Last November, I went to the friends and family soft-opening of a sleek ’70/’80s-inspired bar on the Lower East Side. I was led to a low-slung, padded, backless stool wedged next to a sofa. I asked if I could instead post up at the bar but the bespoke bar seats, all sleek chrome and rich chocolate leather, proved challenging to casually mount, and I was unable to sit back due to the narrow curved sides of the padded, slim-fit seat. For the next two hours I did my best to chat with the bartender, sip the bar’s elegant drinks, and soak up the overall vibe, but was literally on the edge of my seat, worried the whole time that I was going to either break or slide off the very expensive-looking barstool. All of the stylish people in the room seemed at home. But in a room designed to make everyone feel sexy and glamorous in the throwback style of Andy Warhol and Grace Jones-era New York, I felt anything but.

You don’t get as big as I am overnight. It happens gradually as years of unhealthy choices reveal themselves in a steady increase in the waistband, and as the “X” in the XL tag in your sweater expands from a solo-act to a full-on quartet. I still like to think of myself as “husky,” which sounds a lot more folksy than “fat,” but I know I’m being delusional as I’m more accurately among the 39.6 percent of U.S. adults who are obese.

I’ve had wake-up calls — like the last time I actually weighed myself a few years ago and literally cried. I’ve tried intermittent fasting and do my best to walk as much as I can. But no matter what I do it’s just a drop in the ocean. Carrying this extra weight comes with frequent sweating, shortness of breath, sore muscles, achy knees, an awkward gait. (“Buddy, when did you start limping?” asked a friend I hadn’t seen in a minute when we were crossing the street.) All of which makes me about as flexible as a loaded cargo ship executing a 180-degree turn.

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I haven’t had health insurance or visited a doctor’s office since I left my job in the publishing industry in 2017. On my last appointment the nurse seemed shocked as she adjusted the scale to record my weight, optimistically commenting that I “carried it well.” My doctor was less than sympathetic and borderline cruel. Waving off my promises to watch what I eat and pledges to exercise, they went straight to recommending bariatric surgery. I even attended a presentation at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, which thoroughly depressed me. Midway through, when the doctor mentioned I would never again be able to eat a piece of steak without irreparable damage to my “new body,” I grabbed my jacket and exited the auditorium. A future without Keens wasn’t any kind of existence I’d want to be a part of.

Yet even in a world with porterhouse steaks, the often uncomfortable reality of life is far from perfect and not without its share of hidden challenges. What has affected me more than the stigma toward overweight guests at bars and restaurants is often reflected through the unintentional lack of hospitality within the room itself — the chairs, the stools, the booths, and the narrow pathway between tables. Bars have always been my sanctuary, a democratic community where everyone is welcome to disappear among the crowd. But when you literally can’t fit in, you’re left with nowhere else to go.

Boy, You’re Gonna Carry That Weight

My struggle with the way I look also presents obstacles to my livelihood. I know I can’t blame being fat as an occupational hazard, as there are plenty of healthy and physically fit food and drink writers. But on top of the many evenings I spend frequenting bars and restaurants, actually writing about all these cocktails and bars while sitting at my desk all day is a sedentary affair.

Part of being a “public figure” as a writer and an author also requires a constant churn of self-promotion and side hustles (online talks, speaking engagements, book signings, amari tastings, staff trainings, educational seminars), which puts me in the crosshairs of potential criticism based on my appearance. For every unsaid thought or comment left in the “Drafts” folder, there are people cruel enough to actually weigh in. Like the time I appeared in a promotional video filmed at the Campari Academy in Milan sharing my thoughts on why America is mad for amaro. I was already anxious enough about appearing on camera, but was devastated when someone took the time to type: “I thought this was a talk on amaro, not an audition for ‘The Biggest Loser.'” (I know, don’t read the comments…)

Feeling confident about my appearance and the ability to dress for the occasion remains a constant challenge. I do my best to maintain a rumpled but presentable work-from-home writer’s uniform of jeans, untucked oxford, and chore jacket, but in a world of vanity sizing I haven’t been able to buy clothes off the shelf in years. And the size-inclusive options I have to buy online may seem to be abundant but are in fact quite limiting.

