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John Wesley Powell dug the last of a dozen snails from its cave of garlic, butter and herbs, savored it, washed it down with a sip of M�doc and fell back, in the fake Louis XIV chair. He began to croon Hello Walls in a perfect imitation of Faron Young. Escargots and Nashville in a French restaurant in Miami. The walls that Powell greeted were covered with bed-sheet-size maps of Paris and Bordeaux behind blue glass and, as a recent trip confirmed, the walls of the men's room were adorned with poodles, pissoirs, kiosks and Eiffel towers every 11 inches. The place was so patently French that I thought the hot air blower was going to sing the Marseillaise while it dried my hands. Charles Boyer in a telephone booth, onion soup served in berets.
The headwaiter was preparing the second course, a Caesar salad. He was dropping eggs and anchovies into it as if he were going to feed the multitude that listened to the Sermon on the Mount. He began roiling it up with wooden pitchforks. Boog Powell had recovered from the snails and with his pretty wife Jan was going over the menu again. Boog had endured a tense day. It was near the end of spring training and in an exhibition game that afternoon Boog had failed to hit. There was speculation in the press about who would be the Oriole designated pinch hitter. Boog Powell didn't want the job. "I'd play DH if I had to, but I surely don't like the idea," he said. In fact, Powell disliked the idea of being DH so much that he'd been dieting all winter and spring. Even more fabulous, he'd been jogging. "I run several miles a day, and then try not to make up for it at dinner," he said sadly.
The Caesar salad was served. Great mounds, glistening with raw egg. The headwaiter, who had initially introduced himself as Henri, stepped back like a midwife who had just delivered twins. "That's beautiful, Hank," said Powell, "but how about some forks?"
The joys and defeats of being a fat guy in sports are similar to those of being a fat guy anywhere else in life, but it seems that the stakes are higher, the definitions more finely drawn. The fat athlete is simply more of an event than, say, a fat banker. A man who makes his living by moving his body around, sometimes colliding with other bodies; a man who pays the rent by hitting baseballs or throwing them, or wrestling Russians, or blocking punts is expected to be in shape. If a fat banker puffs through a game of paddle ball before a shampoo, it doesn't give us quite the same thrill.
And so, like a tubby Diogenes carrying a lamp that burned duck fat, I was looking for an honest athletic biggie, searching for some steadfast fatty who refused to diet, who refused to be bought off on principle: I sought the nadir of fat. Fat men need fat heroes. And they get more difficult to find. In a nation crazed with slimming, yogurt, hip-huggers and tourist-class airplane seats, the fat man searches in vain for an idol, for some porcine charisma.
There was a time when the fat man stood out as an image of strength, solid success and even sexual prowess. The strong man at the carnival had a gut like a pony keg; Diamond Jim Brady swilled quarts of orange juice between a dozen courses at Delmonico's; Babe Ruth fired down 12 hot dogs before a game; the 1957 Detroit Lions fired down a lot more than that; and who now could hope to match that wily walrus Taft, waddling through the Rose Garden? Rather than these fond memories of fat affluence, we concentrate on water diets, cholesterol levels, carbohydrate grams, lifespan charts, Dexedrine.
Show business, a historical repository of lard, offers little relief. Jack E. Leonard is dead, predictably young, and Bob Hope appeared at the Weight Watchers 10th anniversary celebration in New York. There is William Conrad, who in Cannon makes the misery of viewing slim stars a little easier to bear. Cannon puffs his way through criminals half his bulk, gets caught in turnstiles, eats tacos when he should be on a stakeout. But he is small, or rather large, relief. The late-night talk-show panels seem to be composed of doctors with mysterious accents who have just discovered how you can lose more weight, and the stars who endorse them. In the darkness of one a.m., the fatty begins to think that if the entire nation turned sideways there would be only 27 people left to count.
One of the definitive indications of the demise of the fat man is clothing. Any good 250-pounder in a pair of flared, double-knit slacks looks like a watermelon balanced on a pair of trumpets. And hot-combed hair turns pudgy faces into extras for a Brueghel orgy. Put a wide, white-plastic belt around a 44" waist, add stack-heel combat boots and a string of love beads, and you have a Hampshire boar in drag. There are endless torments: Levi's, waterbeds, the full lotus position, bus seats, children, antique chairs....
But then it is 1970 and you are in front of the tube with a diet cola and some dry-roasted cashews. The American League's Most Valuable Player comes to the plate. My God! There's a bowling ball under his shirt! This guy is fat, and he is the best! Pass the chips and dip, please. Boog Powell knocks in two runs and lumps around third base. Something in you has taken pride, you undo the top button of your slacks. Everything is going to be all right.
We finished the Caesar salad and waited 20 minutes for the main course, getting regular butter-dish replacements for the sourdough bread. Hank finally came toward us rolling what appeared to be a surgical cart bearing our dinners. Boog had ordered steak Diane, a piece of filet punished regularly with an empty champagne bottle until it reaches the appropriate thinness. The steak is rolled, with a filling of truffles, mushrooms, old Renaults, can-can bloomers, chunks of the Maginot Line, anything. At this point Hank whipped out a bottle of cognac and a cigarette lighter and began to torch everything that looked flammable. When the fire and smoke died down, Boog and Jan began talking about the agonies and ecstasies of being fat in sports.