David Sedaris was well worth sitting on the concrete outside 23rd Avenue Books for almost two hours. I don’t think I’ve been to a funnier reading and lecture in my life, even if he is a literary whore.Let me start the tale… A few days ago, I noticed that Willamette Week was touting the David Sedaris reading as a pick of the week. I had listened to quite a bit of his stuff on NPR, and had read with delight his stories about being a Santa’s Elf. What a perfect way to spend a Friday night! Seeing as Willy Week had mentioned it not once but *twice* in their rag, I figured everyone and their cousin would be there, and therefore I needed to get there early enough to stake out a decent seat. (Not unlike when I wanted to get a book signed when Tom Robbins came to town.)
This meant sneaking out of work early (no problem!), finding parking in the overcrowded Trendy-Third district (amazingly easy!), and bringing provisions to make my wait shorter. (Well, two out of three ain’t bad.) When I arrived about two hours before the reading was scheduled to take place, there was already a short line formed outside the bookstore. I went inside, purchased a copy of Sedaris’ latest book to pass the time and get signed, and went outside to wait my place in line. There were maybe ten to fifteen people in front of me. Lucky that I arrived early, as the line quickly snaked around the corner and waaaay down the street. It was actually pretty interesting to stake out a spot on Trendy-Third for a while. There was a mentally-challenged man who needed help finding his bus stop, a running-of-a-red-light hit-and-run accident, and a whole ton of people who asked us what the hell we were all standing around waiting for? The lady who stood behind me asked me to save her spot from time to time while she rescued her mobile phone from her car, or went looking for her friends, or helped the mentally-challenged man find the bus stop. I just smiled and nodded, “No problem,” so I could continue reading my book.
From time to time she complained that the line ahead was getting thicker because people were letting their friends in line with them, but not too much later she let her friends stand in line where she was, so I guess it was one of those glass houses things. Around 6:30 people started moving forward. I had to scramble to grab my stuff and follow the line, lest I lose my premium spot in the line. I had been wondering how they were going to fit all those people into the tiny bookstore, so I was trying to make sense of it while they led us down a narrow alleyway to the left of the bookstore building. I had visions of cramming us all into a basement, not unlike the raves I attended in college. Actually, it turned out to be much nicer than that when they led us into a courtyard with several rows of chairs and flattened cardboard boxes covering almost every patch of ground, including on the base of the tree in the center of the courtyard.
At the north end of the courtyard was a deck walkway that could resemble a stage, especially since there was a speaker’s podium at its center. I snagged a seat stage left in the first row. (It’s so much easier to find seating for one, you know?) I watched as people kept spilling into the courtyard, and I thanked my lucky stars that I had come early. A short thin man with a very noticeable bow tie came out to place a stool stage right and put a jar clearly labeled “tips” on said stool. At first I thought he might be Sedaris’ assistant, because most authors I’ve encountered travel with at least one assistant. When he started signing books for members of the audience, I figured out it was Sedaris himself. When you only listen to and read someone’s work, you can’t be expected to recognize them in person like you would a movie star. The author photos on the books are too tiny to help provide a positive ID, anyway.
Sedaris originally stated his intention to start stage right and move his way stage left. It quickly became obvious that there would not be time for that, after watching him part through people like Moses and the sea and getting deeper and deeper into stage right territory. People began sending money up for the tip jar, and thinking it might get my book signed faster, I put a dollar bill in as a bookmark and held the book up. I even thought about shouting, “Hey, we’ve got more cash over here!” but thought better of it. I watched as someone got their credit card signed, and as another person presented an ashtray as a gift for Sedaris. More people put cash in their books, and Sedaris handed the cash off to a woman sitting near the tip jar. I wondered aloud if she was going to get a cut out of the jar when the reading was over.
Eventually I figured that the reading was going to get started soon and I might as well fight for getting my book signed pre-lecture, seeing as I would prolly have to wait in line forever *again* to get it signed inside the store, and we have friends coming over in the evening, so dammit, I’m going to get this book signed! I picked my way through all the peons seated on cardboard in front of the make-shift stage and held my book out, dollar bill bookmark fluttering in the breeze. Sedaris pulled a cigarette out of the box in his shirt pocket and fumbled for a lighter. I offered mine, but he seemed oblivious to my gesture of kindness. He took my book to sign just as the owner of the bookstore announced that it was time for the lecture to begin. Score! Made it in just under the wire! I pissed off the gal who was sitting two seats away from me and got up a couple of minutes before me to get her book signed, but I had gotten a position in closer proximity to Sedaris,.
