I became a fan of David Sedaris a decade ago, when I was in graduate school and my then-boyfriend introduced me to him. “I think you’ll like this guy,” he said. “He’s funny.” And he handed me a stack of David Sedaris books.
David–whom I’m on a first name basis with now that we’ve had two conversations spanning nine years and lasting a total of 5 minutes–is a brilliantly funny writer, and, for the record, one of the best orators of his own work I’ve ever listened to. There are few other people for whom I’d be delighted to pay money just to listen to them read for a couple of hours. It now makes sense to me why so many people “discovered” him, as though he were an uninhabited island, through NPR’s “This American Life,” a radio segment that frequently airs his essays.
When I learned he was coming to Rhode Island, I immediately bought tickets to his show and a new book called Theft by Finding, a compilation of selected entries from his diaries between 1977 and 2002. Although he has an introduction explaining the title of the book–it comes from a law that states finding anything of value, say, $10 in the street, and choosing to keep it rather than trying to return it, is punishable as “theft by finding”–this is, in essence, how he created his book: by taking his own journal entries that just happened to be lying around and publishing them.
When I first saw this book in February, I was equal parts intrigued and offended, as I believe it should be called, Theft by Stealing from Jenny. (Remember my blog entry from six years ago, Journaling 101: A Sneak Peak Inside My Journal? Basically the same thing. I’d like some credit, Dave.) But as I’ve been reading this 500-page tome, I’ve learned a lot.
Well, two things.
1. David’s early adulthood was the opposite of glamorous. In fact, it was completely unenviable, involving a wide variety of drugs, sleeping under bridges, and renting tenement-style housing units owned by racists. He never had the money to pay bills, he took odd jobs with coworkers who beat their wives, and he was often at the receiving end of homophobic slurs. He was the epitome of a struggling writer/artist. If that’s the cost of literary fame, I don’t think I’ve earned it. And for once (well, twice, thanks to Stephen King’s On Writing) I’ve been okay with my low status as a writer if it means I didn’t have to wash hospital sheets with surprises left in them.
2. He writes down everything, and by everything I mean: the conversations he overhears at IHOP, the outfits of women who ride the bus and have teardrop tattoos on their faces, the insults that are hurled at him from moving vehicles. He focuses on peculiar details, humorous anecdotes, and others’ feelings while ignoring his own. I, of course, am the opposite. I analyze every feeling I have, reiterate the same existential crisis on a weekly basis, and debate (with myself) about whether I prefer going to the gym before or after I eat breakfast.
Lately my journal has taken a turn for the worst. Everything I write is lackluster and banal; it’s not even useful for winning arguments, unless the argument involves what flavor of ice cream I ordered at my last visit to Lincoln Creamery. This is fine for normal people, but I’m an aspiring writer, and David Sedaris is the best humorist I know, so it seems worthwhile to maximize my daily journaling time for something useful.
So last night, after the show, I seized an opportunity to be a better diarist, or more accurately, a better note taker.
I was standing at the end of a long line of people waiting to meet David. And by “the end,” I mean, the very last person. But after standing in the registration line at AWP 2019* I didn’t mind.
*The Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) had a conference in Portland, Oregon a couple of weeks ago. Fourteen thousand people attended, and at least half of them arrived for check-in at the same time. The snaking line filled two ballrooms, went up a flight of stairs, and out the door.
I also conveniently had in my possession reading material, both Theft by Finding, which I haven’t finished, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, which is my favorite collection of essays and the book I really wanted him to sign. (I assumed he’d only sign one book — can you imagine how long it would take if everyone brought several books for him to sign?)
After assuming my position in line, at the bottom of the stairs, I opened my book and began reading. Directly in front of me were three women in a group together, talking with a man wearing a nice coat, an engraved metal nameplate, and an earpiece. I thought he was an employee of the venue, but the familiarity with which he talked to them made it seem like he was part of their group. If he had a job to do, he wasn’t doing it. Instead he was swapping stories about schools in Naples (Florida) and showing everyone the cell phone photos he took of a snowy owl on Second Beach.
