A lot of people dream about running into their idol in an unexpected situation. Ideally it would happen on an airplane, when you just so happen to be seated next to, say, George Clooney or Grace Jones. You’ll both be reading the in-flight magazine and he or she will ask if you’ve got an extra pencil for the crossword. You’ll only have a pen, but you’ll ask George or Grace, surely you don’t need an eraser for a crossword about Hollywood's finest, right? It will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or at least it could have been if you ever flew first class.
Meeting your hero by chance is, for most people, a fantasy, but on the day before Thanksgiving this year, my fantasy actually came true.
After work on Wednesday, my girlfriend and I took the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. Once the boat had docked, we’d drive to my aunt and uncle’s house on the Olympic Peninsula for Thanksgiving, about 60 miles down darkened roads. We parked the car in the bowels of the boat and walked up the stairs to the back of the ferry, where we could watch Seattle’s skyline disappear from our seats.
Just after the Great Wheel and the skyscraper that looks like Ban Roll-On deodorant had faded into the dark, I got up to get water, and as I walked toward the galley, I saw a small, familiar man sitting alone reading an iPad. My heart started to beat wildly in my chest. I rushed back to my seat.
“David Sedaris is on this boat,” I told my girlfriend. “David fucking Sedaris is on this fucking boat!!!” She turned around and peered at the man I was nodding and wiggling my eyebrows towards.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “That’s not him. That man looks jowlier than David.”
“He’s looking down!” I said. “That’s why! It’s definitely him. I’m going back.”
I grew up in the boy band years. NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees—all the girls my age had their fantasy boyfriend. Some liked blue-eyed Justin, whose hard gelled curls looked like uncooked ramen noodles, and others liked Nick, the one who parted his bleached blonde hair right down the middle, a look that evoked nothing less than a butt crack. But while the other girls in my class were decorating their lockers with pages ripped from Teen Beat, I had eyes for only one man: the middle-aged writer who was now sitting 20 feet away from me on a boat.
David Sedaris is few girls’ idea of a heartthrob. At 5’5” and slightly built, he’s a full grown man who looks like he shops in the boys’ section or orders his clothes exclusively from Japan. He’s also exceedingly gay, and while all of this appealed to me as a teen—my only interest in boys was sharing their clothes—what I loved most about David Sedaris from the very beginning was always his voice.
I first encountered David, as I like to think of him, through “Santaland Diaries,” an essay he first read on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992, right before Christmas. The story, which they replay every year, is about his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s, and it was unlike most things on NPR in the early ‘90s.
Sedaris, in contrast to the usual stentorian bores, was funny, bawdy, and a little bit mean—though never mean-spirited. On NPR, of all places, he read about the horrible kids and their horrible parents in line to meet the day’s Santa at Macy’s. He told us about Snowball, a cute gay elf from Queens who made him dizzy with attention, at least until David, or Crumpet, as he was known then, realized Snowball was just a tease in striped tights. The feeling, the emotions, in his work were implied, never stated, and his formula for a good essay was exact: it was 90 percent funny, 10 percent poignant, and it worked. His essays were better listened to than read, and the butt of the joke, as often as not, was himself. From the first time I heard his dusky little girl’s voice on the radio, I knew that if there was any man for me, this small homosexual was it.
In the 26 years since David Sedaris debuted “Santaland Diaries” on NPR, he’s written 11 books, all of which I have read. I’ve also read all of his essays, listened to his audiobooks, and tuned in every time he’s on the radio or, less often, TV. I’ve seen him read at least a half dozen times, from small bookstores where tickets were free to theatres seating several thousand middle-aged white people and charging almost as much as Beyoncé. He is my Beyoncé, in a way, and I suspect I’m the lone millennial who’d rather see him read than her sing. (Besides the fact that he’s funny, book readings usually come with seats.) I even drink my tea every morning from a mug with a drawing of his face. It’s not an obsession, per se, but it’s something a little bit like it.
It’s not that I ever wanted to date David Sedaris. I imagine our parts wouldn’t even fit together, like the same ends of a magnet. I just want to be his friend. We’re the same, he and I, at least as I picture it: We're neurotic and judgemental, but not miserably so. We both seem to genuinely enjoy how terrible people are. Sure, he’s several decades older than me and one of the most successful authors in the world, and I’ve only got a bus pass and some student loan debt to my name, but I’m convinced we’d get along famously if given the chance. And we really do have a lot in common: For one, we’re both homosexuals from North Carolina. He even went to the college in my hometown, if only for a couple of semesters, and, like me, thought he was too good for it. Granted, he was there a decade before I was born, but we’re also the exact same height. We could probably share pants, at least until he starts to shrink.
David Sedaris is one of those authors who lets you really peer into his life—or at least the parts of it he’s willing to share. He mentions Hugh, his boyfriend, and all of his fans know who he’s talking about. We know that Amy is the zany sister, who once showed up to Christmas wearing a fat suit. We know that Paul, or the Rooster, is the only sibling to have a kid. We know the name of his house on the coast of North Carolina (the Sea Section) and which sister has pet birds and which one killed herself. We know David loved his mom more than his dad and his mom loved him more back. We know he lives in a centuries-old house in West Sussex, a village south of London, and he spends most days at home picking up the trash people throw out their car windows and onto the road. He does it so much the town named a garbage truck after him.
