Dog eat dog . . . after dog, after dog, after dog

One midlife 'Dog goes searching for what's missing in his life and finds it in Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, the granddaddy of all competitive-eating events.

I am Coondog O'Karma and I am a pig. I admit it. My confession should make me feel better. It doesn't.

"Pig" is too delicate a word to describe my addiction. I am a hog. A dog. A glutton. A 6-foot-2, 190-pound, 46-year-old man who eats like Bigfoot.

I am Coondog O'Karma, world egg-, doughnut- and bratwurst-eating champion. I am a professional competitive speed-eater. And I am starting to wonder why.

Hundreds of people crowd under the huge solarium windows of the food court in the Galleria Mall of Middletown, N.Y. I'm cramped in at a long table with about 30 other competitors as waiters set two plates of five dogs for each of us. And that's just to start. I look at the hot dogs: They don't look normal. These babies look huge. A helluva lot bigger than the 16 I ate at home in just five minutes in the practice run. They also look longer, redder and greasier.

The sun has angled over the solarium windows, turning the food court into an oven. Sweat beads on me, my competitors and the hot dogs. I beg a waiter for more water. As the countdown begins, I look into the audience, hear my kids yell "Go, Coondog!" and, feeling like a panicked, nauseous ant under a magnifying glass, I wonder, Can I even eat one?

I am Coondog O'Karma and I am a 15-year-old eating prodigy.

It's 1972. There's no cable, no satellite or digital TV. We're in Northeast Ohio, with three stations, rabbit ears and slow Friday nights.

For the bored, awkward, 15-year-old boys who can't drive and are deathly afraid of girls, a mainstay of late Friday-night TV is "Hoolihan and Big Chuck," broadcast from "beautiful downtown Cleveland." Hoolihan and Big Chuck host a weekly horror movie, interspersed with hammy carnival skits, bad jokes and my pimply clique's favorite the weekly "Pizza Fight."

Its star and undefeated champion for more than a year, "Mushmouth" Mariano Pacetti, is a small, chunky, prematurely balding Italian guy who wears a beret. Nobody in Ohio can eat a fully loaded, medium-sized pizza faster than Mushmouth. He is godlike to me and my fellow dorks.

"Meat or bun? Meat or bun?" I ask my stomach as I bend over, rub my knees, then quickly stand up and pinch the soft fleshy parts of the skin between my thumb and index fingers a technique for easing nausea. Leaning over, I take a deep breath and, dripping sweat onto my second plate of hot dogs, I go for the meat.

Part of "Pizza Fight's" obsessive appeal is the competitors' shticks. Who will this week's challenger be? A bedsheet-covered Arabian sheik? A fat Bruce Lee ninja? Or maybe a shoeless, giant hillbilly in tight overalls?

This Friday's opponent is called The Fly. A super-skinny guy dressed head to toe in black, with huge yellow spray-painted goggles, he nervously rubs his hands to be more flylike. When he spasmodically licks the pizza, he's won us over.

Mushmouth is introduced, wearing a crown and a big purple velvet robe that looks like a curtain torn from a dingy movie theater. He throws off the robe, revealing the championship belt wrapped around his waist. I'm admiring that belt big, silver and gaudy, the mark of greatness when Boom! it hits me.

Somehow, I know that belt is my destiny. I announce to the room: "I feel it in my guts. I can beat Mushmouth."

Stunned by my sudden bravado, they "Yeah-yeah" my notion. But Monday, after school, we call Big Chuck with my challenge and are stunned again when he says, "Sure."

Thursday, we go to Cleveland for the taping. My testosterone-laden pack of friends and I are a whir of rowdiness as we enter the WJW studios. Security calms us down a bit as we're ushered to the set to meet our heroic Friday-night babysitters.

