I have always believed in hunches, in signs and symbols, in the universe sending me a message. The day of the Roadfood Festival I ignored everything. God Himself would have had to come down from the heavens and hit me over the head with a skillet to make me pay attention to the troubles brewing in the near future.
The first ominous sign was when Michael and I drove from Connecticut to East Rutherford, New Jersey. This was less than a two hour drive. We had directions, we had a map, we had a GPS. Something was terribly wrong because we could not find the Meadowlands. We drove in circles, and stopped every pedestrian we could. Apparently no one had ever heard of it.
This would be on the par with asking people in midtown Manhattan where the Empire State Building was and getting a shrug. Could the location of the Meadowlands be on a “need to know” basis? It takes a certain amount of magic to make the biggest thing in New Jersey disappear. This was a trick worthy of a Las Vegas magician.
When Michael and I get frustrated, we get angry with each other and point fingers. “I thought Stephen told you where it was,” Michael said.
“I think we should go home,” I countered.
“Because the Meadowlands had vanished?” he steamed.
“Yes!” I said in a snit. “That is exactly what has happened.”
By some divine intervention – or by a very cruel joke – we finally found the stadium. It was huge, but its vast parking lots were eerily empty. “Maybe it’s a different Meadowlands,” I said. “Located somewhere else, maybe it’s a chain?” Michael parked the car and we traipsed what seemed miles to the entrance gate.
The horror had only just begun.
We were greeted by what looked like a lynch mob. It was our Roadfood chefs who, having traversed the country with their supplies, had just been instructed by the “management” of the Meadowlands that they could not cook or serve anything. The megalithic national food service that supplied all the stadium’s edibles was going to prepare its own dreadful commissary versions of Texas BBQ brisket, Cape Cod fudge, chicken fried steaks, and Iowa sour cream pie, which our cooks were supposed to serve from their booths.
We could have spent all day trying to resolve this one situation, but then we saw Stephen up ahead motioning to us. “Only one of the Food Network people showed up,” he said.
“Why? We asked, and were given a litany of diva demands that had soured their appearances. Some wanted more money, some didn’t want to share the stage with chefs they hated. Paula Deen insisted on a private jet. And so it went.
But the biggest problem was just about to be revealed. Forget the food, forget the celebrities.
No one had come to the event. The Meadowlands stadium was empty. Try to imagine a venue that seats 85,000 with maybe 15 or 20 people in the first few rows.
You have never felt utter despair until you have seen yourself in an epic fail on the Jumbotron screen. Half the screen showed an empty stadium while the other half showed Stephen, Michael, and I, as huge as Thanksgiving parade balloons, sitting there doing pretty much nothing but staring off into space. We tried to get some color commentary about Roadfood going, but as we introduced ourselves, the twenty or so people occupying the few seats got up and left. They were Meadowlands employees on a coffee break.
It was a nightmare scenario to match such classics as What if you forget to take your last college exam? … or What if you are walking down a busy street and realize you are naked? This one was What if you had rented the Meadowlands but nobody came?
Reasons for the Roadfood festival disaster were many, containing just about every possible element except maybe an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The event had not been publicized; the guy who had offered to help Stephen book the venue turned out to be a crook; the Roadfood chefs were not told in advance they couldn’t cook; parking and admission fees were exorbitant; the Food Network Stars were prima donnas, and on and on. I would like to add that the Meadowlands is a sneaky shape shifter that disappears when innocent people try and find it, but that might be a bit too much information.
Stephen, Michael, and I went on to stage other Roadfood festivals over the years. Stephen had a knack for putting these events together and eventually made New Orleans a yearly destination. On the best years we had crowds of people wandering around the Roadfood booths in The French Quarter eating real delicacies made by our chefs. It was lots of fun, sometimes tiring but nothing as soul killing as the existential ass-whipping we took on the Meadowlands Jumbotron. I imagine the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa doubled over with laughter.