Mental: Funny in the Headby Eddie Sarfaty
Eddie Sarfaty's astute and acerbic stand-up effortlessly captures the everyday absurdities of life, blending self-deprecation and sarcasm with a razor-sharp instinct for the ridiculous. In Mental, he expands his hilarious insights into a collection of autobiographical essays that explore career lows, cheapskate exes, the wonder and hell of family, psychopathic
Eddie Sarfaty's astute and acerbic stand-up effortlessly captures the everyday absurdities of life, blending self-deprecation and sarcasm with a razor-sharp instinct for the ridiculous. In Mental, he expands his hilarious insights into a collection of autobiographical essays that explore career lows, cheapskate exes, the wonder and hell of family, psychopathic felines, and so much more. . .
Whether recounting a family trip to Paris, where his ailing father shouts obscenities at the Mona Lisa, or discovering his mother surfing JewHunt.net in search of a mahjong à trois, Eddie excels at bitingly, but lovingly, mocking his family.
Spotlighting his own misadventures with equal relish, Eddie recounts his darkly funny experience stage managing an ill-fated Portuguese production of The Phantom of the Opera, reveals taking Ecstasy before lunch with Hillary Clinton, and recalls a one-night stand whose fondness for balloon animals would have animal activists up in arms.
Eddie Sarfaty is a natural storyteller, and his candid wit–caustic, yet surprisingly poignant–proves just as endearing and hilarious in print as it is onstage.
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MENTAL funny in the head
By EDDIE SARFATY
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Eddie Sarfaty
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSecond-Guessing Grandma
I make my grandmother cry.
I come out to her and her fists close and her eyes fill up. She is silent for the longest moment and then, speaking through the tears, she astonishes me.
"It's that gym where you go, that's where they all are!"
Her assertion makes me laugh inside. How could she possibly know that? She's never been to my gym. How could my frail little grandma, a sheltered girl from an Orthodox family, a woman who has barely left the house for the past thirty years, have any kind of insight on the subject?
The conversation continues with her becoming progressively more and more upset. She's perched on the upholstered green rocker from JCPenney, a half-finished afghan in her lap, and I'm sitting Indian-style on the wall-to-wall carpet facing her. I'm peripherally aware of my mom and dad listening helplessly to the whole exchange as they pretend to wash dishes in the next room.
Though I came out to my parents after college, as a rule I managed to find a million nonsexual things to talk about when visiting them-a relief since when I was with my friends, sex was the only thing we ever seemed to talk about. But this time Granny brings up the issue andcontinues pressing it until I have no choice but to come clean. She also confesses to having purposely avoided the subject of my sexuality until now, but has finally decided to take the leap:
"Well, I thought that you were, and I made up my mind I was gonna ask you!"
"Well, how do you feel?"
"It's a shock!"
She sheds more tears and my soothing accelerates to match her distress. I hand her a Kleenex and hold her hand. My mother, accustomed to taking charge in a crisis, takes advantage of my grandmother's poor hearing, tiptoes behind the rocker, shakes her head, and mouths to me, "You shouldn't have told her, you shouldn't have told her." It's a big help.
With an evil stare I send her back to the sink and continue my comforting. Two seconds later the phone rings. I hear my mother pick it up and can tell from her voice it's my brother Jack who's in grad school in Chicago. I turn my attention back to Granny as my mother calls from the kitchen,
"Ed, Ed, pick up the phone!"
Annoyed, I yell back, "Not now, for God's sake."
And then I hear my mother announcing, as if into a public address system, "He can't come to the phone. He's telling Grandma that he's gay!"
And so I'm outed to my brother and think, "One less call to make."
I spend the next hour or so quietly seated on the floor and then leave my grandmother to catch my train back to New York and the apartment I share with three other twentysomethings-all gay and in various stages of self-loathing. The incident's constantly on my mind the entire week. It's still on her mind too, when I call home two days later:
"Hi, Granny, how are you?"
"How do you think I am?"
"What are you doing? Watching TV?"
