Gaby Dunn conducted 100 interviews. Here’s one with a man who is outrageously funny, smart, determined, and “makes coffee nervous.” And happens to be missing a leg.
Wade Berstler woke up in a hospital room.
He blinked his eyes open and his gaze rested on a metallic “Get Well Soon” balloon at the foot of his bed. The balloon turned slowly, the reflective surface floating to face him.
“I saw toes on the right side and no toes on the left,” he says. “That’s when I buzzed for the nurse.”
Wade is a really, really tall man in his 50’s with a booming voice. It’d be impossible not to spot him in a crowd, and not at all because he’s missing a leg. He loves Howard Stern, which is apparent in his colorful speech but he’s also wickedly quick and intelligent (and aware of it, though not obnoxiously so). He has an intense sense of pride resulting in a drive for self-betterment that I soon learn is near insatiable.
Constantly throughout our interview, he tells me he can’t answer certain questions because he wants to keep the anecdotes for his own book one day. He’s worried I’ll scoop him on his own story.
“I make coffee nervous,” Wade tells me outside his South Florida home before we head in.
Immediately, I can see how. Later, I tell him his story-telling technique was as non-linear as the film ‘Memento’ and as full of asides and footnotes as a David Foster Wallace novel.
Wade is part of a two-parter interview, the first in the 100 interview project. When he was 27 years old, he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. There are about 400,000 amputees in the United States with 15 percent being traumatic amputees like Wade. The rest are either born without a limb, suffer bad circulation or diabetes or a number of other reasons. The second part of this interview, “#21 – An amputee” will be about Stephanie Carcieri, a Boston woman in her early 20’s born without her arm at the elbow. I chose to speak to both of them to fulfill this requirement because of a question I’d always been morbidly curious about: “Is it better to have been born without a limb or to lose one?”
Obviously neither situation is ideal. Wade quantifies it as a sort of “My pain sounds bad, your pain feels bad” comparison.
He was living in Bud Lake, NJ on Oct. 4, 1984 when he was in his accident. (“If you have one day left in your life, go there because every day is a fucking eternity,” he colorfully adds.)
“At the time I was one of the larger assholes. I had no direction, no purpose. I was an egotistical know-nothing that nearly flunked out of high school. I went to junior college and was in honors classes but I never went to them. I was a huge anal orifice,” he says, making what I assume is an asshole with his hands. He cites a hat he used to wear when he played softball that had a huge middle finger on it as an example.
At the time, Wade was also waiting tables and going to acting school. He had aspirations of being the next Steve McQueen and often wore a leather jacket. He rode his motorcycle everywhere because he’d sold his beloved Corvette to get married. (Wade loves Corvettes to the point that he had the symbol tattooed on his ass when he was 19 years old.)
He’d been thrown off five times before his big accident but he’d never laid the bike down completely before. In his small town, Wade had been in trouble before and was on a first-name basis with the cops. He had amassed 91 points on his driving record and was pulled over 19 times before he was given his first ticket.
At 3 a.m., after leaving the bar where he worked pretty hammered, he hit a telephone pole so hard he split his helmet in the front. He remembers leaning left then right and then, he blacked out. The jolt of the hit “woke [him] out of his stupor.”
He came to laying in the street and took his helmet off. He saw that it was dark and that he had to get out of the road because cars wouldn’t see him laying down. He pushed up on his arms and that’s when he saw the damage: his arm bone was sticking out up through a rip in his jacket. One of his legs was turned completely around.
“When the paramedics moved me, they said they’d never heard somebody scream so loud,” he says.
At the hospital, his first wife made the decision to have his leg removed. (“Best decision she ever made,” he says. The idiom he chooses to explain how hard it was is “like picking fly shit out of hot pepper seeds,” which means no one wins and is hilarious.)
He remembers seeing his ex, white as a sheet, as he was rolled to the operating room on a bloody gurney. Then, he remembers the doctors prepping him while listening to Bruce Springsteen. Then, nothing.
“I don’t believe in God,” he says. “None of that EG Marshall, flowing white robes bullshit. But I sincerely think I survived to raise my kid. Had I been single, had my first wife not been pregnant, I probably would have died.”
Wade came out of his coma and was given the news that his leg had been removed. His remaining thigh and other leg were both in casts.
