David Sedaris’s Lockdown Diary: ‘I destroy everyone I’m a Fitbit friend of’
The American writer's late-night strolls around New York reveal the city’s vulnerabilities
Author David Sedaris in New York. With two books in the works but all plans on hold, the writer is pacing the city. Photograph: Vincent Tullo/The New York Times
When New York went into lockdown, David Sedaris settled into his apartment on the Upper East Side and cancelled his 45-city book tour.
“I had bought all these outfits, and I was so looking forward to wearing them,” he says, mentioning with particular wistfulness a lavishly ruffled black Comme des Garçons jacket – “a cross between when Mammy was in mourning after the baby died in Gone with the Wind, and something that PT Barnum would wear” – now hanging in his closet, an artefact from an alternative reality.
But Sedaris’s realisation that it’s no fun dressing up in semisatirical garments when there is no one to see you is of course not the only thing he has had to contend with. The author of 10 books of autobiographical essays and short fictional pieces, the 63-year-old is a keen anatomist of the skewed intricacies of human behaviour, and there has been a lot of behaviour to sort through at the moment.
First, his own. He has two books coming out: The Best of Me, a collection of his favourite essays, in the autumn; and Carnival of Snackeries, a second volume of diaries, tentatively scheduled for next year. But his life, like everyone else’s, is more or less on hold.
“I figured out early on that there’s absolutely nothing I can do about this,” he says. “That should be obvious, and for some reason it wasn’t. I kept thinking, I should be able to fix this or control it. Whenever I feel sorry for myself I think, Everyone in the world is going through this. That makes it much easier.”
As he speaks, Sedaris sounds short of breath, a worrisome symptom in the current climate. In fact, he says, it was because he has not let the pandemic thwart his efforts to rack up miles on Fitbit, the physical-activity-recording device. “I’m walking in my apartment,” he says into the phone. “Right now.” He considers it a competitive sport. “I destroy everyone I’m a Fitbit friend of,” Sedaris says. “Like, I might be walking 130 miles a week, and they’re walking 30 miles a week.” But recently he has made a new Fitbit friend, someone whose determination to see and raise him mile for mile has forced Sedaris to increase his own efforts. Some days he walks nearly 20 miles.
At home this involves pacing the floor like Gus, the neurotic polar bear who compulsively trudged back and forth in his enclosure at the Central Park Zoo. But throughout the pandemic Sedaris has also been walking, masked, to the far ends of New York City.
You’ll be in the park, and suddenly you’ll hear some very articulate person talking about what a horrible person Donald Trump is
“The other week I walked all the way to Astoria,” he says. “Everywhere I go it smells the same, and it smells like my breath.” He generally has two outdoor shifts, the second after midnight, so that he (or Fitbit) can apply those miles to the next day’s tally.
“I like to start the next day with six miles under my belt,” Sedaris says. Although he is a compulsive collector of trash in the English countryside, where he lives much of the time, he has resisted the temptation to clean up the streets of New York. “I’m not against it,” he says, “but everything changes once you start doing that – you can’t stop.”
These excursions have showed him the city at its best. He is constantly amazed, he says, at the high calibre of New Yorkers’ discourse. “You’ll be in the park, and suddenly you’ll hear some very articulate person talking about what a horrible person Donald Trump is,” Sedaris says. “They’re so articulate and thoughtful, and they’re not regurgitating what they’ve already heard. Usually people who come up with that stuff are writing for newspapers, or they’re on TV.”
He has also seen the city at its most vulnerable, its late-night streets dotted with the homeless and destitute; and occasionally at its weirdest. “I was at Times Square at 1.30 in the morning and there was a guy in a wheelchair who was pushing himself along and he said, ‘Look at that clown,’” Sedaris recalls. “I thought he was talking about me. But then I followed his eyes and there was a clown, with purple hair and a red nose.”
More recently, he has walked city streets crowded with people, finding camaraderie and shared humanity in the Black Lives Matter protests. “The people are kind and thoughtful – always distributing snacks and water,” Sedaris says. “’Do you need sunblock? Hand sanitiser? It’s nice to be part of a group, and I like walking down the centre of the street. Over time I came to think of the marches the way I think of buses and subways. ‘I’ll just take this BLM down to 23rd,’ I’d tell myself. Later I’d maybe get a crosstown BLM to Second Avenue, then walk home from there.”
Those who follow Sedaris’s autobiographical writing, which has softened and become more emotional and self-reflective in recent years, will recall that the author and his father have long had a contentious relationship. They made a kind of peace last year, Sedaris wrote in March, as his father lay dying in a hospice.
In a quintessentially Sedaris move, though, his father did not die. He rallied, left the hospice and is now in an assisted-living facility, in good health considering that he is 97 and a global pandemic is underway. “I’m pretty sure my father wants a crowd at his funeral,” Sedaris says, of his father’s ability to hang on until crowded funerals are possible again. “In a lot of ways I feel fortunate to have had him. I wouldn’t have changed anything, because I needed somebody to sort of push against.”
Many authors have taken this opportunity to connect to audiences virtually. But don’t look for Sedaris online anytime soon. “My goal is to get through this without ever going on Zoom or FaceTime or Skype,” he says. “People are like, Can you record a message of hope for all the people who were going to come to your show?’ and I’m like, ‘No, because it’s not like there aren’t things to watch already.’”
Sedaris himself subscribed to Netflix in January. “I was the last person on Earth to get it,” he says. “Literally the last person. I thought we’d spend a lot of time watching things, but Hugh” – his boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick, an artist and a familiar character in the Sedaris oeuvre – “falls asleep, so you can’t watch anything with him”.
I said to my boyfriend the other day, ‘I hope you die of coronavirus, so I can write about it’
In normal times, Sedaris travels so frequently that the two are rarely in one place together for long. “For the past 20 years I’ve been gone every fall and every spring, and people said, ‘it must be horrible to be away from Hugh for so long,’ and I’ve always thought, No, it’s actually kind of great,” Sedaris says. “You’ve been with someone for 30 years, and it’s great not to see them for a few months.”
But lockdown a deux has been a revelation. “The thing is,” Sedaris adds, “I mean, I’ve talked to people who said, ‘We’ve been home trapped together and we’re at each other’s throats.’ But in our case we’ve never gotten along better. How am I supposed to write about that? I said to him the other day, ‘I hope you die of coronavirus, so I can write about it.’”
(He was kidding. In any case, both he and Hamrick fell ill with and then recovered from Covid-like symptoms early in the spring, though they have not been tested for the virus.)
“It’s been fantastic, it really has,” Sedaris goes on, in an unexpected burst of straight-up emotional enthusiasm. “I was really afraid he’d get tired of me. Like this morning, I got up at 10, and at 10.30 Hugh said to me, ‘I’m tired of you already.’ So I said, ‘Okay, can we start over?’ And we just started the day again.” – New York Times