"No, just thinking."
"Well, what are you thinking about?"
"What do you think I'm thinking about?"
Similar stressful exchanges occur on days three, four, and five.
Being the youngest, the favorite, and the only one who still lives close enough to visit regularly, I feel a special devotion to my grandmother. Our relationship is one of the most wonderful things in my life. She lived with us while I was growing up-my maturation coinciding with her decline. At the age of ninety-five (although she'll only admit to ninety-two), her mind is sharp but her body is brittle. As time passes I find myself more and more in the role of the adult-keeping her informed, preparing her meals, and helping her into bed. The possibility that the bond between us could be permanently damaged is crippling to me.
After almost two weeks of tense, awkward phone calls, I again go home for a visit. There's no reference to my revelation and the day passes more easily than I expect. It isn't until late evening when it even comes up. I'm tucking Granny in-gently rotating her fragile legs onto the bed while I cradle her back and slowly lower her onto the mattress. As I smooth out the covers, she brings up the subject that we've managed to avoid the entire day.
"So, you don't like a girl to get married?"
My body tenses. "No."
"You prefer a boy?"
I breathe deeply. "Yes."
She pauses and then says resolutely, "Well, then that'll be your life and you'll be happy that way."
My tension melts away but returns when she says, "But it's not like making love with a girl. What can you do?"
I see where this is leading and try to head it off.
"Well, Grandma, it isn't about sex. It's about who you love and who you care for."
She will not be deterred.
"Yes, yes, I know that. But it's not like with a girl. What can you do?"
I dodge the question.
She asks again.
I change the subject.
She changes it back.
And finally after the fifth "But what can you do?" I blurt out, "Well, I have two hands!"
"So what do you do, jerk each other off?"
I'm stunned, horrified, and amused all in a single moment.
She laughs to break the tension.
She continues, "You know, I hear that some of the boys use the behind!"
I laugh to break the tension.
I toy with a couple of comebacks: "Wow, Grandma, what a great idea!"
Or, "Yeah, some of us ... er ... some of them do," but settle for planting a simple kiss on her forehead and saying, "Good night."
After that our relationship is almost back to normal. She's totally accepting, but it isn't clear that she understands the specifics of the situation. She knows I'm gay but appears hopeful whenever I even mention a woman by name. She repeatedly asks my brother, "What made him that way?" and confides to my mother her worries that I'm destined to become a prostitute-a proposition that, given my precarious finances, occasionally worries me too. My mother, who joined PFLAG immediately after I came out, suggests giving my grandmother a copy of Now That You Know, a book the group recommends and that I cynically refer to as Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Homosexuality but Were Afraid to Hear.
I pick up a copy for Granny.
Two weeks later I'm home for a visit and to do some laundry. I see the book lying on the nightstand; the wrinkled spine and folded corners tell me it's been read. I turn to Granny, who's busily working on yet another afghan.
"Hey, Granny, did you read that book?"
The crochet hook stops, she looks up and says point-blank, "Yes, and it's disgusting!"
My heart sinks and my guard goes up. "Disgusting?"
"Yes, it's disgusting! It says that some of the parents don't love their children anymore."
She makes me cry.
Chapter TwoLactose Intolerant
"Just a minute."
I hold the kitchen phone up in the air and call to my mother.
"Ma, it's for you."
"Who is it?"
I immediately launch into a high-pitched coyote yowl.
From the den my father echoes the call, and Ginger our retriever joins in from her favorite corner by the pantry. Although we do this every time Jen Wolfberg calls, and have for as long as I can remember, my mother is still irritated. She covers the receiver with her free hand and shushes us, as if after all these years, Jen's still unaware that it isn't just the dog howling.
"Hi, Jen ... Oh, it's nothing; she probably heard a car. Listen, you gotta hear; you'll love this! My son, 'Mr. Actor' ..."
My mom's been dying to tell Jen all about my latest "fiasco," as she calls it; she just can't resist garnering laughs at my expense.
