464: Invisible Made Visible
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Ryan started going blind when he was 18, so it's been a long time now that he can't see. And one night he flies to Chicago for this work thing. And gets to his hotel room and he wants to call his wife back home in Canada to let her know that he's arrived safely. So all he needs to do is find the phone.
And so I walk into the room and I find the bed. And then to the left of the bed, I feel along and I find this nightstand, which is where I expect the phone to be. And so I feel up the nightstand and there's no phone. Fine.
So I reach across the bed to the other side and find the other nightstand. And I feel that one up, and there's no phone.
That's unusual, right?
It's a bit odd, right?
So Ryan can shuffle cautiously around till his knees graze into things. And that's how he finds a sofa. Which orients him.
And so I turn to where I think there might be a table, and poof! There's a coffee table. So I grope this coffee table for a while and there's no phone on it.
Grope is kind of a funny word to use for this.
It sort of feels that way, though. You're just sort of-- because you don't know where anything begins or ends, so you really maul it.
He says that as he moves around any new place, he doesn't exactly draw a map in his head. He says that it's more like wandering around in a first-person video game. One where nothing is visible until he touches it. So he figures OK, let's see what is on the other side of this coffee table that he's found. And he edges forward in the room.
And I find there's a desk. And I'm like, aha, the desk! So I feel around on the desk and there's a lamp and there's the notepad I'll never use, and there's stuff, but there's no phone.
So I'm left to my last blind guy resort, which is I go back to the beginning. Back to the bed and I find the wall. And I start Marcel Marceauing the walls. I'm wiping them up and down.
And I round the fourth corner and I get to the bathroom, and I go past the bathroom and there's nothing. And I feel behind me again and the bed is back behind me again. So I've circled this room.
And I even thought, well maybe it's a super fancy hotel. And maybe there's a phone in the bathroom. And I go in there and there's nothing.
So I circle the room two more times this way, wiping it down. And I check the coffee table again. I check the desk again. And I just figure, forget it. I'll just go to bed and try again tomorrow.
So he goes to bed. Doesn't call his wife. Sleeps.
And in the morning, he wakes up to the sound of something curious. A phone ringing. And groggy, he follows the sound, and finds somehow now, there is a phone in this room.
And the phone is on a coffee table. Now I know I felt that thing up to an illicit degree. I mauled that coffee table, and there was nothing on that table last night.
And so I answer the phone and it's my wife. And she says, "why didn't you call me last night?" And I said, "well there was no phone. But there is now."
She doesn't believe him that there was no phone, but this is kind of par for the course when you're married to a blind guy.
And so we talk. And then I hang up the phone and I go to get back into bed, and there's now a wall there.
A wall. Where the bed should be is now a wall. He feels for the sofa. The sofa's right where it should be.
The wall behind the sofa is right where it should be, right there in place. He feels along the sofa again, inches towards where the bed should be, and yes, it's still a wall.
And I'm totally disoriented at this point. Like it's funny and it's also sort of terrifying. Because I know the bed was there, and now there's a wall.
And I keep touching the wall, thinking maybe this time it'll go away. And I go to the left, and there's another wall now. And I'm a grown man and I'm lost in a hotel room.
So what's your next move? What do you do?
I ended up doing the Marcel Marceau thing. I start wiping the walls, feeling my way along the edges, and it wraps back around till I find the bed is actually behind me.
He was in a part of the room that he hadn't encountered the night before. This was an alcove on a side of the bed that he just never discovered.
So here's what the room actually looked like. There are two coffee tables and two sofas on the left and the right side of the bed.
The mistake that he made the night before was this. When he was Marcel Marceauing the walls, he got 3/4 of the way around the room and got to the last wall. And he didn't actually feel all the way along that wall until it met another wall.
Basically, he went a little ways down that wall, felt that the bed was behind him. So when he realized that the bed was behind him, be figured he was done. He stopped feeling that wall.
He just assumed that the wall continued for another eight feet or so. But it didn't continue. It stopped. And there was this alcove.
And this is the problem. When you're blind, you just can't assume anything. And the problem is you get a picture in your mind and if you get it wrong, you just live inside the mistake.
This kind of thing happens to him a lot. Way, way more than you would think.
Two weeks before our interview, he got lost in another hotel room, this one in Los Angeles. He couldn't find the door to get out of the room. He says that during the decade that he slowly went blind--
It took me a long time to come to understand that blindness actually wasn't the main problem. The main problem was embarrassment. That I had to give myself over to the slapstick of things.
