Samuel "Hoot" Dawson insists he isn't trying to cause trouble for the gelatin dessert empire, but he is adamant that they rethink their long-time advertising tag, "There's always room for Jell-O!"
"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody," he explains to me over celery sticks and herbal tea in the teacher's lounge of Nimoy Vocational Technical School in Malden, Massachusetts. His stocky, ruddy, exterior seems at odds with the cautious nibbles and sips he takes of his mid-day snack. "This is something I feel strongly about. I want my ordeal to not have been in vain."
It began mundanely enough, he describes. He and his wife Nichelle, a communications engineer from a nearby transportation company, sat down to a typical evening meal. "Pretty much the usual," as Dawson tells it, "I'd stopped at Mario's Casa Italiano. We really enjoy the chicken parmigiana there. I also got us some baked ziti, a couple orders of stuffed mushrooms, fried mozzarella sticks, eggplant rollatini, a medium sausage pizza, a small tossed salad, and a liter of Diet Coke. We were really looking forward to a relaxing evening of American Idol and a take-out dinner."
Suddenly, Dawson's easygoing manner and quick smile darkens, and when he speaks again, there is palpable anger in his voice.
"It was a great meal. But then, then... I just wanted a little something sweet." Without thinking twice, he helped himself to a serving of the cold jiggly sweet treat in the refrigerator. "Nichelle made it for me. She knew it was my favorite flavor, too..." He swallows hard as his voice starts to trail off. "Black cherry," he quietly tells me, staring out the window at the overflow parking lot. I'm not sure he really sees it, though.
We sit together for maybe five more minutes, the only sounds are the small crunches as he absentmindedly chews his bland vegetable. I suddenly feel a hand on my shoulder. Our eyes meet. His gaze is sharp and true, "I had terrible indigestion all night. Once or twice I was sure I was going to puke." His look implores me, his voice pleads, "Tell them of me. Make them understand. One bite too many. That's all it takes. And there isn't always room."
I vow to him that I will do everything in my journalistic power to make sure his story is made public. I put on my coat and pack up my laptop and walk to the door. Unable to help myself, I turn one last time for a glimpse of the broken man who has just bared his soul to me. He is looking past me, his tea cold and forgotten, one stubby finger pulling a celery string from between his teeth. Silently, to myself, I repeat the words I have just promised him. No, Mr. Dawson, not in vain.