"... Yes, he was the number-one salesman but his brilliant scheme backfired ..."
My mother's relish as she continues relating the story causes my sphincter to tighten.
"No, but they're subtracting the cancelled orders from his paycheck, and this week he owes them nine dollars ... Oh, he's all right. I told Rita, and she nearly choked on a bear claw ... I did call you first, but Barry said you were busy dusting your statues ... Right, Lladrós. I tell you, I had Rita wetting herself!"
I join my dad in the den, but even with the TV blaring, my ears are assaulted by Jen's nasal laughter pouring out of the receiver. Ginger hears it too, and growls suspiciously. Since she was a puppy, she's regarded Jen as an intruder. Years later, her reaction will seem tame compared to the rabid grunts Jen will elicit from my father after dementia destroys his frontal lobe and he can no longer mask his emotional reaction toward her.
My mother continues. "No, we're not gonna let him quit! He's gotta pay it back! He's working full time and still accruing debt ... I know, I know. Rita said he's practically an indentured servant!"
My mother explodes into laughter. Jen erupts too, and her abrasive honking causes Ginger to go mental. On one hand it seems unbelievable that a voice coming over the phone could provoke that reaction from such a sweet-tempered animal, and on the other it wouldn't surprise me to learn that field biologists were at that moment studying Jen's effect on dingoes in Australia.
Truthfully, I don't really care what Jen thinks. What's upsetting is that she laughs at everything. That's bad news. My mother getting a few chuckles for telling a story is like a compulsive gambler hitting the jackpot on the first pull of the slot machine; she'll continue to retell the anecdote to poor response in an effort to recapture the initial high of that first laugh. Like a gambler, she'll eventually lose some friends.
My mom continues. "Listen, doll, I have to go. What time do you want me to pick you up for the cemetery? ... That's early-she's dead, she's not going anywhere ... Don't worry; I know where it is-section five, row seventeen-next to Goldclang."
Every Saturday, Jen and my mom visit Mt. Golda cemetery, where their friend Lucille is buried. They've had trouble locating the grave among the waves of gray granite ever since the groundskeeper removed the pastel wind sock and Day-Glo pinwheels Jen placed there as markers.
As I listen I feel sorry for Lucille, who probably thought that succumbing to the cancer would at least rescue her from Jen's grating voice.
"Okay, Jen ... Okay ... Okay ... I will ... Okay ... Bye."
My mother enters the den and falls into a wing chair-exhausted but elated by Jen's response to the story.
"I had Jen hysterical!"
My father shrugs at me as I storm into the kitchen. It doesn't even occur to my mother that she's done anything wrong.
It's 1985, the summer before my junior year at Vassar, and I'm stuck at home on Long Island. Although I've been out at college for two semesters, I still haven't told my parents that I'm gay. I've spent the entire vacation rerouting my sexual energies into grueling morning workouts at the gym, then sabotaging myself by eating crap from lunch until bedtime.
Irritated by my mother's ridicule, I rip open a package of Oreos that she's attempted to hide behind the lettuce. I keep count while I eat them, and after knocking off an entire row, I don't trust myself to stop and throw the remainder in the garbage. I even spray the leftover cookies with Lemon Pledge to avoid the temptation of retrieving them from the trash later on.
Back in the den I flop down on the couch. On TV a delicious guy on a razor commercial directs all of my frustrations into my crotch. I contemplate a trip to my room for half an hour but decide to stay put because I don't want my mother claiming the couch for the rest of the evening. Also, I've been masturbating several times a day and am finding the frequency worrisome. At times, I've even considered spraying my cock with Lemon Pledge.
The summer started off well enough-actually better than I'd anticipated. Utilizing two years of college theatrical training to spectacular effect, I became the most successful telephone salesperson that New York Newsday has ever had.
A born salesman! The king of the phone banks! I was certain I'd have no problem talking someone into Scientology or depositing money into a Nigerian bank account. Unfortunately, my stint at the newspaper would be the only practical application of my drama degree until I attempted stand-up comedy ten years later.