To state the obvious, sometimes it is just a lot easier to see things. Clears a lot of things up. And today on our radio show, we have all kinds of stories of people trying to take things that are normally invisible to them and make them visible.
I'm talking about unspoken feelings. I'm talking about people's secret lives. I'm talking, in a very literal way, about me and the other people doing stories on today's radio program. As people on the radio, usually we are invisible, but today we are bringing you excerpts from the show that we did on stage in front of people last week in New York City, and then beamed into movie theaters all across the United States and Canada and Australia.
Some of the stuff on that show-- in fact, a lot of the stuff on that show-- was way too visual to put on the radio. But the rest of the show consisted of these great stories from David Sedaris and David Rakoff, and Tig Notaro, and others. We have a really nice show for you today.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act One: Does a Bear Hit in the Woods?
Act One: Does a bear hit in the woods? So let's go to the first story that I'm gonna play you from the cinema event that we did. The guy who you just heard, actually, Ryan Knighton. He has this story that is not about what is invisible to him, as somebody who can't see. It's about being invisible. Here he is, Ryan Knighton.
I couldn't wait to tell my daughter that I'm a blind guy. And I'm not saying I was excited to tell her, I'm saying I couldn't wait to tell her in a way that she could actually grasp the basic concept of blindness. The trouble is, a two-year-old can't imagine what it's like to be another person, let alone imagine an entirely different physical reality like blindness.
I'd say to her, "Papa sees what you see when you close your eyes, but mine are open." Which makes no sense. To anybody. So the miscommunications began to pile up between us.
One day I'm standing in the hallway of our house and Tess either kicked or rolled this foam soccer ball to me. Foam soccer balls are really quiet. You see my problem.
And it rolled by, yes, and I ignored it. But I didn't know it was there. And she got upset. She wants to know why didn't I kick it back to her? Why didn't I want to play with her? And she began to cry.
Now I don't know what's going on at all. So I'm just saying things like, "what's wrong, punkin?" And like, "hey, why don't you go get your ball or something?"
Yeah, my wife did see this happen later on. And only then did I learn how I was rejecting my kid all day. And part of me felt useless as a father. And another part of me just felt really angry at NERF.
Another time I picked up Tess at a daycare. And "Papa, Papa!" she screams as I walk in. And she sees me, and I squat down and I open my arms, and I wait for the hug. Because it's best that I wait, because the floor is dotted with babies between us. And nothing ruins our sweet moment like me stomping on babies.
So her body slams into mine and she wraps herself in a monkey hug, and I tell her how much I've missed her. And of course, to that, she cries. But she cried on the other side of the room.
And suddenly, I feel this body and it's not familiar. And in fact, it's a little boy. And Tess is crying "Papa, Papa!" as if the word itself hurts, on the other side of the room. And so she just can't understand why I've hugged another child And I chase after the sound of her, and I'm sorry about the babies.
So the miscommunications piled up, and they were mostly just little heartbreaks, but sometimes they were dangerous. There's times when I would walk her to the daycare in the morning. And I work at a university, and we'd walk across campus together in the morning. And she'd be in one of those NASCAR roll cage backpack things, which are great for blind fathers.
And we'd make our way across campus, and it's beautiful. It's in the mountains and it's forested. And I say this just so you can understand my legitimate panic when from her backpack she said to me one of her few words. She said "bear."
And I froze.
"What's that, punkin?"
And I turned, 'cause I can still see some smears, so I looked for a big black one.
And I said, "There? Like we're going over there?"
And she's "bear, bear." And she's getting more upset, very clearly.
Now this is Canada. We're in the forest. And this is the mountains, and the bears love our dumpsters. They dine frequently.
The security guards just tell us which entrances and exits to avoid and they even just lock down the daycare and let the kids bust out the Goldfish crackers and watch the bears from the windows like some demented drive-in movie. And now Tess is watching one from the comfort of my back. And where it is I have no idea.
Now I can feel she's upset and she's sort of leaning. So I reached behind me, and I grabbed her hand, and she was pointing right behind us.
So I reeled around to face the bear. And I smelled for it. And I have no idea what bear smell is.
Now I didn't know if I should run, or if that would startle the bear to charge us. Or if I would just run into the bear, and that would be ironic. So I said, "let's just go this way, punkin." And I started to run, and she got really upset. So I said, "actually, let's go this way."
