Theft by finding diaries.., p.1
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       Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, p.1

           David Sedaris
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002

  Copyright © 2017 by David Sedaris

  Cover design by Jeffrey Jenkins

  Cover art by Suzanne Bircher (sign painter)

  Author photograph by Jeffrey Jenkins

  Cover copyright © 2017 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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  ISBN 978-0-316-30851-9




  Title Page



  Author’s Note




























  About the Author

  Books by David Sedaris

  Discover More

  For Dawn “Friendship Flower” Erickson

  Author’s Note

  Occasionally in this book I have changed people’s names or slightly altered their physical descriptions. In some cases I’ve changed a name because the person in the preceding entry was also a Jim or a Mary, and I wanted to avoid confusion. (How is it that I have so many Steves in my life and only one Thelma?)

  I’ve rewritten things when they were unclear or, as was more often the case in the early years, when the writing was clunky and uninviting.


  Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries, I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it. Given the exchange rate, the bill amounted to around $8.15, which, as my mother would have said, “Ain’t nothing.” A few days later I met with my friend Pam in London. The subject of windfalls came up, and when I mentioned the money she asked if I’d spent it.

  “Well, of course,” I said.

  “In the U.K., if you discover something of value and keep it, that’s theft by finding,” she told me. “You’re supposed to investigate whether it was lost or stolen, though in this case—five pounds—of course you’re fine.”

  Theft by Finding. It was, I thought, the perfect title for this book. When it comes to subject matter, all diarists are different. I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change. Other people’s feelings, though, that was a different story. Got a bone to pick with your stepmother or the manager of the place where you worked until yesterday? Please, let’s talk!

  If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in. Perhaps at the beginning you restrict yourself to issues of social injustice or all the unfortunate people trapped beneath the rubble in Turkey or Italy or wherever the last great earthquake hit. You keep the diary you feel you should be keeping, the one that, if discovered by your mother or college roommate, would leave them thinking, If only I was as civic-minded/bighearted/philosophical as Edward!

  After a year, you realize it takes time to rail against injustice, time you might better spend questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford. Unless, of course, social injustice is your thing, in which case—knock yourself out. The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. The me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated?*

  What I prefer recording at the end—or, more recently, at the start—of my day are remarkable events I have observed (fistfights, accidents, a shopper arriving with a full cart of groceries in the express lane), bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me. These people could be friends but just as easily barbers, strangers on a plane, or cashiers. A number of their stories turned out to be urban legends: the neighbor of a relative whose dead cat was stolen from the trunk of a car, etc. I hope I’ve weeded those out. Then there are the jokes I’ve heard at parties and book signings over the years. They were obviously written by someone—all jokes are—but the authors are hardly ever credited in the retelling.

  Another thing I noticed while going through my forty years of diaries is that many of the dates are wrong. For instance, there might be three October 1, 1982s. This was most likely because I didn’t know what day it was. Time tends to melt and run together when you don’t have a job. In that prelaptop era, you had to consult a newspaper or calendar to find out if it was Wednesday the eighth or Thursday the ninth. This involved getting up, so more often than not, I’d just stay put and guess. Quite often I’d even get the month wrong.

  It might look like my average diary entry amounts to no more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day—around forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happened, I’ll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio. I’m not big on weather writing but have no policy against it. Thus when life gets really dull, I’ll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will lead to something else, most often: a bird being mean to another bird or the noise a plane makes.

  Starting around 1979 I began numbering my entries. It’s a habit I still maintain.

  December 28, 2016

  One. It’s only December and already…

  Two. Dad called on my birthday. “I’m trying to visualize where you’re living,” he said. “Are there a lot of power lines out where you are?”

  Three. Hugh stormed out of the kitchen yesterday, leaving me, Candy, Amy, and Ingrid, who was in the middle of a story about her mother.

  Four. I ran into Michael at the Waitrose…

  Five. Carrie Fisher died yesterday…

  Six. Hugh just came in and told me…

  This is what cavemen did before paragraphs were invented, and I’m not sure why I don’t just indent or hit the space bar twice. Another old-fashioned practice I maintain is carrying a notebook, a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that strike me, not in gre
at detail but just quickly. The following morning I’ll review what I jotted down and look for the most meaningful moment in the previous day, the one in which I felt truly present. It could have been seeing an old friend, or just as likely it could have been watching a stranger eat a sandwich with his eyes closed. (That happened recently, and was riveting.)