When I’m invited to an event or a venue where a jacket is required or the dress code is “smart” I’m inclined to pass. Finding pants and shirts and jackets that fit me (somewhat) remains a challenge, but now socks are tight around my ankles, wristwatches are snug and require an extra link or two or an extra long band, and even replacing my favorite ’70s-era Seattle Mariners ball cap requires careful consideration. I’ve always had a big head so prefer fitted caps, but apparently my 7-3/4-inch noggin exceeds the “one size fits most” (not all, mind you) of snap-back or flex hats.

Not to make this a self-spiraling pile-on, but the personal degradation I deal with as a big guy — and I realize women with similar issues have it much worse than men — has only increased, limiting many things I used to take for granted and stripping spontaneity out of my life. Beyond the overall indignity of flying these days (and the look of exasperation when a fellow passenger sees me heading toward their seat), my high-anxiety is triggered worrying if I’ll actually fit into the seat. And if the airline ever lost my bag I would be helpless in a world where nothing fits off the rack. Sometimes I feel like I’m 10 pounds away from going full-on muumuu like late-era Marlon Brando.

Theaters, stadiums, and arenas also typically have notoriously narrow seats to maximize capacity and sell more tickets. I can still enjoy going to the movies, but know which theaters have snug seats (and anything with an attached table is like squeezing into an Apollo-era space capsule). I haven’t seen a stage play in over a decade, and the last time I saw my beloved Knicks play at the Garden I thought I was going to pass out — not from the action on the court or too many Miller Lites, but from the fixed armrests piercing my internal organs.

Writing about Italian drinking culture is my passion. But for all its history, beauty, style, and excellent food, whenever I’m in Italy I dread the tiny elevators, tight showers, lack of air conditioning, and endless staircases. By now I’m used to being a sweaty mess and expect to be embarrassed when, during a tour of a production facility, I see the look on my host’s face searching for the largest disposable lab coat for me to slip on. In Italy, that equates to a slim-cut medium; struggling to pull it over my frame invariably makes me resemble Bruce Banner mid-transformation into the Hulk.

While visiting the Braulio production facility with a group of international bartenders in Bormio, the itinerary called for a “casual morning hike” with a forager to identify some of the local ingredients used to make the famed alpine amaro. It was already quite warm in the morning sun and I was squeezed into the branded windbreaker we were all encouraged to wear for a group photo that sealed me in like a cotechino sausage.

The walk started off fairly level and I had a “You can do this, Brad…” mantra repeating through my mind as we ambled along the side of the road. But soon we were slowly ascending along a circuitous path up the side of an actual alpine mountain for what turned into what felt like a nearly six-mile expedition. The view was incredible and I kept telling myself everything was OK. But when faced with one final steep incline I gave up and stayed behind to catch my breath, telling the group I’d catch up with them. Everyone was waiting for me at the top and cheering me on like the last guy finishing a marathon as my knees wobbled uncontrollably. It felt like I was inhaling fiberglass into my lungs — my already flushed face grew Campari-red with equal parts anger and embarrassment. The last thing I wanted was more attention focused on my plight. I survived, but truly felt like I was moments away from our guide having to call in an alpine helicopter rescue.