And she got really upset. And I thought, well I'm running, I'm pinballing around this parking lot with a baby on my back like a Geiger counter.
And then it occurs to me. And I reach back with both hands, and yeah, she dropped her teddy bear. And yeah, she'd grown a little frustrated.
But everything changed when she was three. And I remember the exact moment. We were sitting in the kitchen and I asked her to pass me a cookie and she did. And I reached for it and did my usual dumb crab pinching the air thing.
And she said, "Papa doesn't see!" And I thought, that's what I've been saying!
And we said "Yes, Tess. Papa doesn't see." And then she had to check.
And we said, "Yes, Mummy sees."
And she said, "Tess sees?"
And we said, "Yes, you see."
And one week later, we were sitting in the living room, and she was watching Sesame Street or something. And she said, "Papa, who's that?" And I said, "Ah, Papa doesn't see."
And so she grabbed my hand and she put it on the screen, and she drew it over whatever she was looking at. Thank you.
Ryan Knighton. He's the author of the books C'mon Papa and Cockeyed.
[MUSIC--"NEEDING/GETTING" BY OK GO]
This, by the way, is the band OK Go, playing a song on hand bells with the audience. OK, back to the live show.
Act Two: Groundhog Dayne
Act Two: Groundhog Dayne.
I had the experience a couple years ago that a friend of mine became roommates with Bobby Kennedy's daughter, one of his daughters. And she's like, do you want to meet her? Do you want to meet her? She's really nice.
I was like, we're not supposed to meet the Kennedys! Like the Kennedys, that is too famous for us to meet. Like that's too famous for a normal person to meet. Do you know what I mean?
The super famous are over there, and we are over here in our world. And we're not supposed to run into Angelina Jolie at the CVS, you know?
But sometimes the iconic, the famous, the stars that we remember from when we were younger, they leave their magical, invisible world and actually tread in our world. And this was witnessed recently by comedian Tig Notaro. Welcome her.
So I live in Los Angeles. And I went to this party with my friend Pam. And we were going to leave the party and she said to me, "Do you know who that was standing by the door?"
I said no.
She said, "that was Taylor Dayne."
Do you know who Taylor Dayne is? No? She was a pop singer in the late '80s, early '90s. She sang "Love Will Lead You Back." She sang "Tell It to My Heart."
Anyway, I love Taylor Dayne. And not ironically. I love Taylor Dayne.
So I went back into the party, and I went up to her and I said, "Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you. But I just have to tell you, I love your voice."
And she just turned and said, "Yeah, I don't do that anymore."
And I looked over and this other friend of mine was doubled over laughing at me. She was like, "Yeah, you just got dissed by Taylor Dayne." Didn't feel great. So I left the party.
Then like nine months passed. And I happened to be out to eat with that same friend of mine, Pam. And there was a party of 10 seated right behind us. You guys are not going to believe who was sitting there. Any guesses?
Just think about-- what's that?
That's correct. It was Taylor Dayne.
Pam said, "Oh my gosh, you have to say something to her."
And I said, "No question." 'Cause I still love Taylor Dayne.
But I didn't know what to say to her. And then I realized the best thing that I could say to Taylor Dayne would be the exact same sentence that I said the first time. So I turned around and I interrupted her entire dinner. And I said, "Excuse me, sorry to bother you. But I just have to tell you, I love your voice."
And she said, "My speaking voice?"
And I said, "Yes. I was sitting here with my friend. I heard someone talking behind me, and I said, I need to turn around a compliment this person on their speaking voice."
And what I didn't realize at the time was that Taylor Dayne was pursuing an acting career, which I guess is why she was no longer accepting compliments on her singing voice. Then like a year passed. And at this point, I've told all of my friends about my run-ins with Taylor Dayne, and how she's the easiest person in the world to run into. Like I'm not even convinced that she's not here tonight.
So I was at my writing partner Kyle's house, and my phone rang and it was Sarah Silverman. And at the time, Sarah was dating Jimmy Kimmel. And Sarah called and said, "Guess who's promoting a new CD on Jimmy's show tomorrow night?" You guys will not believe who it was.
Yes, it was Taylor Dayne. You're good with patterns.
Sarah said, "I want you to come down to Jimmy's show tomorrow night. And I want you to say those exact same words that you said the other times."
And I said, "No question."
