Across the Table from David Sedaris
Friday before last, I went to see David Sedaris read at the Center for the Performing Arts in Denver. For those who don’t know, Sedaris is an American author, humorist, and radio contributor best known for his delightfully skewed slice-of-life essays and articles about his family and life abroad.
Going in, I hadn’t been sure whether Sedaris would be doing a signing that evening or not, so I was happy to find out that I’d be able to get him to sign a book. Hopping up from my seat, I clambered over my wife, friends, and other row mates and scurried to the bookstore table to buy a couple of copies.
In case you’re interested, I picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I bought the first one because it’s one of my favorites by Sedaris, and I also felt sure it would look nice alongside the three copies I already own. The second one has the best book title in the history of books.
Once I had my books in hand, I switched lines. One of his folks came over and asked me for the names I’d like to have inscribed in my new books, so I gave her mine and my wife’s. Sure, I could’ve had both titles inscribed to me, but I’m not a jerk. Plus, my wife was saving my seat.
While I waited, I started looking for a place to toss an empty beer cup I’d been carrying. Would it be rude to walk up to a signing table with what was essentially a piece of garbage? I’d also seen a few signs prohibiting photography. Did they have some bizarre rule about carrying plastic receptacles?
Before I could find a trash can that wouldn’t require me to lose my place in line, it was my turn. As I handed Sedaris my books, he opened one of them and looked up at me.
“Are you Gary?”
I nodded, amazed, wondering if he somehow knew who I was. I tried to imagine how many degrees of separation existed between the two of us. Was he some kind of parlor trickster? From what I knew about him, that didn’t seem wholly unbelievable.
Then I realized—the sticky note with my name.
He nodded at my empty cup. “What are you drinking?”
“It was beer,” I replied dimly. “But it isn’t now.”
“Want some water?” he asked, pointing at a bottle of Fiji on his table.
“No, thanks,” I said.
Right away, I realized my rookie mistake. David Sedaris had just offered me expensive water. How could I have said no?
“Yes, please,” I said, hoping it wasn’t too late.
It wasn’t. As he filled my cup with what I assumed to be the wettest water money could buy, I mentioned that I was a writing instructor, and that I used his piece “Me Talk Pretty One Day” to teach my students about voice. I added that I imagined he’d heard that a million times. Then it occurred to me that the phrase “I imagine you’ve heard that a million times” was probably high on that list as well.
He took it all in stride, smiling as he screwed the lid back on the bottle. “You know, of all the things I’ve written,” he said, “every time someone tells me ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ is in textbooks, I always think ‘Really, that one? There are so many others that are better.’”
I shrugged. “It’s sort of like your ‘Werewolves of London.’”
He nodded. Maybe he knew what I’d meant, maybe he was just being kind. The Warren Zevon reference was obscure, but that’s kind of my thing.
He shrugged. “I just feel bad knowing schoolkids have to write about me.”
“They love it,” I said. “Trust me.”
“Hey, what do you think of this?” he said, pointing at a mockup of his new book, Theft by Finding. “It’s my diary entries from over the years.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” I said, happy to have provided some valuable feedback. “I’d buy it.”
“Who’s Shannon?” he asked.
Confused, I looked down to see the book with the other sticky note. “She’s my wife. She’s sitting over there.” I waved back over my left shoulder.
He paused for a moment, then signed my wife’s book, as another thought occurred to me.
“I’m a big fan of your sister Amy, too,” I said, somehow remembering to not add I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times.
He grinned. “Oh, I’ll see her on Thanksgiving. I’ll tell her you said ‘hi.’”
And just like that, our time was done. One moment, we were chatting and sharing water, and the next, I was on my way. As I walked back toward my seat, I moved to the side, balanced my cup of expensive water on my forearm, and read the inscriptions he’d penned in my books.
Mine: “To Gary—I wish you was my writing teacher.”
My wife’s: “To Shannon—Your gentle husband enchanted me.”
Going to author readings has always been a mixed bag for me. I’ve attended events that left me with lasting admiration for the writers. In the best cases, they also had me walking away with sore stomach muscles from laughing like a lunatic.
There have been those uncomfortable events, too, the ones where it seemed the author had come for no other reason than to let his audience know just how much he detested them and their idiotic questions. A few other readings were just okay. Experiences vary, I’ve decided, because writers are human, and as such they have both good and bad days. It happens.
The bottom line is that I always go to author events with low expectations. I’m not hoping for life-altering breakthroughs or paradigm shifts. If I enjoy someone’s writing, I enjoy their writing. I don’t expect them to be nice or inspiring to me, or to offer to pay off my student loans. Anything that happens is going to be a net positive.
Friday night, the Sedaris reading ended up being hilarious, though it seemed far too short, even at its running time of about one-and-a-half hours. Among other pieces, he read a funny, melancholy story about his sister’s suicide called “The Spirit World,” several diary entries from his upcoming book Theft by Finding, and a story about his wild fox friend, Carol. He also showed off a smashing pair of culottes.
But before that show even happened, I already had three things I could never have expected. For one, I was the proud owner of a cup of expensive David Sedaris-poured water. I also had two droll book inscriptions, suitable for photographing and sharing with my writer friends.
The best thing I had going for me was the secure idea that, come Thanksgiving Day, at least for a moment, I would be a topic of conversation at the Sedaris family table.
All in all, it was a good night.