  Every so often, I’ll record something that might entertain or enlighten someone, and those are the bits I set aside. I thought I’d eventually put them in a book of diary entries, but when the printout reached a height of eight inches, I decided that maybe two volumes—the second of which will cover the years 2003 to 2017—would make more sense. It’s worth mentioning that this is my edit. Of the roughly eight million words handwritten or typed into my diary since September 5, 1977, I’m including only a small fraction. An entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive. On any given day I am all these things and more: stupid, cheerful, misanthropic, cruel, narrow-minded, open, petty—the list goes on and on.

  A different edit, no doubt a more precise one, would have involved handing my diary over to someone else, but that is something I can’t imagine doing, unless, perhaps, that person is a journalist. (They never get beyond the third page, which they usually call “the middle,” as in “I’d hoped to finish this before our interview but am only in the middle!”)

  That said, I don’t really expect anyone to read this from start to finish. It seems more like the sort of thing you might dip in and out of, like someone else’s yearbook or a collection of jokes.

  It wasn’t easy revisiting what are now 156 volumes of my diary. I broke the job up—a month or two per day—but after reading about me, I’d have to spend the rest of the day being me. I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything quite so exhausting. Hugh would be in the next room and hear me shout things like “Will you just shut up!” and “Who cares about the goddamn pocket square!”

  “Who are you talking to?” he’d ask.

  “Me in 2001,” I’d answer.

  By then I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The early years, 1977 to 1983, were the bleakest. I was writing my diaries by hand back then. The letters were small and, fueled by meth, a typical entry would go on for pages—solid walls of words, and every last one of them complete bullshit. I’ve included very little of that time in this book. It’s like listening to a crazy person. The gist is all you need, really.

  The diary lightened up when I moved to Chicago, partly because I was in a big city but mainly because I felt so much better about myself. I’d finally done what I’d talked about doing for so many years: I’d left the town I grew up in. I’d gone back to college and actually graduated. There was all the more reason to feel good when, in the fall of 1990, I moved to New York. I was only writing at night back then, either smashed or getting there. You’d think I’d have addressed my drinking, at least in the privacy of my diary, but it’s rarely mentioned. To type that word—alcoholic—would have made it real, so I never recounted the talking-tos I got from Hugh and certain helpful people in my family.

  Similarly, it took me a while in the 1970s to write the word gay. “Oh, please,” I said out loud to my twenty-year-old self while reading my earliest diaries. “Who do you think you’re kidding?”

  This project made evident all the phases I’ve gone through over the years, and how intensely. Oh, the ink that was spilled over finding the correct phone number of someone who’d obviously—and for good reason—given me a fake one, over losing weight, over my French homework. Later I’d throw myself into catching flies and feeding them to spiders, and all this leads me to wonder, What’s next? Judging from my past it could be anything: collecting hair, crossbreeding rodents in my basement—who knows?

  I was also struck while rereading my diaries by the number of people I knew in 1980 whom I’m still close with now. It’s so hard to predict which friends will last and which will fade away. Quite often I’d move and lose half the contacts in my address book, people I thought would be with me forever. It’s not that we outgrew one another. They just couldn’t be bothered to put a stamp on a letter. Or I couldn’t. Of course it’s easier now with email.

  It was interesting to read back through a diary and come upon someone who would wind up being very important, who would drop out of nowhere and change the direction of my life: Hugh, Jim McManus, Meryl Vladimer, Geoff Kloske, Ira Glass, Andy Ward. I’d have thought the initial meetings would be momentous, that I’d recognize salvation when it presented itself—“There you are!”—but more often than not, each of them was just someone I shook hands with, then sat down later at my desk thinking, What was that person’s name again? Hugh was different. Him I remembered. With the others, though, it’s sort of heartening. You never know whose hand you’re going to shake.