After hearing about this—and about how his neighbors didn’t know that he’s famous—my girlfriend and I got into litter picking ourselves. I even got her a new garbage picker for her birthday this year, although she has yet to use it on trash, preferring instead to use it on items she can’t quite reach in the house. I’ll go to the pantry to grab pasta or black beans off the top shelf and before I can pull out the footstool, she’s there with her picker. “Out of the way,” she’ll say. “That’s my job.”
Some critics have questioned the veracity of details in David’s stories, especially the dialog. When David told his sister Tiffany about overhearing a man talking on a cell phone from a toilet stall in LaGuardia, was her response really, “I don’t believe in cell phones”? Who knows? Other people can care about the truth of his stories, but I’m happy to believe him, whatever the facts.
Once, in a cafe in Amsterdam, I was sure he was sitting just down the bar from me with Hugh. The man was about his size and chainsmoking cigarettes. and I was about to start smoking just to ask for a light, but when he opened his mouth and a deep baritone emerged I knew I’d had the wrong man.
Still, I’ve seen him in person plenty, most recently at Seattle Central College a few years ago. He was reading from his diaries, which were about to be published as the book Theft by Finding. Before a new book is published, Sedaris often goes to one or two cities and spends a week reading from his drafts, figuring out what works and what doesn’t in front of the audience. These readings tend to be more intimate than the big shows. He sometimes answers questions from the audience and usually signs books after it’s over. The reading was, as usual, a delight, and afterward I rushed out of the theatre to be the first in line to get my book signed. I don’t usually care about autographs, even from David himself, and would generally skip the line and head home as soon as possible to put on soft pants, but this time, I had something to offer the author in return: a tiny taxidermied animal paw in a glass case.
It was weird enough to seem like something he’d enjoy, and after I handed over the foot and got my book signed, David copied my address down into his notebook. Not even a week later, I got a postcard in the mail: "Thanks again for that little paw," it read. "I think it came from a mole, so I won't feel too bad. Moles are assholes. At least the ones in my yard are." That postcard is now hanging up in my house.
It’s been a couple of years since I gave him the foot. Sedaris has since put out another book, Calypso, which my girlfriend and I read aloud to each other in bed at night, taking turns at each chapter and talking casually about David and Hugh as though they were—as they should be—our friends. “Let’s take a trip to West Sussex,” I’ll suggest. “We’ll just wander around until we run into him. We’ll pretend we don’t know who he is and just happen to be picking up trash.”
“Okay,” she’ll agree, closing the book and turning out the light before I get too wound up. “Maybe next year.” It’ll happen. I think to myself. Someday.
On the ferry to Bainbridge, my heart still racing, I circled around him like a shark, and when I got near, noticed that my prey had a large feminine handbag that my grandmother would have loved resting on the seat next to him. It was definitely David.
My hero, my idol, was just a few feet from me, absorbed in his screen. I could let him be—the mature, adult thing to do when you see a famous person minding their own business. Or I could bug him.
“Excuse me,” I said, approaching. “Are you David Sedaris?”
He looked up. When our eyes met, I was somehow surprised when he didn’t immediately say, “Oh, hello Herzog,” as though he’d been expecting me forever, but, of course, I was a stranger to this man I feel like I know.
I introduced myself and asked where he was headed. Hugh, he said, was picking him up at the ferry and they were driving to Port Angeles for the weekend. I told him we’d met once before. “I gave you a foot,” I said, “and you sent me a postcard.” He said he remembered, which was likely a lie, and I bid him a happy holiday and walked back to my seat.
My regret was immediate. When I got back to my girlfriend and told her what happened, she agreed that I’d fucked up my chance. I should have just played it cool, and then, when everyone got up to walk off the ferry, I would just happen to stand right next to him. Maybe we could have chatted for a minute or even walked together off the boat.
I spent the rest of the ferry ride glancing behind me, hoping he’d look up. He did not, but when the boat arrived in Bainbridge, I saw him chatting in line with two gray-haired women. They laughed and started walking off the boat together, and I would have murdered them in a second just to take their place.
It was a long drive down across the Peninsula. I was silent in the passenger seat, full of regret and playing the scenario over and over in my head. I’d been waiting for this chance meeting since 1992, and I’d blown it.
I was still moody 50 miles down the road when we stopped at a gas station just outside of Sequim. The gas station was on tribal land, and the outside was made to look like a Native longhouse. I stayed in the car, moping, as my girlfriend headed inside to buy gum. Not a minute later, she was back at my window, whispering. “Look up,” she commanded, and there was David Sedaris and his boyfriend Hugh—handsome, more distinguished than I’d imagined—walking across the parking lot of the longhouse gas station and into the rental car parked in the spot right beside us.
For the second time in hours, this was my chance.
I could jump out the car and tell him how much he meant to me, how he was the reason I wanted to become a writer. Or I could accidentally bump into his car and leave just enough damage to require us to exchange phone numbers for the insurance. Or I could throw myself on their hood and beg them to take me with.
Instead, I sat there, still as a mouse, and watched through the window as David Sedaris, my best friend who doesn’t know I exist, got into his car with his boyfriend and drove off. And as their taillights receded, I felt my mood start to lift. If I can run into my hero twice in one day, it could happen again, I told myself. Perhaps it’ll be in West Sussex next time, just two writers who happen to be there, both of us picking up trash.