The Hunger Artistes
The Amazing and Versatile Food Suit will transform the world of garments
as much as Ron Popeil’s Vegematic changed the act of chopping. By Bill Vaughn
[read from the beginning] The idea was born in a sudden drugged brainstorm that struck Victor and myself in 1981, a year after we met during a poker game at his Studio City condo on the other side of Hollywood. We were following the Freeway Series, a California classic pitting the Dodgers against the Angels in the best of three preseason games. We’d driven to Palm Springs for game one, where I had yelled out to Reggie Jackson how sharp he looked, and the Angels’ famous designated hitter had yelled back “And you are looking sharp, too.” The next day we picked up four other guys, distributed enough psilocybin mushrooms to get everyone effervescent, bought a flock of broasted chickens in Chinatown, drove up into Chavez Ravine, and diverted a river of beer and a herd of cattle to ourselves in Dodger Stadium as we watched the home team demolish Reggie and his bunch. At the seventh inning stretch I noticed that the thinning crowd we were packed among had found new seats as far away as they could. One young Korean couple was still glaring—I had slipped on some chicken bones and spilled an entire 16-ounce cup of beer on the back of their Dodger windbreakers. My hands were soaked with cheeseburger grease, and I really needed to take a piss—but I knew if I left now I’d never find my way back, temperamentally addled as I was. Worst of all, the beer I’d been nursing had become insipid.
“Food Suit,” I muttered.
“Holy shit,” Victor said. “Of course.” A guy who tends to eat big and jump around, Lieberman was covered with smears of mustard and ranch dressing, crushed peanut shells, chicken glop, drooled beer. In fact, his clothes were so filthy he’d been wiping his hands in his hair. I had a sense, then, that we might be friends for a very long time.
On day three we went to the drawing board, which was conveniently located at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where we had tickets for the rubber game in the Freeway Series.
“The fabric has to be waterproof,” he suggested.
“But it’s got to breathe,” I said. “Otherwise, you burn up.”
Here was the very riddle Victor had been placed on earth to solve. A men’s clothing salesman who would book $5 million in orders for men’s trousers in 2001, he was the fifth generation of Lieberman in the rag trade.
Suddenly, a booming line drive came screaming down the left field foul line headed straight for us. I managed to bench my beer in time to throw on my glove but I was too slow to get the glove into play. As I lunged for the ball I stumbled in the mess we’d made at our feet, and the ball winged a small boy.
“What the hell’s wrong with you!” his mother whooped as I got to my feet. “You brought your glove, you’re supposed to protect us.”
“And we’ve got to have our hands free at all times,” I told Victor.
He nodded. “It’s about freedom, man.”
Our next planning meeting took place at the ballpark in Mazatlan, Mexico, where the Culiacán Tomateros, the famed Tomato Pickers of the Mexican Winter League, were in town to play under the lights against the Mazatlan Venados, the Stags. Kitty had joined us, and Victor had brought a date, a troubled young Kate who couldn’t seem to remember which of her stories she wanted to stick with. Had she been a head chef, or the bass player for a famous L.A. club band? If she’d been brought to the States when she was two, why did she still speak with a heavy Irish brogue? Whatever, she’d also invited along Terry, our cabdriver, and his young son, explaining to us that her encyclopedic understanding of Spanish had revealed that the Terry’s first language was actually German and that’s why that morning he had taken us south along the coast instead of north. Terry stared at her.
We gorged on tacos, hotdogs leaking mayonnaise, tortas made from pulled pork with salsa, tamales wrapped in corn husks, chorizo sausages on a bun, and that pickled fish dish called ceviche, washed down by Modelo beer served in bottles, and numerous shooters of tequila brought around by a man with a sandwich cart who waited for us to drink so he could take back the shooters. All this glassware seemed at odds with the stadium itself, which was constructed entirely of concrete, from its walls and columns to the very seats under our butts.
In the eighth inning the visiting team hit a three-run homer. Kate began sobbing. Victor tried to wipe away her tears, then turned back to us.
“It’s got to have a top-loading pocket over your solar plexus so you can eat ceviche with a spoon. And it’s got to have another pocket with plenty of wipes.”
In Seattle, at a game between the Mariners and the Boston Red Sox, surrounded by the city’s politically correct and emotionally inert “fans,” we sketched the Food Suit’s pocket arrangement, which began to resemble that of NASA flight garments. Scorecards and pencils in one breast pocket, condiment dispenser in the other. Zippered hidey holes in the arms for flasks, sunglasses, napkins and wipes, credit cards, cash, and identification. More on the belly and hips for cameras and radio. Large hot and cold pockets on the front and sides of the thighs, and an extra large receptacle from knee to ankle for refuse. Between ideas we were screaming at the Red Sox pitchers from our seats in the first row behind third base. “Throw the scumball, gomer, the hairball, it’s all you got! Your momma eats kitty litter!” And, as these pitiable hurlers slunk off the mound, withered by our scorn, “Write if you find work, green card!” When we saw that their starting pitcher had rabbit ears, we began really pouring it on. The home town fans around us got all embarrassed, especially after Seattle lost in extra innings and we fell into the aisle, forcing people to step over us, disemboweling ourselves with imaginary seppuku knives.