After a quick briefing by Big Chuck, I stuff my cheeks with napkins, hoping to get in one last good, squirrelly mouth stretch. When Mushmouth and his gang walk in, we're quickly introduced and seated before the pizzas. Then, it's lights ... cameras ... the bell rings ... and we're off.

That next Friday, we are watching me me! as the new "Hoolihan and Big Chuck" Cleveland pizza champion. My shtick? King Coondog O'Karma, the 145-pound Wonder of the World.

What was I thinking? What was I thinking? I wonder as I start in on my 13th hot dog. You're supposed to be a grown-up! A grown-up! I shake my head, splash myself with water and continue chewing.

I am Coondog O'Karma, competitive eater. What does that mean?

Competitive eating has been a staple entertainment in school cafeterias, county fairgrounds and college campuses forever. Name a food or drink and someplace, somewhere, somebodies have gathered 'round to cheer or sneer at a chomping-choking-grunting-groveling competition. Whether sport or sin, competitive eating possesses the carnival charm of shock and wonder, forcing most people, whether they want to or not, to watch.

No one understands this better than George and Rich Shea, owners of a New York City public-relations firm. In the mid-1990s, the brothers were hired to promote Nathan's Famous hot dogs and host the company's annual hot dog-eating contest, a Coney Island tradition held at noon every Fourth of July since 1916. And though its prize 60 pounds of Nathan's hot dogs and the coveted yellow Mustard Belt may not seem like much, it is competitive eating's Holy Grail.

The announcer screams, "Two minutes to go!" I glance around and see that most of the contestants have either given up or slowed to a crawl. Everyone, that is, but the tattooed guy two plates down. He has a crazed, otherworldly look of determination on his face, and I know it's coming down to me and him. I wildly rock my shoulders, trying to make space in my guts. Win or lose, I'm going the distance...

The Sheas, wearing plain blue blazers and straw hats, have become the Barnum and Bailey of the competitive eating world, forming the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Under the motto, "Nothing in Moderation," the league's food athletes tour, gorging on hot dogs, matzo balls, chicken wings, cannolis, hamburgers and oysters.

Meanwhile, a revolution in competitive eating sweeps Japan. The Japanese show "TV Champion" searches for the best contestants in a multitude of skills. Eating takes its turn, and the ensuing samurai battles to find Japan's food-eating champion are immensely popular. It spawns another TV show, "Food Battle Club." The victors become not sideshow freaks, but symbols of excellence in Japanese pop culture.

"We are coming to the last 30 seconds," the announcer blares, "and Ed Cioffi is on his 16th hot dog. But, wait! Coondog O'Karma has just reached for his 16th dog! Ladies and gentlemen, there seems to be no quit in either of these two men. This is no longer an eating contest. It's a war!"

It's a war, all right, I think, now eating in a twilight zone. A war between common sense and competitive spirit...

In 1996, the Sheas invite Japanese, British, German and Canadian champions to the Coney Island contest. Japanese noodle-eating champion Hirofumi Nakajima, a waiflike 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds, destroys the defending Nathan's champion and world-record holder, Ed "The Animal" Krachie, a 6-foot-7, 360-pound, brash New Yorker. Nakajima easily defends the title in '97 and '98. An American grabs the belt in 1999, but in 2000, a Japanese Murderers' Row of eaters sweeps Coney Island 1-2-3.

"Ten!" shouts the announcer, as Cioffi and I go bite-to-bite. "Nine!" The crowd joins in. "Eight!" trumpets the beginning of the end...

Summer 2000. I'm Dave O'Karma, middle-aged painting contractor, feeling more meaningless by the moment.

I grab one of the tabloids by the grocery checkout and walk to the end of a long line. I notice the paint in my fingernails. My dirty work clothes isolate me even more. Growing self-conscious, I try to hide in my magazine. But I realize I'm reading about a whole new generation of people that somehow, somewhere, sometime, displaced my own.

I try thinking about my wife and kids for comfort, but that turns against me, too. My wife is busy with nursing school and dreams of a new career. My loving kids have morphed into moody teen-agers and I am just another nagging adult.

