As the cherry picker lifted me high above the parking lot, my testicles fled into my abdomen. I felt faint, but I commanded myself to stay standing. If I do fall, I thought, I’ll blame it on the heat, not the height. After all, it’s ninety degrees, humid as hell and I’m in a wool suit.
“How does it look?”
I looked down, felt my stomach turn and smiled wanly at Don, my earnest, enthusiastic, enigmatic handler.
“Great!” I said. “It’s quite impressive.” I made my voice sound deep and authoritative.
It did look nice, more or less. Covering half an acre of the parking lot shared by a Kmart and a Best Buy in Canton, Michigan, was a chalk drawing of Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss, Top Cat and Secret Squirrel. From fifty feet in the air, I couldn’t see the haphazard coloring and vague shading; I guess that’s why Don winched me fifty feet in the air.
From far away, it was a damn fine sight: the grinning faces of four giant cartoon characters in square boxes, a hairy animated Brady Bunch.
Though I spent a good ten hours staring at them, hearing about them, talking about them, pretending I cared about them, for the vast majority of the American public Huckleberry et al. mean nothing. They are the also-rans of Hanna-Barbera. But the Cartoon Network wanted to start another network and they were building it around these wannabes’ shows. To launch the new station, called Boomerang (because they’re coming back at you after fifty years; get it?), the Cartoon Network decided to break a world record. A few hundred people, mostly kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Detroit and adult employees of the network, had spent June 21, 2001, creating the world’s largest chalk drawing.
I was there as the representative of Guinness World Records, the official judge. I went into journalism because I had been inspired by All the President’s Men and the New York Times’ coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests. And yet there I was, stuck in a cherry picker, hovering over a Kmart parking lot, giving legitimacy to a publicity stunt.
Just like millions of eight-year-old boys over the past fifty years, I was obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records. I got my copy for Christmas in 1983. That year, we were celebrating in Birmingham, Michigan—thirty miles from Canton—at my mother’s twin sister’s house. I’m sure I was given dozens of toys and new clothes and other books, too, but I spent that entire day and evening reading about the man with the longest fingernails, the worst plagues in history, the tallest building, the fastest animal, the smartest boy and whatever ABBA did to get their picture in the book. (I got their greatest hits album the year before and was still obsessed.) I spent the next several months telling everyone what I had learned.
“Mom?” I would say from my wobbly chair at the kitchen table.
“Yes, Teddy?” She would be making dinner and drinking sherry.
“Did you know that the worst mass suicide was at Jonestown and 913 people died?” I would be stacking the forks on top of each other, seeing how many it took before they toppled.
“No, I didn’t know that.” And then she would take a sip of her sherry and stir her pot.
“Yes, Bunny Rabbit?”
“Rita Moreno has an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.”
“Yeah. She’s the most versatile entertainer in the world.”
“She was great in West Side Story.”
My father, not as patient a student as my mother, didn’t listen to my recitations. Instead, he took an active role: he tried to help me break a world record. Some kids at the University of Cincinnati, where my father was a dean, wanted to form the world’s largest kazoo band. They posted flyers and called the local news media. Hundreds of people were going to fill the UC stadium, blow into little plastic instruments and make a giant, horrible duck call. My father got very excited. He bought a stack of poster board, pulled out his exacto knife and spent a weekend building elaborate kazoo costumes. My brother and I were stuck in red cardboard tubes and led slowly up the cement stairs of the stadium. Coeds giggled at the freaky old man and his poor kids. We all played our kazoos for a while, and then Nick Clooney showed up and laughed at us. (Nick, George’s dad and Rosemary’s brother, was Cincinnati’s Walter Cronkite before he became the host of American Movie Classics.)
I recited the kazoo story in an email to Chris Sheedy, Guinness’ then head of research, when I applied to be a Guinness World Records judge in the spring of 2001. I mentioned that I couldn’t find a mention of a kazoo band on the Guinness World Records Web site. I told him that I hoped my father hadn’t been duped in a grand frat prank. I hoped I hadn’t been humiliated in a kazoo costume for nothing.
