Have you read, I am Legend, or seen the Charlton Heston movie, The Omega Man? Heston is the last man on Earth, minus a few mutants in dark robes. Now imagine me, walking along some desolate Charlotte roads, noticing that there are no cars, no humans, barely any lights and no sounds from the nearby woods. Sadly, Saturday night I was no legend as I had lost the Charlotte Nathan's Hot Dog Qualifier by half a hot dog and not earned the right to advance to the finals in Brooklyn, on July 4th. Not worse, but somewhat frustrating, I was stuck in Charlotte for the night with no hotel room due to the fact that if I wanted to leave on an empty U.S. Airways flight, it would cost me $822. Way to go U.S. Airways -- wouldn't you rather have my early morning seat on the full flight and have me pay the exorbitant $200 change fee to get me back to NYC on Saturday night? It made as much sense as me losing a hot dog contest where the numbers were in the low 20s -- a paltry total that most Major League Eaters could eat in their sleep. World Champ Joey Chestnut was on hand, as he will be for the Nascar tie-in qualifiers due to a new Nathan's hot dog maker (John Morell -- same recipe, wonderful taste) and he almost ate 20 dogs casually before the contest. Joey had the lavish yellow mustard belt in tow and many fans wanted photos of him and the belt. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but light is the belly that bears the belt, as Joey seems to be living a charmed life as the first competitive eater with over a million dollars in earnings. By contrast, a table ender like me, pays for his travel and accommodations. Nathans only pays prize money to the top five, so I won't recoup any hot dog funds, but I eat third of what Joey does. I guess I do it for the love of game... or maybe the free food.
During the contest Joey was yelling at me to swallow, perhaps channeling his ability to eat 69 HDBS in 10 minutes, but it seemed more like Chuck Traynor screaming at Linda Lovelace. The winner, Ronnie "The Real American" Hartman is an Army Specialist with dreams of becoming a pro-wrestler. He has posted a video on YouTube of the contest in its entirety, which in the closing seconds you can see the ¼ hot dog nub that slips out of my mouth at the buzzer and cost me the victory or at least a chance for overtime. Granted as we took the stage for the trophy presentation, Ronnie's red, white, and blue t-shirt was spotless, as mine has what can only be described as HDB dander. In horse racing, I would be known as a mudder, a messy eater, but I now eat as cleanly as possible, using three cups of hot water and a flavor changing beverage from a bottle. I wanted to avoid any questions of impropriety as Ronnie was very vocal about another eater's propensity to ball up masses of tubesteaks and bread into slurry of mess, making the head judge's job like shifting through a meteor crash site. Why did I lose? Although my mental prep seemed poised for victory, I wasn't prepared physically. Ronnie sports giant biceps and his Army training has kept him in peak shape. My NYC diet of all-you-can-eat half-priced sushi and French toast has kept me in a shape, probably best described as an sagging water-balloon.
Not a religious man, I had also relied on wishing victory on a flying ladybug, a Buddhist statue that had survived Hiroshima and a best actress Oscar statue (as a NYC window cleaning we have some heady clients). Note to all believers -- Hollywood, Buddhists, nor ladybugs will help you win an all you can eat hot dog contest. I missed a prime opportunity and will have to seek a win elsewhere on the circuit, while Charlotte will likely have the lowest total to advance to the finals.
My evening (after leaving the airport in frustration) started at the Hiest Brewery in NoDa where I had two Coca Colas (a big Nascar sponsor -- so there's the plug), three beer cocktails, a sour and two pitchers of seltzer. After a hot dog contest, one craves either ice cream or all the beverages in the world. I couldn't manage any solids, but Tyler my server encouraged me to keep drinking, and I smoked a cigar (I assume Red Auerbach smoked a few second-place cigars, but I wouldn't bet on it.) Hiest was wonderful, but I craved a dive bar and the hostess gave me directions. It was roughly four miles to The Thirsty Beaver, a bar of reputation as the finest dive in Charlotte. With time to kill I walked the highway off-shoot roads, the woods and found myself in complete desolation by a closed business called, Junk Rescue. I paused, realizing that, "Junk Rescue" described my hot dog abilities. I have made the finals 10 out of 12 years, but did not make it last year and gone are the days when 20 dogs would be enough. Thirty is the new 20 in competitive eating. I plan on refocusing my efforts. Wing Kong of the Drexel Hill chicken wing circuit sent me some work-out tapes which sit unopened in my apartment next to Jillian Michaels' Ripped in 30 DVD. It is about 30 days before my next Nathan's qualifier so I would be wise to lessening my waistline and removing the subcutaneous fat that impedes stomach expansion. I could also get a few ribs removed, but jogging would be less painful.
At the Charlotte moment though I needed beer and whiskey to enlarge my liver and dull my frustrated mind. The Thirsty Beaver looks like a small prison made out of Legos. The High Life Mat is stained and worn; In fact the logo can only be made out by admirers of the champagne of bottled beers. The Thirsty Beaver sign is carved in heavy wood with one of the "Ts" about to fall. Inside though, is pure heaven. The back room has a pool table with spectators lounging on couches and is filled with black light portraits not only of Elvis but of Kenny Rodgers, Wayland Jennings and a nude woman (indicating the ladies bathroom). The front room also has a 10-foot ceiling, a juke box, and beer ads from the '70s. The clientele hanging outside (you can drink outside!) is a combination of bikers, cowboys and tall girls with tattoos. It was a non-ironic Williamsburg and a beer and shot was $7. The Thirsty Beaver is a place where hipsters and rummies mingle and the piped out music is a lot of Seeger. Plus the bartender was genuinely polite. Let's just say this bar does not exist in New York City.
I had planned to fill in the rest of this post with my next two stops, strip clubs that were open until 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., both which served food -- a 3 a.m. breakfast buffet and $9 chicken wings in 10 different sauces respectively -- but I ate neither. I thought of the hot dog nub left on the contest table, and the uneaten one that would have given me victory, but I never seem to do anything easily. Some say the journey is more important than the destination -- for the hot dogs or me? My journey to Stillwell and Surf on July 4th will take me all over the country, while the hot dogs only have to go from the plate to my mouth and down into my distended belly. As if on cue, my paltry total, gurgles, telling me that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades... in Major League Eating, the thrill of victory replaces the agony of digestion, but as the loneliest man in Charlotte at 5:33 am, the only sound heard was my angry belly.
Crazy Legs Conti dreams of hot dogs, like Jiro dreams of sushi.