The World’s Best: Part 1

Thanks for the 69 likes, Facebook friends!!! :’)

This is a story about world records, kind of. I hadn’t touched it in like a year or so, but last night I RaNdOmLy wrote 8 more pages of it, so in order to keep some kind of momentum going, I encouraged myself to post the beginning part on the Internet. So.

I’m sorry that it is not yet Shrek fanfic, but you, dear friends, can make that happen.

Last summer, I worked at the Guinness Book of World Records. The New York office, to be specific. The main one is in London.

On most normal workdays, my boss and Rick would chat on the phone with Mindy the boss in London about biggest, smallest, most, fastest, and heaviest things there are while I sat at my desk, drank coffee, checked Facebook intermittently, and accomplished such tasks as sorting, reading, and categorizing approximately 50,000 applications for records that people thought should be officially included in the 2016 edition of the Guinness Book. World’s longest rope of Cheerios. World’s strongest hamster. World’s silentest, yet deadliest, fart.

I came to work for the Guinness Book of World Records because my uncle’s best friend Rick — the aforementioned Rick — works there and heard I’m a really bright kid, which was a nice thing for my uncle to tell him. I was planning on spending the summer home in the suburbs, just like I had done last summer, and the summer before that, and all the summers before that except the time I went to soccer camp in Michigan. But my parents encouraged me to break out of that routine, thinking that the internship experience would be somehow more valuable than smoking decent weed in my shitty car all summer, which is what they assumed I’d be doing if I didn’t take the internship, and which I admittedly did a lot anyway while working at the Guinness Book of World Records.

Andrés was kind of pissed, though. He told me it was fine, as any good friend would, but our friendship took on a somewhat more awkward flavor after I went to New York for the summer, and I was able to ascertain that his aloneness at Gimme A Wich was to blame.

My friendship with Andrés dated back to the second grade, and for the previous four summers, we’d worked at Gimme A Wich together, in a tradition that we had long considered the last, best defense of our best-friendship against a world that had sent us to different cities, assigned us different bands to care about, and designated that Andrés would be pre-med, which meant that he had to renounce such worldly vices as “communication” in order to dedicate himself as close to completely as possible to Science.

Gimme A Wich — our bread-scented Eden-Turned-Purgatory — was this sandwich shop that me and Andrés had frequented in middle school because it was right between our houses and because we were allowed to bike there by ourselves, around 10 minutes each, without our parents getting angsty about Stranger Danger™. They had a pinball machine there, which is awesome if you’re a middle schooler, which me and Andrés once were (as were many), but fucking horrid if you’re 20 and your friend Nate left you to listen to the ping, ping, pyeeeeeeewwww, GRRRRRRRNK of the pinball machine all summer, as well as to make excruciating small talk with the manager, Joey Brennan, who always tells customers to “go ahead and have a totally righteous day,” and who only ever talks about the TV show Bones. Also, it’s even worse if your friend Nate had promised to talk to the fake ID guy he knew from school, but Nate had in fact not come through on that promise because of circumstances that were absolutely outside of his control, but regardless of intention leaving you boozeless and friendless your last summer before turning 21, and leaving you to curse both Nate (that’s me, in case that isn’t already clear) and the bouncer who confiscated your cousin Luis’ expired Indiana driver’s license.

I was planning to do it all with him again — we were going to get increasingly furious at how loud the pinball machine was, and at how it seemed like there was a never-ending deluge of grubby tweens loudly operating it while getting barbecue sauce all over its fucking knobs. We were going to get increasingly frustrated with having to utter the phrase “Slammin’ Salami Sammie” to describe one of the most popular menu items. And we were going to get increasingly resentful of the cheesy 60s stoner den reminiscent décor — the Dark Side of the Moon poster above the register, the lava lamp next to the condiments, the pinball machine, and especially the The Who poster hanging above the pinball machine. Get it? Pinball Wizard? That’s a song by The Who.

But even for as objectively unpleasant as Gimme A Wich was, me and Andrés got to hang out together, and in some ways it was kind of just like middle school, except now we’d both had Actual Sex, and we both knew that marijuana and weed are the same exact thing and that furthermore buying weed did not involve handing a manila envelope filled with stacks of large bills to a skinny man who you know only by the name of “Fat Dan” who made you meet him behind an abandoned butcher shop to Complete The Transaction.

And instead of longing to beat the high score on the pinball machine, we now longed to beat the pinball machine with hammers, inflicting upon it the slow and painful death that we felt it deserved.

It’s not like I wasn’t looking forward to another good-naturedly resentful summer of sandwich assembly — I was. But I emailed Rick anyway. I sent him my resume (Implemented Local Pickle Of The Month program at Gimme A Wich sandwich shop, collaborating with local pickle makers to offer customers an ever-changing variety of unique local pickles) as well as a cover letter. After a few weeks, he called me on the phone and congratulated me for winning the world record for Best Internship in The World.

It’s like they always say at the Northwestern University Career Advancement Center — if you have a choice between a Good Opportunity and an opportunity to kind of hate your job at Gimme A Wich for the fourth summer in a row, the Good Opportunity should win out, pragmatically speaking. That’s pragmatism. Pragmatism, as they say, is good. The team over at Guinness had been really impressed by my academic and extracurricular accomplishments, as well as my genuine passion for world records, which the Northwestern University Career Advancement Center was just thrilled to hear.

