David Sedaris and I were riding down Commonwealth Avenue in the backseat of his media escort’s Chevy Impala. I was trying to take notes without getting carsick, and he was pointing out local businesses, wondering aloud if their owners were important enough to rate a Wikipedia entry. “Would the head of that Dunkin’ Donuts rate? Would the guy who owns the Dugout rate?”
He asked me whether I had a Wikipedia entry, and whether I knew anything about the website’s notability requirements. I didn’t tell him I had avoided creating a Wikipedia page for fear it would be flagged for insignificance.
David Sedaris met Wikipedia’s notability requirements, of course, but he never looked at his page because friends had told him it was riddled with errors – that the page claimed he’d gotten his start in stand-up comedy, for instance, when he’d never done stand-up comedy in his life. He said he never looked at bestseller lists online, either. “Every writer I know is obsessed with his book’s rank on Amazon.com, but I don’t want to know,” he said.
I already knew that When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the memoir he was in town to promote, ranked #1 on Amazon.com. I didn’t tell him that, because said he didn’t want to know. And I didn’t tell him I’d never written a book at all, which was one of the reasons I didn’t deserve a Wikipedia page. I’d written investigative reports about cell phone companies, mostly, until I had quit the technology trade magazine to start freelancing, which was a hit or miss pursuit. More recently I had crafted an 800-word review of seven floor mops for Boston Home magazine, headlined “Grimes and Misdemeanors.” Hanging out with David Sedaris was the best gig I’d ever had.
He was hanging out with me because the Boston Globe had hired me to feature him in its ongoing “Hanging With…” series, in which the writer went out and did something incongruous with a famous person. (In my favorite of these, my friend Meredith had hung with aging porn star Ron Jeremy at a paint-your-own-pottery studio, where Ron Jeremy had painted a ceramic turtle and named it “Ron Jeremy’s daughter.”) I had planned to take David Sedaris to the Armenian Museum, maybe, or for a ride on the swan boats, but he asked nicely if we could go to the Jack Spade store on Newbury Street. He needed a new tote bag.
At a stoplight, he inventoried the contents of the old tote bag in his lap: a set of coasters made out of Turkish newspapers, some multicolored tongue depressors from London, two boxes of Greek safety pins, and a t-shirt from The Daily Show, where he had been Jon Stewart’s guest the previous night. He collected little gifts for children who attended his readings, and he liked to carry them in a new bag. He bought a new bag every time he published a new book.
Sally, the media escort, was mostly quiet in the driver’s seat.
“Media escorts are so discreet,” David Sedaris said. “I was asking a media escort about one author, and he told me, ‘All I can tell you is that she kicked me in the stomach, twice.’”
I asked him who the author was.
“Maya Angelou,” he said.
Sally said Maya Angelou had been really nice to her.
We talked about other writers, too. The week before he met me, he had met David Foster Wallace. If I hadn’t read Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” he said, then I should.
“I love his writing,” David Sedaris said. “And he’s a really funny, kind person. Some people can set you at ease.”
I admired his shoes as we walked into Jack Spade, and David Sedaris told me that he hated his feet. He wished he could just screw them off and screw on some new, better feet. I told him I loved a line in his new book where he said his feet were shaped like states.
“I worked on that line forever,” he said. Up until then he had been in performance mode a little. But now he sounded disarmed and happy. He smiled, and I felt good because I had complimented the right line. I knew how good it felt when someone complimented the right line.
At the time I was dating a guy who was really good at complimenting lines. Mark would pinpoint a couple of good phrases in articles I wrote, parrot them back to me, and add, “That’s awesome.” I suspected he didn’t read the whole article sometimes, but it still felt good, and it’s one of the reasons we stayed friends after we broke up.
David Sedaris smiled with his mouth closed. In addition to hating his feet, he also hated his teeth, which he compared to gray fence posts. More than his teeth, he hated the glorification of virginity, which came up when I asked him about his considerable teenage fan base. “When I go to a high school or a college I tell the kids they should be having as much sex as possible,” he said. “To have an abstinence club when you’re 19, it’s ridiculous. When you’re old and masturbating alone, you have nothing else to look back on other than the sex you had when you were young.”
I asked whether teenagers might be too young to handle oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which was triggered by sexual activity. “That’s not an issue if you have sex with someone you don’t like,” he said. “And that’s the best sex of all.”
The sound system at Jack Spade was playing “Downtown,” the Petula Clark song, in Portuguese. I waited for David Sedaris to comment on that, or for the store clerk to recognize him, but neither happened. He tried a few bags and chose a rust-colored satchel that cost $235. “I could have bought two of these with the money I just gave to fucking public radio,” he said. (Earlier in the day he had visited WBUR, the local NPR affiliate, and when he signed the visitor’s log he wrote, “In: 1:30pm. Out: $500.”)
There was a brasserie next to Jack Spade, and David Sedaris and I stopped in for a bite of Tarte Tatin. He deemed it “just as Tatin-y” as the Tarte Tatin in Paris, where he and his boyfriend were living at the time. When he finished eating I asked David Sedaris if I could take his picture for the article, even though his publicist had told me he’d say no. He said no.
“I just absolutely hate having my picture taken,” he said. “There’s nothing I hate more. But at book signings, when people ask to take my picture and I say no, they’re like – CLICK – and they take my picture anyway. And I say, ‘Hey, I said not to take my picture.’ And they say, ‘But I wanted one.’”