At a Rookie League game in Helena, Montana, we had just decided upon the volume and placement of the Brew Bladder (a sprawling, shallow bag baffled like an air mattress that’s worn in the same manner as the chest protector of an ump). And then came the announcement that the concession stands had run out of beer. Someone threw a shoe onto the infield. And then another. Suddenly, the area between home plate and the pitcher’s mound was littered with footwear.
After the announcement that the game would be suspended until everyone retrieved their shoes, and we were back in our seats pulling on our sneakers, we turned to each other. “Bigger bladder!” Victor shouted drunkenly.
You wonder how many inventions, artistic epiphanies, and really productive criminal schemes have been hatched at the ballpark. After all, your senses are more alive there than they are at home, and there are so many hushed, contemplative lulls, as solemn as the space between the stars. Indeed, of the magnificent sports spawned in America only baseball moves at a pace leisurely enough to earn it the title of national pastime. A contest back on May 11, 2000, for example, between the Cubs and the Brewers, the longest nine-inning game in major league history, lasted four hours and twenty-two minutes. And so there have evolved two worlds at the ballpark: one on the field and one in the stands. I have grown fond of my belief that the widespread use of the Food Suit will be seen as a watershed event in this second world.
These languid nineteenth-century rhythms, in which offensive success means you’ll finish no farther than the exact place you started, cry out for pleasure-extenders, for fun-elevators, for games outside the game. Enter the Food Suit. And enter, of course, gambling. There is no higher form of gambling on the sport than playing Rotisserie baseball, in which your fantasy team, composed of actual players drawn from actual major league teams, accumulating actual hitting and pitching statistics over the six-month season, compete for shares of a juicy pot with other teams in a paper league. After Victor and I decided to build such an organization we recruited a dozen owners and appointed Kitty our commissioner. Turning to the matter of a name we thought immediately of Bill Veeck. President of the St. Louis Browns during the 1950s and the craziest and most inventive of baseball’s promoters, Veeck was a shameless huckster who courted fans with fireworks, giveaways—a live horse, pigeons, orchids flown in from Hawaii—and a revolutionary scoreboard that exploded into light and color when the good guys hit a home run. Veeck would have grasped the implications of the Food Suit the moment he saw it.
However, he would never have become immortalized had he not hired one Edward C. Gaedel to bat in the second game of a doubleheader between his Browns and the visiting Detroit Tigers on April 19, 1951. In his only major-league appearance, Gaedel, who stood three-feet-eleven and weighed 65 pounds, walked on four pitches and was replaced at first by a pinch-runner; Bobby “Sugar” Cain, the Tiger pitcher, was laughing so hard he just couldn’t seem to find the little man’s inch-and-a-half strike zone. In honor of Veeck and our games outside the game we christened our new baby Eddie Gaedel’s Baseball League, The League for People With Short Attention Spans. In our minds Gaedel, Rotisserie and the Food Suit would become fused forever.
When the day finally came for the Food Suit to move from the drawing board to the cutting table the first fabric we examined was Gore-Tex, a waterproof yet breathable material that’s used in everything from tents to pants. We ordered a swatch, which was white and virgin, but ultimately rejected the stuff because it would push the Suit way over our retail price target of $29.95 and because the H. L. Gore company demanded approval of any product we fabricated from their material. We vetoed cotton and rayon and silk, of course, for similar price considerations, and wool, polyester and nylon because they’d be too hot. Meanwhile, Victor married Marcia, whom he’d met while the two of them were swimming illegally across the American River in Sacramento, following drinks with a crowd of people at a waterfront bar. Within the minimum time allotted they would have a baby boy named Satchel, after Satchel Paige, the legendary Negro League pitcher, and later a girl, Elizabeth Paige.
Then, while searching southern California for a crib to house his little clan, Victor was literally blinded by the light, by the sun glaring off a big Mission Style manse under construction that had been wrapped with a waterproof synthetic called Tyvec, an extruded Dupont product that’s tough and light and inexpensive and so simple chemically it turns into carbon dioxide and water when burned.
