My father had been at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York City for about a
week, battling his final stages of lung cancer. Although he had been a smoker early in his
life, he had given up cigarettes cold turkey some thirty-five years prior to his cancer
diagnosis. So when he was told that he had stage four lung cancer, I wasn’t emotionally
prepared. Our entire family was shaken up and took his diagnosis very hard.
Al Roker Sr. was the rock of our family. Even though he was a talented artist, in the
mid-1950s, it was difficult for a young African-American male to get a job in the
commercial art industry. After a short stint at a low-paying apprentice job with no chance
for advancement, with a young wife and a new baby to feed, Dad got a job driving a New
York city bus.
He would do that for almost twenty years, always looking for the next step up.
Eventually he made dispatcher, then chief dispatcher, and then he was promoted up and into
management with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, reaching the rank of Inspector.
We were all so proud of him. His drive and determination rubbed off on his children. We
would strive to make him and our mother as proud of us as we were of them.
When he retired, he was excited and determined to enjoy life. My dad found pleasure in
being with his wife and his grandchildren, and in his lifelong hobby of deep-sea fishing.
He cultivated a newfound love of jazz, started a mentoring program for middle schoolers at
a local public school and walked with a group of fellow retirees at the local mall.
But all of that was now behind him. His entire future had now collapsed into being
measured by weeks, if not days.
Every day I made it a point to stop in, first thing in the morning, before heading to
the studio to do the Today show. We’d visit, and then about six twenty a.m., I’d
head on to Studio 1-A in Rockefeller Plaza, where the show goes live at seven a.m. On my
way home in the afternoon, I’d head straight back to the hospital to spend more time with
him—time, something I had all but taken for granted until my father got sick.
Why hadn’t I gone fishing with him more than a handful of times, and why didn’t I come
by the house more often? I always thought I would have plenty of time.
My father was always healthy as a horse. Mom was the one who had beaten lung cancer and
breast cancer and survived two heart valve replacements! Dad almost never got sick. Now he
was dying and I had just about run out of time with the man I cherished most in life.
There was nowhere near enough time.
“Son,” my dad said one day, “I’d do anything for more time. I wanted to make fifty
years of marriage with your mom so, yeah, I’m pissed about that.”
It was kind of funny, actually. My father always liked things well-ordered and tidy. He
was sixty-nine years old and had been married forty-nine years. To him, seventy and fifty
felt neater—more complete.
I knew my dad was going to die. There was no hope that he could possibly recover. I did
my best to hold myself together until one morning I simply couldn’t hide my grief about
losing him. I started crying, and being the incredible father he was, he comforted me.
He said he was proud of the life he had lived—that he’d had a good run. He told me he
was proud of his children and he loved his grandchildren more than life itself. Hearing my
father speak that way was simply more than I could bear; it was all so final. My tears
kept coming. I could tell that my father had something important he wanted to say.
“Look, we both know that I’m not going to be here to help you raise my grandkids, so
that means it is up to you to make sure you will be there for your kids.”
I could feel my heart begin beating faster with every word he uttered because I knew
what he was driving at. My father and I had been around the horn too many times to count
on the subject of my weight and overall health. For whatever reason, no matter how many
times I said I’d lose the weight, I couldn’t—or wouldn’t, or did only to gain it back
“Promise me that you are going to lose the weight.”
I tried to play it off like it was no big deal. “Who, me? I’m fine! Don’t worry about
I could tell he was really struggling to get the words out now. “No, not good enough. I
want you to swear to God that you’re going to lose the weight.”
I realized there was really only one respectable thing to do—promise him I would lose
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to make a deathbed promise to someone you love,
but if you have, you know the kind of guilt and massive responsibility I felt in that
moment. And if you haven’t, let me assure you, it was heavy—heavier than me, and I was
damn big. I couldn’t say a word. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, because I did, but I was
hesitant. Nothing I could say would mean all that; I had said it all before, without ever
doing the work to permanently change my mind-set and lose the weight for good.
So, I promised him I would lose the weight. Still, that wasn’t good enough for him. He
wanted me to swear to God that I was going to lose the weight—and so I did.
“Dad, I swear to God I am going to lose this weight.”
