O SISTER, WHO ART THOU?
GROWING UP, David Sedaris ALWAYS KNEW HIS YOUNGER SISTER WOULD BE A PERFORMER. WHAT HE DIDN’T KNOW WAS HOW FAMOUS SHE WOULD EVENTUALLY BECOME… AND HOW THAT WOULD AFFECT THEIR RELATIONSHIP
David Sedaris always knew his little sister Amy was destined for the limelight. From their childhood to now, he reflects on the people they’ve become
When we were young, my sister Amy and I used to pretend that we had a TV hospitality show. I don’t remember if we were supposed to be man and wife, or if we were just friends. Lex and Germalina, we called ourselves. I wish they’d been better names, but we were only eight and 12 at the time. ‘Today, we’re going to make fried chicken,’ Amy would say in an artificially bright voice. ‘And if your family is anything like mine, they’re guaranteed to lllllove it.’ ‘And how!’ I might add, or ‘Who doesn’t like chicken?’ She was at ease in front of the non-existent cameras, while I tended to freeze up, qualities that would continue into our adulthoods when the cameras became real. I go on talk shows and look like a hostage, my hands twisted in my lap, my eyes darting this way and that, counting the seconds until the host releases me. Amy, on the other hand, appears completely at home. People think of her as bubbly. The word ‘quirky’ gets tossed around as well, but she’s neither of those things. In real life, Amy is thoughtful and low-key, more apt to ask a question than answer one. Back in our kitchen in Raleigh [North Carolina], I’d admire the way she could fake-smile and convincingly act as if something was burning. When it
came to pretend, I was spent after 2O minutes, while she could go on all afternoon and well into the evening. ‘And how about some biscuits to go with that chicken?’ she’d ask, positioning a number of rolled-up white socks on a baking sheet and popping them into the oven. ‘Mmmmm, buttery biscuits are what makes a house a home!’ Cut to 5O years later, when my sister actually has such a show. It’s not as earnest as our childhood version, but its bones are the same, and it’s been nominated for an Emmy Award three times. At Home With Amy Sedaris, it’s called. Its second season had just begun airing when my boyfriend Hugh and I – who left New York in 1998 – returned, at least part-time, and got a place on the Upper East Side. A few days after moving in, I had to leave on a 45-city lecture tour and, by the time I got back, Hugh had essentially sprayed the place, the way a tomcat would, and made it his own. ‘I caught him telling someone they had to come and see his new apartment,’ I said to Amy on the phone one afternoon. ‘His!’
She was dealing with a new place as well, though hers was downtown, and in the same building she’d occupied for the past 1O years. It’s a one-bedroom in the West Village, and when its twin became available directly upstairs from her, she bought it. ‘I didn’t want anybody loud to move in,’ she explained. Everyone assumed she’d build a staircase and join the two places, but she doesn’t care to, in part because of her rabbit, a male named Tina, who runs freely throughout her home, eating it. I learned years ago never to leave anything on a chair or, worse still, the floor. ‘I could have sworn these shoes had laces,’ I’d say before I wised up. How many times did I come upon my earbuds, wireless before they made them wireless? The last night I spent at her place, I awoke to find her previous rabbit Dusty chewing my eyelashes, which were, like, still connected to my lids. Tina has gnawed holes in Amy’s sofa, and taken to the underside of her very expensive bed the way a beaver might. If a cat had caused that much damage, OK, but I don’t see the emotional payoff with a rabbit. The only reason they’re not classified as rodents is that they have four incisors, not two – a technicality if there ever was one. Without a staircase connecting the floors, Amy will be able to have unfortified electrical cords in the new, second apartment. The first thing she did after getting the keys was coerce Hugh into painting it. Not that he complained. My sister is the kind of person you want to do things for. I can’t even call it manipulation. She says she needs something, and all you want to do is provide it. When we both lived in New York, back in the 199Os, Amy and I went by the name of The Talent Family and put on a number of plays together. She’s not a writer in the traditional sense. She doesn’t arrange words on paper; rather, she throws out ideas she becomes bored with between the time you jot them down in your notebook and the time you type them up in the form of a script. ‘I know I said it would be funny if my character’s mother comes to visit,’ she’d say at three in the morning, both of us stoned and reading over the scene I’d constructed. ‘But what if she came on a horse?’ So the mother would arrive on a horse. Then Amy would decide it shouldn’t be the character’s mother, it should be her stepmother alone on the rear seat of a tandem bicycle. We smoked pounds of marijuana. We also put on seven plays and I never missed a single performance. I really couldn’t, because if someone weren’t there keeping watch, all hell would break loose. Then, too, I didn’t want to miss out on anything. The writer Douglas Carter Beane hired my sister to act in one of his plays and was later heard to say, ‘What do you call it when Amy Sedaris recites one of your lines? A coincidence.’ ‘What the hell was going on out there?’ I’d ask after a performance, more astonished than angry, really. I can never get angry. ‘Well, people laughed,’ Amy would say, referring to something she’d improvised. ‘Yes, but when your character says something like that, it completely undermines…’
“My sister is the KIND OF PERSON you want to DO THINGS FOR”
“There are few GREATER PLEASURES than feeling proud OF SOMEONE”
‘Oh, come on. It was funny.’ And of course it was. I’ve never seen audiences laugh the way they did at those plays. Movies and TV can’t capture what’s special about Amy. She’s not an actor, exactly, or a comedian, but more like someone who speaks in tongues. As opposed to myself, and just about everyone I’ve ever known, she lives completely in the moment. ‘What was that funny thing you said yesterday when we saw that old blind woman get mowed down by a skateboarder?’ I’ll ask. And she’ll have no memory of it. When Amy gets going, it’s like she’s possessed.