He delivered a roll of it to a Lebanese tailor. Two weeks later we had Prototype Numbers One and Two. The lucky fans who got America’s first glimpse of the Food Suit were those in the crowd of 8,000 at Cheney Stadium in Washington State watching their Tacoma Rainiers do battle with the Tucson Toros in a Triple-A matchup. When we walked in we were a little bit jumpy. Would people become hostile, seeing us as members of a death cult or homoerotic cabal, or would they misread us as the avatars of some nuclear Armageddon or a chemical spill on the Puget Sound docks? But despite the fact that they had a baseball game to follow, plus an NBA playoff contest between the Chicago Bulls and the Seattle Supersonics to monitor on the big-screen TV in the Beer Garden, the crowd loved us.
The first fan to come up wanted to know how many orders of Cheney Stadium’s famous Chicken Tenders we could stuff in the Hot Pocket (five). And how many Eskimo Pies we could get in the Cold Pocket (seven). A guy who was so drunk he kept stepping on his own feet inquired with impeccable diction if the Food Suit could stand up to vomit (in double-blind trials involving beer and pizza, we had determined that it was indeed barf-resistant). A guy who would have been perfectly round if he were an inch shorter begged us not to tell him that one size fits all (we did not). And a pair of big-eyed teenaged girls suggested that we install a popup umbrella on the back and hooks or snaps all over the outside of the Suit so items like our disposable cameras and radios would be in easy reach.
“Fag tags,” Victor said.
“You can’t say that,” I advised.
“Fag tags are what they’re called in the trade,” he told the girls. “Those loops.”
“Jesus,” I shouted at home plate. “There’s Tony Eusebio!” Eusebio had been a hugely talented but vastly overpriced catcher in the Eddie Gaedel League, owned and then traded by almost every club because he was injury-prone. Assigned to the minors by the Houston Astros for rehabilitation yet again, on this day he would have four solid hits.
“You broke my heart, Tony!” Victor screeched.
That very week Victor discovered an object at a fast-food joint called Burgerville outside Portland, Oregon, that would galvanize our faith in the Food Suit with the sort of spiritual jolt Christians get when they touch the Shroud of Turin. This was the Lapkin.
“You will not believe it,” he said, calling breathlessly from his cell phone.
The Lapkin is a bib attached to a fabric tray made rigid by an interior wire. The fabric was something we’d never seen before: garment-grade Tyvec, a soft and pliable and much cooler version than the industrial stuff. It was printed in four colors with lines and words, in the manner of a basketball court, showing where different junk should be placed: there was an area called the Fry Zone, for example, and the No Fry Zone. We now had the perfect material, something dirt-cheap and spill-repellent and actually soft against the skin, and we were inspired to cover the Food Suit with graphics as well. Not only a name for every pocket and feature, but messages to the cognoscenti. “The pace of this game amuses me. Bring me your finest meats and cheeses.” And “Move aside—let the big dogs eat.” Or “America’s smartest invention: Hot comes out hot. Cold comes out cold. How do it know?”
“What about a slogan?” I asked Victor.
“The Amazing and Versatile Food Suit: Is that a Dodger Dog in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’”
“Oh, mamma. And when we sell it in Philly we’d substitute Cheesesteak for Dodger Dog.”
At another Rookie League game I attended alone, this time on opening day in Butte, Montana, I discovered that while two men wearing Food Suits make a bold statement that attracts fans, one man wearing a Food Suit says “I’m a pervert: keep your kids away.” The Butte Copper Kings had been recently purchased by Mike Veeck, son of Bill. A true chip off the old block, Mike had been banned from baseball for a time after his orchestration of a 1979 promotion called Disco Demolition at Chicago’s first Comiskey Park, in which thousands of Donna Summers records were blasted to smithereens with dynamite in center field. When Veeck the Younger halted ticket sales after the stadium filled up, a riot ensued outside, complete with police dogs lunging at the mob.
For the debut of his new club in Butte Mike Veeck had brought in Bill Murray, the actor, to throw out the first pitch—which he heaved over the grandstands and out of the park—and to personally serve beer, which he was happy to do since he was a part-owner of the Copper Kings himself. Murray’s presence had drawn a crowd of 3000, ten times the normal pull for a game in Butte, and I was unable to force my way through the crush in the concession area before Murray disappeared.
“Bill, fill up my bladder!” I managed to shriek over the din.
“Meet me halfway!” Murray shouted back. “Buy a beer.”
Back up in the bleachers for the game I was astounded to discover that Howard Johnson had been hired as the batting coach for the Copper Kings. Johnson, an infielder for the Mets when he was at the height of his many powers as a hitter and a base-stealer, had been a much sought-after player in the Eddie Gaedel League. After my team, the Mo Better Vaughns (and later the Nomo Better Vaughns, after we signed the enigmatic Japanese hurler), had landed him in a trade, his skills quickly eroded.