“I am going to hold you to that son. You don’t want to make me angry.”
Trust me, I didn’t want to get him angry.
I remember when I was twelve years old and my folks had gotten me a brand-new Sting-Ray
bicycle for my birthday. It had a banana seat and a metallic blue paint job. I loved that
Well, one Saturday afternoon, some young thugs from outside our neighborhood came
cruising through. They surrounded me, punched me a few times, knocked me off the bike and
took it. My pride was hurt more than anything else, but when I got home and told my dad
what happened, I saw a look come over him that I had never seen. “Get in the car. Let’s go
look for your bike,” he said through clenched teeth. He got behind the wheel and I got in
on the passenger’s side and we went looking for these guys and my bike.
After around fifteen minutes of driving around, I noticed a dishtowel wrapped around
something sitting on the seat between the two of us. I unwrapped an edge of the towel and
saw a steak knife! Dad was going to find that bike and was prepared to fight anyone
who got in his way. That’s who my dad was. We never actually found the bike but I
discovered I loved my father that day even more than I knew because of his willingness to
protect who and what he loved.
He was also the same man who cried when he deposited his firstborn son at the dorm on
my first day of college. Everything he was made me who I am.
And now that was all about to go away.
So on the morning I made that promise to my dad, I left the hospital thinking about
what he had said—a lot. I don’t usually get distracted when I am on the air, but his words
echoed in my mind the entire show. I was so upset about my promise to lose weight, in
fact, that I had two grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches for lunch. My mantra at the time
was “When in doubt, eat.”
When I returned to the hospital that afternoon, Dad was out of his bed, sitting up in a
“Hey, old man, how you doing?” I said, but there was no response. He was just looking
off into space. One of the nurses came in and told me he’d suddenly stopped talking
earlier that day.
“Why?” I asked. The nurse said she would get one of his doctors to explain what was
going on. You know it’s always bad news when someone says they want to get someone else to
explain things to you. In other words: “Here comes bad news and they don’t pay me enough
to put up with the grief you will probably give me!”
When the doctor arrived, he said that my dad’s cancer had spread to his brain. It was
affecting his ability to speak and would likely impair his motor functions very soon.
As I helped the doctor and the nurse transfer my father back into bed, he lost control
of his bowels. He couldn’t say anything, but the look on his face was heartbreaking. My
father, the strongest man I knew, both physically and emotionally, was leaving. And there
was nothing I could do about it.
A couple of weeks earlier, planning for this moment, my family had made the decision to
move dad, when the time came, to Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. It is the world leader in
palliative care, run by the Archdiocese of New York.
Two days later we transferred him to Calvary, where angels do heaven’s work on earth
and where he would spend his final days. My brother and sisters all came to say good-bye
to their father. Our spouses sat by his bed. His grandchildren were there. And we all
hugged and held my mother as she watched her husband slip away.
That week was a blur, but I can tell you just about the entire menu at the Calvary
cafeteria. I was aware that I was using food to ease the pain, but I didn’t care. As we
all kept vigil by my dad’s side, I kept thinking about the promise I had made to him and
wondering, “How the hell am I going to do this?”
A Portly Kid from Queens
I was born in Queens, New York, in 1954. I am the oldest of six kids, three boys and
three girls. Three of us are the biological children of my parents and three were adopted
through foster care. I am one of the biological kids, along with a sister who’s six years
younger and a “baby” brother, who is seventeen years younger than me. Although I was a
premature baby, weighing in at four pounds, ten ounces, at a certain point very early in
my life, I just started eating and never stopped. I suppose my family heritage added to my
genetic lot in life. Both of my parents came from families who loved to eat. My mom,
Isabel, also known as “Izzy,” was Jamaican, and my dad was from the Bahamas. Dad looked
like a young Sidney Poitier, who happened to be from Exuma, the same island in the Bahamas
where my father’s family was from. When my dad was younger, people often did a double take
when they saw him driving his white Plymouth Valiant station wagon—the same car Sidney
Poitier drove in Lilies of the Field.