Would he be willing to draw a self-portrait instead? In case he would, I was carrying a small sketchpad and two Prismacolor markers. Sure, he shrugged, and sketched a tiny reasonable likeness, in profile, with tiny squares coming out of his mouth. They looked like confetti.
“I drew myself throwing up,” he said. Underneath the portrait he wrote, “David Sedaris is sick of himself.”
Over coffee, I asked him about his recent decision to quit smoking, the primary topic in When You Are Engulfed in Flames. In a previous book, Naked, he had written about his lifelong struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. His saving grace had been to start smoking, which itself was an obsessive behavior, but a relatively socially acceptable one, and it more or less had cured the rest of his OCD.
“Has your OCD returned, now that you’re not smoking anymore?” I asked.
“Only when someone reminds me of it,” he said, not unkindly, but I felt bad anyway.
His new obsessive behavior involved focusing intense pressure into the heel of one foot, which was less obtrusive than, say, licking door knobs. “It’s almost like you put pressure on it and think about it until you’re hobbling,” he said. He was wincing a little. “But I have this book signing tonight, so I won’t think about it.”
Sally called just then, wondering where we were, because the people at the bookstore were waiting. She picked us up in front of Jack Spade, and on the ride to Harvard Square she asked David Sedaris if he’d do his impression of Billie Holliday. He said he didn’t do that anymore – that he wouldn’t even do it when Terry Gross requested it.
“I felt like a real skunk saying no to Terry Gross,” he said, and laughed at the word skunk. I almost told him I felt like a skunk reminding of his OCD, but caught myself before I reminded him of it again.
He worried that the bookstore might give him another mug. Bookstores were always giving him mugs, he said. It was as if they thought he might not otherwise have anything to drink from while he was on the road. “You know, when they give you coffee in a hotel, they actually provide the mug,” he said. “It’s just a loaner, sure, but they have you covered.”
A young woman met us at Harvard Bookstore and brought us to a table in a back room, piled with books to sign.
He asked to use the restroom first, and then he told me about this urine leakage problem he’d been having since turning 50.
“I pee,” he said. “And then I pee again, and then I stick my penis back in my pants, and it pees some more. I just told that to someone the other day, and apparently it’s called ‘breaking the seal.’ So, on this book tour I’m asking people about what to do about breaking the seal.”
It didn’t seem strange, him telling me this, because I was in journalist mode, and because I had heard of this problem from other men. I even knew someone who knew how to solve it: Mark, who was meeting me at the reading.
After David Sedaris read an essay to a packed room, and before he started signing books, I introduced them. David Sedaris asked what Mark did for a living, and Mark gave him the elevator pitch about his small gourmet nut company. (He had given me the same pitch when we met, and I had asked him if he planned to branch out into trail mix. I had been kidding, but the joke fell flat because that’s exactly what Mark had been planning to do).
“That’s great,” said David Sedaris. “You don’t meet enough nut salesmen these days.”
I cut in, eager to help. “David, I think Mark knows how to solve that urine leakage problem you mentioned.”
I said this softly, in part because I always speak too softly, and in part because the room was chockablock with dour Cambridge women, those of a certain type who never seem to find anything funny except, specifically, for David Sedaris, whom they find hilarious. I thought they might be offended by a public, albeit practical conversation about penises. Mark wasn’t concerned.
“I HAVE THIS TECHNIQUE I CALL THE PEENLICH MANEUVER,” he yelled, although he would insist later that he hadn’t been yelling. David Sedaris took a pen and a little notebook out of his jacket pocket and waited for Mark to continue.
“AFTER YOU TAKE A PISS, AND AFTER YOU SHAKE, YOU REACH DOWN AND PRESS HARD, RIGHT BEHIND YOUR TESTICLES, LIKE THIS. SEE?” David Sedaris began to take notes, and a few women within earshot began to frown.
“THE REST OF THE URINE SHOULD SQUIRT RIGHT OUT.”
David Sedaris wrote down everything Mark yelled.
He hadn’t written down anything I had said all day, and a familiar pang shot through me. My gregarious friends had been cornering the spotlight for as long as I could remember, and here Mark was now, getting all noteworthy with David Sedaris. But whereas Mark was a salesman and David Sedaris was a writer, I was a journalist. Part of my job was to connect experts to those who needed the expertise. And I had done that.
“Thank you so much,” David Sedaris said. He was talking to Mark. But a week later I received a postcard in the mail. On the front there was a picture of a painting by Francis Picabia called Cacodylic Eye, and on the back was a note from David Sedaris. “Dear Carmen,” he wrote. “Thank you for taking the time to talk to me the other day, and for advising me on my new bag. After Boston I went to Philadelphia, where it was 98 degrees and I signed books for seven and a half hours. The last two thirds were air-conditioned but by that time I was a sweaty mess. Sincerely, David Sedaris.”
Later that year I interviewed the lead singer of a boy band called the All American Rejects, who disputed an entry on his Wikipedia page, which said that he sported a tattoo of the hip-hop artist Akon on his right butt cheek. To establish fellowship, I shared David Sedaris’s Wikipedia page error story, because I still didn’t have a Wikipedia page of my own. It was kind of like when my friends talk about their children, and, since I don’t have any, I talk about my niece.
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