“HoJo,” I screeched into the Butte dugout. “You broke my heart!”
Now that we were wedded to garment-grade Tyvec we saw it everywhere. Victor found hooded coveralls in a hardware store priced exactly right at $12. We brought two of them to a Vietnamese seamstress named Huynh Thi Chau, who assembled the pockets from bright red neoprene, the material that makes wet suits insulative, and attached the fag tags for us. Then, bedecked with our gloves, cameras and walkie-talkies, our pockets loaded with fine ballpark eats, we unveiled these Prototypes Three and Four on a balmy night at Edison Field, the remodeled home of the California Angels, the stadium where we first began our serious work so long before. The crowd was buoyant and studded with other silly people wearing things on their heads such as stuffed chicken toys. Of the hundred fans we talked to fully half wanted to know only one thing: Where could they buy their own Food Suit?
We were wearing these very Prototypes, Three and Four, that cold day at Wrigley. Just minutes before the game between the Cubs and the Dodgers was slated to begin, the heavens above Chicago opened and the rain fell down. As the grounds crew covered the infield, most of the crowd retreated down into the concession area. This was a major stroke of luck. For the next three hours, while everyone waited for the skies to clear, we had a captive and increasingly jolly audience. Even after the game was finally called and the Dodgers slunk off to the airport, people seemed reluctant to leave the park. We joined a raucous bunch in covered seats, and they were all over us at once with questions about the Food Suit.
“Look,” Victor offered when the talk began to ebb, “Sammy has to practice, right?”
“So?” a guy said.
“Are we not fans? Should we not practice?”
And so we practiced the Wave until Victor tried to lead us onto the waterlogged field, where security people ordered us away.
At last, as the sky turned a darker shade of gray, we reluctantly pulled ourselves from Wrigley and headed out onto Addison Street. As we wandered around trying to remember where we’d parked the rental car, Victor began nodding his head. “Now we’ve stepped in it.”
What he meant was that at long last we might have to look at the Food Suit as a serious product instead of our own private pleasure. Doing so would force us to act like real businessmen, and that would cause stress, something the Food Suit was intended to eliminate. For one thing, we’d have to repair the ideological rift that had widened between us. If we were going to market, Victor wanted us to handle the marketing ourselves. We would pre-sell the product to active wear and sporting goods wholesalers, fabricate the units in China, and finance the deal through a factor, one of those outfits that lend money using accounts receivable as collateral. I wanted to approach Major League Baseball, which had amalgamated the sale of all Major League products bearing the logos of individual clubs into a monopoly under the dictatorial control of commissioner Bud Selig.
Still, on a more profound level, neither of us was sure we could bring ourselves to forsake art for business. Could we actually mass-produce our creation for strangers in exchange for mere money? After years of hoarding the Food Suit for ourselves, in the manner of monks who write their poetry for God’s eyes only, we had become protective and jealous.
We needed a sign. That’s when we decided to visit our patron saint.
There were hundreds of dead Italians and Irish and Polish at St. Mary’s, but after two hours of searching, we still hadn’t located a single German, much less Eddie Gaedel himself. We were toeing the soggy turf trying to locate one of the small round cement markers stamped with numbers that would tell us if we were in the right area. Suddenly, Victor shrieked. I came running. The stone was a simple rectangle of granite embedded in the earth, framed with unkempt grass, the last of our Eddie. The little man had been found in the bedroom of his south Chicago apartment in 1961, dead at the age of 36. Because of bruising around his knees and face, police suspected foul play, but were never able to build a case. Buried next to him was his mother, Helen. She had outlived her boy by more than 25 years.
“Mrs. Gaedel,” I said, taking a hit from my martini flask. “I hope you won’t mind if we have a drink with your son.”
Victor opened a miniature bottle of Jack Daniels and poured it on Eddie’s grave, then he placed another tiny bottle on the stone. It struck us then that here was our sign.
Although Eddie Gaedel had made Bill Veeck famous, the cheap bastard had never cared enough about his little sad-eyed novelty to buy him a proper headstone. To us, it seemed at that moment like the parts of some celestial jig-saw puzzle had just fallen into place, the tab from one piece of our sporting and spiritual lives fitting perfectly into the groove of another.
“So, what, you want to go for it?” I finally asked.
Victor looked at the sulking heavens and punched a number on his cell phone. “You know me, pal. I am goal-oriented.”
It was decided. We would go to market with the Food Suit and make as much money as we could. And we would use some of the profits to buy Eddie Gaedel a fitting memorial—a big slab of polished white marble, as luminous as Tyvec.
But not too big. Something standing three-foot-eleven would be just about right.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 Bill Vaughn
Amazing & Versatile Foodsuit Patent Pending