Stop it! I tell myself, but everyone's line in life seems to be moving except mine.

"Seven!... Six!... Five!..." I reach for hot dog No. 17. "Four!... Three...!" Bite. "Two!" Swallow. "One!" And separate myself from the crowd.

Buy some beer on the way home. Drink yourself to sleep, I tell myself, flipping the page. "Japanese Sweep of Coney Island," the headline reads.

"American eating community in shock and disarray," the article continues. "We will find a champion to bring the Mustard Belt back to American soil!" promoter George Shea vows.

At home, I get on the computer and send George Shea an e-mail. To my surprise, I receive a quick note back with the next year's qualifying dates.

For the next 10 months, I steadfastly plod along, painting apartments and paying the bills while harboring my secret ambition to assist Shea in his search for an American hot dog savior.

"It's Coondog O'Karma!" George Shea screams. "Coondog O'Karma of Ohio is the new Nathan's Middletown Hot Dog Eating Champion, and will be going to Coney Island on the Fourth of July!"

A reporter rushes up to me as I am handed my trophy and asks how I feel. Though I am aching and packed tighter than a human sausage casing, I weakly lift the trophy to the crowd and, for the first time in many years, I say, "I feel like a winner."

The local press gets wind of my Middletown victory and runs the story of my quest. The fun begins. My shtick for Coney Island is to place myself among titans such as Michael Jordan, George Foreman and Vladimir Horowitz champions who retired at the peak of greatness only to feel the itch of their genius and revert to their passion.

ESPN radio calls for an interview. So does the past. Old friends find my phone number, calling me with a lot of laughs and memories, wishing me luck and love. It's like being the star quarterback in high school all over again, but bigger and better. And soon, it's no longer a shtick. I don't want to win the hot dog title to join an elite class of heroes. I want to win for the forgotten.

My 14-year old, Adam, looks out the plane's window at the Statue of Liberty and turns with an excited smile. "Big time!" he says.

I crane my head over his shoulder to look. As the plane descends, the city becomes bigger and bigger, and so does my ambition.

On my first day in New York, the other eaters and I head to City Hall to meet the mayor, do the introductions and weigh in.

I mosey up to a roly-poly man dressed in a Yankees jersey with heavy ropes of gold jewelry hanging around his neck. "Hey, you're New York buffet legend 'Hungry Charles' Hardy!" I blurt with fanlike zeal.

He smiles and, in a soft whiskey-coated rasp, replies, "Welcome to the club, Coondog."

Next, I meet the "Three Amigos": 6-foot-6, 426-pound pizza-eating champion Ed "Cookie" Jarvis; New York pickle-eating champion "Krazy Kevin" Lipsitz; and matzo-ball whiz Don "Moses" Lerman three American eaters whose quest for the Mustard Belt is being filmed for a Discovery Channel documentary.

A sudden commotion of people enters the square. I think it must be the mayor's entourage. But it's not. It's the Japanese: Kazotoyo "The Rabbit" Arai, current world hot dog champion, and newcomer Takeru Kobayashi, a wiry yet delicate man who, it's rumored, can eat 30 hot dogs.

I wiggle my way up to "The Rabbit" a skinny, fragile-looking man. And there, in his hands, is the Mustard Belt. "May I hold it?" I motion. He hands it to me, smiling gently. I thrust it forward a joke and shout, "Mine!"

A German film crew turns its cameras on me and gestures for me to hold the belt up. I lift it high over my head, yelling out, "Mine!" And suddenly people start asking who I am.

"I'm Coondog O'Karma of Ohio, here to reclaim the Mustard Belt for America!" I shout, making my claim against anonymity.

That night, I'm lying on my bed, savoring my day of meeting my fellow eaters and exploring New York with Adam exiting the dark subway tunnels to each big, fast, intimidating new face of the city, eating it all up in big bites. "New York City is the big American hot dog," I yawn, slowly nodding off to sleep.

