By Selena Fragassi
David Sedaris wants you to have more sex.
“That’s what I was telling kids last night,” he says when we meet for coffee during a tour stop for his latest book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” “There was this girl that came through the line and as we got to talking, I gave her some advice and said, ‘You should have sex with as many people as you can.’ And then the woman behind her goes, ‘I’m her mother!’ So, I turned back and said, ‘Well then, you should blow as many people as you can.’”
His advice reflects a regret Sedaris has grappled with since suffering a self-admitted midlife crisis upon turning 51 this past December.
“There were people I didn’t have sex with and the opportunity was right there,” he laments between sips of coffee. “Years ago, I was taking a train through Italy in this, like, cattle car. I didn’t have a seat and I was standing next to this guy from Beirut, and it was like meeting Bambi. He was my age, about 25, and he was so beautiful. We fell in love over the course of twenty minutes and stayed in love for like two-and-a-half hours. And then he said, ‘Get off the train and stay with me for awhile.’ And I didn’t do it…I will always regret that. Who knows? I could’ve wound up living in Italy.”
Instead, in the two-plus decades since his failed European union, Sedaris has become one of today’s greatest humorists with six collections of essays that have sold more than seven million copies, a Grammy Award nomination, frequent contributions to esteemed publications like The New Yorker and Esquire and numerous plays and appearances on “This American Life.”
“I do think of myself as fortunate in that way,” he says, cocking his head and pondering the idea. “Because this is more than I ever dreamed I’d have when I was 50 years old. If I hadn’t published a book yet and I was 50, I’d probably be a bitter person.”
While not bitter, Sedaris’ work often leaves the reader with a strong aftertaste of lessons learned in comedic narratives that are engrossingly honest. “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” keeps the tradition, albeit with an often darker perspective as Sedaris comes to terms with the end of all things, including the ultimate death of his smoking habit. His longest short story to date, “The Smoking Section,” journeys through different months and countries and features actual journal entries—something he is often not apt to reveal.
“[My journals are] all under lock and key because I would die if anybody ever read them,” he says, giving me an exclusive look at the cover of his latest notebook that he has been carrying around in his front shirt-pocket. “I have thought about [publishing them], but just the good bits. Not the bits where I’m talking about how hurt I am by something, or how angry I am at somebody. I would die because that’s the real me.”
As he looks out the window to the businessmen and tourists traversing Michigan Avenue, Sedaris recalls the city he called home in the years he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“It was a really good place to become confident,” he says. “And I don’t think I’ll ever have as good of friends as I have here.”
His first apartment cost $190 a month and was on the south end of the Uptown neighborhood at Irving Park and Sheridan where he saw lots of girlfriends with black eyes, insane, sedated residents of a halfway house next door and rodents for sale at his local grocery store.
“There was a Butera and they had a raccoon for sale,” he says. “At least I think it was a raccoon…or something with claws in the meat section.”
Those years have long passed him, he admits, echoing the thoughts of a man still in the throes of his midlife crisis. But, as we transition from talking about friends’ houses where you could get high until four in the morning to the pitfalls of fatal elderly falls, it’s evident that Sedaris’ beloved sense of humor leaves him, and us, with many more years of good storytelling.
“I met this nurse recently,” he says. “And I asked her, ‘Have you seen any good accidents lately?’ And she told me about a woman who was 69 and had this huge lawn and was waiting for her grandson to come mow it. Well, she decided to mow it herself except she had one of those lawnmowers where you had to pull a trailer behind you and it had many blades. She fell backwards into it and it cut off both her legs, an arm, a breast and one of her ass cheeks. She didn’t mean it as a funny story, but I was laughing and wondering ‘Why is this so funny?’ I really think it was the ass cheek that did it. I tried to picture her in a wheelchair, moaning, ‘If only I had that other ass cheek.’”
David Sedaris reads his work October 13 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress, (312)922-2110, at 8pm.