Finally, it occurred to me that he was an employee when he began waving his red-beam flashlight around, and saying something that was so odd, and humorous, I thought: Why am I reading when I could be writing? What would David Sedaris do? So I took out a small notebook, cradled it inside my open book, and began to describe this man and the situation.
The next thing I knew he was hovering over my shoulder, asking what I was writing. “Are you keeping your own journal?” he chuckled.
I jumped. As discreetly as I could, I flipped the notebook back a couple of pages, hoping he hadn’t seen his own description.
He looked puzzled.
“I meant, I do keep a journal, but this isn’t it.”
“Oh. Me, I was never one to keep a journal. But you know what I do now? I keep calendars. I have a square, about this size, and it has all the days of the month. Each morning I write what I’m supposed to do inside a little block, and then I can look back at the end of the year and see all the things I did each day.”
“Wow. That’s great.”
“I mean, I don’t keep it the whole year. But I could.”
“Say, where you from?”
After I told him New Mexico, he said that is the one place he hasn’t yet gone to yet but it’s on his list. He wants to see the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque.
“Ah, yeah. It’s beautiful.”
“I’ve never been, but from the pictures.”
“You’ve never been?”
It is three hours away, and there are crowds and parking to worry about, not to mention the 4am wake-up call–and do we really want to stay the night in Albuquerque when we don’t have to? But I didn’t say any of this. I only mentioned that I’ve met Rhode Islanders who’ve never been to Block Island, and he said he’s not one of those kinds of Rhode Islanders. He lives in Lincoln and yet he goes to Second Beach.
It was the second time he brought up Second Beach, and he said it with conviction, as if this should tell me everything I needed to know about him.
“Wow. That’s great,” I said again.
Then he explained the breakdown of Lincoln, how it’s divided into at least six sections that I didn’t know existed–except for Manville, which I’d heard of but didn’t realize it was part of Lincoln. I said I thought it was a separate town. “Don’t tell a local that,” he said, “or they’ll tell you, ‘I’m not from Lincoln, I’m from Manville.'” The women in front of me seemed relieved to be able to return to a private conversation while I, in the meantime, was learning that “Quinnville” is the area in which I spent the most time.
Soon, my new friend was relieved of his duties. “You can go home to Betty now,” they told him.
“Oh, I don’t mind staying,” he said cheerfully.
Eventually, however, he did leave.
I decided taking notes while standing in line was not the best idea. I went back to reading, or trying to, but I ended up in conversation with the women in front of me when I stopped to peel off my jacket. One of the women, also Jenn, was fanning herself and wishing she had a bottle of water. She was there with her sister, who’d flown up from Florida, and I’m not sure what the sister did for a living but she looked like an English teacher or a librarian. Her hair was pulled into a low ponytail, just long enough to make it through the rubber band, and she had glasses and wore a cardigan. Jenn told me she’s written several books (unpublished), including children’s books.
Thus, it was a surprise when I heard her asking an employee of the venue if they thought David would sign her boob. “I’m going to say no,” the employee said.
“What would your husband say?” her friends asked.
“It doesn’t matter. David’s gay, so it doesn’t count. It’s not like it’s an AC/DC concert.”
I think she would have gone for it anyway, asked him to sign her boob, but she reconsidered after a man with a shriveled arm politely asked David if he would mind signing his stump.
“I don’t usually agree to this kind of thing,” David said hesitantly, “but for you, yes, I can do that.”
And he did.
“Well, there goes my chance,” she said.
I was hoping a selfie with David would be possible, a request that wouldn’t have occurred to me until my recent trip to Portland when I excitedly told my friend I got to meet my pastor idol, John Mark Comer. “Did you get a photo?” she asked.
“No. But he signed his book!”
“I wouldn’t care about that. I only want photos,” she said and listed the famous people she’s gotten selfies with. I stared sadly at my book. No personalized message, not even my name. Just an illegible scribble that may or may not be John Mark’s initials. I should have gone for a photo, I thought.