Andrés knew I was kind of obsessed with world records for a while as a kid — he was there, and also he was into them for a bit too, it wasn’t just me, even if it was mostly me — so when I told him I was going to be working there over the summer instead of working at Gimme A Wich, he was like that’s hilarious, it totally figures. His mind probably went straight to the third grade Scholastic Book Fair, where I first picked up a copy of the Guinness Book, and to the class-wide world record mania that ensued.

When the Book Fair came to Pine Valley Elementary, I was sure that I’d never experience a greater joy. The gym got turned into something like a magical library where all the books were kids’ books and all the shelves were conveniently at eye level.

By sixth grade, I’d decide that the concept of “kids books” was inherently condescending, but as a third grader, I was still a starry-eyed little weirdo who secretly hadn’t entirely given up on receiving an acceptance letter from Hogwarts on my 11th birthday. Which I did not. I know — you’re shocked.

Furthermore, I had figured out how to participate in the Pine Valley Elementary spectacle very effectively. I was good enough at sports such as to not draw too much attention to myself during recess, I had memorized an impressive arsenal of Spongebob Squarepants quotes (which at the time represented the pinnacle of humor), and everyone thought I was smart, because I had several polysyllabic adjectives in my conversational repertoire, and because I was often seen reading books of my own volition, Not Even For School Or Anything. Usually, smart only gets you so far in elementary school — but that changes on Book Fair Day. Book Fair Day was the first time I realized what it felt like to have good taste, and I have continued to chase that feeling for the rest of my life.

Usually on Book Fair Day I’d get a couple novels, also known as “chapter books,” maybe something in a series I had been working my way through. My friends would often ask me for recommendations, because they’d often see me reading something with small print and a lot of pages, so I must have known what I was talking about.

I always appeared really deep in concentration, I’m sure — partly because I concentrated deeply on the books, and partly because I had a nascent sense of the social currency of “interesting”, so I would read conspicuously, somewhat conscious of my furrowed brow and cartoonishly hunched back. I’m sure most of those books wouldn’t hold up on the reread, but at the time I literally couldn’t imagine a book being better than Eragon by Christopher Paolini. As such, I recommended Eragon (not only Eragon, but often Eragon) effusively to my classmates at the Book Fair. Oftentimes, my recommendations would go unheeded and my classmates would each leave with one of the Captain Underpants books, which… I’m sure were actually decent books. I mean, Andrés knew what books he liked, and they were all Captain Underpants, so he never took any of my recommendations, which infuriated me at the time. I thought he was missing out on several necessary cultural touchstones, but in retrospect I don’t think Eragon (or any of the other Best Books Ever from a nine-year-old’s perspective) would have changed his life that much.

Still, I remember once or twice trying to make the point that maybe if Eragon had cartoon underpants on the cover, he’d give it a shot. And I still don’t think I’m wrong about that, even though I’m well aware of the fact that if you picked up a book with cartoon underpants on the cover and then you started reading it and it was literally Eragon, it would be more than a little tonally jarring. But anyway, even at the time, I never took it too personally when no one listened to me, especially Andrés. Many classmates griped, for example, that Eragon was the “longest book ever”. However, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is the longest book ever. So you can’t take that stuff too personally.

On rare occasions, however, when I’d recommend a book to a classmate, that classmate would actually purchase (does it count as a “purchase,” terminologically speaking, if it’s your parents who are entirely responsible for the financial transaction?) the book I recommended and I never knew how to feel on those occasions. Somewhere between “proud to be a social influencer” and “uneasy for an unknowable reason.” When my longtime childhood crush Rebecca Weaver showed up to recess one day carrying a copy of Eragon, I bravely asked if she’d started reading the book, curious about if she liked it or not and what I should do if she didn’t. She told me, shut up Nate, I didn’t read this book because of you, this is my third time reading it, I read it before you ever did, I just don’t talk about it all the time like you do. Then she ran away and went back to talking to her best friend Madison Overgaard whose dad Dr. Overgaard was my dentist. As I watched Rebecca whisper something in Madison’s ear while looking kind of in my direction, my young heart jumped. This, I knew, was love.

I was always a model patient for Dr. Overgaard, operating under the assumption that if I tried hard enough, perhaps I could find the key to Rebecca’s heart among the yo-yos in the waiting room’s plastic treasure chest filled with dentistry souvenirs — that is, perhaps I could convince Dr. Overgaard to convince Madison to convince Rebecca to someday kiss me on my extremely clean mouth. To this day I believe that my excellent dental hygiene is in part a function of my youthful infatuation with Rebecca Weaver.

Eighth grade was the year I finally asked Rebecca Weaver to a school dance, but third grade, the year of World Record Mania, in some ways set the stage for all of the years that would follow.

