A nice Jewish boy with an Ivy League degree tells his parents that he has moved to L.A. to make porn. An excerpt from the memoir American Gangbang.
My parents and I had a little thing going where we spoke on the phone every Sunday. A couple of weeks after I’d gotten settled in L.A., I decided to come clean to my old man. It had been a long time coming.
“Dad? You know how you’re always talking about how you want to know what I’m doing with my life, but I never tell you anything?”
“Yes. You guard your privacy jealously. Like a jackal. You haven’t told us a single thing about Los Angeles since you moved there.”
“Well, I decided you were right. It’s not good, and I owe you an apology.”
“Accepted,” he said. “Thank you for saying that.”
“Would you like to know what I’m doing with my life?”
“Please, mystery man.”
“I’m producing porn.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line.
“I said, I’m producing porn.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. You wanted to know what I’m doing with my life. Well, against all odds, I’ve managed to insinuate myself into the porn industry. Pretty cool, huh?”
He cleared his throat. “Ellen, get on the line.” He waited until my mom clicked on. “How long have you been doing this?”
“To be honest, I’ve sort of been in the business for about half a year now. Hi, Mom.”
“Hi, Sam,” she said. “What’s this nonsense?”
“Oh, I make porn,” I explained.
“But what about the juice bar?” snapped my father.
“I worked there. Part-time. But now I make porn.”
My father’s temper had held remarkably well to this point, but now he exploded. “But this is nonsense! Ellen, say something, please! What has our son gotten himself into this time?”
“Dad,” I said calmly, “there’s no need to get all riled up. I’m part of a very well-established, historically sound industry. Stood the test of time. In fact, you could sort of say it’s the second-oldest profession.”
“That thousand dollars I lent you,” he mumbled, remembering. “This was your business plan?”
My mother spoke up. “This is some kind of elaborate joke, right?”
“Look,” I continued, “I can understand your reaction. Heck, if I had a son who went to work in the porn business, I might be a tad bit disturbed, too. But what you don’t get yet is that I’m out to produce a different kind of porn. A progressive kind.”
“What does that mean?” he snapped. “Porn is porn. Our son, the pornographer.”
“Sam, you’re not ‘acting,’ are you?” pleaded my mom. “I don’t care what you do, just tell me you’re not ‘acting.’ ”
“Our son, the pornographer?” repeated my father. “Holy God. I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud.”
“But don’t you see? All porn isn’t cut from the same cloth,” I proclaimed proudly. “My mission is to change the game. From the inside out. I am going to make porn that’s art.”
“Ellen, did you know about this? Have you two been keeping this from me?”
“Have you lost your mind?” said my mom. “What are you implying?”
“Jesus,” I said, annoyed. “Will you two listen? I’m making movies that are actually movies. I’m trying to make videos that help you know the people inside the bodies. You know, their personalities and stuff. Their motivations.” I paused, then took a small chance. “It’s very Freudian.”
“Don’t you dare try to hook me!” yelled my dad.
“Seriously, Dad?” I said. “You might like them. Listen, I have an idea. I’m going to send you one of my movies. Would that be all right with you? Would you watch it? It’s about domination. And urination.”
“Oh, wonderful,” he said, exasperated. “We’ll screen that very soon. Then we’ll both wheel ourselves over to the hospital and have brain aneurysms.”
“You guys,” I said, “I have to go now. I have to go make porn. For the record, I think you were right: I haven’t let you in on my life enough recently. From here on out, it’s all about truth, openness, and honesty. Talk to you later.”
Though my parents and I weren’t exactly on the same page when it came to porno, I nevertheless felt the urge to apprise them of my newfound success. I knew I wouldn’t be able to turn them around on the whole issue, but with so much money coming in, I figured maybe we could find some common ground.
“Son of mine. So nice to hear your voice. How are you?”
“Great, Dad, but how are you? How’s the head-shrinking business?”
“Fine, just fine. I’ve found something that keeps me out of trouble. Not to mention my job assists me in staying up-to-date with the world around me. Did you know, for instance, that more and more people are using coffee shops as places to find life partners?”
“Is one of your clients a coffee shop owner?”
“I can’t tell you that, of course. You see, my boy, there’s a little thing called a confidentiality agreement that I enter into. You may have heard about it?”
“It would be inappropriate for me to say.”
“Hey, come off it, you can tell me,” I said. “Do you have some coffee addict coming to lay on your couch every Wednesday and Friday? That sounds weird.”
“Enough. I assume you’re just being fractious.”
“Yes, David, I am just being fractious,” I replied to my father “Just totally fractious. You have me figured out.”
He sighed. “So. To what do I owe the pleasure of your call?”
“Nothin’ much,” I said nonchalantly. “Just that I’ll be sending you a check in the mail quite soon.”
“Is my birthday coming up so soon?” He laughed.
“No, Dad,” I scolded him. “Don’t you remember that grand that I borrowed from you way back?”
“Yes, of course,” my dad said, his voice darkening. “For your—movies.”
“Exactly!” I said. “Well, I can finally afford to get it back to you. Isn’t that cool?”