My parents met at John Adams High School in Queens. My mother was one of the first
African-American cheerleaders at the school—at the time, a very big deal. She must have
loved being a cheerleader because I grew up hearing a constant chant of “Rickity, rackity,
shanty town. Who can knock John Adams down? Nobody. Nobody. Absolutely nobody! Yeah,
team!” Honestly, I can’t believe I still remember her saying that, but I do!
My dad was an affable guy and a really sharp dresser. He was a very good storyteller
who enjoyed sharing tales from his younger days. Turns out, my dad was a stone-cold thug!
He had friends with names like Deadeye and Jelly Roll. He had a walking stick that had a
knife in it.
Yeah, growing up, he was a tough guy. But by the time his children came along, he was a
short, stocky teddy bear. (I like to say I come from stocky people, low to the ground,
with one leg shorter than the other, the better to lean into the wind and survive
hurricanes.) Of my parents, Dad was definitely the gentler one. If you fell and skinned a
knee, you went right to Dad. He’d comfort you and give you a big bear hug, whereas Mom was
more likely to tell us to stop crying. Her approach was the early version of “man up.”
You might say Izzy was the original Tiger Mom. She was tough as nails and,
unlike a lot of women of her generation, she enjoyed confrontation. To her, it was sport.
I knew I was loved by her, but she knew exactly how to needle me, and what drove me crazy.
Whenever she’d come to my house for dinner, just as I was serving the meal, she’d ask,
“Is this any good?”
“No, I just spent an hour making you something that tastes like crap!” I’d respond.
Mom loved to banter and was a real jokester. She was also honest to a fault and didn’t
believe in coddling. She taught my younger daughter, Leila, to play checkers as a kid.
Most grandparents let the kids win—but not my mom. No way. To her, losing is how you
learn. And now I call Leila “little Izzy” because she is so much like my mom. I once
overheard her playing Monopoly with some of her friends. She wiped the board. Then one of
her friends asked, “Where’d you learn how to play Monopoly?”
“My nana,” Leila said with great pride. I couldn’t help but smile.
I was what you might call a late bloomer. As hard as this might be to believe today, I
didn’t talk until I was three and a half years old. Of course, as a family friend pointed
out later, I could never get a word in edgewise anyway! My mom did all the talking for me.
She was like my PR agent.
Although I was born premature, I think my lack of development was a combination of
being extremely shy—something I never really outgrew and what today might be labeled as a
learning disorder. And I might have had one. The only thing I had no problems learning was
eating. Well, maybe I had one issue I didn’t learn, and that was when to stop.
Although my siblings and I have the same father, he was really two different guys over
the years. My dad drove a bus and was a blue-collar worker. He hustled every day to
provide for his family. When I was a young boy, he and a couple of buddies from NYC
Transit, as it was then known, opened up a luncheonette in the depot. They made and sold
sandwiches in addition to working their regular shifts. My dad was the kind of man who did
whatever it took to make sure his family had everything we needed. In a Caribbean family,
if you only had two jobs, you were obviously slacking off.
But the drivers all had their rackets going to supplement their incomes. For
example, there was always someone selling hot merchandise—you know, things they claimed
fell off the back of a truck somewhere. In fact, I bought my first movie camera, which
sparked my initial interest in animation and television, from one of the guys at the
Unlike a lot of men from that era, my father was very demonstrative; he was a big
hugger and kisser. When I saw my uncles and cousins, my impulse was to greet them with a
bear hug and a kiss, while they usually held out their hands waiting for a handshake.
There was a lot of PDA in my parents’ household. And I remember coming home from college
to find my mother in the kitchen doing dishes.
“How would you feel about another brother or sister?” she asked.
“Are you going to adopt again?”
“Oh, then we’re taking in another foster kid?”
“No . . .” she replied, and then paused.
Not adopting. No foster kid. . . . Oh for the love of . . . I didn’t want to think
about that! They’re my parents, for Pete’s sake!
Mom always wanted a big family. She was the second youngest of nine kids, so a big
family is all she knew. After she had me and my sister, she had trouble getting pregnant,
so she and my dad decided to adopt and open their home to numerous foster children over
the years. While sometimes people refer to foster or adopted children as half brothers and
half sisters, to me they are my siblings. Needless to say, it came as something of a
surprise when she got pregnant seventeen years after having me.
