Read an Excerpt
Welcome to Me
November 29, 1955. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Mount Sinai Hospital. Howard Michael Mandel was born to Albert and Evelyn Mandel. I have absolutely no recollection of my infancy, but I'm told I was the happiest, most idyllic child, not to mention the cleanest child known to man.
As excited as my mother must have been about having me, she tells me that she felt like a child herself. She was just twenty-three, and my father was twenty-nine. She was really nervous about her baby boy and wanted to protect him from the evils of the world at that time-the Commies, nuclear proliferation, and, most important, the invasion of germs.
Whenever somebody came over to see her baby, God forbid they should touch little Howard's teeny fingers. As soon as they left, she would take me into the bathroom and scrub my hands with soap and water. If somebody sniffled and touched my crib, my mother would mark the spot in her mind. She would remember that it was two inches to the left of the headboard, and again, as soon as that person left the room, she would hit that spot with the Lysol, putting me back in my sterile environment.
You might think this was over the top, but the apple didn't fall far from the tree. The first and all recollections I have of visiting my grandparents on my mother's side were of approaching the house and seeing my "bubbie" outside the front door on her hands and knees, waxing the concrete veranda. Waxing. Concrete. Outside. There was no way she was going to allow anyone to track filth into her home. She believed that this was the first line of defense toward maintaining a safe environment-that is, if you ignored the fact that it was very easy to slip and break your neck before you rang the doorbell. Let's weigh the odds here: no dirt on your feet, or a broken neck. She seemed to lean in favor of no dirt on the feet.
Once you were inside, not much changed. As in many homes in the Northeast and Midwest, inside the door there was a tray where you could remove your boots so you didn't track mud and snow into the house. I know there was a boot tray, but my grandmother's was covered in newspaper, because God forbid the boots should touch the tray. In fact, I don't think I ever touched any of the furniture or carpets in her house because it was all covered with plastic. Everything was hermetically sealed in its place.
So when I now see a picture of me as an infant, posed on a chair in my living room and separated from that chair by a sheet of plastic, it seems to make some sense.
I started my life with the cleanest of slates, so to speak. Everything went swimmingly well for Howard for those first two and a half years in what was metaphorically a perfectly chlorinated pool. But then comes my first memory of infancy. I may not be accurately depicting the facts, but I promise you I'm accurately depicting my memory.
In the last week of October 1957, my mother disappeared. My dad went off to work during the day, driving a cab, and a strange woman showed up at the house to take care of me.
I think her name was Mrs. Weatherburn. I can't remember her name as accurately as I can remember the fact that she wore dentures. I didn't know what dentures were at the time, which made things worse. In addition to being terrorized by the fact that my mother was gone, I had to deal with an old woman who would go into our bathroom in the morning, put her fingers in her mouth, rip out all her teeth in one piece, brush them in front of me, and then put them back into her face.
I felt as if I were living in a horror movie. You have no idea how scared I was. Every day after my father went to work, I was left alone with a lady who ripped out her teeth. All I wanted was my mommy. But Mommy had gone away. I felt like a small, human Jewish Bambi. In the span of seven days, I went from gleefully happy to utterly miserable.
At the end of the week, my dad informed me that we were going to pick up "the baby." I remember this as clearly as yesterday. I can tell you honestly I had no idea what "the baby" meant. He seemed excited about "the baby." He could have said we were picking up a lemur. It would have meant the same thing to me.
I want to clarify what "the baby" was. In the fifties, when women were pregnant and ready to give birth, they checked into the hospital for a week. At that time, children were not welcome as visitors in the maternity ward, which is why I didn't see my mother for a week. All this makes sense to me now, but it didn't then.
We drove to Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto. I hadn't been there in almost three years, and I didn't recognize the place. It was a cold, gray, drizzly day. We parked in the back of the building, and my dad disappeared inside to get "the baby."
I was sitting quietly in the car with Mrs. Weatherburn, waiting. I remember not saying anything for fear that she might talk to me and bare her teeth. I was afraid that those teeth might jump out at me at any moment. After what seemed like an eternity, my mother emerged through the hospital's big metal door.
I remember watching my mom, who was my whole life, coming out to the car. I was so excited to see her again. She was carrying something wrapped in blankets. This must be "the baby." My dad helped her into the backseat. Mommy leaned over, said, "I love you," and gave me a kiss.
As she leaned over, I looked inside all those blankets she was carrying and I could see a little face. There was another person with my mommy. Who was this? Was it "the baby"?
From that moment on, my life was different. My mom tells me that my whole demeanor changed. My sense of contentment was replaced with agitation.
Stevie-that's what they called "the baby"-needed very little attention. He had a couple of meals a day, a diaper change once in a while, and the rest of the time he slept. If you do the math, it worked out to about 5 percent of my mom's
attention. I received the other 95 percent. It wasn't even fifty- fifty between the two brothers, but I was completely distraught. Up until then, it had been me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. Now it was me, me, me, me, him, me, me, me. Can you understand how devastating this was for me?
Here are some of the ways I handled it. I would walk into the room where they kept little Stevie and scream as loud as I could to make him cry. Then my mom would come in and yell at me for waking up "the baby." But remember, she was yelling at me, so I had all the attention. One time he stuck his hand through the bars of his crib, and I pulled on it as hard as I could. He had to go to the hospital because I ripped his arm out of the socket. That was horrible, but again, I got a lot of attention for that.
