Sometime in the mid-90s, I rediscovered Arby’s.
Money was tighter back then so any eating out we did was either on Sunday after church at a buffet-style restaurant like Bonanza or a drive-thru fast food joint like McDonald’s or Fargo’s own Burger Time. Arby’s was just too damn expensive and not very family-friendly; there were no pastel-colored climbing tubes or ball pits, and the kid just didn’t like any meal that didn’t come in a cardboard box with a Disney toy. Then one day, after we moved to the Twin Cities and I began driving around on my own more and eating out frequently, I swung into an Arby’s on a whim and ordered the most fattening, expensive bag’o’grub I could think of – a Big Montana with Potato Cakes and a Jamocha Shake. Roughly 1350 calories that probably set me back about seven bucks.
Not exactly a value meal. No matter – I leapt over my shifty dietary threshold into junk food paradise with a smile and sesame seeds on my face. Drug addicts talk about relapse using words that ring fanatical and orgasmic. Food was my drug of choice and the high was no less intense.
So an Arby’s Big Montana seemed like a natural choice when Graeme, Johnny Rock, Big’un and I went shopping for the perfect sandwich to feature in a commercial we were shooting for a video production class at Brown. The concept was simple: a one-minute spot in which Graeme, this scrawny kid with gapped teeth and an Army Reserves haircut to match his thrift store fatigues, goes on a murderous binge, with shots form Reservoir Dogs interspersed throughout for atmosphere, in search of the mightiest-most-awesomest sandwich with which to quell his wide-eyed hunger. Brown sat near downtown on Lake at the time so fast food restaurants were a dime a dozen. We loaded the equipment in Johnny’s car and set off to film night shots of neon signs and drive-thru encounters, stopping at a Burger King to pick up a squashed little cheeseburger – our prop for what not to eat when you’re famished. Our final stop before heading back to the studio was the Arby’s right next to the campus. Stacy greeted us by name and with a smile, her big eyes shrouded in heavy mascara under her brown, greasy cap. She hooked us up with a double Big Montana oozing horsey sauce and cheddar cheese, the perfect monstrosity over which we could lay Samuel L. Jackson’s famous line from Pulp Fiction: “Mmmmm . . . this is a tasty burger!” The final scene of the spot features Graeme hoisting the über Big Montana before his gaping maw, a time-lapsed cutscene of the spinning hands of a clock, and then me, sporting Graeme’s medium-sized t-shirt and ball cap, polishing off the last bite, throwing down the soiled napkin in triumph and giving a big thumbs up. Mission accomplished. Hunger abated. Sandwich conquered.
The role of the big fat guy suited me fine. Big’un was, well, big, but more of a “tall” big, without the gut. And playing to my natural talents, like eating, making it look like fun and hanging out all fleshy and gross in all the right spots, came easy. I’d been doing it for years. Whenever anyone needed a solid mass to hike the ball and pummel anyone trying to reach the quarterback, they picked me. When our church needed someone to play a wrathful God, complete with concealing white robes and a booming voice, no one tried out against me. I served as the mushy pillow of comfort to many a high school friend’s tearful sob story of heartbreak and woe. And when someone needed to step up and break the ice at this or that social gathering, I did my part and did it well. Much like Steve Martin’s character in Roxanne, I could take an uncomfortable situation and turn it into a time of joy and release. Sure I was the butt of my own joking but, to wax cliché, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And I came across as a person comfortable in my own albeit stretched out skin.
With the dawn of the new millennium came a desire to lose the gut. At one point, through the encouragement of a local pastor I met via my job at a Christian radio station, I joined a support group for folks trying to lose weight the old fashioned way – will power and accountability. Knowing I loved to write, Jerry asked me to start a listserv offering daily encouragement to the flock. I called it “The Next Step” and sent this piece out on May 1, 2001:
This past Sunday, my family carried forth the tradition of eating lunch at Ryan’s Steak House. We sat in our usual spot and enjoyed a great meal together. Sitting next to us was a table full of people who were dressed really nice and, judging from the gist of their conversation, appeared to be of a Pentecostal persuasion. They were “buffeting” their bodies and whooping and laughing at the jokes and antics of one guy in particular. He was a young, heavy-set, boisterous man, and he spent much of the meal dominating the conversations not only at his table, but causing many who sat around him (us included) to pause their own dinnertime chatter and listen in. He was quite funny, sharing many humorous stories from a recent youth trip, and revealing all the details of how he and his young, thin, attractive wife met and got married. When he got up to imitate how a member of the youth group, a handicapped boy, walked when he got mad, the table erupted with laughter as they shared their own “you-have-to-know-him” joke. This guy was the life of the party! He accented his every move and word with a mix of bravado and braggadocio that seemed to impress everyone around.
Everyone except me.
About halfway through my meal, I realized that what I was witnessing was me ten years ago. I remembered many gatherings with family and friends when I displayed the very same kind of attitudes and actions and antics. I was quite funny, and I didn’t care whom I hurt to get a laugh. If I stepped on your toes during a conversation, it was your fault for not keeping up or stepping aside. I belittled others and carried on as though my opinion was the only one worth hearing. Heck, the guy even looked like I did back then. It became pretty scary and set a pall over the remainder of my day. Why? Because I regret many of my actions from that period in my life. I regret that I didn’t learn to keep my trap shut and give others a chance to be heard. I may have learned a few things had I just shut up once in a while.
Now, here I am ten years older. Wiser? Perhaps. I have learned to be quiet. But the price has been high. I’ve hurt people with my arrogance and loudness and pushed many a friend away by being insensitive to their needs. It may be in my personality to be loud and interactive, but I’m not too naive to recognize that many of my antics were just defense mechanisms to keep me from growing and thinking and being stretched beyond what was comfortable and easy. Now, I am being stretched and my wineskin is breaking.
Just over a year later I had my weight loss surgery. And to say the least, I am continuing to break. I now see that the one I hurt the most was me. Sitting at that table, eating a Big Montana, the camera rolling, I’m smiling. I’m playing an all too familiar role. But something in me was screaming.