By the time my baby brother was born, Dad had transitioned from blue-collar worker to
white-collar executive. He had been promoted and was working in management for the New
York Transit Authority. He had an office and a secretary and wore a suit to work every
day. I always maintain that I had the more fun dad because I got to do more than my kid
brother. When my brother went to work with “executive” dad, he got to play with the Xerox
machines. When I went to work with “bus driver” dad, I got to play with change machines,
pretend to steer the bus and hang with the guys in the depot. Those were some of my
favorite days as a kid.
We’d start the day off by going to Goody’s for breakfast. Goody’s was a luncheonette
near where we lived in Rockaway. He always ordered a bacon and egg sandwich on a hard
roll. Wanting to be just like him, I’d do the same. We took our breakfast with us and ate
it on the way to the depot.
The NYC Transit Authority Fifth Avenue Depot was a combination of train yard and bus
garage. To a seven-year-old boy, it was a magical combination. At the start of his shift,
Dad would take me into the locker room where he’d change into his uniform. When other bus
drivers opened their lockers, GREAT LAND OF PLENTY . . . Playboy pinups!! Don’t
change into that uniform too quickly, Pop.
After boarding his bus, we’d stop at the corner deli. He’d buy me a stack of comic
books and a bag of candy to keep me occupied.
I loved playing with the change machines on the buses—remember, this was at a time,
looong before MetroCards, when drivers actually made change for passengers. I’d ride on
the bus with him for the entire eight-hour shift all along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.
I’d see the same people going to work and then coming home at the end of the day.
Somewhere around noon, we took our lunch break, and ate whatever my mom packed for us in
the two brown paper bags she sent us out the door with early that morning. When we went
back to the depot at the end of his shift, there was always a driver tossing a quarter my
way so I could buy a candy bar from the vending machine or get an ice cream. “Hey, little
Al, here ya go! Go buy something to eat!” Sometimes I’d just get a Yoo-hoo chocolate milk
and throw it back at the end of the day like a tall, cold beer.
Because there were six kids, the vibe in my parents’ home was mostly controlled chaos.
I have no idea how my mother handled six kids without any help. I have three kids and lots
of help and sometimes my wife and I still have a hard time doing it all! Whenever I
asked Mom what her secret was, she always said, “You kids took care of yourselves.” I
suppose fear was our great motivator because I, for one, never wanted to be on the
receiving end of dad’s spankings. It was a different era, but I knew I’d get my butt
whupped good if I got out of line or didn’t do what I was told. Back then, if someone in
the neighborhood saw me do something—anything I shouldn’t be doing, they’d discipline me
first and then tell my parents. Oh yeah, it takes a village, and back in the Rockaway
projects of Queens, New York, our fifth floor apartment was in the heart of that village.
As our family grew, my parents needed more space than our old two-bedroom apartment, so
when I was eleven, they bought a three-bedroom house in a new development we found during
one of our weekend family drives to Elmont, Long Island to visit Gouz Dairy Farm. (Their
slogan? GOUZ RHYMES WITH COWS. Okay, it wasn’t Mad Men, but hey, I’ve remembered it
all these years!) We loved going to Gouz. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh milk
straight from the farm. But the best part was their petting zoo. All the parents would
drop their kids off to look at the cows, rabbits and chickens while they went to get fresh
milk from the dairy counter. And did I mention the limitless free samples of full-fat
chocolate milk? Gouz was a magical place for a growing boy with a growing waistline.
Anyway, we’d usually take the Belt Parkway to get to Long Island, but one day the
parkway was so backed up that my dad got off to take a short cut. That’s when he spotted
the development of semiattached homes. We stopped to look at the model home and it was
love at first sight. My folks scraped together two hundred dollars for a down payment on
the spot, and six months later, we all moved in. Even though both of my parents are gone,
I still own that house. Whenever my kids go back to look at the house, they can’t believe
that eight of us fit into three rooms and a single bath! I always joke with my kids and
tell them that in order to use the bathroom, we had to take a number like we were at a
deli counter waiting to place an order.