I don't know how this is possible, but throughout our childhood, my brother always had-and continues to have-an amazing love for me. Whenever my mom got upset with me, she'd threaten: "That's it! Wednesday is garbage day. I'm throwing you out with the garbage." My brother would break into tears and plead, "Please don't throw Howie in the garbage." He was so scared that I would be tossed out and he wouldn't have me around. My punishments seemed to punish him more.
I now believe that my brother, Steve, is the reason I have become a performer today. From the moment "the baby" appeared, I spent every waking moment trying to get all the attention. Regardless of whether that attention was positive or negative, it was attention just the same. I didn't make the connection at the time, but child experts say that a good part of your personality and who you are going to be is formed in the first years of your life. If that is true, then the sick need that I have to be accepted and appreciated by people I don't know stemmed from spending my entire childhood trying to get 100 percent of the attention. Obviously, you can't get all the attention, but I promise you I'm still trying.
At age four, I was about to meet some other people vying for attention. I was enrolled in school. In the grade of kindergarten at Dublin Public School, to be exact. Looking back, I realize I didn't have a lot going for me. I was allergic to dairy products; I was suffering from seeping eczema and constant ear infections; and I was a bed wetter. And, oh, I forgot, a maniacal attention seeker.
I say bed wetter because I wet the bed, but wetting myself extended far beyond the bed. When I analyze this now-not that I or anyone was diagnosed at the time-I believe this wetting could have been a direct result of having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD for short. I have been professionally diagnosed with this disorder as an adult. The characteristics of this are an inability to focus, impulsive behavior, and being easily distracted. I have come to realize these symptoms have plagued me throughout my life. I remember thinking as a child, I have to go to the potty, and then I would see something shiny or hear a voice, and I would be off on a tangent. Soon, I would realize that my pants were wet, and I hadn't made it to the potty.
I don't want you to think I wasn't innovative. Here were the remedies to keep the other kids from realizing that Howard had just pissed himself: Through a varying array of excuses, I would dismiss myself quietly before anybody noticed the wet spot covering the front of my pants, find my way to a puddle or a ditch, and submerge myself. There were no puddles or ditches right out the front door, so I had to travel a far distance to trip and fall into a puddle. But this allowed me to hold my head up high and declare proudly to my classmates, "I've fallen into yet another puddle!" Throughout my early school years, I was known as the kid who would fall into a puddle or ditch six or seven times a year. In retrospect, this seems equally as embarrassing.
My kindergarten teachers were named Ms. Smith and Ms. Judge, and I was called by my full name, Howard. I'm Howie now because Howard makes me cringe. Howard comes mostly with the connotation of anger. There was never any good news after Howard. Nobody ever said, "Howard, we have something great for you." It was always a demand or a reprimand.
All I remember doing in kindergarten was arts and crafts. Once we were doing a landscape, and three days in a row I apparently painted the sky purple. The teachers thought I was trying to be funny or combative, so they made me stand behind the piano. This was my first sense of what it felt like to be an outcast. All of the other kids were having fun painting skies, and I was placed behind the piano.
One day, my mom visited me at school and found me behind the piano. When it was explained to her what I had done, she asked me to show her the blue crayon. I picked up the purple crayon. She consulted with our family doctor about why I would do that. He eventually figured out that I was color-blind. Oh, good, let's add that to my list of attributes.
So I remember my kindergarten years as everybody playing while I stood behind the piano, not knowing why I was different from the other kids.
By first grade, I had other issues. Everyone including me knew how to tie their shoelaces. But when the other kids' laces came untied, they would retie them. When my laces touched the filthy ground, I could not bring myself to touch them. My grandmother had not waxed the schoolyard. The horror of touching those laces far outweighed the embarrassment of spending the rest of the school day and my trek home walking like Quasimodo, dragging my foot so that I wouldn't lose my shoe. It's amazing that nobody ever mentioned how strangely I walked.
To this day, my mother recounts a miserable child walking home from school. She could see me from our porch two blocks away, dragging one leg with the untied shoelace behind me.
My young brother, Stevie, had a sense of the things that horrified me. Like most brothers, we got into many scuffles. I'm not saying we didn't punch and hit and cause personal injury. But if I was chasing him, his last bastion of defense was running to the laundry hamper, removing the lid, and waving it in my direction. Just the sight of that lid was like my kryptonite. The tables would turn, and now he was chasing me. I would scream as if someone were after me with a knife. The lid of the laundry hamper doesn't sound toxic, and I don't know what I thought would happen if it touched me, but I was horrified and the fight would come to an end. Everyone including me just accepted this as the norm.
Looking back, I see that I was accumulating many letters-ADHD and OCD. It would take decades to solve this puzzle. I'd like to buy a vowel, Pat.
I remember agitation being the pervasive emotion of my childhood. I believe this is a rough start for any child. I was a color-blind outcast with ear infections who had a maniacal need to be the center of attention, sometimes walked like Quasimodo, randomly fell into puddles, and had a crazy fear of hamper lids. With all these gifts, I was off to make my way in the world.
As tough as this sounds, I lived a wonderful childhood. One of the biggest highlights was our family's yearly trip to Miami Beach during winter break. Remember I'm a Jew, so this was my Christmas. The night before the trip was like Christmas Eve. I had always heard about how all the non-Jewish kids couldn't wait to wake up on Christmas and open their presents. They would stay up late with anticipation and then get up before the sun rose on Christmas morning and sit under the tree with the presents until their parents woke up.
My parents would put my brother and me to bed early because we were leaving at four a.m. Steve and I had rooms across the hall from each other, and we would sleep with our doors open and try to stay awake all night. We could hear our parents in the living room watching Johnny Carson and smell the pizza they had ordered.