“Very much so,” my dad said, guardedly. “Now, if you ever need any money, like, say, if you ever decided to go back to school, or something of that order, I want you to know you can always depend on me and your mother—”
“You’re missing the whole point,” I said. “I’m calling to tell you I don’t need to borrow money from you anymore! I thought you’d be happy.”
“I am happy,” said my father. “Maybe.” He paused. “What are you doing for your money these days, if I may ask?”
“Same old, same old. You know.” I paused, then picked up the word and tossed it at him, like a tiny little bomb. “Porno.”
“Ugh,” he sighed. “I can’t quite reconcile myself to the knowledge that this is what you want to do with your life.”
“I want to be an artist, Dad, and—”
“Yes, yes,” he said irritably, “we went through this whole line of reasoning once before. Yet for some strange reason, I still haven’t been able to see what porn’s got to do with art.”
“That’s because you don’t have my vision,” I said smugly. “No one does.”
“Then tell me. For the love of God, tell me. What special things are you doing out there in California, that makes videos of people having sex become art?”
“I just—I mean—” He had me there. “Well, right now I’m concentrating on making money. And believe me, I’m making it.”
“Perhaps your artistic goals have been proven slightly unrealistic?” said my father.
“Money’s where I’m at right now!” I bellowed. “But I’m still on my mission. You just wait, I’m going to put something together really soon.”
“All right. Calm yourself. Don’t yell at me. I’m still your father.”
“I’ll speak how I darn well please,” I grumbled. “I’ve got a mind to send you a tape of my recent work, so you can screen it for your clients.”
“Don’t,” my dad said, calmly. “And I’m saying please.”
“Well, then why don’t you just trust me? I mean, Dad, seriously! You wouldn’t believe the place that I’m living in. We have a huge pool, and a giant refrigerator, and the view? It’s spectacular.”
“California’s always been one of the more beautiful states,” my father said, patiently.
“Man, I don’t believe this. You should be proud of me! Hell, Dad, I made almost two grand this week. It’s the easiest money in the world!”
“How long do you need to do this?” he asked. “How long?”
I sighed, long and deep. I held the phone at arm’s length and looked at it. But then I brought it back. “Look. I really have no fucking clue, Dad. Maybe for a while. Maybe not.”
“And then what? Got any plans? Teaching nursery school, perhaps?”
I laughed, in spite of myself. “I may have placed myself out of that job.”
“Can you just have faith in me, Dad? Can you trust the person I am?”
“I do trust you. I love you. But sometimes I really wonder.”
“If you’re doing as well as you say you are.”
“Gee, thanks for the consult,” I said.
“Free of charge. Family rate.”
“OK, deep pockets. I guess I won’t be sending you that check, then?”
“No, no,” he said, calmly. “By all means. Send the check.”
I called my father, to discuss the new frontier, the open road.
“David,” I said, “you’re just not going to believe what I’ve come up with now.”
“Let me sit down,” he grumbled.
“Ever heard of a penile implant? I’m seriously considering getting one. Very minor operation, from what I hear.”
“For the love of God. Ellen, get in here! Your son’s completely lost it!”
“Kidding, Dad,” I said. “My Johnson’s fine. Actually, it’s quite large.”
“What a terrible thing to joke about,” he groused. “Ellen. Go away. Off the phone. Crisis averted.”
“No,” I said. “Actually, I’m moving on. Leaving porno.”
“Excellent,” my dad said, still breathing hard. “Finally, you’ve come to your senses.”
“Yep, I’m ready to become a contributing member of society.”
He coughed, perturbed, probably suspecting I was still joking.
“Would you mind me asking what led you to this grand decision?”
“I’m just done with it, I guess.”
“You should have been done with it years ago,” he grumbled. “Never mind. What does your future hold? School, perhaps?”
“I’m thinking more in terms of Thailand,” I said, relishing the smack of the word in my mouth. “From what I understand, there’s a fasting program going on there. Deep in the jungle, centered around eliminating waste from your digestive tract by mechanical means. Quite expensive, of course, but very cutting-edge.”
“Ellen,” called my dad, “I’m sorry, dear, I need you back. I’m going to faint, so you’ll have to talk to your son.”
“Sam,” my mom said, picking up the phone, “what are you doing? Why are you torturing your father?”
“I’ve done nothing, Mom,” I said. “I told him I was quitting porn, and he just went crazy.”
“Well?” my mother asked. She waited. “Is it true?”
“It is,” I said simply.
“When are you thinking about ending your job?”
“Pronto. I’m training this new guy, and when he’s ready, I’m out.”
“And then? What will you do then?”
“I’ll leave L.A., for a while at least. I just don’t really want to be here anymore. I don’t want to be around it.”
“Feel like telling me why?”
“It just—well, porn wasn’t what I thought it would be.”
My mom sighed, then laughed. “Nothing ever is.”
Excerpted from American Gangbang by Sam Benjamin. Copyright © 2011 by Sam Stern. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
With Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, the hyper-articulate, neurotic, modernist master Broadway songwriter takes a curtain call