When the Balls Drop
1 I Was a Ten-Pound Preemie
As stated earlier, I am a pessimistic optimist, or what I like to call a “pissed-omist.” This is a person who has lived long enough to know not to expect much from most people or life in general, but still allows him- or herself the hope that somewhere under all the horseshit there may possibly be a pony. As you’ll see, there were many factors that influenced the theories, neuroses, and occasional lunacy that inspired this book, and I feel you deserve the inside track. Therefore, please bear with me as I give you a bit of insight into my life to improve your understanding of how I arrived at this particular mentality.
I was born Brad H. Gerstenfeld on April 14, 1960, to Alvin from the Bronx, New York, and Barbara from Bellingham, Washington. I tipped the scales at nine pounds, eleven ounces. My dad never knew what the H in my name stood for, and my mother didn’t tell me until I was twenty that it stood for Harry, after her favorite uncle. The birth certificate just says “H.” If she was that embarrassed about the name, why the hell would she give it to me? Spell it out or pick another.
“I was such a large sperm, my mother went into labor during conception.” I wrote that joke when I was fifteen, which made sense considering my mother used to tell total strangers, “He was so huge at birth that the doctors wanted to break my pelvis or Brad’s shoulders in order to get him out of me, but I insisted they just use the tongs.” (She had trouble remembering the word “forceps.”) To this day I don’t know if that tool was actually used or not, but there are two tiny indentations on my skull that fill up with water when I sweat.
Every man’s life (and a portion of my stand-up) revolves around the mystery that is his penis. In reality, without one, none of us would exist, so it deserves exploring. Let me start by saying that mine has never been right. Unfortunately, I think it all began with the rabbi, who must have had some resentment toward my family that he indirectly took out on me. My paranoia knows no bounds . . . Maybe the mohel just stank at his job, like most people. Or maybe he had ADD and found himself distracted by the mound of chopped liver formed into the shape of the Wailing Wall or the hubcap-size cheese Danish sweating on the buffet table.
I always found it so odd that people could eat immediately after seeing an infant’s penis being mangled by a stranger in a black robe and sketchy beard. How can an act so visceral and cringe-worthy lead directly to food? Perhaps it’s merely diversion, or nervous eating, or years of conditioning. It’s probably the same mental disconnect by which Italians can dismember a body, dump it in the river, and then go for ribs. I suppose this is where the term “comfort food” originated.
The bottom line is my circumcision was fucked up. I have more of a two-skin. The Yid must have stopped the trimming somewhere in the middle. He bailed on my rehemming like a Vegas dealer suddenly asked to go on break. He clapped his hands, wished everybody luck, and left the cards where they were. It’s no secret that when a circumcised penis is at rest, it appears as if the little fella is wearing a cozy turtleneck sweater, right? Not mine. It’s as if my dick is wearing a hoodie. He looks like the smallest criminal on record. Like a little poker player with his head on his chips. Either way, I got ripped off. Literally. And it’s made me second-guess my manhood my entire life.
My urologist, Dr. Spiegelman, who by the way is the only person not to pass out from laughter after I remove my pants, believes the size has nothing to do with the botched circumcision. He also tried to convince me that in my case, “the appearance of having a small penis is only an optical illusion because it is on a body of massive girth.” Optical illusion? He actually brought up magic in a medical context to make me feel better. In other words, like in real estate: location, location, location. I suppose if my penis were on a Chinese fellow, it would look enormous. I will have to test that theory the next time I’m dining at Twin Dragon.
* * *
In addition to bad taste in mohels, my mom had a flair for drama. It went along beautifully with her Kabuki makeup and sequined outfits. She was like a Liza Minnelli impersonator without the gay husbands.
I’ll never forget when I was six years old and I saw two dogs getting it on for the very first time. Bewildered and concerned, I blurted out, “Mommy, what’s wrong with those two dogs?”
“Well, darling,” she said after a considerable pause, “the dog in the front is very sick, and his friend is pushing him to the hospital.” This obviously messed me up for years to come, because every time I injured myself, I would seek out the neighborhood dog in hopes of being led to the ER.
Regardless of what anyone believes, almost every guy marries someone either very close to his own mother or the complete opposite. This is why I’ve spent the majority of my adult life with women who are borderline comatose, for fear of being with someone who inadvertently breaks into “Don’t Rain on My Parade” during a canoe ride.
When I was seven, my parents divorced. It was very difficult for me, but I felt worse for my older brothers, Jeff and Paul, whose biological father literally disappeared after divorcing my mother, never to show his loser face again. To this day, I cannot comprehend a parent who could walk out on his or her children. Some people are truly heartless and narcissistic enough to do such a thing, I suppose. I always felt bad that I had such an involved father and my brothers would never know theirs; even though my father adopted my brothers early on, their relationships were strained at best. You really couldn’t blame my brothers, because how could they trust a father figure again, let alone one so quickly?