The inscription on my book reads, “To Jennifer: Thank you for your generous tip. David Sedaris.” Alll riiight! The owner of the bookstore got up to the podium to make a few remarks about how nice it was that Sedaris had sent him a hand-written thank you note after the last reading. They had packed the courtyard again the previous time, and when Sedaris arrived he had walked into the bookstore where there were two customers and one other employee. He thought those were the only people who had shown up for the reading, and he was pleased with that. I can only imagine his surprise when he made his way back to the courtyard! During much of the reading, Sedaris looked so pleased that here was a live group of people, and they were laughing and smiling and appreciating his work in a very apparent way. When a person works in radio and print, it must be a thrill to see actual feedback, not just numbers from Arbitron and book sales. (He actually discussed this when he explained the tip jar later in the evening.)
The owner went on to explain that the reason that Sedaris had chosen his bookstore to return to was not about the reception he received during his last visit as much as that he could smoke during the reading! We all laughed at that. Sedaris took the stage after giving his tip jar lackey a fiver (See! I told you so!) and proceeded to read some of his commentaries from NPR’s All Things Considered, essays from Esquire, and a few other projects he was working on. The Dog Days Poems were really funny, especially when he explained beforehand that he had purchased a rhyming dictionary beforehand that could make any ordinary person seem like a “fucking literary genius.”
As I listened, and when I wasn’t completely laughing my ass off, I was acutely aware of the creative phrases he used to describe everyday things. Since I am still considering doing some serious writing, I am making a point of paying attention to the structure of other people’s writing. Sedaris explained that he was doing three new things on this book tour, which began a few weeks ago.
The first was the bow tie, which his father recommended. He asked us for feedback on the bow tie, after mentioning that a fellow in San Francisco told him that what piercings are for the rest of the world, bow ties are for the Republican party.
Second, he did some shameless plugs for a couple of books by other authors that he really enjoyed. The only title I remember is “Blue Angel,” unsure about the authoress. The plugged books were going to be on the signing table after the reading, and the first people to snag those books would receive premiums from Sedaris in the form of shampoo and conditioner bottles he had swiped from the high-class hotels he was staying in during the tour.
Third new thing was the tip jar. He explained that while he received royalty checks from the books twice a year, those were very abstract and he liked the feeling of knowing exactly where the money was coming from. The money was not for charity, or any other nonsensical cause. It was for him to buy candy and cigarettes while he was on the tour. (At this time the tip jar was already overflowing with cash.) He figured that people tip their baristas even when they are surly and rude, and since he was being so nice as to appear for us, why don’t we tip him too? (Hence the “literary whore” label….)
Sedaris launched into a Q&A period that covered topics from what type of soap opera character would he be to news about the upsoming movie based on “Me Talk Pretty One Day” with Matthew Broderick playing the role of David Sedaris. There was also a confirmation of a rumor that Chuck Palahniuk (Author of Fight Club) was spreading that Sedaris had stolen a roll of toilet paper from another author’s house during a dinner party. Sedaris figured it was better than stealing the little dinosaur soaps since the author had kids and those kids might get upset over the loss. Sometime during the Q&A someone has asked Sedaris to sing the Oscar Mayer Weiner song. He smiled, shrugged, and told us, “Fifty bucks.” He seemed a bit disappointed that no one was willing to shell that out in cash after there were offers of checks and credit cards, and the questions went on. Ten minutes later, after finishing up an answer to a question, he lowered the price to thirty bucks. People started sending dollar bills around, another person threw in a ten, and a fistful of cash made its way toward the stage. A lady toward the front counted is as $33, and Sedaris agreed to sing. Before he started singing, more and more cash kept working its way to the front. He probably bagged $60 in five minutes. The Oscar Mayer Weiner song was worth it.
We applauded madly and people shouted for an encore, with a request for “Away in a Manger.” He made it through the first verse then claimed to have forgotten the rest of the song. We didn’t care – it was great!!!! This was when I wished that I had brought some sort of audio recording device (which I don’t own) or a camera (which I left in the car). The last question was about how he got started in writing, besides his unsuccessful stint as a writing workshop professor. (See “Me Talk Pretty One Day” for details.) When he was twenty, he started keeping a journal of his life and all the things around him, and some people asked him to do a reading from his journal in a basement. As time went on, people asked him to read in progressively larger and larger basements, and eventually that turned into a career. It was definitely the wildest literary reading I’ve ever attended… I love living in a town that is so in tune to books. So many independent bookstores and author readings. So many people on the bus with their noses buried in books. At the conclusion of the reading, we smoked if we had ’em and filed out the narrow alleyway to become part of the real world again, albeit a world so wonderfully documented by Sedaris’ twisted sense of humor.