But as I drew closer to the table, I saw an encyclopedia-sized sign propped in front of David requesting NO PHOTOS PLEASE, and security asked everyone within ten feet kept their phones away.
Well, there goes my chance.
My next goal was to have him write a message for me in Greek. It took nine years, but I finally realized “Sedaris” is a Greek name. Maybe I glazed over stories about going to Greece in my early years of reading his books because my obsession hadn’t yet begun, but in reading his old diary entries, I learned he and his sister took Greek lessons as adults. HEY! ME, TOO! Of course, they’re Greek, so it makes sense for them; nevertheless it would give us a unique reason to bond.
When I reached the area of the line with post-it notes set out on a table, I heard the staff member say it was for writing our names only. “What about the message?” I asked.
Nine years ago when I saw David speak in Boston, which you may remember if you read my Top 10 of 2010 , we were asked to write our name and a small message we wanted him to transcribe in our books. Back then I chose something dumb, but this time I was prepared. I wanted him to write, Καλή τύχη.
It’s simple. It’s Greek. It means “Good luck,” which I need, and it’s also a great conversation starter. I could see it now: we’d bond, and he’d remember me as the only person in Providence to write something in Greek. Someday I would appear in one of his books as the girl who loves Greece.
So I wrote it down anyway, thinking it wouldn’t be a burden. It’s only 8 letters, the same number as my actual name, Jennifer. And what do I need my name for? I only want Greek bonding!
Finally, at midnight, the hearty handful of us remained. The group of women in front of me handed their books to David along with their sticky notes. (Jenn thought twice about including her husband’s name, and at the last minute, tore the post-it note in half so it only showed her name. “Good for you,” her friends said. “Tom didn’t wait in line. He doesn’t deserve his name in a book.”) And then I noticed in front of David, a pile of colored sharpies. He wrote:
And then with peach, green, and brown colored markers, he drew a picture of a zombie head on a stick.
For her sister, the one who hoped for a boob signature, he drew a picture of Snoopy. “Oh my God, look!” she pointed. “How did you know I have a Snoopy fetish?” she asked.
David shrugged in that way you do when you think, Just lucky, I guess.
Considering he’d been signing books for three hours, he was in a remarkably cheerful mood. He took the time to make conversation with every person in line, giving them a chance to feel special and seen, and I appreciated this about him.
Then it was my turn. Seeing what he’d done in the women’s books ahead of me, I felt suddenly dumb writing “Good luck” as my name. Instead of being remembered as unique and clever, I’d be the girl who wanted to show off and couldn’t follow directions. So I quickly scribbled over it and wrote, instead, “Tzenaki.”
It’s my name, as they call me, in Greece.
He started to write it in my book, then cocked his head.
“Tzen….aki? That’s your name?”
“Well, that’s my name in Greece.”
“Are you Greek?”
“That’s what they call me when I go to Greece. My name is Jenny.”
“Huh,” he said.
Thankfully, he asked a question that allowed me to explain the “aki” part of it, which is a diminutive form of the name Tzenny, and commonly used in Greece for other words. For example, Skilos is a dog, but Skilaki is a little dog. Pedia are children, but pedakia is an endearing way to address children.
“Ohhh. So this is a Little Jenny!”
“Yes, something like that.”
Then I did something smart, for once, and kind, and said, “Thank you for staying so late to sign these books for all of us. And thank you–” I turned around to address all of the security personnel wilting in the corners of the room, “for staying late, too. It means a lot.”
David stopped writing.
He looked at me. “You know, you are the first person to do that. People thank me all the time, and that’s nice, but no one has ever thanked the employees. You are the first one. Thank you. That was really thoughtful.”
I felt my awkwardness return as I mumbled something back, and he handed my books to me before I’d seen what he’d written inside. It wasn’t until I got home that I read his inscription.
He didn’t wish me Καλή τύχη, and we didn’t bond over Greece in the way that I’d hoped, but we did–in a way–still share a bond.