No one — especially not me — realized how much social capital I’d take home from the Book Fair with the Guinness Book. That’s because the thing about third graders is that they don’t know hardly anything at all, but they think they already basically know everything they’re ever going to know. In fact, I’ve found that mindset to be troublingly true of most age groups, up to and including Whiny Early Twentysomething Shitbags, which is the one to which I currently belong. But third graders, as a monolith, aren’t self-aware about how hugely stupid they are at all. This makes them especially easy to impress with world records, as well as especially excited about the concept of the world record itself.

When you’re in third grade you have no way of knowing that it’s all kind of bullshit no offense. You have no way of knowing the following origin story: The Guinness Book was founded by the same Guinness as Guinness Beer, and it all started because some proper-ass fellows were arguing about whether or not a certain bird (it doesn’t matter which bird) was the fastest bird in England, and then they were like “wouldn’t it be great if there was some sort of coffee table book to settle bar disputes, because that’s a thing that happens all the time?” and then one of them was like “is anyone ever gonna invent the internet?” and the other one was like “no,” and then they hired two fact-finding brothers to make the reference book of their dreams happen so that bar disputes over stupid facts — which happened all the time before Google fixed everything — could be settled with a book, not a fistfight.

When you’re in third grade you also have no way of knowing that, once you’re older, you’ll maybe gain some clarity on the matter and realize that a lot of the incredible feats in the book are neither that impressive nor particularly hotly contested. When you’re in third grade you have know way of knowing that the coffee machine at Guinness headquarters breaks every couple of days, or that Rick keeps trying to get everyone to come to board game night.

That last one, no one really needs to know. Every time a “fan” came to visit the offices, they’d come in the door all excited but leave looking uneasy that the Guinness offices look pretty much just like the offices where they spend all day sorting the red files from the blue files, or whatever it is that they do. If you’re expecting a lot from the office, it’s disappointing. If you’re just delivering food to it or something, it’s… you know, fine.

Guinness has pretty much got the same set-up as any Midtown office space. The walls of the Guinness offices are certainly a little remarkable, I suppose, because by way of decoration, they are adorned with photographs of various feats of human excellence. If you didn’t have a concept of what Guinness did, and you just stumbled into the office, you would be absolutely unable to ascertain what it is they do there. What could a giant pizza signify in an office setting — could this be Papa Johns headquarters? But then… what about the man with a lot of fingers and toes? Is that Papa John? No, probably not… and what about the very, very old woman? Who is she? Not all world records are created equal, and the photos that line the office walls certainly reflect that reality.

Some are easier to win than others. “Biggest pizza” would certainly be challenging and would require a whole lot of coordination between an enthusiastic bunch of people, but it’s technically possible for anyone with the ingredients and the space, and I guess a giant oven — though I don’t actually know if the guidelines say that the pizza has to be baked in order for it to count as the biggest one. The establishment of that criterion would really depend how one defines pizza. If pizza becomes pizza at the moment that all the pizza ingredients are put together, then you don’t need a giant oven to make the biggest pizza. However, if it’s only pizza once someone would actually consider eating it, then you need an oven, or perhaps some other makeshift method of accomplishing your ridiculous task. Though if pizza is only pizza once baked, then are you saying that frozen pizza is not pizza, but is in fact pre-pizza? Point is — you can imagine a world in which you could make the biggest pizza. You could do that. If you were so inclined.

“Most fingers and toes” couldn’t be you, unless you’re one very specific person — Devendra Suthar from India, to be precise, who has 28, which is a lot, and whose photo is over by the copy machine. But you’re probably not him. And you’ve pretty much got the most fingers and toes you’re ever going to have, and if anything, that number might go down, so you’re definitely, officially out of the running for that world record.

I’m sure having the most fingers and toes must make Devendra’s life in some senses more interesting than most, but… you shouldn’t feel too bad about being cosmically disqualified, because Devendra received basically the same award as whoever’s “biggest pizza.” Their blurbs in the record book are the same length, at least.

Then there’s also, of course, “oldest living person,” which is, in my opinion, a very different category than the other two. The team over at Guinness thinks so too, so it takes up a little more space in the record book. It’s even such an important category that they split it into two subcategories: oldest living man and oldest living woman. There’s no category for “biggest pizza made by a man” or “most fingers and toes on a woman.” But “ladies,” roughly speaking, tend to live longer than “dudes,” roughly speaking.

I felt significant anxiety when I learned that fact at a young age. In a moment of pre-misogynistic misogyny, I truly believed myself to belong to the oppressed gender. I would probably die sooner! How’s that fair?? Even today, I sometimes remember the fact that women have a longer life expectancy than men do, and think something fucked up like “maybe that’s why men oppressed them for so long.” I hope someday I outgrow myself and stop thinking things like that. Point is — Guinness rewards longevity.

However, you get more or less the same thing if you make the biggest pizza as if you live the most years out of anyone on earth. Regardless of what it is, whatever lengths you went to in order to accomplish it, it’s still just the Guinness world record of that particular category. You get rewarded the same if you live for the longest possible amount of time as if you amass a whole lot of cheese and crust and sauce (and maybe an oven). All the certificates are printed in the same typeface. The mission statement of the Guinness Book of World Records is “to make the amazing official.” Isn’t that fucked up?

Not in third grade, it’s not.