Hawai’i is not exactly the epicenter of the literary world. Though I would desperately love to see Julian Barnes in person, I seriously doubt he will ever do a reading or a signing here. Of all the writers I adore, David Sedaris is the only one who has ever come to Hawai’i. (When he was here, someone broke into his rental cottage and stole his laptop. Then, while he was on stage, a gecko crawled into his glass of water. I am not sure he’ll ever be back.)
Sedaris is one of those writers whose work contains profound life truths disguised as a humorous anecdote. On the surface, there seems to be no point, but underneath every tale is a lesson. In one of my favorite scenes from “SantaLand Diaries,” he describes a store that has a collection of glass eyeballs and a sign that warns people not to hold them up to their own eyes due to the sharp edges. A tired clerk explains that they put up the sign because so many people had tried to do that. When he hears that, Sedaris is horrified that his own first impulse was so predictable.
We’re taught from an early age that we are unique, imaginative and “special.” The reading itself demonstrated otherwise. As he neared the end of his performance, Sedaris happened to mention that he hates the word “awesome.” He then declared the post-show signing table an “awesome-free zone” and said that if anyone used the word in his presence, he would charge them a dollar. The auditorium resounded with laughter, and simultaneously, more than half a dozen people had the same thought: “I’m going to give him a dollar and say ‘awesome’.”
Due to the sheer size of the crowd, the autograph line snaked through the lobby and around a blind corner toward the exits. Those in the back of the queue had absolutely no idea what was going on in front of David Sedaris’s table. Fan after fan congratulated himself or herself for the brilliant plan, little realizing that ten minutes later, another person would promptly hand Sedaris a dollar for the same privilege of uttering the dreaded word.
Writers like to believe that they are slightly more imaginative than the average person. As I waited in line, I thought of the perfect way to trump the other fans. If I’m going to be predictable, at least I can be creatively predictable! After David Sedaris had signed my books, I casually mentioned that I taught a community college course in American Literature and that I had assigned some of his writing as part of the curriculum.
“I have twenty students taking that class…and all of them said your books were awesome.”
I put a twenty dollar bill on the table and told him I’d pay the penalty for my students.
He laughed as he tried to return the money. “No, no…they need to say it in front of me,” he insisted. Finally, after much effusive gushing on my part, he modestly accepted the cash (if only to get rid of me).
I left the reading in a giddy daze. After all, I had gotten one of my favorite writers to sign a few books for me, and I imagined him using the contributions of his adoring readers to treat himself to a well-deserved meal on us. He had given us countless hours of entertainment; it seemed like the least we could do was buy the man a nice dinner.
As I made my way back to my car, I saw a homeless man sleeping on a concrete bench in front of the venue. All my previous elation evaporated as I was confronted by a startling thought: a well-to-do writer was just given a tidy sum of money that he obviously didn’t need. While none of the people at the reading were wealthy, we were all clearly better off than this ragged street person. I stood there on the sidewalk for a moment, feeling guilty. I thought about my near-empty wallet. I had a few dollars left in it, which I could have easily tucked into the sleeping man’s coat.
I kept walking, my eyes averted as I crossed the street.
Now that I think about it, everything about that night only proved how un-original I truly am.
Recently, the media has been touting the kindness of a New York city police officer who bought an expensive pair of boots for a homeless man. Such a thing would not be considered newsworthy, except for the fact that it happens so rarely.
Another event in the same city raises a similar point. A man who had been pushed onto the subway tracks was killed when none of the bystanders helped him up. This time, the broadcasts all end with the same question: Why didn’t anyone act?
I suspect it was the same reason I didn’t touch the sleeping homeless man on the bench: fear. It’s easy to give a beloved author a couple of bucks. You like him; you’ve read his books, and most importantly, you trust him. David Sedaris is not going to punch you in the face, grab your purse, or spend your money on drugs and booze. I do believe that most people are kind, decent folk. But that doesn’t mean we are brave.
If I were standing there in that subway, would I rush to the tracks and try to pull the man up? I would love to say “yes,” but deep down, I know I probably wouldn’t. I would be deathly afraid that he would pull me down with him.
The New York city police officer is different from many of us–just look at his occupation. When the bullets are flying, the police must run toward the shooter rather than away. This is the very reason we celebrate such individuals as “heroes.”
Heroism is inherently original, which is why we love to write about it. But there are stories to be told about cowardice as well. These are tales of inaction and silence, and of the failure to be anything more than predictable.
Appropriate Keane song of the day: “Playing Along”