Techniques I mastered in Drama 101-Introduction to the Actor's Art-allowed me to manipulate my cadence and timbre as I notified the suckers on my call list that they'd been selected to receive the paper at almost no cost. Modulating my instrument (that's theater lingo for voice), I simulated unbridled excitement as I congratulated them and took their credit card numbers. Of course I was creative with semantics; I never actually used words like "win." And I never divulged that the elite pool of those selected was limited to people in the 516 area code. Everything backfired six weeks later when the invoices went out and the suckers complained. The cancelled subscriptions were now being deducted from my paycheck. There will even be several weeks where I wish I owed Newsday only nine dollars.
My success was making the barely bearable job fun. Now the windowless office full of college students, single mothers, and retirees depresses me. All of them read the boring sales script in a droning monotone that makes the room sound like a beehive.
"Hi, Mr./Ms._____________! This is___________ at Newsday! How are you today? (Wait for answer) Great! Listen, the reason I'm calling is to let you know about an exciting new offer here at New York Newsday, New York's favorite newzzzzzzzzz ..."
Despite my mother's mocking, I'm content to be home after my evening shift, lying on the lumpy couch watching TV with my parents. We're watching a rerun of The Mary Tyler Moore Show-arguably the greatest sitcom of all time. It's the brilliant episode where Chuckles the Clown, dressed as a peanut, is killed by a rogue elephant. It is without a doubt the best thirty minutes of the series.
Ten minutes into the program my father gets up to make coffee. He doesn't care at all for Mary-or Lucy-or Maude. He finds Carol Burnett unwatchable and The Golden Girls beyond endurance. It crosses my mind that his aversion to funny women hasn't prevented him from loving my mother so much. I place an order for iced tea and my mother asks for a cup of decaf Sanka-which for some reason she doesn't find redundant.
Returning with our beverages, he delicately breaks the news to her.
"Honey, we're out of milk."
"For God's sake! I told you to buy an extra quart! What in the world am I supposed to do now?"
It's a calamity of immense proportions understandable only to someone who's had to drink Sanka black.
I'm irritated before the words leave her lips.
"Would you mind?"
"Sure, right after the show."
"I need you to go now. They close at eleven."
My shifts at Newsday are exhausting and the remnants of my top salesman's ego heighten my annoyance. Plus it's over ninety degrees outside, and my car has no air-conditioning and a broken window handle on the driver's side.
"Oh, Ma, can't you drink it plain?"
Her eyes remain focused on me as her head changes from full front to three-quarter view. I don't stand a chance.
"Yeah, all right, I'll go-do we need anything else?"
"No, just the milk."
I get up muttering that I'm going to miss Chuckles's funeral.
As I scan the cluttered kitchen for my keys, I spy a few packets of Cremora Non-Dairy Creamer on the counter. I call to my mom in the den.
"Ma, you know you have some Cremora right here?"
"I don't like the fake creamer-it makes the Sanka taste fake."
The irony is lost on her.
"Then why'd you buy it?"
"I didn't. I took it from the diner."
"You don't know when it might come in handy."
What was I saying about irony?
Under a stack of coupons, I locate my Farrah Fawcett key ring. Looking back, I marvel at how naïve I was to think that a key chain could serve as my beard. Oh, occasionally someone would notice it and I felt like one of the boys. But they probably knew that the engine was the only thing she ever got revved up.
I hop into my car, a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88-a vehicle almost as massive as a Delta 747-and lumber through the quiet town toward the only supermarket with evening hours. The market is fifteen minutes away but it feels like thirty if you factor in the humidity. I won't even get back in time for Chuckles's eulogy; by the time I return he'll be moldering in his grave.
Excerpted from MENTAL funny in the head by EDDIE SARFATY Copyright © 2009 by Eddie Sarfaty. Excerpted by permission.
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Eddie Sarfaty is a natural storyteller, and his candid wit–caustic, yet surprisingly poignant–proves just as endearing and hilarious in print as it is onstage.
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