Wednesday, January 2, 2019

David Sedaris and the Bicycle

When David Sedaris was promoting his latest collection of essays, “Calypso,” he mentioned in an interview with Terri Gros that ever since he moved to England from France in 2011, he has been walking  the roads where he lives in his rural West Sussex community picking up litter for hours at a time.  His efforts gained him tea with the Queen and the honor of a local garbage truck branded with his name.  Since I’m very conscious of refuse along the road as I cycle, and often find items of use, it inspired me to read his book to learn what he had been finding and how his experience compared to mine.

He only devotes a couple of pages to his obsession in his short essay “Stepping Out,” which is more about a friend getting him hooked on the Fitbit pedometer and how many miles he walks every day than about his pickings.  He doesn’t find much to get excited about, as it is largely just refuse.  One item he doesn’t pick up is cigarette butts.  As an ex-smoker, he fears the feel of one in his fingers might encourage him to resume the habit.

He initially rode his bicycle on his rounds before he got hooked on the Fitbit and became obsessed with taking as many steps and walking as many miles as he could every day.  A further inducement to walk was he could be more thorough in spotting litter.  He made no mention of missing his bike, but I assumed he had to be a cyclist of some sort, especially since he mentions bicycling in seven of his twenty-one essays in “Calypso,” though never at great length.

The bicycle offered him solace after his sister Tiffany committed suicide in 2013 when he gathered with his father and three sisters and brother at their getaway home in Emerald Isle on the coast of North Carolina.  He mainly spent his days there bicycling up and down the coast alone in thought.  In the book’s first essay he tells of outings on the bike with friends when they come to visit him in England, where he presently lives.  In another he tells how his brother lost 65 pounds after buying a “complicated racing bike” and riding in cleats.  He refers to his Lycra outfit as resembling a “Spider-Man costume.”  These all are evidence of a bicycling-consciousness, though all are just mere drop-ins without any elaboration, as if the bike is a no more of an accouterment, than a toothbrush.

Still there was a hint that he could be attuned enough to the bicycle to have written about it with some passion or reverence somewhere.  Thus was I  encouraged to dive into his previous nine books to learn what else he might have written about cycling, hopefully devoting an essay or two to the subject with his unique sardonic slant,.  I was hoping for more wisecracks, such as his definition of well-meaning people as “the kind who wear bike helmets,” which he evidently does not, as he would be horrified to be considered well-meaning.  He had the potential to be more incisive than even the New York Bike Snob in mocking its adherent’s pretensions, while haranguing those who don’t bicycle.  He did observe in his diaries that while bicycling in France, “I tend to think of all the people who are too lazy to exercise.”  Since he uses his diary as a source for essay ideas, I was hoping thee would be one on this.  Somewhere in him I knew there had to be an ode exalting the bicycle above all else.  

I thought a potential gold mine of material awaited me somewhere in his writing when he mentioned in “Naked,” his second book, that he had worked as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco.  That would have provided him the material for an even more outrageous and incendiary commentary on those who inhabit planet earth than his renowned “Santaland Diaries,” about working as an elf at Macy’s in New York during the Christmas season. A bicycle messenger is afforded a keen eye to the slaves of the workplace as he zips in and out of offices all day.  Sedaris would have had a wide universe of surly security guards, lackadaisical receptionists, oblivious pedestrians, enraged motorists, impatient dispatchers, clueless fellow messengers, inconsiderate mail room flunkeys and hostile bicycle cops to inflame his pen. 

He could have let his sardonic wit explode with even greater venom and rancor than it had when masquerading as an elf towards all the moronic  building policies regarding messengers, some relegating them to freight elevators, and those who administer them.  The frustrations of messengering would have had him writing with unparalleled fury.   But I should have realized that his neurotic, cowering personality never would have allowed him to work as a messenger, or even give it a try.  Even if he’d worked just a few days, it would have left such a deep impression upon him, mentions of it would have turned up in his writing almost as often as his potshots at his father.

Sedaris has been accused of not being entirely truthful, or tending at least to exaggeration, in his story-telling, which should come as no surprise, as in a piece on attending a summer camp in Greece for a month, he claims to have been so stressed by the experience that he didn’t have a bowel movement the enitre time.  Yeah, sure.  So it can be assumed that claiming to have worked as a bicycle messenger had to be a fantasy.  If he had been a messenger, that would have been one of his choices of a job when he moved to Chicago in 1984 and was desperate for work. The messenger companies were always hiring in that era.  He couldn’t have missed the many want ads in The Reader, nor the legions of messengers rampaging around the Loop.  He would have known it would have given him plenty of material to write about, as any messenger with a bent towards writing thinks he wants to write a bout about the experience, as Travis Culley so magnificently achieved with “The Immortal Class, Bicycle Messengers and the Cult of Human Power.”