Speaking of helicopters, during a press trip in France our host greeted us in the lobby as we were checking out of our hotel in Bordeaux to make the 60-mile drive to Cognac. Instead of taking the sprinter van per the itinerary, they surprised us (for me: ambushed) with the giddy announcement we’d be ferried to the countryside chateau in two helicopters. Everyone was thrilled but I was somber on the ride to the airport. Sure enough, as the pilots were splitting up our party to balance out the weight I could see them whispering to each other while pointing at me. “How many stones?” the pilot asked me, pointing to my midsection. “Many stones,” I said, trying to find some humor amid the shame — wishing I could instead ride in the van carrying our luggage for the scenic drive to Cognac. It’s an amazing opportunity to be invited to travel to destinations around the world, but these days I usually politely decline because my own shame and anxiety about my body outweighs any potential enjoyment.

Not Everyone Can Carry the Weight of the World

The award-winning food writer and author Josh Ozersky — who died at age 47 in 2015 while in Chicago to attend the James Beard Awards — celebrated his life of carnivorous gluttony while also chronicling work-related hazards of his job, including high cholesterol and gout. Ozersky was insightfully aware of the public’s attitude toward overweight people and the self-hatred that follows. “The fact of fatness shouldn’t be tantamount to an ignominious end; if you’re fat, there’s a sense that you sort of deserve to die,” he once said. And in his TIME magazine story “The Glutton’s Diet,” Ozersky wrote about trying to lose weight: “the shame and guilt that are hard-wired into every fat person, the sense of acute self-loathing that keeps us away from mirrors and public spaces.”

Whether as a coping mechanism or a jaunty devil-may-care attitude, there are many big fellas I’ve encountered who lean into the reality of their situation, either with a larger-than-life Falstaffian attitude or the self-mocking, jester-like behavior of Chris Farley channeling “Fat Guy in a Little Coat.” They embrace their plus-sized personalities and take on any occasion with gusto.

I can’t move throughout life incognito because of the actual space I occupy. While I psychologically try to shrink myself down and convince myself that everything will be OK, that reverie is shattered when I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror and don’t recognize the person looking back at me. But there’s no hiding from the very real pain and cruelty caused by the stigma and stereotypes about being overweight — whether it’s a cop in an NYPD cruiser cutting through an intersection shouting “Move it, you fat f**k!” as I cross the street, or when a larger person in a TikTok video gets dunked on in the comments from simply showing how narrow her expensive seat was at an NBA playoff game — “How about a salad?” “Diet!” “Hmmm, everyone else seems to fit into their seats.”

Whatever happened to showing an ounce of compassion?

Most of my friends don’t address my weight (at least not around me) and when they do, they try to be supportive, albeit via different approaches. When I was having the worst pain in one of my knees and couldn’t walk several blocks without having to stop, my good friend Mike shipped me an exercise mat and put together a detailed Powerpoint presentation with various stretches to practice. He later sent me a top-notch exercise bike and even came over to assemble it for me. Other friends have sent me links to weight-loss stories or have encouraged me to go on Ozempic, and believe me I would if it wasn’t for my lack of health insurance. But the instances of tough love from important people in my life, despite their good intentions, just made me feel even worse about myself.

Someone who plays an important role in my writing career invited me to dinner. I thought we were just catching up, but after suggesting I order a salad rather than a steak, he got very serious and laid it all out for me, somberly addressing how my weight presents challenges to advancement opportunities. “The next time you get a wake-up call, BTP, you ain’t gonna be around to pick up the phone,” he said, even offering to pay for a personal trainer.

A well-known chef and dear friend of mine who has undergone his own weight loss transformation, turned the occasion of a couple of late-night beers into a well-intended, but no-holds-barred intervention. He googled himself and the first result was a publicity photo of him at his biggest. “This is what the world sees when they search my name,” he said. “But I would never want that to disappear because I still love that person and want him to know things are so much better now.” He cut deep, calling out the simmering hate I had for myself for letting myself go and stressed that learning to love myself was vital to taking care of myself. The next morning he texted me: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

I’ve found a lot of solace, compassion, and humor in my friend Gary, a popular bartender and bar owner in Chapel Hill, N.C., who also spent a lifetime being overweight. I first stopped by his bar when I was in town for a book event over a decade ago, and after sampling some Japanese whisky together we stood outside the bar to say our goodbyes. He sized me up, and with a big smile slapped his arm around my shoulders and said: “Brad. You and me, we’re Clydesdales. And Clydesdales have got to stick together.”

