this giant duck who could pick up trains and buildings. I guess I've always liked the strength part of being big."
And yet kids now look up to Taylor and his weight. "I get letters from kids saying, 'I'm this old and I weigh this much, how can I be great?' I tell 'em, 'Well, kid....' " Taylor waves his fork and grins.
Lois arrived with the main course. Chris and Lynne had ordered one of the mainstays of Midwest elegance: Surf 'n' Turf. It is composed of a broiled African rock lobster tail, a coffee cup full of melted butter, a rare slab of sirloin and a mandatory mound of French fries. As you go farther west, say by the time you get to the Montana border, this dish takes off the gloves and gets called by its more brutal name, Lob-Steak. Between the sweetness of the lobster tail and the juicy textures of the beef, some devotees of this dish have been known to experience swoons as deep and profound as those produced by fundamentalist preachers or rock stars.
It was the kind of restaurant where if you didn't order French fries 10% would be added to your bill as a kind of immigrant tax. I ordered a baked potato. Lois looked at me strangely. I must be either a lawyer, a heart surgeon or a homosexual. If I had ordered an artichoke and a glass of white wine, she would have called the sheriff. Since I'd ordered the "he-man" cut of prime rib, blue rare, she exonerated me.