David Sedaris (web | wiki) is a comedian and essayist known for his numerous memoirs including Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) and When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008). His latest book is Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013). Even if you don’t know him by name, I can guarantee you’ve heard him on National Public Radio and This American Life.
I first read Sedaris’ work years ago when, traveling through Denver, I bought When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Passing through for a wedding and not feeling particularly social, I’d escape to my hotel room or an abandoned broom closet to read. Family hunted me down, telling me to put it away, but this only led me to smuggle the book around as illegal contraband. I’d hold it beneath tables and spend more time in the bathroom than was necessary.
Like everyone’s first time, though: The experience was shorter than I’d wished (and laughter was involved). C’est la vie.
Since then, I’ve read most of his books and to this day regard him as the master of the personal essay. In fact, when feeling literary, I’ve written my most memorable GDBPWSNBDG articles with him in mind. I hope it shows.
On November 8, 2014, Sedaris was in Houston as part of a 39-city tour. As his visit coincided with my twenty-fourth birthday, I thought it’d be a nice treat. So my partner K. and I bought a pair of cheap tickets that placed us a few feet from the back wall, three stories up, in a theater that could seat nearly 3,000 people. When he came out to speak, he was merely a white beam of light in the distance — a little, soft-spoken angel telling us vagina jokes:
A woman goes to her gynecologist, and after getting in the chair, the doctor takes a look. “You have the largest vagina I’ve ever seen,” he says. “You have the largest vagina I’ve ever seen!”
“You don’t need to say it twice,” the woman answers.
When not telling jokes, Sedaris read a few unpublished essays and told off-the-cuff stories about his experience on tour. What I’m relaying can only be described as “Herculean” (and a little gross). So bear with me.
“At one of the early signings, a man approached me,” Sedaris began, “and he had holes in his head. Seeing some spots on the side of my face, he told me, ‘I know what that is — it looks like melanoma. You should really go to a doctor.’” This Sedaris did, being told they were just liver spots and nothing to worry about. Still, the doctor burned them off, leaving two blisters that –- the next day –- popped on the airplane.”
That’s medical injury number one.
For a while now, Sedaris has had a benign tumor near his ribs (“The size of an egg”) and chose not to get it removed because no doctor would let him keep it (“I mean, it’s mine. I made it.”). The reason for this, dear reader, is because he wanted to feed it to snapping turtles (that’s another story). When he mentioned this fact at a reading, a Mexican woman approached him saying she worked at a clinic for low-income families and could have it cut out in forty minutes. When the book signing ended around 1:00 a.m., the pair crossed the border (“The border to New Mexico, I mean”), did the deed, and then went to find the woman’s partner to “borrow” painkillers. Eight stitches.
Lastly, mere hours before his Houston reading, he had a root canal. Houston was his fifth stop.
“And I’m still going,” he concluded, “Can you say ‘Entertainment Industry champ’?”
What I’m trying to convey with this story is that Sedaris is an insane son-of-a-bitch and asking him to draw a silly picture is pretty low on his absurdity scale.
Unlike other signings I’ve attended, Sedaris is a conversationalist, often asking questions, bantering. Other writers I’ve met merely scribble their name, say “thanks” and push you along. This is why his events carry into the early-a.m. as he refuses to leave until everyone’s had their book signed.
When it was our turn, K. and I saw he was trying to eat his dinner set in front of him. “How are you feeling right now?” K. asked, handing over her copy of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (2010). Before the night was over, he was probably asked that question no less than two thousand times.
“Let’s see,” Sedaris mused, taking a bite of chicken. As he chews he lists everything he’s been through: “I have a hole in my face, eight stitches, and had a root canal today. I’m pretty fucked up.” While speaking, he draws in the book an outline of a knife, which he proceeds to color with the markers he keeps in a flannel pencil bag. Though doped up, he moves in spurts — tucking his arms into his body and poking around the bag. He reminds me of a hen pecking for seed.
“Did you really run off with a stranger to have them cut a tumor out of you?” I asked, incredulous that such a thing even happens.
He looked up from his drawing, nodded, and returned to his art, adding a drop of blood to the silver blade. As he does so, I’m awed by his presence. Of every professional writer I’ve met, Sedaris is no doubt the most entertaining. Though my instinct is to dismiss his demeanor as an act, as if he was playing the part of the character he writes about — nope: He really is the character. When he tells stories of odd exchanges he’s had at book signings, polls he’s conducted, and so on, he’s serious.
Finally, I asked him to draw a giraffe, making the standard pitch, while he patiently looked up with another piece of chicken in his mouth. Before I finished he reached out to grab my notebook (my diary) from my hand and flatten it in front of him. Holding his sharpie like a knife, he stabbed the page and drew lines so thick they bled through. Handing it back, he shoved another piece of chicken in his mouth as we moved along.
Before leaving, I turned to look back at the hundreds of people snaking up several flights stairs. They were just as excited as we were. No doubt they’d ask for wilder things than a giraffe drawing.
In that moment, I wondered which story he’ll tell next that begins here.