My dad was a six-foot-five handsome chap with tough good looks and piercing blue eyes. He also, unfortunately, happened to be bipolar. Back in that era, no one knew what bipolar was, so he was written off as moody, difficult, compulsive, and extravagant, with grandiose ideas of a better life that kept him in constant debt. But he was my hometown hero, and I desperately needed one. He always had my back regardless of the situation, and I loved him for that, although it didn’t make for a realistic later life.
He used to say, “It’s you and me against the world, kid,” and as wonderful and comforting as that may have been at the time (especially considering I always felt very alone), it often made me wonder why the world was against us in the first place. I guess having several ex-wives can make you feel like you’re on the run or that life is based on a “you versus them” mentality. But he was super-cool and different from most dads, with his Indian jewelry and antique cars. He was literally the greatest salesman who ever lived, and through his constant, sometimes manic drive, he was able to convince me that I could be anyone and do anything.
* * *
After the divorce was final, my mother moved us to an apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Soon after, she would start dating a gentleman whom she met over the phone. He was cold-calling parents of boys who were of bar mitzvah age off a list he got from the local temple, offering his services to provide music and entertainment for the upcoming event. His name was Lionel Ames, and he was known for being the town’s most popular Jewish singer and bandleader, playing weddings and bar mitzvahs all around Southern California; once in a while he would play one of the local clubs on the Sunset Strip. He was every Jew broad’s dream guy: handsome, a freelance cantor/balladeer, and he could sing the shit out of “My Yiddishe Mama.” He also drove a purple Chevy Impala (though he swore it was blue), and I’m sure that gave him some Hasidic street cred.
Lionel would soon become my mom’s third husband, just in time for my brother Paul’s bar mitzvah. The entertainment was free. And Lionel became my closest link to anyone involved in the entertainment industry. Lucky for me, he shared every tidbit he could. It took a special man to marry my mom with three boys in tow, and he had his hands full attempting to maintain some stability in a very emotional (and often turbulent) household.
Throughout my childhood, my father tried to see me as often as possible, while also bouncing from one sales job to another. Over the course of his life, he worked as a stockbroker, owned a design studio, sold “questionable” land in the high desert, owned a pie restaurant, and spent twenty-two years selling hearing aids, among other things. He was a brilliant guy who could figure out my high school algebra homework even though he barely finished seventh grade. He had a photographic memory and a laugh that made you laugh. And he was funny as hell. Sure, he had swings like Benny Goodman, but not when it came to being a responsible father. Just about every weekend, I would stare out my bedroom window, waiting for his car to pull up, as it always would. As I grew older, I became more of a best friend and wingman than a son. As a teenager and young adult, I found this pretty exciting, but after a few more years of maturing into manhood, I realized it wasn’t the healthiest of scenarios.
Our close bond meant that my dad recognized the toll their divorce was taking on me, and when I was nine, he introduced me to a child therapist. Nate was like a hip college professor who smoked a pipe, wore sleeveless sweaters, and drove an original yellow MINI Cooper. I had to leave my classroom every Thursday at ten A.M. to see him, and my excuse to all of my dumbfounded classmates was that I had a dentist appointment. They knew something else was going on, because in those days my teeth looked like hell, and who on earth has a dentist appointment every week? But in 1969, if a kid went to see a shrink, he had to be crazy, right? Life was already too shitty at school to let that one out of the bag, so I got the reputation as the kid who had to constantly go to the dentist. Which of course turned into “Gerstenfeld has like a hundred cavities . . .”
Nate and I would walk around the neighborhood and talk rather than sit in his office. One of his exercises for helping me conquer my extreme anxiety was to coerce me into stealing oranges from people’s trees; years later, he admitted he just loved oranges. He was a compassionate and kind man when it came to communicating with children, and to this day we remain close friends. My father was always strained financially, and Nate told my dad he could pay for my sessions over time so I could continue with therapy. I never forgot that, because it made me feel that maybe I was worth something.
As grateful as I am for the positive aspects of my early years, there is no doubt the more troublesome ones left their mark. At three years old, even though I appear happy in photos, I already have bags under my eyes that look like I’m burning the midnight oil while holding down two jobs to make ends meet. The bags have followed me throughout my life. They’re my earned stripes, my medals of horror. They’re from years of insomnia combined with my Semitic coloring, constant worrying, angry masturbation, my inability to roll with shit, fear of the Nielsen Family, feelings of inadequacy when showering, and the daily dread that comes with pursuing the American dream. Take it for what you will: nature or nurture. It wasn’t always pretty, but it got me here.