Although my parents had a lot of mouths to feed. I never went hungry; I just didn’t go
back for second or third helpings very often. We always made sure that everyone had a fair
portion of whatever Mom made to eat. Mom’s cooking was hearty—another word for “heavy”—so
it was filling and fattening. She was a good cook . . . though breakfast really
wasn’t her strong suit—you know, the oatmeal was always a little too thick and her
pancakes were never “light and fluffy.” We ate a lot of cereal! Unfortunately, my dad
wouldn’t buy the brands of cereals I really wanted as a boy, which was pretty much
anything with loads of sugar—Sugar Pops, Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks. At least the
cereal makers were up-front about their products back then—they may as well have put “Yup,
you are pouring sugar” on every box!
My dad’s philosophy was one box of corn flakes fits all.
You want Frosted Flakes?
Pour some sugar on those Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and voilà! You’ve got your own frosted
Oh yeah? Well, this cereal box doesn’t have a tiger on it. Just some freaky-looking
rooster. Where’s Tony the Tiger? I loved Tony the Tiger. I thought he was so cool,
especially when I watched my morning cartoons and saw him riding in a car with Huckleberry
Hound. It didn’t get any cooler than that. Neither Sugar Bear nor Snap, Crackle and Pop
had a thing on Tony the Tiger! He was. . . .GRRRRREAT!!!!!
When it came to lunch and dinner, mom never made anything fancy, but her food was
always good. She made a great Velveeta and tomato grilled cheese with Campbell’s tomato
soup. I don’t know anyone who didn’t grow up eating that grilled cheese and tomato
soup combination, but something about my mom’s version was special—at least to me.
Lunch also brought the first convergence of food and my eventual career, via Soupy
Sales, a comedian I grew up watching on TV. He had a kids show on at noon on ABC. There
was a segment called “What’s for Lunch?”
“Mom, Soupy is having a tuna patty melt . . .” I’d shout across the kitchen so my mom
would make me one, too. Since this was before I started kindergarten, I had a standing
lunch date every day with Soupy. I’d eat my lunch glued to his show, wondering what it
would be like to be just like him someday.
I gained an early interest in cooking from both of my parents, but my mom was my true
inspiration. Whenever she was cooking, I liked helping her out. I enjoyed the process of
gathering the food and ingredients, putting it all together and voilà! Like magic there
was a delicious meal on the table. The meals in our house were never fancy but they were
Sundays were either a pot roast with potatoes or a roasted chicken with green beans. On
occasion, Mom might make pork chops or oxtail stew with dumplings. As I’ve gotten older, I
thought about those meals many times over the years, trying to recall the tastes and
flavors I enjoyed so much as a kid. I really loved my mother’s cooking. To this day I
still crave her macaroni and cheese, her Jamaican black-eyed peas and rice and her amazing
It was an unwritten rule in our house to never bother her while she was cooking. The
only exception was when she was making her Sweet Potato Poon for the holidays. This was a
crustless pie—well, more like a soufflé than a traditional pie—with marshmallows all over
the top, which she would finish by putting in the oven to brown. Every year, one of us
kids would do something to distract her from opening the oven door so that the
marshmallows would catch fire. Then she would yell at us to get out as the smoke detector
blared overhead. It wasn’t Thanksgiving until that old smoke detector went off.
I am amazed to think she created our huge holiday feasts in our tiny kitchen, using a
single oven and a four-burner stove. Thanksgiving brought fourteen or sixteen people into
our home. We’d put every leaf in our expandable wooden dining room table, and we’d still
need a card table for the extra people who just stopped by.
When it came to food, my mother and I were perfectly simpatico. She used it as a reward
and I liked to eat. My rewards ranged from a bag of M&Ms to smoked salmon with cream
cheese. I didn’t have a particularly sophisticated or discriminating palate back then. In
fact, one of my favorite snacks was sliced bananas with sour cream, sprinkled with sugar
and cinnamon on top.
By the time I was seven or eight years old, I’d gone from being a solid boy to a pretty
chubby kid. It seemed as though all of the sudden I was shopping in the husky boys’
section of the local department store.
Like I was going to be strapped to a dog sled and forced to run the Iditarod.