But I didn't end up having to go to Jimmy's show the next night, because that same day that Sarah called me at Kyle's house, Kyle and I took a lunch break. We ordered lunch to be picked up. We walked across the street to the strip mall where the restaurant was.
Kyle was walking in front of me. I was walking behind him. We walked up to the restaurant, he opened the door, he looked at this table, then he looked back at me, then he looked back at the table. And I was like, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, of course she's here."
And Kyle and I walked over to the counter where our food was waiting for us, and Kyle was just pacing back and forth, about to have a stroke. And I was like, "What is your problem?"
And he said, "Nothing, I'm just really uncomfortable right now."
And I said, "Why?"
And he said, "Because I know it's about to happen."
And I said, "Yeah, and I can't wait to do it." I said, "This has nothing to do with you." I said, "This is between me and Taylor Dayne." I said, "but what I do need you to do when I go up and interrupt her lunch, I want you to take my cellphone, and just point it in the general vicinity and videotape me talking to Taylor Dayne. Just so I finally have proof."
And Kyle said, "OK."
So I walked up to Taylor Dayne's table and I said, "Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you. But I just have to tell you, I love your voice."
And she said, "Thank you."
And I was like, oh, that was weird. But the best part was when Kyle and I went back and looked at that video footage, you didn't hear me talking to Taylor Dayne. You just heard Kyle in an imaginary conversation going, "Oh hey. Hey man, what's going on? I'm having lunch at the Chicken Cafe, at the Pizza Cal, at the California Chicken Kitchen Pizza Kitchen Cafe."
So the person that Kyle made up in that conversation was the world's most difficult human being that will not let the easy stuff slide. The person on the other end of that call is going, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up, dude. Where are you having lunch? At the Chicken What Cafe? No man, I've never heard of that place. This conversation is going no further until you make it clear to me where exactly you're having lunch right now."
And I feel confident that I'm the reason that Taylor Dayne ended up putting out another record. 'Cause you know she called her manager and was like, "My fans miss me. They love me. I mean, sure they're a a bunch of he/she-looking robots."
"Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you. But I just have to tell you, I love your voice. Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you. But I just have to tell you, I love your-- Excuse me."
Just as a side note, I left out other times that I ran into Taylor Dayne. Anyway, thank you.
Tig Notaro! Tig Notaro! Her website, tignation.com. Her podcast, Professor Blastoff. Her newest CD, Good One.
And now ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Taylor Dayne.
Oh yeah. Defiance!
[MUSIC--"I'LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU" BY TAYLOR DAYNE]
OK, this is me live in the studio. I should probably describe what is happening here.
Taylor Dayne, in a sequined mini-dress, is singing to Tig. Tig is sitting on this stool onstage, her arms are crossed, she's looking sort of skeptical. And Taylor's trying to win her over.
You know the words. I see you in diners. In coffee beans. My speaking voice.
So it's around here in the song that Taylor does start to win Tig over.
She's with me now. Show 'em what you got, Tig. Let's go.
So Tig does some dance moves.
Give it to 'em good.
They're laughing 'cause she busts out vintage Michael Jackson moves.
You like that singing voice?
I love it.
I love you love my voice! Tig!
Taylor! I love your voice.
Coming up, David Rakoff's seven step process for grating cheese, David Sedaris, and other highlights from the show that we did on stage and beamed into movie theaters last week. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today on our show, we're bringing you stories from the episode that we did on stage in New York at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts last week, and beamed into movie theaters all over North America.
As I said earlier, about half this show is just way too visual to ever put on the radio. It had dance and animation and all kinds of stuff. But half was a regular show like we always do. The theme was "The Invisible Made Visible."
One of the things that we have put up online that you can actually see right now for free, is a short film made by Mike Birbiglia for this show. It co-stars Terry Gross from NPR's Fresh Air, and it totally got huge laughs, totally killed in theaters. It is about what happens that you do not see when you listen to Fresh Air.
You can find that on YouTube, just search there. Or go to our website, thisamericanlife.org, for the link.
Act Three: Stiff as a Board, Light as a Feather
We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three: Stiff as a board, light as a feather.
In our bodies, blood moves, cells appear and cells die off, proteins form and are consumed, all invisibly to us. Until the moment that something goes wrong. And then we have no choice but to see the effects. The next story, from our live show, is from David Rakoff.
It hardly merits the term dream, it's such a throwaway moment. But I've had it three times now. The dream, or dreamlet, goes like this. I say to an unidentified companion, "Hey, watch this."
