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Since 1971, when United Nations Secretary-General U Thant proclaimed March 21 International Earth Day, the U.N. has celebrated the first day of spring by ringing the Peace Belland sitting for two minutes in quiet prayer and reflection for the Earth. This year, the U.N. Security Council convened to discuss humanitarian aid for Iraq. I don't know if they rang the bell, but I do know that spring arrived, regardless. The center of the sun crossed the celestial equator, as it always does, allowing an equal proportion of light and darkness to fall upon the world. With day and night evenly balanced, farmers began harvesting broccoli and preparing the soil for warm-weather crops; neo-pagans around the world began ringing bells, lighting fires, and painting cosmic eggs for Eostre, the Teutonic lunar goddess represented by the bunny. Near my father's current home in Oregon, the sparrows appeared on the tail of a warm spring shower; the sky turned black with a tornado of wings that vanished into a large dormant chimney like smoke from a genie's bottle, and a woman passed out bundles of fresh asparagus tied with yellow ribbons to welcome the sparrows and the season. In Santa Rosa, my old friend Manny Hellingerprepared for his annual Springtime Egg Suckingcelebration.
Oh, if only sucking eggs were truly the goal.
Sadly, what began as Hellinger's tribute to spring and personal rebuttal to Easter has devolved into a neighborhoodwide catastrophe of consumption. If you've never seen an eating competition, there's really no nice way to describe it.
"It's fucking disgusting," says Tahlia Hellinger, Manny's ruggedly beautiful partner of 12 years, as she plops yet another dozen hard-boiled eggs into a bowl. "But they love it. Love, love, love it. Manny says it gets him in touch with his white-trash roots."
Dressed in overalls, a bib, and a baseball cap, Manny emerges from his home and crosses to a mutually agreed upon lawn where a banquet table has been set up along with a row of rickety lawn chairs. Neighbors greet him with jovial hellos, all except for Sam Jerczynski, a similarly aged punk rocker who levels Hellinger with a Dirty Harry squint.
"It always comes down to Manny and Sam," explains Jerczynski's girlfriend.
The small crowd grows into a slightly larger small crowd mixed with kids and dogs and Coors. Someone cranks up AC/DC's Highway to Hell on the car stereo. Tahlia and her best friend place six bowls of hard-boiled eggs on the table, and six competitors take their positions.
"This is Squeak's first time," explains Tahlia, "but she can really pack it away, believe me."
Sarah Mills, aka Squeaky, is a tiny little thing with blond hair, a tattered straw cowboy hat, and white tennis shoes that look two sizes too big, but all the women agree she's strong as an ox and can eat until the cows come home.
"On your mark," shouts a local mechanic who says he prefers beer to eggs, "get set, go!"
The six opponents begin shoveling eggs into their mouths while friends and family cheer and jeer them on. One, two, three down without a hint of difficulty. By the fifth, their distinct styles begin to emerge: Hellinger shoves the egg into his mouth whole and swallows with only a couple of chews; Jerczynski uses two hands to keep the egg-flow constant and chomps at an inhuman speed; Mills opts for three dainty, systematic bites; competitor No. 4, who looks like an insurance salesman, seems to do well using beer as egg-eating lubrication; competitor No. 5 winds up with more egg down his shirt than down his throat; and No. 6 is out before his eighth egg.
"How many are they going to eat?" I ask, feeling my stomach churn as yellowish yolk spittle runs down Manny's chin.
"As many as they can before Mike calls time," says Thalia. I look around for Mike and spot him wrestling with the beer cooler. Eleven, 12 eggs. For a minute Jerczynski looks like he might lose it -- regurgitation is known as "a reversal" in competitive-eating parlance and usually results in immediate disqualification, but at Manny's Springtime Suck, you can keep eating eggs as long as you want to, barf be damned. Thankfully, I am spared this exception as Mike finally gets the beer cooler open and, after taking a long swig, calls time.
Counters for the three remaining contestants sound off.
Hellinger's 7-year-old runs in the house and re-emerges with the coveted Springtime Suck Bad Egg, an iron orb embedded with barbed wire, which Jerczynski waves at Hellinger while strutting around like a rooster.
"You deserve it, man," says Hellinger, letting out a huge belch. "Hmmm ... smells like spring."
"Welcome to the sticks," says Tahlia, rolling her eyes.
"How many of y'all wanna see Tiffany get down on her knees right here and now and eat this pie?" asks Consuelo Ramirez, who is dressed as Hekzebiah Hawkins, the hillbilly pappy from Li'l Abner, who spent all his livelong days trying to get his homely daughter hitched. In keeping with the theme, Club Galiahas been spruced up for the Sadie Hawkins Dance: Garlands of brightly colored construction paper hang from the balcony; big paper daisies, chickens, and ducks adorn the walls; all the bartenders are missing their front teeth; and, for a few minutes, a young woman kneels in the center of the dance floor with her hands behind her back and her face buried in a pie dish. The crowd claps cheerfully and moves back onto the dance floor for a Johnny Cashtune. Cowboy hats, tight bluejeans, gingham skirts, and pigtails abound, but there's something amiss.