When I first started gaining weight, I thought it was normal. Lots of other kids in our
neighborhood looked just like me, so I didn’t have anything else to compare myself to. By
the time I was in the seventh grade, I had a real weight problem—but no one ever talked
about it. My parents never gave me a hard time or pushed me to get out of the house and do
something active. I was one of those kids who liked sitting around reading comic books,
tinkering with old TVs or making my own movies. Today, I’d be a video game geek.
Thankfully, they didn’t have those kinds of devices when I was a kid, so at least I had to
focus my creativity on other things.
I went to St. Catherine of Sienna, a Catholic school in St. Albans, Queens. In between
seventh grade and eighth grade, I was chosen to take part in a summer program run by the
Jesuits for “underprivileged” kids, called the Higher Achievement Program or HAP. Kids who
did well in that summer program were offered a full scholarship at a Jesuit high school.
Make no mistake, for a lower-middle-class family, paying for six kids in Catholic
school was no joke. But my parents felt it was a better education and worth the sacrifice.
Besides offering a great opportunity for a Jesuit education, HAP had a kick-ass free
lunch. I was in!
I did well, but because I wasn’t the most physically active kid (and did I mention the
really, really kick-ass free lunch?), I gained a little more weight. Sure, I played
some basketball, but lacking height, speed, any dribbling skills, a hook shot or a jumper,
I was mostly used to clog the lane.
I was offered a scholarship to Xavier High School in Manhattan. This was a Big Deal.
Xavier High School was and is one of the best high schools, public or private, in New York
City. It was also, at the time, a military academy, with full military uniforms.
I became painfully aware that I was having a weight issue when I had to get my school
uniform and they didn’t have any that fit me. The uniforms were very expensive, so
graduating students often donated their uniforms to hand down to incoming students like
me. But since none of those fit, my parents had to scrape up about three hundred bucks to
buy me a new set.
I started high school in the fall of 1968 and I fell right into a routine. When I went
to school in Queens, I took a city bus or could walk to school. Now I had to take a bus
and a subway into Manhattan, to Sixteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. I would get up around
six a.m. and have breakfast, sometimes with my dad, then head into Manhattan to get to
school by seven forty-five. Sometimes I would get in early enough to grab a candy bar at
the deli down the street from school. For the long trip home I usually had a candy bar or
two to fortify me, then a snack during homework and then dinner. Hey, Mom, did the dry
cleaner’s shrink this uniform? It’s feeling a little snug.
As I entered my sophomore year, my parents were concerned I was putting on too much
weight. Always a stocky kid, I was moving into the actual heavy category. It was right
around this time that my mother received a flyer in the mail from my dad’s health
insurance company. Like a lot of municipal workers, he belonged to the Health Insurance
Plan of Greater New York or HIP, a precursor to the dreaded health maintenance
organization or HMO. In exchange for free or low-cost health care, you went to clinics.
Well, our local HIP office was offering a weight-loss clinic just for teens. Damn you,
HIP. You and your outreach to ever-expanding teens.
This “program” was my first organized diet and consisted mainly of celery sticks,
cottage cheese and rye crackers. It was basically a rip-off of Weight Watchers. You came
in once a week, weighed in and talked about your challenges with a counselor and a group
of your peers.
There were two problems.
- It was very hard to stick with it because it was bland and boring and it left me
hungry all of the time.
- The counselor was a woman in her thirties who was overweight herself. I’m going to
take advice from her? And then talk to a bunch of kids who all looked like me? This was
doomed from the start.
Sure, I lost five pounds initially, but it was so stressful, I began stopping at the
candy store by the bus stop on my way home from the meetings and I put the weight right
Now this was just about the time that Bill Cosby introduced his character Fat Albert.
As a kid, I was a huge fan of Bill Cosby. The second album I ever bought was his classic
Why Is There Air? (Just in case you’re wondering, the first album I bought was
Alvin and the Chipmunks Sing the Beatles. . . .but that’s another story!)
Fat Albert first appeared in Cosby’s stand-up routine, then in 1969, he showcased the
character in a half hour prime-time special entitled Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. I
remember watching it and being enamored with the animation, before a horrible rush fell
In a split second, I realized that I was Fat Albert.
I was black, fat and named . . . gulp. . . Albert!
My life was over.
This was the worst thing that could have happened to me.