It's the punchline to that old joke, "what are an idiot's last words?" Except in my case, it is already too late. The idiot has already acted upon his idiot brag, the shallow part of the quarry has been dived into, the electric fence down by the rail yards unsuccessfully scaled, and my Trans Am has already failed to make it around Dead Man's Curve or down Killers Hill or off of, I don't know, Prom Night Suicide Cliff.
I had surgery last December-- my fourth in as many years-- to remove a tenacious and nasty tumor behind my left collarbone. I've also had radiation and about a year and a half's worth of chemo and counting. This last operation severed the nerves of my left arm, which relieved me of a great deal of pain. I'd spent three years prior to that popping enough Oxycontin to satisfy every man, woman, and child in Wasilla.
But the surgery also left me with what's known as a flail limb. It is attached, but aside from being able to shrug Talmudically, I can neither move nor feel my left arm. It now hangs from my side heavy and insensate as a bag of oranges.
But this is a dream after all. So "hey, watch this," I say. And up goes the left arm. The resurrection of the dead limb feels both utterly logical and completely magical. But it is precisely that magical feeling that lets me know immediately that I have moved in error, and the jig, as it always is, is soon to be up.
I either literally pinch myself or snap my fingers in my ears trying to establish some reality. Or I ask someone, "is this real?" But I already know.
There are some questions in life, the very speaking of which are their own undoing. "Am I fired? Is this a date? Are you breaking up with me?" "Yes. No. Yes."
The voice, my voice, that is asking "is this real" is the sound that is waking me up to the world where-- alas-- the dream's a total cliche. Anyone with one working limb would dream it, which frankly, yawn.
The one difference I might point to is how I move in the dream. The limb floats up like a table at a seance. I am one of those empty windsock men outside of used car lots who suddenly billows up into three dimensional life. The arm rises and there at the top of my gesture, my fingers frill like a sea anemone caught by an unseen current.
There is no functionality to it. I am not reaching for something, pulling the pin from a fire extinguisher, or hailing a cab. Mine is an extremely graceful and, I'll just say it, faggy gesture. Unmistakably, a gesture from ballet class, a gesture of someone who danced. Which is very different from having been a dancer.
I danced a lot, all through my childhood bedroom. It's an incredibly generic trait for a certain type of boy. Like a straight boy being obsessed with baseball, except it's better.
And after that, I danced fairly serious in university. But I was never really that great. And it's close to three decades ago now.
I took classes across the street at the women's college, not the most rigorous of places. And as a boy, one of at most any three males in any of the classes, the standards were even laxer. Any illusions I might have had about my scant abilities were blown to smithereens by the occasional class I took at a proper dance studio down on 55th Street in the real world, where actual New York City dancers came.
It was an exercise in humiliation and trying to make myself as invisible as possible. The only saving grace, indeed, the only reason I really went at all, were the 20 minutes in the men's changing room before and after. There's almost no way to explain it to a younger person, but you cannot imagine the rare thrill it was to see beautiful naked people in those pre-internet days of the early 1980s. I would walk slowly to the subway undone, clinging to the sides of buildings like someone who'd just come from the eye doctor.
If I retained anything from dancing, it's a physical precision that certainly helps in my new daily one-armed tasks. They're the same as my old two-armed chores. They're not epic or horrifying. Some of them don't even take much longer, but they're all to one degree or another, more annoying than they used to be, requiring planning, strategy, and a certain enhanced gracefulness.
Oral hygiene. Hold the handle of the toothbrush between your teeth the way FDR or Burgess Meredith playing The Penguin bit down on their cigarette holders. Put the toothpaste on the brush, recap the tube, put it away. You really have to keep things tidy, because if they pile up, you'll just be in the soup. Then reverse the brush and put the bristles in your mouth, proceed.
Washing your right arm. Soap up your right thigh in the shower, put your foot up on the edge of the tub, and then move your arm over your soapy lower limb back and forth like an old-timey barbershop razor strop.
Grating cheese. Get a pot with a looped handle, the heavier the better. This will anchor the bowl that you want the cheese to go into. Put the bowl into the pot.
Now take a wooden spoon and feed it through the handle of the grater and the loop of the pot, and then tuck the end down into the waistband of your jeans. Clean underpants are a good idea. Jam yourself up against the kitchen counter and go to town.