“I asked for two things — a 5 lb. dumbbell and a beer,” he says. He immediately wanted to start physical therapy to be able to walk out of the hospital on crutches. He worked himself hard until he was able to do so.
“I have no tolerance for amputees who are in a wheelchair now,” he says definitively. “They say, ‘My prosthesis hurts!’ What are you, a big pussy? Of course it hurts! I’ve never taken an aspirin for my pain because I think it raises the threshold of my pain.”
Because he says “first wife” when tells the story, I ask him when he got divorced.
“Not soon enough,” he jokes. It was really 1988 and Wade was granted custody of the couple’s son, Cory (pictured with his father above). Wade was still in a wheelchair when he was born, but he was determined to care for him independently like any other single father.
“I’d lean over his crib on my crutches and pick him up, cradle him into my arms and fall to the floor, cradling him like an egg,” he says. “Then, I’d scoot around with him while on my rear end, grabbing his blanket or his bottle.”
In the fall of 2001, Wade, then 44, went back to school to get his bachelor’s degree in History at Florida Atlantic University, where he graduated magna cum laude. He then went on to receive his Master’s in American History (specifically sports history) and is currently working on his Ph.D. in educational leadership.
“I hate saying ‘disabled.’ I’m not ‘disabled,’ it’s okay to say ‘handicapped.’ People who disagree can kiss my ballsack,” he says, adjusting his prosthesis. “I am not able to operate at 100 percent efficiency. That makes me ‘handicapped.’”
Wade might sound abrasive, and true, it is hard for me to get a word in edge-wise during our chat. But he is also fascinatingly passionate. The way he talks, as I mentioned, is like trying to trace the correct path on an iridescent spider web; it’s off on tangents and out of order and loud and half-explained.
On the fly, he mentions things like his admiration for Albert Einstein’s penchant for wearing the same outfit every day so he could devote more time to learning and Wade’s own experience as an extra in Billy Idol’s ‘Rebel Yell’ video which makes me gasp even as he brushes it off. (“Eh, I got 50 bucks for it,” he says.)
Wade was also on an episode of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ that he requested be aired on Oct. 4, the same day as his motorcycle accident. He starts tearing up as he explains, “So that I would associate something good with that day.”
His amputation has in the past made him depressed, even suicidal. He says a feeling of being “less than” pervades, something he constantly pushes against (for instance, running a 5K with a special running prosthetic leg).
Even his academic pursuits, though seemingly obvious since Wade is brilliant (reading his blog and speaking with him, that becomes apparent), show his stubborn desire to prove himself beyond what people expect of him. He is remarkably opinionated too; for example, he says he has no use for psychologists, despite the trauma of his injury.
“I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, is your leg missing?’ They say, ‘Well, no but I’ve read-’ and I’m like, ‘I can read about it myself,’” he says.
Still, even now, he’s often self-conscious about his leg; he tells me he wore pants, no matter the weather, for decades.
“Everyone looks,” he says as he gets up from his chair, mimicking people on the street who glance down at his stride. “Even 26 years later, it’s just a second, it’s only a second but everybody looks.”
As a result of his accident, Wade also has a metal plate in his shin and arm and rods in his thighs. “Being an amputee is the least of my problems,” he says. “I say, ‘Get up, suit up, show up, shut up.’”
An example he gives is when he was working a day job. He woke up and saw that his stump was swollen. Out of desperation, he took a razor to it and a disgusting pus (Wade describes it as raspberry jelly) oozed out. His face went white and he says the pain was so bad that he saw stars.
Determined to go to work, he wrapped it, stuck it in the prosthesis (quite painfully) and walked around. When he got there, one of his employees called in sick with a stomach ache.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna fire her,’” he says. “But then I thought, no. Maybe that’s the worst pain she knows.”
After an hour of listening, I ask if I may interject with my opinion; he’s spent a few minutes wondering out loud why his story hasn’t been covered as much as other less interesting amputees.
“You’re not wrong in your frustration,” I tentatively say. “But I think, from a story-telling perspective, it’s too intense and complex. People like their stories neatly wrapped in a bow. They like their heroes simple and likable with simple stories. It’s not right but it just means you’ve got a better story.”
He seems to appreciate that.
This article first appeared as one of Gaby Dunn’s 10o interviews.