The best moments of my life were spent in the dressing room, laughing with the cast and crew before a show. Never did I wish that I was going onstage myself. It felt good enough to sit in the back row, occasionally hearing a word I had written, and watching the audience discover my sister. You sometimes couldn’t tell if she was a man or a woman, and so people would poke one another, whispering as she stormed into a scene, ‘Who is that person?’ There are few greater pleasures than feeling proud of someone, of worrying you might burst with it, especially if that someone is related to you, and therefore part of your organisation. I’ve always thought of my family that way: as a company. What’s good for one of us is good for all of us. Our jobs are to advance the name Sedaris. We might have continued with the plays, but then I got a lecture agent and started going onstage myself, in a way that I was comfortable with – just reading out loud. Amy created a TV show with her old friends from [comedy troupe] Second City, and we continued on parallel tracks, always supporting each other and calling for advice. ‘What would be a good fake name for a fish restaurant?’ one of us would ask. ‘For a polluted river? For a perfume worn by a street prostitute?’ ‘What would be a good fake name for some medication?’ Amy asked in late May of 2O19 when we got together for lunch in New York. She’d just started working on the third season of her TV show, and I was enjoying a week in my new apartment between the end of my lecture tour and the start of my paperback tour. We like going out for Greek food, so we met at a place called Avra Madison on East 6Oth Street. Amy wore a long gingham dress from Comme des Garçons that made her look like a hostess at Cracker Barrel, and when she waved and called out my name – we never hug – I noticed that she had two teeth missing on the upper right side of her mouth: her first premolar and its neighbouring cuspid. The two were next to each other, and the gap left by their absence was big enough to stick your thumb through. ‘The latest was pulled a week ago,’ she told me as we were led to our table. ‘But you can’t really notice it, can you?’ ‘Ummm, yeah,’ I said, thinking of how hickish we must have looked. My teeth splayed like a donkey’s, and hers simply AWOL. Amy’s problem, though, was just temporary. ‘They gave me a flipper, but I can’t really eat with it,’ she explained, adding that the gap would be plugged with implants, which would be installed over the coming year. ‘The dentist stuck a needle as long as a pencil into the roof of my mouth and, though I couldn’t see myself, I’m sure I made a face I’ve never made before.’ ‘I’m eventually getting implants for my two front teeth,’ I told her, opening my menu. ‘But I’m thinking that instead
“ONE BIG DIFFERENCE between us is that Amy can HAVE DRUGS in her house FOR MONTHS ON END”
of central incisors side by side, I’d like one single supertooth. Wouldn’t that be funny?’ Our waiter looked Greek, but was from Macedonia. ‘Really?’ we said. ‘When did you move here? Where do you live now? Is your mom still back in your hometown? Does she cry easily?’ We’re often accused of being overly curious, but doesn’t it beat the alternative? Our mother was the same way. ‘Oh, Sharon, what does it matter whether or not the guy likes working here?’ our father would say. ‘He’s a nobody. He’s nothing, a grown man pulling corks out of wine bottles.’ Our father has always been horrible in restaurants. The last time he was with us in New York, he slammed the empty bread basket on the table and thundered at a passing busboy, ‘Bread!’ When the waiter asked if we were ready for the cheque, my father said, ‘Are you ready to bend over and take it?’ ‘Which didn’t even make sense,’ I said to Amy later that night. ‘In the first place, I paid, not Dad. He didn’t even pretend to reach for his wallet. That issue aside, wouldn’t it be the customer who bends over and takes it?’ He’s always treated people in the service industry with contempt, so we were always extra warm and engaging, trying to make up for it. After we’d ordered, and I had suggested ‘Highfalutin’ as a good name for fake medication (‘the doctor wants me on 5O milligrams of Highfalutin, but I think he’s just full of himself’), Amy told me about a story she’d just read in the paper. ‘It was about this guy in Russia, I think, who came across a bear. The bear broke the man’s spine, then dragged him back into his cave. I guess bears do that – save things to eat later. So this man was there for a month, drinking his own urine. When they found him, his eyes were swollen shut and he looked like a mummy. I’ll send you the picture.’ This prompted me to bring up a woman I’d read about who was discovered in the parking lot of a Walmart, somewhere or other. ‘She was drunk and riding around in one of those carts, a Jazzy or a Rascal, drinking wine out of a Pringles can.’ ‘A Pringles can!’ Amy said. ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’