Special kitchen note: always, always, always have your bum hand safely out of the way, preferably in a sling since you now have a limb that you could literally-- no joke-- cook on the stove without even knowing it. Which makes me feel not like a freak, exactly, but well actually, like a freak.
At dinner with friends recently, the conversation turned to what about yourself was still in need of change? They all seem to feel that they were living half-lives.
One fellow hoped that he could be more like the god Pan, unabashedly lusty and embracing experience with gusto. Another wanted to feel less disengaged at key moments, able to feel more fully committedly human, and less like that old science fiction B movie trope: "What is this wetness on Triton 3000's face plate?" "Why, space robot, you're crying!"
We were going around the table, so the natural progression of things demanded that I eventually get a turn to weigh in as well. Suppose you're out to dinner with a group of triathletes, all discussing their training regimens. And you have no legs.
They can't flat-out ignore you, and they also can't say words to the effect of, "well, we all know what your event is. Getting all that marvelous wonderful parking, you lucky thing!"
It was uncomfortable, and I suspect more for me than for them. I have no idea. But thanks to my rapidly dividing cells, I no longer have that feeling-- although I remember it very well-- that if I just buckled down to the great work at hand, lived more authentically, stopped procrastinating, cut out sugar, then my best self was just there right around the corner.
Yeah, no. I'm done with all that. I'm done with so many things.
Like dancing. I've no idea if I can do it anymore. I've been, frankly, too frightened and too embarrassed to try it, even alone in my apartment.
There was a time however-- as recently as about a couple of years ago, when I was already one course of radiation and two surgeries into all this nonsense-- when doing this simple barre exercises while holding onto a kitchen chair achieved what they always used to do. What they're supposed to do.
As best as I can describe it, it's the gestures themselves, their repetition, their slowness. It all hollows one out. One becomes a reed or a pipe, and the movement and the air pass through and you become this altered, humming, dare I say, beautiful working instrument of placement and form and concentration. But like I said, that's a long time ago. And a version of myself that has long since ceased to exist. Before I became such an observer-- I'm sorry.
So at this point, David Rakoff walks away from the microphone. And just when it seems like he might walk off stage, like he quit, he turns, and turns again. And then raises his right knee, and then places that foot down again, and then traces a half circle on the ground with his left foot. And then he lunges, he arches his back, swings his right arm in an arc from low to high, all totally graceful. And then, he dances.
Look, mine is not a unique situation. Everybody loses ability-- everybody loses ability as they age. If you're lucky, this happens over the course of a few decades. If you're not--
But the story is essentially the same. You go along the road as time and the elements lay waste to your luggage, scattering the contents into the bushes. Until there you are, standing with a battered and empty suitcase that frankly, no one wants to look at anymore. It's just the way it is. But how lovely those moments were, gone now except occasionally in dreams, when one could still turn to someone and promise them something truly worth their while, just by saying "hey, watch this."
David Rakoff is the author of many fine books, most recently Half Empty. This dance was choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes.
Act Four: Turn Around Bright Eyes
We have arrived at Act Four: Turn Around, Bright Eyes.
In his writing, David Sedaris can be kind of sharp tongued. But when you talk to him, when you meet him, he's really kind of a sweetheart.
When my sister Karen met him at a reading, I remember she said to David, she said, "You're a lot nicer than I thought you would be, based on your books." And I remember David said, "Oh, I'm not nice. Just two-faced."
So I'm pleased to say that tonight, you're really gonna see a story. You're gonna see David, how he really is tonight in real life, the real guy.
And the story that he's telling is about feelings that often go unexpressed, at least unexpressed at the moment they happen. Welcome David Sedaris, please.
OK, an important fact about what the audience is seeing right here at this point in the show. David Sedaris takes the stage in full clown makeup. Red nose, white face, bald wig.
To those who don't travel very often, the Courtyard Marriott might seem like a decent enough hotel. It's clean, sure. And the staff is polite. I wouldn't give you $0.02 for its pillows though, and the tubs are far too shallow for my taste.
In the deserted lobby of the one I stayed at not long ago in New Hampshire, there was a coffee bar. Not a Starbucks, but a place that "proudly served Starbucks" and sold it alongside breakfast cereals and prepackaged sandwiches.
I noticed it on my way back from lunch, and just as I decided to get a cup of coffee, someone came around the corner and moved in ahead of me. I'd later learn that her name was Mrs. Dunstan, a towering, doe-colored, pyramid of a woman wearing oversized glasses and a short-sleeved linen blazer. Beside her was a man I guessed to be her husband. And after looking at the menu board, she turned to him.