If Sedaris had messengering in his past the intensity of the experience would have given him a bottomless reservoir of material, much greater and much more entertaining than the two seasons he spent working as an elf, which he distilled into a masterpiece annually read on NPR.  He would have returned to his time as a messenger time after time in his future writing.  It doesn’t even merit a mention in the first volume of his diaries “Theft by Finding” covering the years 1977 to 2002 published last year.  It commences when he is twenty years old just after he arrived in San Francisco, as recounted in “Naked,” when he wrote, “My friend Veronica (to whom he later dedicates his sixth book  “When You Are Engulfed in Flames”) got me a room at a residence hotel and I found work as a bicycle messenger.”  And that is it on the messengering.  

Equally disappointing, he doesn’t devote more than a sentence or two here and there in all of his writing to the bicycle, despite occasional references that he does not drive and he utilizes a bike to get around.  He’ll mention he bikes to Central Park in New York, but then devote the next few paragraphs to someone who wants the bench he plops down on declared a “No Smoking Zone.”  He’ll casually insert he biked to a bank when he needed to withdraw the money a co-worker stole from the wallet of the person they are working for lest he be accused of stealing the money, but it is just another teaser remaining a mere accessory to the story. No where does it assume a starring role.

Not  only are his books bereft of an entire story devoted to the bicycle, there is not even a full-fledged paragraph.  The closest he comes is writing about his unstable sister Tiffany, who ran away from home when she was 14 and was placed in juvenile detention.  Prior to her suicide well into her 40s she towed a homemade rickshaw behind her bike for her rounds scavenging garbage while living in Somerville, New Jersey.  Woe is it the person who mocks her rickshaw, as Sedaris would like to do.  He does credit it for keeping her fit.

He references riding his bike repeatedly in his diaries and even offers up instances that could have been made into a fully-developed story.  During the six-and-a-half years he lived in Chicago while attending, then teaching at, the School of the Art Institute, he rode around on an old one-speed that cost him $8.  “Bad teenagers” mockingly called him Pee Wee.  “It gets on my nerves,” he wrote, “but if I had a better bike, they’d just steal it.”  He eventually does replace it with a bike similar to what he had back in Raleigh, North Carolina before he moved to Chicago at the age of 27.  He calls it a “Frankenstein bike, made of different bits and pieces...painted umpteen times.”  He could have written at length and with great affection about any of his bikes, but he declines.  Years later after he has gone off to live in Paris for a spell he buys a new bike for $300 rather than getting his old bike repaired.  He immediately is struck by remorse, feeling as if he betrayed his old bike.  

When he rents a bike while on vacation in Italy with Hugh, his long-time boy friend, it leads to one of their regular spats.  The light didn’t work.  Sedaris wanted to let it be, while Hugh told him no less than fifteen times to go back and have it fixed.  

Despite his wide acclaim, (Yale recently acquired the vast archives of his early unpublished writing and voluminous diaries of which only a tiny fraction will be published), Sedaria tends to the self-deprecating and shies from chest-thumping.  He does not write of his tea with the Queen, nor of the ceremony unveiling the Garbage truck named for him, only that he was asked what font he would like his name written in on truck. “Roman,” as in “roamin” he requests.  I’ll offer one final bike mention from his diary, the entry on July 17, 1999, the day of JFK Jr’s death.  Sedaris remembered seeing him several times in Manhattan, once on a bike.

Though Sedaris has yet to offer an essay devoted solely to the bike, it was  heartening to learn he is a bicyclist and acknowledges it here and there as if he were a subliminal proselytizer.  It was also nice to learn that he is an avid movie-goer.  When he lived in New York, he saw three or four movies a week.  While in Paris he upped it to six or seven, and without guilt as, “Fortunately, going to the movies seems to suddenly qualify as an intellectual accomplishment.” Even more than the bicycle he regularly inserts movie references, some of specific movies and others just generic, such as defining people who live in trailers as having no “working knowledge of any major Italian movie directors.”   He doesn’t name a favorite movie, but does admit to seeing “Planet of the Apes” seventeen times when it came out and many times since. 

Now I eagerly await the publication of the second volume of his diaries from 2003 to the present to see if he can top the forty-two mentions of the bicycle in his first volume.  His last two collections of essays, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” and “Calypso” with eight and twelve had more references to the bicycle than any of his preceding books.  He is a testament to the adage that with age comes wisdom and for the truly wise a bicycling-consciousness. 




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