David Sedaris graduated from Sanderson High School in 1975 and left Raleigh for the bright lights of, among other things, Chicago, New York, menial jobs, unfinished college courses and the Macy's Santaland. Still, in his remarkably successful career, he has returned time and again to his youth in Raleigh, as a member of a large, offbeat clan. Although some of his old haunts still stand, such as the IHOP on Hillsborough Street where he used to prepare for a bout of writing, he's missed a lot of the new development in the city. The Raleigh of his youth is fast disappearing.
In truth, it's been a long time since Sedaris was really connected to Raleigh. As we spoke on the phone earlier this week, Sedaris was busy attending to the nuts and bolts of being an itinerant famous writer. He was in a California hotel room, sewing a button on a shirt and doing preparation for a reading before working on a new piece for The New Yorker. Although it might be a stretch to call Sedaris a Tar Heel these days, he noted with some ethnic pride the relatively recent ascendancy of another funny Greek-North Carolinian: "He's my new favorite person," Sedaris says of actor-comedian Zack Galifianakis, currently enjoying a moment in the limelight with the success of The Hangover.
These days, Sedaris, who never learned to drive, doesn't get to see much of the Triangle. "Before I lived in Raleigh, I lived in Binghamton, New York, where I was born," Sedaris says. "It's interesting—Binghamton hasn't changed at all. I mean, they've built maybe one new house since I lived there. But then I go to Raleigh, and I don't even recognize it anymore."
On this trip, however, Sedaris will be staying downtown instead of with his family. He was amused by a description of the convention center's shimmer wall and bewildered that there are now clubs with dress codes. "I haven't been in downtown Raleigh in—gosh, 10 years," Sedaris says. "I hear Fayetteville Mall's not a mall anymore." He's perplexed by the idea of a Cheesecake Factory at Crabtree Valley Mall having valet parking (along with what a Cheesecake Factory actually is).
But Sedaris' roots remain in old Raleigh. He remembers going to such long-gone nightclubs as the Frog and Nightgown. "I would go to the Raleigh Underground in Cameron Village and think, 'This is what New York is like!'" He remembers how fancy the Velvet Cloak Inn on Hillsborough Street seemed: "I would see that man in the top hat sitting out front and go, 'If that's not class, I don't know what is!'"
Sedaris admits he's out of the loop on such gay-related Raleigh news as the Clay Aiken star trajectory and former mayor—and now state GOP chairman—Tom Fetzer's recent battle to prove his heterosexuality. However, he does remember feeling awkward at the Capitol Corral. "Everybody had the same haircut and the same clothes on, and if you didn't do that, pretty much nobody was interested in you. But I'm not really into the gay scene. I sort of met my boyfriend so I'd never have to set foot in a gay bar for the rest of my life."
Sedaris has little nostalgia for the reality of being gay in the 1970s: "I think I would prefer to be gay now instead of 25 years ago. I met this nice couple at one of my signings, and they said they met as high school sweethearts—that would never have been possible in a million years when I was growing up! They have alternative proms now, and when I was growing up, it was easy to believe you were the only homosexual on Earth. Now, when I meet parents who want me to sign a book to their 17-year-old son and his boyfriend, that's just beautiful to me."
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris' latest collection, was published last year and is just out in paperback. The title refers to his efforts to quit smoking, but Sedaris says he's not in favor of the state's recently passed ban on smoking in indoor restaurants and bars. "It seemed outrageous to me when they did it in New York, and then it spreads all over the country," Sedaris says.
"I'm not one of those people who quits smoking and thinks everybody else should quit. I love the smell of other people's cigarette smoke. When the bars and restaurants went nonsmoking in France, they just had people sit outside, but in the U.S., that means people will just complain the smokers are getting the best seats.
"I'm 52, and if I found out tomorrow that I had lung cancer, the last thing I'd do is sue the tobacco companies. They didn't make me smoke, and it wasn't movies that made me smoke, and it wasn't older people," he says. "I started smoking because I was out of pot."
He's pleased that U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan voted against the bill to allow FDA regulation of cigarettes: "They can make talking cigarette packs that hack and cough and spit blood when you take a cigarette out, but it's not going to make any difference."
Sedaris, who only got on the Internet in the last year, says that if bloggers had been around when he first started writing, he might not have had a career. "I think I might have spared the world my badness for the first eight years or so of my writing life, but today, I might have felt tempted to just get it out there."
Sedaris shrugs off the scrutiny he received in a New Republic essay in 2007, which claimed he should stop calling his work "nonfiction." Calling the piece "really lame," Sedaris says, "I'm a humorist, not a reporter."
Still, perhaps to forestall future criticism, he seems to be more cautious now. Sedaris reports that he had to change a detail in an upcoming New Yorker piece, in which his father's fraternity paddle is mentioned. After his father sent him the paddle, Sedaris saw there weren't any signatures by his father's fraternity brothers on it.
"People will come up to me and say, 'Remember the time we did such-and-such?' and I don't remember it," Sedaris says. "But I will remember things like the blind guy who sat across from me at the IHOP 25 years ago."
And sometimes, weird stories just land in his lap. "Last night, I had a driver when I went from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, and she was from Mexico, and her cousin had both his arms eaten off by pigs, and then he had to learn to do everything with his feet, and now he's a lawyer. I just love that."
If that tidbit shows up in The New Yorker one day, you read it here first.
David Sedaris appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music on Wednesday, June 24, for a signing from 4 to 6 p.m., followed by a program, after which there will be another signing. Signing items are limited to books and CDs; no memorabilia is allowed. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 828-1588.