After my brother bought a copy of The Guinness Book of World Records, I spent an adolescent summer poring over it looking for records I might break. Ultimately, I participated in an attempt to stuff the most people in a Volkswagen—I was number 20 of 22—but that summer, shopping for breakable marks yielded few possibilities. Most records were so far beyond even a dreamer like me.
I discovered a man named Michael Lotito who ate bicycles and other inedible items, washing down pieces of metal and rubber with mineral oil and water. His stage name was Monsieur Mangetout (“Mr. Eat Everything”), and, for a couple of months, I could not sit down to a meal without thinking of him filing my ten-speed fine enough to add to his mashed potatoes. He sat next to me, grinning and scooping, drinking and belching petroleum smells. Apparently he liked the chains of bicycles best because they at least had a taste.
Sometimes he pops up in my imagination still, though more as a metaphor than as a man. Mr. Mangetout knew how to digest the indigestible. He made sure the shit hit the fan and knew how to pass it through that fan with minimal mess. He took pride in the impossible. He never met an obstacle he couldn’t ingest.
Of course, I don’t really want to be him. His biography on Wikipedia reveals that he died at 57 and most of his jobs were promotions for cheesy radio stations or dinky businesses. I can’t believe he actually made much money as an entertainer… if you call “entertainment” a lifetime of eating 18 bicycles, 15 shopping carts, 7 televisions, 6 Chandeliers, 2 beds , one pair of skis, a section of iron chain, a piece of the Eiffel Tower, a computer, a coffin, and a Cessna aircraft.
The Cessna took two years.
Nonetheless, there’s something indomitable in his story. It’s a tale of lunacy—no doubt about it—but it also reveals an oddly playful perspective on life where humans are meant to reach past their limits and care little about risk. Much of The Guinness Book of World Records developed a similar theme: here are some crazy people not bound by convention. These people believe in aspiration for aspiration’s sake and could not tell you, and will not bother to tell you, why.
I’m not one of those people. Maybe I was more then—and maybe the whole country was more then—but I’m certainly not now. I lead a safe life, and, while I don’t lick my lips as a small plane buzzes overhead, I do sometimes wish I had a little more Monsieur Mangetout in me. Not the eating part, but the believing anything is possible part, the part that says humanity’s limits are largely imagined.
I’m not thinking about breaking records anymore.