A month after I sent the email, I was lying on the bed I shared with my then boyfriend, complaining about my poverty, when the phone rang. It was Chris Sheedy, and he sounded as if he were calling from the moon, his Aussie accent shredded by a bad trans-pond connection. (The Guinness World Records headquarters is in London.)
“Your letter was hilarious!” he said.
“Oh, I’m glad. I sort of thought it was pathetic,” I said, waving my arms, trying to get the attention of David, who was wandering around the apartment looking for something.
Chris laughed and made an appointment to interview me in New York in a week.
“That was Guinness World Records! I got an interview!”
“Great,” David said, looking confused. “Where’s my toothpaste?”
“I left it in the refrigerator, where I found it this morning.”
In 1999, I had quit my job at Newsweek to go to graduate school and freelance. But the dot-bomb killed contract work. My underemployment was not sitting well with David, who was impatient with the pace of my success. He seemed to think I should have already won the National Book Award. I thought he should lay off and was resentful of being forced into the wifely, your-toothpaste-is-in-the-fridge role. When Guinness offered me a job a few weeks later, David sniffed at the salary—and the silliness of the position. So did I. It wasn’t going to make enough for me to get my own apartment.
Guinness flew me to London for “training.” I imagined (and joked to my friends) that I was going to learn the secret Guinness handshake, get outfitted with an official Guinness jetpack and flirt with Guinness’ own Moneypenny. I even made up her name: Sillypuddy. All the while I was in London, I would get emails from friends—most of whom were employed by respected news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—asking, “Have you met Sillypuddy yet?” And I would write back, “No, she’s never around. Been stretched too thin. And besides, I’m too busy learning how to deactivate neutron bombs.”
Of course, it was all much more banal. Most of my training consisted of hanging out with other judges, meeting various Guinness employees and drinking. (There was a lot of drinking. But they were all lousy drinkers. One night, I went out to dinner with an Aussie, an Irishman and a Brit. I drank them all under the table. I mean it: they fell off their chairs and then vomited. I was embarrassed for them.) I was given an official “Guinness World Records Judge” button and told to commit the history of Guinness World Records to memory.
After reading about the storied past of the world’s most successful publication, I understood the drinking.
Back in 1951, when England was slowly recovering from that little war, Sir Hugh Beaver, who ran the Guinness Brewery, got into a little dispute while he was out shooting things (and drinking) with his pals. Which was faster, the golden plover or the grouse? It’s not clear which side Sir Hugh took. But he was probably wrong, because he decided that there should be a book—kept behind the bar, maybe—that could resolve the stupid arguments men tend to get into.
Sir Hugh, rich and ingenious, hired professional fact-finders Norris and Ross McWhirter to put together The Guinness Book of Records. Arriving in British bookstores in the fall of 1955, it hit the top of the bestseller lists by Christmas. Nearly fifty years later, Guinness World Records has sold more than 100 million copies. (Yes, that’s a world record for a copyright book.) As of 2001, the book and its multimedia extensions are no longer owned by Diageo, the company that owns Guinness beer. Diageo knew liquor, not books, so they sold Guinness World Records to Gullane, a children’s entertainment company now owned by HIT Entertainment.
The Guinness World Records staff prides itself on being exacting and impartial. They don’t give record certificates to just anyone; you have to jump through all sorts of hoops (though not as many as the eighty-three Cia Grangér of Finland had to simultaneously hula to get her record). You need signed letters from witnesses, videotapes, photographs, and then you have to get through the judges. And they can be persnickety. I sat through several Friday conference calls during which at least one judge would always get huffy about not wanting to sign off on a bloody silly record. By the way, Most Hula Hoops Hooped is a bloody awesome record.
Potential record breakers have to provide so much audio, visual and written proof because the judges cannot personally attend the vast majority of record attempts. There’s only so much money and so many judges. So the only record attempts the judges go to are the local ones—around the London or New York offices—or the ones that have corporate sponsors willing to pay for a judge to show up. At Newsweek, we weren’t allowed to keep anything given to us by a source if it was worth more than twenty-five dollars because it might sway us. Guinness didn’t care. That’s how I ended up in Canton, Michigan. The Cartoon Network bought my ticket to Detroit, rented me a Buick and paid for my room at the Canton Fairfield Inn, a Motel 6 wannabe that smelled like burnt tires.