People assume that if you’re on TV and in movies, everyone you hang out with is an actor. My sister, though, is more apt to spend time with the Korean woman who is her dry cleaner, or a Queens retiree named Helen Ann, who used to run one of those Mailbox Plus-type places and taught her, among other things, that a dollar bill is approximately six inches long. ‘Good to know if you need to measure something in a pinch,’ she’d said. ‘What’s Adam up to?’ I asked, referring to a fellow in his late thirties who was a cheerleader back in college and will do backflips on command. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘He came over last Saturday, and we took mushrooms. Then I decided we should cut up my bedroom carpet.’ ‘So, you were on mushrooms with razor blades in your hands?’ She nodded, and speared one of the meatballs I had ordered as an appetiser. ‘Adam didn’t think it was such a great idea either, but it worked out fine. Boy, we had fun.’ The only thing I miss about being sober is not getting high with Amy. ‘I wish someone would just slip me something,’ I said, claiming the last meatball. ‘That way, it wouldn’t be my fault, and technically I wouldn’t have to start counting days again from zero. That’s called
a freelapse, apparently. Can you believe there’s a word for it?’ One big difference between my sister and me is that she can have drugs in her house for months on end. Her appetite isn’t bottomless the way mine was. It’s the same with alcohol. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her finish a drink. In that regard, at least within our family, she is unique. Amy insisted on paying for lunch, and then, because it was right across the street, and we can’t go more than two hours without buying something, we went to Barneys. When the uptown branch first opened in 1993, we came with our younger sister Tiffany, who was visiting from Boston and loudly said of everything she touched, ‘Holy f*ck, this is more than my rent.’ She was on ecstasy, as was I, but still. ‘Keep it down,’ Amy and I said. Tiffany read our embarrassment as pretension, but it wasn’t that. Her comments just weren’t funny enough to be overheard. Amy and I couldn’t afford anything at Barneys either, but still we defended its right to exist. We had no idea back then how drastically things would change – not just our fortunes, but the world in general. The saddest development in New York since I left 2O years ago is the rise of e-commerce. People are ordering everything online, and it’s killing stores. It’s horrible, the number of empty shop fronts you pass now. ‘They’re like missing teeth,’ I said to Amy. ‘I mean… oops.’ She scowled like a jack-o’lantern at the passing traffic. ‘It’s so unfair things have to change because of lazy people.’ In the not-too-distant future, who knows what we’ll be left with? Maybe that’s why we shop so much now: because we can. When Amy comes to see me in London, it’s one store after another. I make a schedule, with breaks so we can return to the house and drop off our bags.
One of our favourite places here in the UK is Dover Street Market, which sells both crazy Japanese clothing and taxidermy. The best of both worlds. As we walked into Barneys, I told her about a kiwi bird they were selling a few months earlier. ‘It was the size of a chicken, mounted on a thin plank of wood with its head lowered just slightly and this beautiful, delicate beak about four inches long,’ I told her. ‘I asked the price and learned it was the equivalent of $1O,OOO. “It’s a hundred years old,” the salesman told me, which I guess makes sense, but still.’ ‘That’s when you should have snapped the beak off and asked, “How much is it now?”’ Amy said. Ten years ago, Barneys would have been full of shoppers on a Thursday afternoon, but now it was dead. ‘I like your look,’ a lonely salesman said to me on the second floor. ‘Are you an architect?’ ‘These aren’t architect glasses, are they?’ I asked Amy as we proceeded upstairs. ‘Architects wear, like, scaffolding on their faces. These aren’t nearly dramatic enough.’ She considered a floor-length Balenciaga dress she found beside the register in one of the women’s departments. It was pink and looked like a long shirt you’d cut the sleeves off of, roughly, with scissors. ‘I’m just going to try it on over what I’m wearing,’ she said to the sales assistant, slipping it over her head. He was slim and wore very small, very tight shorts. Amy was eyeing herself in the mirror. ‘I don’t need it, really, but I don’t know. It’s sort of nice.’ She looked at the hefty price tag and I could see her justifying the cost in her head when the salesperson said that, actually, the dress was on hold for someone else. ‘Really?’ Amy said. I could practically see the spirit entering her body. Taking over. ‘On hold for someone else?’ With that, she yanked the dress back over her head, bunched it up and threw it on the floor. She glared down, briefly – no longer herself, but a character – and, just as I thought she might step on it, or pretend to spit on it, she balled her hands into fists and stomped off: the monster with two teeth missing, the terror in the Cracker Barrel dress. It was the funniest thing in the world if you knew her. If you didn’t know her, if you were the sales assistant in the tiny shorts who watched my sister retreat up the escalator, you’d likely have been thinking, as had so many before, Who is that person?
“Amy and I can’t GO MORE THAN two hours without BUYING SOMETHING”