My head was spinning from the thought of having to go to school the next day. I
panicked, knowing every one of my schoolmates was home watching this special like I was. I
tried to come up with a good excuse to avoid going to school the next morning, but none
came to mind. My mom would never believe I was suddenly “sick.”
The next day, I went into the cafeteria at Xavier, terrified to be there. Of course,
not so terrified that I couldn’t stop to buy something to eat. Much to my surprise, no one
said a word at first. “Well, maybe nobody saw the show,” I thought. But within five
seconds of that wishful thinking, I heard eight or ten guys shout out, “Hey, hey,
I could feel my heart hit my toes as I lowered my head in shame.
I spent the rest of that week enduring everyone’s imitations of Fat Albert. I did my
best to hide my true feelings by laughing along with everyone else, but on the inside, I
was dying. I am sure I had been teased before about my weight, but it had never been the
subject of a national television show before. This was much worse. I knew I was chunky but
I never felt bad about my weight because I wasn’t unusual. I had friends in school who
were the same size I was, so I didn’t give it a lot of thought. It’s not like people
stopped and pointed at me for being so fat. My focus wasn’t really on my weight so much as
it was on the things that were of interest to me—especially as I got older.
Xavier High School fed my love of media. I did all kinds of extracurricular activities.
Athletics, not so much. But I joined the newspaper staff and the yearbook. I was on the
Audio Visual Squad. (If there was a projector that lost its loop, I could rethread it at a
moment’s notice!) We even had a closed-circuit TV channel that I worked on. To support my
burgeoning love of film and photography, which needed a steady supply of cameras and
accessories, I knew I needed to augment my allowance, so I got an after school job.
This was not just any job. For a food-obsessed teenager, this was a dream job. It was
literally right across the street from Xavier’s back door. It was a place called A to Z
Vending. It was a small vending machine company, and it was my job to fill the boxes that
the guys would take to the vending machines in offices across Manhattan.
Can you comprehend the magnitude of this job? Every day I went up and down the many
long aisles that were lined with every conceivable snack and candy bar known to man in
1969. Vending-machine sizes of Lorna Doones and Oreos, 3 Musketeers and M&Ms. Packs of
crackers with cheddar cheese and Fritos Corn Chips.
I was making minimum wage, but maximum snackage. I never had to stop at a deli or candy
store for the remainder of my high school years. Of course, I did. But I didn’t have to! I
literally was like a kid in a candy store. What, I gained more weight through high school?
To paraphrase Captain Renault, “I am shocked. Shocked to find that uncontrolled eating is
going on here!”
By the time I got to college at SUNY Oswego in 1972, I had very little self-esteem and
absolutely no self-control. I hadn’t had any luck with girls in high school, I didn’t feel
like I looked all that good and now I was six hours from home in rural upstate New York.
But then I found an old, trusted friend.
When I found out that I was allowed to eat as much as I wanted at every meal, it was
like hitting the lottery! There was unlimited food and I could take whatever I
wanted . . . seconds . . . thirds . . . or more. They even had something I’d never seen
before: small individual boxes of cereal in a dispenser—all of the cereals I never got to
eat as a kid! Hello, my old pal, Tony the Tiger. Yo, Dig ’Em Frog, whassup? Tell Toucan
Sam to meet us at my dorm room for a par-tay!!!
To be clear, it wasn’t just my poor food choices making me fat. I didn’t realize the
quantity of food I was consuming either. If I went to McDonald’s, it was impossible for me
to order a plain cheeseburger and small fries. I had to get two Quarter Pounders with
cheese, two orders of large fries and a large vanilla shake.
I know what you’re thinking. But at the time, I had no clue. When I got to college I
weighed somewhere around two hundred pounds—looking back at it, not a horrible
weight for a guy my size. Unfortunately, by the end of freshman year, I had gained at
least twenty-five pounds. But I always wore loose clothing, primarily flannel shirts and
overalls, so despite my weight gain throughout the year, my clothes still fit. Snugger,
perhaps, but still wearable. By my sophomore year, I had ballooned to nearly two hundred
forty pounds. But something was about to change the course of my weight gain and future
career, kicking off what would become a never-ending struggle of yo-yo dieting and the
battle of the bulge.