Don, my handler, was not staying at the Fairfield Inn. He was smart; he had taken a room at the airport Hilton, because it was “closer to the airport.” Don had long legs that he covered and accentuated with creased, pressed jeans. His helmet of brown hair framed tight, smooth skin and a wide toothy smile. He had the insistent enthusiasm I expected from publicists and kindergarten teachers. He seemed gayer than an Easter Parade. But he wore a wedding ring and talked about his wife, and I just thought he was one of the odd subset of overly polite Southern men who confuse my gaydar.
I didn’t confuse Don. He knew exactly what I was: a hired hand. He did not treat me as he would an impartial reporter. I was just a tool for his publicity stunt. He drove me around Detroit and thrust me in front of microphones and television cameras, often with a kid in a Huckleberry Hound suit behind me, waving. When we finally got back to the parking lot, he let me look at the drawing. But it was an afterthought. It hadn’t occurred to him that I would really judge. Two years later, I can’t remember whether or not I watched any of Don’s peons measure the giant drawing. I don’t think I did. I took their word for it. It was big.
I do, however, remember having lunch with Don. He paid. We were drinking iced tea at the Chili’s in the shopping center down the road when he mentioned his former career as a Disney theme-park dancer. I tried to prevent my jaw from dropping.
“Oh my God, have you read Esther Williams’ autobiography?”
“No.” Did I look like the kind of person who would read Esther Williams’ autobiography?
I drooled into my lap.
After lunch, I stopped one of Don’s peons. We had been chatting earlier about my boyfriend, so I knew she was “cool with the gay thing,” as the straight folks sometimes put it.
“So, um, what’s up with Don?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“He used to be a dancer.” I raised my eyebrows suggestively.
“Oh.” She looked down.
“One day, he came in and announced he was getting married.”
“Just like that.”
“He’d been going to church.”
“But I think he did it for his career.”
“He’s a publicist!” I blurted out. “They’re all gay!”
She glared at me and went back to filling up plastic buckets full of chalk.
Soon afterward, Don put me up in the cherry picker. He kept me in the sky for a half-hour while a camera crew recorded the event for posterity and the eleven o’clock newscast.
Eventually, my testicles settled and the wind cooled my skin. I even began to enjoy the view—I could see the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit and I noticed that there was a Target down the road. The smog had been blown away; the sky was blue and clear. Suddenly, the kids who were busily coloring in the border of the drawing impressed me. And I appreciated Don’s ability to organize the breaking of a world record, which he seemed to have done. Even if he was an ex-gay. Even if he wasn’t. It didn’t really matter: they’d used fourteen thousand pieces of chalk and made a drawing that was 28,900 square feet. At the same time that it was utterly irrelevant, it was a staggering feat.
After Don lowered me to the ground, he gave me a bullhorn and asked me to declare a new world record. For the few dozen chalky people drinking donated Cokes, my announcement was a relief. They cheered for about twenty seconds and then started packing up. A few Kmart customers wandered by, wary.
One lady came up to me and asked for my autograph. She actually was asking for her daughter, who was too shy to ask me herself.
“I would be happy to,” I said. I was surprised I didn’t say something ironic or rude. I stiffened my back and signed my name on one of the Boomerang flyers Don’s peons had been passing out.
“Thank you so much, sir!” The woman almost squealed.
After watching me from afar, a thick, bearded man came over to me and asked whether he could take a picture of me with his son, who looked to be about six.
“Sure!” I said.
I crouched down next to the boy, who reminded me of Dennis the Menace, and I made sure my “Guinness World Records Judge” pin was visible. The man snapped the picture and said, “Wait until my brother sees this!”
I gave the little boy a piece of chalk and asked him he if he wanted to be part of history. He wasn’t one for staying inside the lines—destined for heterosexuality, I surmised—but he drew with the gusto of a record breaker.