"A latte," she said, "now is that the thing that Barbara likes to get? The one with whipped cream or is that called something else?"
Oh [BEEP], I thought.
"I can do a latte with whipped cream on top", the young woman behind the counter said. She was fair and wore her shoulder-length hair pushed behind her ears. Tiny moles were scattered like buckshot across her face, which was bare but for a bit of eyeliner. "I can do one with flavors too."
"Really?" Mrs. Dunstan said, "what sorts of flavors?"
In the end, she settled on caramel. Then her husband squinted up at the board, deciding after a good long while that he'd try one of those mocha something or others, and could he get that iced?
As I groaned into my palm, he wandered off. His wife, meanwhile, leaned her bulk against the counter and began her genial interrogation. "Are you from this area?" she asked.
"No, from Vermont."
"Well, that's interesting. What brought you here?"
I learned that the coffee person used to work at the town's other hotel, which had recently closed for remodeling.
"So after it's done, will you stay put or go back over there?" Mrs. Dunstan asked. "Me, I have a son at the college, so that's what I'm doing. Just checking in. He's my second boy, actually. The first one went here too.
"He's not working in his field yet, but with unemployment as high as it is, he should be lucky to have anything at all. If I've told him that once, I've told him 100 times. But of course, being young, he's impatient, which is natural. Wants to set the world on fire and if it can't happen by tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM, then life's just unfair and hardly worth living. What about you, did you go to college?"
After what felt like weeks, the young woman finished with the orders. Two cups the size of waste paper baskets were placed upon the counter. And then Mr. Dunstan reappeared and pointed out the plate glass window toward a cluster of grim buildings on the other side of the parking lot.
"What are those?" he asked.
The young woman said they used to belong to the college. Of course, that was before they expanded the west side of the campus.
"And when was that?" Mr. Dunstan asked. He was a good 10 years older than his wife, mid-70s maybe, and he wore a baseball cap with a tattered brim.
"I beg your pardon?" the young woman said.
"I said uh, when did they expand the west side of the campus? Was it recent, or did they do it a long time ago?"
Who the hell cares? I wanted to shout. What are you, the official historian of Who Gives a Damn College? Do you not notice that there's someone in line behind you? Someone who's been standing here, rocking back and forth on his heel for the last 10 minutes while you and that brontosaurus run your stupid mouths about nothing?
I was this close to walking away, to marching off in a huff. But then Mrs. Dunstan would have turned to her husband and the girl behind the counter saying, "Some people!"
I'd gotten a similar reaction the previous morning when I'd squeezed past a couple standing side by side on the moving walkway connecting concourses A and B. "In a great big hurry to meet that heart attack!" the man called after me. I wanted to remind him that this was an airport, and that some of us had a tight connection, if that was OK.
But of course, I had no connection. I just couldn't bear to see him and his wife standing side by side, blocking the way of someone who might have a tight connection.
The Dunstans' bill came to $8, which everyone agreed was a lot to pay for two cups of coffee. But they were large ones, and this was a vacation. Sort of.
Not like a trip to Florida, but certainly couldn't do that at the drop of a hat. Especially with gas prices the way they are, and looking to go even higher.
While talking, Mrs. Dunstan rummaged through her tremendous purse. Her wallet was eventually located, but then it seemed that the register was locked, so the best solution was to put the coffees on her bill. That's how I discovered her name. And her room number.
My only question then was what time I should arrange her wake-up call for. Let's see how chatty you feel at 4:00 AM, I thought. Then it was all about returning the wallet to the purse and getting that all safely zipped up before picking her drink off the counter and starting in on her long goodbye.
When the two of them finally lumbered off toward the elevator, I approached the counter, hoping the woman behind it would roll her eyes, acknowledging that something really needed to be done about people like the Dunstans. She didn't, though. So I decided I would hate her as much as I had hated them. When she told me that her little stand didn't serve regular brew coffee, I hated her even more.
"I can do you a nice cappuccino," she said. "Or an iced latte, maybe." This last word was delivered to my back as I stormed out the door.
Then it was up the street and around the corner to a real coffee place. The pierced and tattooed staff members scowled at my approach, and I placed my order confident that they would hate the Dunstans as much, or possibly even more, than they already hated me.
David Sedaris. He's the author, most recently, of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: a Modest Bestiary. Again, OK Go.
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