I'm onstage at Coney Island on the Fourth of July, in front of a long row of cameras from all over the world. My plan is almost complete.

"Just 12 minutes, Coondog!" I nervously psyche myself. "Twelve hard minutes of the best eating your gut has to give!"

The Japanese host from TV Tokyo is directly in front of me, squawking like a chicken on fire, as I search the crowd for Adam. I finally find him and we give each other the thumbs-up as they begin the countdown.

10... 9... 8... 7... 6...

To my left, Kid Cary huffs down a last-minute cigarette. To my right, Joe Menchetti gets one more hard squeeze of catsup.

5... 4... 3... 2... 1 ... We're off!

I reel off the first five hot dogs without the slightest belch. Focused like a vulture over roadkill, I dive into the next five. As I hit 11, my counter says, "Four minutes you're doing great, Coondog!"

I kick it up, even as I start feeling a little queasy from the garlic on 13. But I'm still strong as I finish 15 and take a huge bite out of 16. The crowd's roaring and I think it's for me. Then I look at my counter, who is looking at something else. "The little Japanese kid just finished 35," he says to me in disbelief.

"No way!" I garble as I swallow 16, reach for 17 and take a look for myself.

"Way!" I say to my broken heart as I watch Kobayashi breaking and downing hot dogs faster than a demon-possessed sword swallower.

I look at Adam, who's also transfixed by Kobayashi. He looks back at me with disbelieving eyes and waves his arms furiously for me to hurry up and get back eating.

I glance back down at Kobayashi. I see no weakness in his hypnotic fervor. Suddenly, I feel very full. I finally see the windmills behind the dragons and know my quest is over. I throw down my dog and watch The Monster.

Fifty hot dogs. We all saw it and still can't believe it. The previous world record was 25. Arai finishes with 31. An interviewer asks me what I just saw and all I can say is, "Coney Harbor."

The media flocks to Kobayashi. Adam and I hitch a ride to Staten Island with Krazy Kevin for a party he's hosting for the Discovery Channel. A lot of the other eaters eventually show up at the party. We feast on crow and sour grapes.

Back at the hotel, Herman the bellman, whom we befriended on our arrival, greets us with a big happy slap on the back. "Coondog, I saw you on the tube this afternoon. You cost me a bet, but you were great!"

"Sorry I didn't win for you, Herman," I say. "But can you believe the Japanese kid?"

"Probably has two stomachs, Coondog. Get over it, champ! Aren't you and the kid gonna go out and see the fireworks?"

"I'm so tired," I say. "And there's all that crowd to fight. I don't know." The old excuses are creeping back.

"Coondog you can't be in New York City with your kid on the Fourth of July and not see the fireworks."

When Herman gets off work, he unlocks the door to a room on one of the hotel's top floors and invites us in.

"Wow! What's this?" Adam cries. "It's a palace! You can see all of New York from here!"

"Presidential Suite. It's where all the famous people stay. You know, presidents, kings .... hot dog champions. Sit down and enjoy the fireworks, Coondog!" Herman laughs.

As the colorful streamers explode out into the distant sky above the Hudson River, I feel I'm watching a dream. A great big crazy dream but it's real.

I lost Coney Island, but don't feel like a loser. Just a few short months earlier, I was riding the monotonous subway of middle age. Locked in the adult world of responsibility, I felt I'd lost something from my life then a crazy feeling in my guts led me back upstairs ... to Coondog. To the 15-year-old kid in me who said it was OK to have fun, to laugh at the world and, more important, at myself. The unbroken, fearless kid with dreams and ambitions who wasn't afraid to try. Someone who made me feel like a winner. Someone I'd almost forgotten.

I am Coondog O'Karma, a culpable competitor in a carnival sport. Now I know why.

Share this story: