Me Ride Tall Some Day
At the time, Sedaris had just replaced Spalding Gray as tip-top wordsmith extraordiniare in my world, so the night had me all a-tingle. After discovering Sedaris, I'd eaten up everything he had published. I loved his candor, his sass. I loved that he focused on first-person essays, like me. I dug his tone, his wit, his sarcasm. I relished everything the guy was doing.
I'm not sure what I had pictured, but I was surprised to discover that night that my literary hero was pale and anxious and had bad posture. When he spoke to the audience between stories, Sedaris seemed fidgety. His pants were too short, and if memory serves they were an icky baby blue. On a few occasions he looked like he was going to burst into tears. Clearly, he wasn't the confident, swaggering chap I had envisioned.
But I didn't find this disappointing. Rather, Sedaris' demeanor infused me with a sense of hope. If my favorite author is such a wreck up there but still manages to wow the masses, surely I can do it, my crippling fear of public speaking be damned!
On this occasion, though, I wasn't overcoming any fears. I wasn't even ballsy enough to hang around after the reading and talk to Sedaris, even after he'd closed the reading by announcing, "Hey everybody! Come talk to me. I'll be in the lobby." About 12 people lined up and starting shooting the breeze with the guy as he sat at a table smiling receptively. And I just walked out the door.
In the months and years that followed, I kicked myself repeatedly for this hasty exit. Why hadn't I approached him, slipped him some of my columns, maybe established a rapport? He seemed so accessible. I knew part of my problem was bashfulness; mainly, though, I couldn't imagine what in tarnation I could say to convey my admiration. Every ice-breaker that came to mind was just way to sycophantic. "I love you." "Your work floors me." "Your writing pierces my every pore, rips out my entrails, and fills the hole with happy juice." All true--but was I going to say any of it? Hell no. And was I going to beg him to help me along with my career? Absolutely not. So I left.
A year or so later, after finishing another Sedaris book, I felt compelled to call the guy. Oh sure, I thought, it'll be awkward at first, but then we could get on with the business of discussing our work. The very formation of these thoughts in my head frightened me. I'd never entertained the notion of calling a celebrity, or even joining a fan club. Only sickos did that. What was becoming of me?
I managed to quiet my inner stalker, but months later I had a new idea: I'd send Sedaris some of my stuff. Surely if I connected so acutely with his writing, chances were good he'd connect with mine. Right? Right? Next would come loads of encouragement from him, followed by a multi-book contract so large the New York publishing world would just spit. Or not. But why not give it a shot?
I addressed a big white envelope, filled it with four or five of my columns, and placed it on my desk, where it sat for years. I just couldn't write the letter to go with it. Again: What do you say that 10,000 other obsequious fawners haven't said before?
Plus, I was scarred. Things had gone awry years before with Spalding Gray. Gray is primarily known as an actor and monologist, but I discovered his books when I was in college and dug into them something fierce, finding his work very similar to what I knew I had inside me. When serendipity struck and I ran into him on a nude beach north of San Diego about 10 years ago, I stopped and we spoke. He was kind, attentive, chatty, uncircumcised. He invited me to his performance that night. I went. A few months later, I wrote an essay about the encounter--it was one of my first, helping me to break through some sort of mental membrane. For years, I contemplated sending it to him. I had him to thank, after all. But I never seemed to get around to it--until about two years ago, when I sent him that essay, as well as about five others. And then I waited for a response. And I waited some more. And then there was more waiting. But Spalding never wrote.
I couldn't help but develop a low-level disdain for the guy. Couldn't he at least drop a little note offering few sentences of feedback? Apparently not. After a six-month grace period, he was evicted from the top of my favorites list, and in fact soon vanished from it all together. My chums chimed in: "Oh, the guy's busy--don't take this personally." And they had a point. But damn, I couldn't help it. My mom, not knowing of this development, sent me a clipping from the paper down in West Palm Beach saying that Gray would be delivering his latest monologue there. All I could do was sneer.
With this kind of scar tissue built up, I just couldn't send my stuff to David Sedaris. I couldn't risk being snubbed, then having to hate him. I delighted in his work way too much for that. So I did the wise thing: I sent him nothing. I continued to lead my life, and figured he was just leading his.
But then, a few months ago, I got a pivotal e-mail from my pal Cate informing me that Sedaris was coming to town again. My head started churning afresh. OK, maybe I should do this. Sedaris, nervous little Sedaris, friendly chap that he was--he would respond if I handed him a few columns, wouldn't he? Wouldn't he? He would, right?
I asked Marty if he would accompany me. "Only if you slip him some of your work," he said. It was settled.
We were late getting to the dark, packed auditorium, and there he was, already up on stage, standing at a podium reading, bathed in flattering light. He had people rolling with his as-yet-unpublished account of using the Stadium Pal, a portable catheter with ankle-bag that guys can wear for hours at a time. Later, he regaled us with whacked-out Dutch Christmas customs that involved Santa traveling with "six to eight black men" instead of elves. The essays rocked, but what stood out more was Sedaris' new look. This time, speaking in downtown D.C. instead of the 'burbs, he appeared polished, suave, his pants expensive and lengthy, his shirt dressy, his posture impeccable, his smile easy. He was a creature utterly transformed.
The lights came up and Marty and I skittered off to the rest rooms. When we got back, the line to see Sedaris was snaking from the lobby into the theater, around its periphery and up the steps to the nosebleed seats. We got at the end. We're not people who tend to wait in line; generally we'd just as soon forgo whatever it is that's being handed out in favor of being able to sit or lie down. But this was an exception--this had become a personal requirement, a commitment. Cop out now and I knew I'd hate myself in addition to hating Spalding Gray.
As the line slowly curved toward the lobby, I cradled Sedaris' three books. I actually couldn't care less about autographs--anybody's. But I figured if I was going to ask something of him, I'd better make it clear that I'd consumed all he had to offer.
We were in line a half hour when Marty, with a sweeping gesture, said, "Look at all these people."
"None of them have envelopes," he said. "They just have books for him to sign."
Hmm. Could it be that only one in every 250 people actually slipped Sedaris some writing to peruse? I could only hope.
At about the hour point, Marty left to meet some pals who were waiting for us. Standing there alone then, legs aching, I realized I had no idea what I was going to say to my favorite author. My psyche probably hadn't allowed me to contemplate it; otherwise I'd have gotten myself all nervous and would have possibly chickened out. My section of the line inched nearer to the man, and in another half hour's time, it began curving toward a rectangular table. Behind it sat Sedaris, tan and sparkling, surrounded by helpers and chatting hyper-amiably with each and every devotee. Making a major, enthusiastic effort to visit with everyone, he seemed almost salesmanlike. This didn't jibe with the deadpan, sarcastic tone in his books. Getting closer, I could hear him asking folks where they were from and really listening intently and wide-eyed when they answered. Was he mocking people, or was he really this . . . receptive?
A woman in line a few folks ahead of me had donned lots of makeup. She had long blond hair. Sedaris flattered her. "Oh, wow! I just really like your look! You look so summery, your hair and makeup--but you're dressed for winter! I just love the way that looks! It looks like if you took off that big black coat, there might be a bikini underneath!"
Next he spoke to one woman about Chicago, where she was from. Then he talked at length to a guy about Columbus, Ohio, and all it had to offer. I panicked a little, felt like I'd been hit with a pop quiz. Where am I from? West Palm? That's where I was born, but I fled as soon as I could. New Orleans? Well, I'm not from there--but I did live there a long time and I adored it. Here--D.C.? Nope, I've only been a local for four years.
I decided I wouldn't let him ask me where I was from. Instead, I'd offer up the first topic of conversation, which would be determined sometime in the next three minutes. But how to broach the subject of my work? I still wasn't sure about that. I wouldn't have to say too much, though, because there was a note in my big envelope that explained everything. A few days before, a friend had asked me, in an e-mail, what my agenda was in giving Sedaris my work. When I answered, Adam said, "Why not just print that out and attach it to your stuff?" So I did. The note said:
"I guess the best-case scenario would be this: He reads my stuff, he's paralyzed with laughter and intrigue and an unidentifiable sense of . . . well, he just doesn't know what. He's just amazed that I'm living in obscurity. He immediately calls his agent, then he conferences me in. We quickly work out a deal. They want 20 of my best columns, right away. I send them in. They're published as a collection. The world falls to its knees and I find I can no longer go to the grocery store without being pawed. Then comes a three-book deal. A huge contract. Marty and I move into palatial digs, I buy some horses. Sedaris, now my chum, comes over a lot to marvel at how beautiful and sassy-smart our children are. . . . That sort of thing."
Sure, all of that would be excellent, but just a bit of feedback would be nice too. For a moment, I got lost in dreamland thinking of large homes and horses--but then suddenly the line moved and I was there, smack-dab in front of Sedaris. I had assumed this moment would be power-packed, that I'd be filled with recollections of his work, questions I had about certain passages. But I wasn't. I just stood there, relatively blank.
"Hey, hi, you know what? They do make those portable catheter things for women," was all I could think to say. In the essay he'd written and read, Sedaris had indicated such a product didn't exist for females.
He was intrigued. "Really? Seriously? What are they called?" He dug around for his tiny notepad and started scrawling down what I was saying.
"The She Funnel, I think." Then I started doubting myself--Is it really called the "She Funnel," or did I just start calling it that way back when? I couldn't remember--it was all running together now.
"If I'd designed such a thing, you know what I would have named it?" he said. "The Stadium Gal." He was signing my book as we spoke. Dear Suz, thanks for telling me about the Stadium Gal.
"Are you a nurse?" he asked.
"How'd you know about the She Funnel?"
"Oh--I have a pal who has one," I said. "She uses it on camping trips. Car camping--so they don't have to stop the car on the way there."
I asked him more about the Stadium Pal, like how long he wore it per episode. Four to five hours at a time, he said, adding that it was the adhesive, condomlike component he couldn't deal with.
Sedaris used a black Magic Marker to draw a childlike American flag in one of the books he was signing, and what looked like a pimply butt in another. Just as he was finishing up the butt, I realized I still hadn't handed him my columns. If there had been a natural point in the conversation for that, I'd missed it. He slid me the last book, and looked at me, smiling. That's when I completed my assignment.
"Say, would you read some stuff of mine?"
After a microscopic pause he said, "Sure." I handed him my envelope. He looked a shade bewildered, but he took it. I said thanks and good-bye and walked away, out of the theater lobby.
Of course, for the next few days I harbored swirling fantasies of Sedaris bent over my work, positively spellbound. Every time the phone rang I knew it would be him, calling me from the road, talking mile a minute. I was the ugly-duck teenager waiting for the quarterback to call. In addition to all that suspense and excitement was a monstrous sense of relief. After putting it off for years, I'd done it. Now I just hoped he wouldn't pull a Spalding on me.
I began keeping a close eye on my e-mail. On the third day after the encounter, as I was deleting piles of junk mail, I panicked. What if he has an e-mail address like SueBee18@hotmail.com and he sent me a message titled "Make money from home now!" just for grins? Crap--I'd have to sift through my entire delete file.
A few days later, and still nothing. I was sitting in my sister's bedroom, telling her about all this. "Well, if you were him, what would you do?" she said, folding a washcloth. And in rushed the painful dose of reality. With a whoosh, I remembered all the people who, over the course of my 10-plus years as a journalist and columnist, had given me their fledgling writings to examine. At first it was flattering, then it quickly became a big pain in the ass. Even when I liked what I was given, I was often too scattered to get around to responding in any meaningful way. Uh-oh--Sedaris was probably like me, times 1,257. My shoulders slumped.
Then they straightened back up again. But, um, my stuff would stand out, right? Or, maybe I could rely on someone of his success having an altruistic nature toward other humor writers coming along after him...? Yeah, yeah. I could count on that, right? Sure I could!
Well, maybe not--it's been a month now and I haven't heard a peep from Sedaris. Unfortunately, those books of his on my shelf are causing my upper lip to curl into more of a sneer with each passing day.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
812 Park Ave.
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