Gary didn’t hide from being a burly guy. He embraced it with a sense of humor and personality equally as large. He was one of the only people in my life I could talk to about the pain and perils of being big, and his friendship, sympathy, and generosity has remained a constant in my life. Since then, Gary has gone on his own weight-loss odyssey, losing and gaining back weight over the years, but is now taking Ozempic which has helped him tremendously. But dealing with the psychology of being overweight is something you can never shed. “I thought losing the weight would fix my self-esteem and self-worth issues, but it didn’t,” he says.

Gary acknowledges that he’s likely more caring and empathetic as a bartender, and as a human being, because he spent so many years being overweight. “I think I work in my career in the service industry to create happiness in others because of my sadness from obesity,” he says. “But I could also argue how my career trajectory has been flattened due to my obesity.”

Size Matters

People often asked me what my favorite new bar is. But part of the reason I don’t usually focus on chasing the hot new thing and instead frequent the same half-dozen or so haunts is because I know what to expect — not just in the bar’s staff, the ambiance, or drinks menu, but the actual chairs and tables and barstools and how I personally “fit” into the room.

When I check out a new spot’s website or Instagram I always zoom in to survey the booth situation, but have discovered the hard way that wide-angle camera lenses can be deceiving. Walking into a new bar, even one I’ve researched in advance, can raise potential red flags that most would never consider. I’m like an avatar in a first-person RPG on a quest, scanning the room for resources without falling through a trapdoor or being pulled under by quicksand.

Over drinks with a fellow writer whose partner is a big guy like me, I asked her what she thought about the hidden hazards of dining out. She shared that when they go out to restaurants or bars she always walks ahead to navigate the room to alleviate concerns about not enough space between tables, lack of room to move your chair when you’re seated back to back with the next table, and the accessibility of banquettes and booths. I wish I had someone like her on my side but I have to go it alone.

Despite the fact they’re usually the most desirable table, booths can be the nemesis of the overweight.

A few months ago I was in Queens, to profile an about-to-open Mexican-American bar. I arrived a little early and was waiting for the team to finish up a meeting and attempted to slide into one of the sleek, modern-looking booths spread throughout the expansive room. I struggled to wedge myself without any luck. My heart raced in panic as the excitement and anticipation of learning more about this highly anticipated new bar was undermined by the rush of embarrassment and the fact that this bar might not be for me at all — because of my size. I literally couldn’t fit in their booths, which were all bolted to the floor. And then I noticed that even the narrow barstools were bolted down as well and somewhat snug to the bar. When I brought up the unmovable tables and bar stools I was informed, somewhat jokingly, that the designer of the bar had a 28-inch waist. While the place is doing gangbusters without me, this would likely never be the kind of bar where I could meet up with a friend or take someone on a date. (“No, I’m fine. I’ll just stand.”)

When I stopped in for lunch recently at the much-buzzed-about Montague Diner in my neighborhood I admired their sleek red booths from afar, but instead took a seat at the counter. I was eager to conduct a “BTP Test” to see if their booths could accommodate me, but they were at capacity so I couldn’t hop around like Goldilocks trying each one. Their tables seem to be free-standing, though, which is a good sign.

