As I imagine is the case for many writers, David Sedaris is something of an idol of mine. He’s funny and real and biting and dark in turns, and then so gut-wrenchingly, laugh-out-loud funny again you forget that what you’re reading really is slightly heartbreaking, until you’re crying from laughing so hard and then realize the tears are in part because it is a little sad, too.
In short, he tells my favorite kinds of stories in my favorite kind of way. So, when my dad asked me if I wanted to see him when he came to Dallas a few months ago, I jumped at the chance like a sophomore who’s just scored an invite to the senior prom. Such was my excitement, I may have even squealed at the decibel-level that teenage girls so regularly assault adults’ ears with — a decibel range only attainable by grown-ass women pushing thirty (like myself) under the most special of circumstances.
David performed to a sold-out house at the Winspear Opera House, and he was phenomenal. He held us all in the palm of his hand, both while reading his work and while working the room between stories. He had us laughing at deliciously snarky things that we shouldn’t — a bit about a woman who walked past him in first class one time and said, “These seats must be so great for people watching!” To which he replied, deadpan, “Oh, you think we consider you to be ‘people’?”
We all guffawed, drinking in the guilty pleasure of laughing at another person’s embarrassment with the gusto that only comes from knowing the wounded party will never know the amusement we received at their expense.
He also told a story that was darkly funny, and deeply personal, about a recent family trip he’d had in a beach house he owned with his siblings. It featured his sister Lisa, who’s been a figure in so many of his essays, coming back from a trip to the gas station for a soda.
She’d said to him, “David, I wanted to buy a coke.”
“I went to buy one, and you know how they all have names on them now, like, ‘Share a coke with Mike,’ or ‘Share a coke with Sarah,'”
“The only two that were left had the names Sharon and Tiffany.”
Those are the names of David’s mother, who died of lung cancer in the early nineties, and his sister, who committed suicide a few years ago.
“So you’re saying the only two cokes in the whole gas station said they were meant to be shared with people who we can no longer share them with?”
“Yeah! Isn’t that fucked?”
“It’s pretty fucked.”
And, God, that’s a story that shouldn’t be funny, but the way he told it, the way he delivered it, gave us all permission to laugh with him about how unfair life can be sometimes with coincidence and with death and with the things that remind us of the people we’ve lost and how the universe sometimes comes together in a way that makes you think, Goddammit, quit fucking with me! And that of course it never will, so your only recourse, if you don’t want to become bitter and small and mean, is to laugh. And even that might not save you, but it gives you a shot.
He nailed it — and then afterward it was time for everyone to go home who didn’t want to get a book signed. But I did, and so I asked my dad, “Do you mind if we stay?”
“No baby, get your book signed. There’s no rush.”
It’s a good thing, too. Because even though only about thirty or so of the hundreds of people who were there stayed to get their books signed, it took about two hours to get to see David.
I confess that it took that long in large part because Dad and I dumbly decided we needed more champagne before we got in line, so by the time we queued up we were literally second to last in the rows of people corralled in the waiting room. But hindsight is 20:20, and we were thirsty, dammit.
We accepted our lot and sat down to wait our turn. They had us all seated in the auditorium. There was a woman in charge who would call us by row to line up and meet with David, who was stationed behind a table in the atrium.
I was nervous. The champagne had taken off some of the edge, but it was still a dull-razor — and those are the most likely to nick.
The book I’d brought with me was a copy of Barrel Fever. It was a first edition of the paperback version of the book, and the collection was David’s first publication, so I thought it was a pretty cool piece. I’d gotten it at Half Price Books here in Austin, and the previous owner had scrawled their last name in purple marker on the top edge where the pages come together: Hamlen.
In my head, I’d imagined David commenting on the book, and him making a joke about the previous owner defacing the copy while at the same time reliving the feeling he must have felt, the pride of publishing his first collection of essays. And, in that moment, me living a little in the fantasy of being at that place in my career, too: Holding my first printed book in my hand and thinking, You did that. Leigh, you actually did it. Well done.
My dad and I got to talking and he said, “You should tell him that story.”
And I knew exactly which one he was talking about. But I said, “No, he won’t want to hear that!”
And he said, “Yes he will! It’s funny.”
The story in question is one in which my best friend got a book signed by David Sedaris for me, along with a few more books signed for others, including her three-legged cat, Coco. (Whose Instagram, by the way, has significantly more followers than I could ever hope to have on this blog, but that’s beside the point, and I am most definitely not jealous. Dja year that, ya gimp cat! Not jealous!)
In the process of signing her books, David asked, “Who’s Coco?” And Elizabeth replied, “That’s my three-legged cat.”
And David said, “Well, normally I have a strict policy that I don’t sign books for pets but—” then he leaned in and asked in a low whisper, “which leg is missing?”
She told him, and he not only signed the book but also drew an anatomically correct picture of the cat on it. And when she gave me my signed copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, while I treasured it very much, the real gift was that amazing story. I told it to anyone who would listen for well over a month, because it was hilarious.