  Then there were those who died: my mother, my sister Tiffany, Don Congdon, the lovely David Rakoff. I’d reread the entries that featured these people and curse myself for not including more. Why did I not transcribe their every word? And shouldn’t I get cracking so that when friends and family members die in the future I’ll have something greater and more comforting to reflect upon? That’s the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.

  *I do not think The Wire was overrated.


  September 5, 1977

  Sacramento, California

  Ronnie and I got a ride from Lonnie and Tammy, who are on their way to Mount Shasta. The state fair is in town, and Sherri Lewis is performing. We slept out in the open next to the American River.

  September 8, 1977

  Mount Hood, Oregon

  Sidetracked en route to Yakima. We met a couple named Pops and Jeannie who will pick us up at six tomorrow morning and take us to an orchard. Pops, who calls himself a “fruit tramp,” guessed Ronnie and I might make $300 between the two of us before the season is over.

  We’re sleeping tonight on a golf course. I feel the way I always feel before starting a new job—nervous.

  September 11, 1977

  Odell, Oregon

  I wonder how long three minutes is? My soft-boiled eggs are on the woodstove, tumbling in their little pan. It’s Sunday, our day off. Raining. Ronnie and I are living in a wood cabin with a soft brass bed, a fridge, four chairs, a table, and lots of logs. Sometimes a cat comes in and I feed him (her?) hot dogs. My socks are drying, the floor needs sweeping, and the couple in the trailer next door are eating. This morning I saw the wife trudging to the outhouse in her bathrobe.

  We’re working for a man named Norm. His friends call him Peewee. It’s cold enough outside to see my breath. Acorns are falling on the roof.

  October 20, 1977

  Vancouver, British Columbia

  After a hotel for $8.50 a night, Ronnie and I found an apartment that’s $30 a week for the both of us. I worry about money, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. I smoked my first cigarette. It’s embarrassing, but you do get a buzz off it. I did, anyway, on Davie Street.

  October 25, 1977


  I now own a black jacket and a pair of brown heavy wool trousers that come up past my navel and button at the ankle. Canadian Army pants? When it comes to clothes, all anyone has to say is “That looks good,” and I’ll buy it. So I was walking down the street in my new uniform, very happy, when a guy looked me over and said to his friend, “Who’s the faggot?”

  Then I was just an idiot with stupid clothes on. Ronnie and I leave tomorrow. I’ll be glad to go.

  The dryers in Canada cost 10 cents for fifteen minutes.

  October 26, 1977

  Everett, Washington

  At the Beehive Café one egg is 25 cents. It’s $2 for an egg at Denny’s.

  Yesterday we were picked up by two
fishermen, Ed and Reilly. Then we got a ride with Mark, who let us sleep in his trailer. At six this morning, he bounded into the living room naked and said, “Let’s go!”

  He had just returned from his high school reunion. He was in the band.

  October 27, 1977

  Blaine, Oregon

  Some asshole stopped last night and pointed at Ronnie, saying, “I’ll take the girl.”

  October 29, 1977

  Portland, Oregon

  Ronnie and I are at the Broadway Hotel, a cheap and depressing place. Scary. There is a real poor and a funky poor. This is the real kind. The lobby is full of dying old people, cripples, and a girl who ate hamburger after hamburger, pouring ketchup on every bite. Toilets are down the hall. Our carpet has vomit on it. We have a torn-up kitchen chair and a nasty bed. The second floor smells like doughnuts, but ours smells like puke and piss. Our fellow guests, winos and the down-on-their-luck, are the ones our parents always warned us about.

  November 6, 1977

  San Francisco, California

  I called home and talked to Mom. It was so nice to hear her voice, I didn’t want to hang up. She said Paul was hurt that I hadn’t written to him, but I just did a few days ago.

  November 9, 1977

  Bakersfield, California

  We finally made it to Bakersfield. The countryside here is flat and scrubby. A guy named Doug gave us a nice long ride and told us about his cousin who got stabbed.

  Last night under the stars in a pasture in our sleeping bags, I poured my guts out and said things I was afraid to admit even to myself. And you know, it felt good and not as hopeless as I thought. All that had been inside for so long.

  November 11, 1977

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