There are times when I sit on a stool at a bar and with each creak or wobble worry about the structural integrity of my seat. I’m a regular at Dante in Greenwich Village and they generously accommodate me in my favorite corner seat at the bar when it’s available. On a busy Saturday a few weeks ago I was seated at the middle of the bar and sensed a distinctive sea-saw quality to my wooden stool. I sort of froze, making sure not to risk jiggling it. These two girly pops next to me were doing that annoying move where they both sat side-saddle facing each other rather than toward the bar, taking up much more space and sipping their Espresso Martinis obliviously to the people around them. When another guest approached, I attempted to gently slide my stool over when a loud, splintering crack turned heads. Thankfully the seat didn’t crumble beneath my weight, but when I hopped up the seat of the stool fell to the floor with a crashing wobble. The other customers looked at me as the prime suspect in the case of the Fat Guy Who Just Broke a Barstool. Several of the wonderful staff stopped by and were very apologetic, blaming the faulty stool, and making sure I was alright (despite the bruised ego). They quickly replaced the kindling of what remained with a metal stool, promising that this one wouldn’t break while joking that they’d add the cost of the broken stool to my tab.

And then there are times when a savvy staffer quickly reads the room and gets ahead of a potentially problematic situation. Just after Wylie Dufresne’s Stretch Pizza first opened in the spring of 2023, I met three friends there for dinner. I was the first to arrive and scanned the room for the bar seat or table situation before being led to a prime booth. Just looking at it I knew it was going to be a bad situation. I squeezed myself in as far as I could with my right leg still sticking out in the aisle and the table pressing my midsection. I tried to play it cool as the guys rolled in. As I stepped out and mentioned I’d need the end seat, the shrewd general manager came by and picked up our menus and said, “Follow me, fellas. I’ve got the best seat in the house ready for you in the back.” He proceeded to seat us at a generously spaced high-top table. I mouthed “thank you,” and he winked back, with my friends none the wiser.

There are bigger concerns regarding mobility and accessibility issues in these spaces, and I know I’m not the only plus-sized person to have to deal with this awkwardness. But I usually feel like the biggest guy in the room. All I ask is that restaurateurs and bar owners walk a mile in my shoes and consider the plus-sized guest who longs to be a regular, in a business where practicality, sensibility, and hospitality can coexist. And please, enough with bolting down tables and bar stools.

I always felt simpatico when some of the public figures I admired were also larger than life. It served as a way for me to say, “See, there’s somebody popular and beloved and successful who looks like me!” Many of these guys — chefs, musicians, writers, actors — have wised up and, whether through exercise, diet, weight-loss medicine, or surgical procedures, slimmed down. Many of them are also no longer with us and dropped dead in their prime. It’s an unflattering truth, but I feel jealous when people I admire lose weight and start wearing nice clothes and feel better about themselves. It makes me realize that I’m literally a dying breed.

When the news of James Gandolfini’s death hit the wire, I remember I was having a beer and eating some chicken wings at the bar at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Gowanus. After praising his portrayal of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, nearly every story focused on him being overweight, and the rich food he was eating and the cocktails he was drinking while on holiday in Rome, Italy, the day he died. There were even stories about how the production crew had to unbolt the table in the booth at Holsten’s — the New Jersey restaurant where the Soprano family gathers in the final moments of the still controversial series finale — in order to make enough room for Gandolfini to fit. (The booth recently sold at auction for $82,600.) My girlfriend at the time called me and literally yelled at me in the hopes that Gandolfini’s death would serve as my final wake-up call to prioritize my health. She unknowingly echoed Carmella Soprano telling Tony he lived with “a giant piano hanging by a rope just over the top of your head every minute of every day” when she complained that I “lived life like there was no tomorrow.”

I don’t expect or desire any sympathy from anyone reading this, and I will be sure to steer clear from reading any comments for my own mental health. That not-so-subtle disgust or disdain that might flash through your mind when you see me… just imagine the self-hatred that’s percolating within my own mind trapped in this body.

I have a Post-It on my desk with something Gary once said: This ain’t a dress rehearsal. When we’re gone, we’re gone. The last thing he texted me the other day was: “Nobody wants to be different. We all simply want to blend in, but our obesity has us standing out among the crowd. Don’t worry about the haters. They cannot do anything to hurt or help you. It’s all in you to make change. The rest of your life starts right now. How do you want to live it?”