“Which leg is missing?” That line killed.
As the minutes passed, I thought more about that story and whether I should share it when I met the man who had willed it into existence with his lightning-fast wit.
The woman in charge reentered the room and told everyone, “This could go more quickly, but he’s really on tonight. He’s having a great time!”
Emboldened by how much fun he was having with everyone, I decided I absolutely had to tell the story. How he’d laugh! And how I’d laugh! And how dad would laugh! We’d all laugh and it would be everything in the world that was good.
Finally, it was our turn. We go into the atrium. We were the second to last two people in the last line of people David had to see all night
At this point I should mention that David Sedaris had told the audience earlier that he was on a crazy-demanding tour — something like 40 cities in 39 days. And that he hadn’t slept any the night before. He was running on fumes.
This didn’t distress me, though, because I was holding onto a deep-rooted believe in what the event coordinator had said: “He’s really on tonight. He’s having a great time!”
The couple before my dad and me were cute and young. An attractive blond woman and her tall, dark, and handsome boyfriend. When they went up, David asked the guy about his name. It was Mart. David said that couldn’t be a real name — made him repeat it and laughed. He was flirting with the guy, which I couldn’t begrudge him, because, he was really pretty cute.
After their turn, my dad and I approached the table. But David got up suddenly and ran to the restroom, because David had to pee. Or maybe he had to vomit. Or maybe he had to splash some good, cold water on his face because it was late and it had been one helluva day and, sure, he only had a handful of people left to see but he was all out of people-seeing energy and he just needed a minute.
But in that minute, whatever spell had been helping him spin magic all night must have been broken.
He got back to the table and sat down. I introduced my dad and myself and gave my well-rehearsed spiel, “It’s so amazing to meet you. You’ve been a huge influence on me. And, you might not remember this, but,”
And then I launched into my story about Coco. And the whole time I’m telling it, he’s signing my name and then he’s drawing a picture. He’s not laughing, like I’d envisioned. When he didn’t react, I pressed on, and said, “And you know, we’ve gotten a lot of joy out of that story, so thank you for that.”
He looked up from the book and said, while scrawling what was beginning to look like a caricature of me, “Yes, I don’t normally sign books for pets as a rule. But I do draw.” As figure was really beginning to take shape, he added, “Sometimes I draw naked people.” At that point he’d drawn some pointy, lopsided boobs on this figure.
He looked up smiling impishly at that, and then, upon seeing the two of us staring down at him, seemed to remember that I was with my father, and to realize that his nude sketch had created what is known as an awkward moment.
He tried to fix it, quick, but he was likely in the throes of sleep-deprived delirium, and so he said, “But this isn’t you naked, no.” He kept drawing, and added a long nose to the caricature. Then he said, with the pride that comes from resolving a problem efficiently, “This is you as a snob!”
He looked up again, and through the fog of lost sleep and days on the road away from home and all the rest of it, he realized his fix was worse than the problem. I could see it in his eyes. David quickly added, “But, of course, you aren’t a snob.”
There was no saving it, though, and he knew it. At that point, what was drawn was drawn. So he closed the book, and handed it to me.
And I told him, “Thank you so much, it was so nice to meet you,” and Dad and I walked away.
When we got outside, we were both silent for about a minute. Then Dad said, “What just happened?”
I replied, laughing, “I don’t know,” and then, “I think David Sedaris just insulted me.”
And Dad said, practically choking on his own chuckles, “I think he just did.”
We got into an Uber to make our way back to my dad’s faculty in residence apartment on SMU’s campus. We took an Uber because my dad’s a rare Dallas urbanite who doesn’t own a car for reasons that could fill a whole other blog post, but that’s a story for another day.
On the way back, we shared the evening’s events with our driver, and as I delivered the punchline, “He called me a SNOB!” for the driver’s benefit, I added, “Can you believe anyone would ever call anyone from SMU that?”
The driver, being a professional, wasn’t sure if he could laugh or not, but laugh he did, because SMU has something of a reputation — it’s sometimes dubbed “Southern Millionaires University” — and you could definitely imagine someone saying that about someone who was headed to or had come from there.
I’ve had the chance to tell that story many times over in the months that have passed, so David Sedaris, if you’re reading this through some impossible twist of fate, thank you again for the laughs. You’re a card — and a cad — and a true performer of the greatest ilk. It was a pleasure to be the butt of your fatigue-inspired joke. And while I’ll probably never seek out the chance to meet with you again, I’ll dine out on this story until I reach the dregs, drink that bit up, and digest it slowly.
And after that, I’ll still have the one of the book signed for Coco, the three-legged cat, to keep me sated. Because, if her Instagram followers are anything to be believed (and believe me, they are), that’s one tail that will never get old. (Ha!)
Try something scary lately? Have a chance encounter with your idol that did not go according to plan? Eat something really interesting for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Decide to take a different route to work recently — one that you just know in your gut changed the trajectory of your entire day? Leave your story in the comments! I wanna hear it!
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