David Sedaris isn't a North Carolina native, and he hasn't lived here in decades—in fact, he lives in England. But he's surely an honorary North Carolinian, having spent most of his formative years with his family in Raleigh. His books of essays have been some of the most celebrated of this century, and the City of Oaks is a leading character in many of his famous pieces.
Sedaris has made a lasting literary impact, but his writing has more intimate effects, too. To a teen girl in Cary who felt isolated, overwhelmed, and trapped, he was more than a great writer: he was proof that you didn't have to be from a cool big city to live a worthwhile creative life. His work unlocked a door toward beautiful possibilities.
In high school, I had few real friends and a mountain of unaddressed anxiety problems. I loved music—"weird" music, by my peers' standard—and I made a habit of loudly declaring my disdain for sports, makeup, and more, all while being an uptight stickler for rules. I was embarrassed by my suburban Southern hometown, convinced that neither it nor nearby Raleigh had anything of significant cultural value. At the time, I thought my interests were mature and sophisticated; in my mind, I was a young person who was trapped in high school by a mere technicality of age, and I ached with every fiber of my being to get the hell out. (Upon reflection, it's not surprising that I wasn't especially well-liked.)
Outside of school, I spent as much time as I possibly could in used-book and CD stores, particularly Reader's Corner and the Hillsborough Street Nice Price, or, closer to home, a store called Mr. Mike's. Reader's Corner, with its claustrophobia-inducing stacks, felt like a perfect place to hide. Sedaris titles often appeared on the shelves of these shops, and eventually I took a chance on a seven-year-old paperback copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day.
I tore through it, engrossed in every word. Sedaris's humor was wry and sharp, clever in a way I hadn't yet found in any other writer. He was openly self-deprecating, deeply aware of his prickliness and pettiness as well as his own occasional charms. Here was someone who, as far as I could tell, shared a lot of my neuroses and pet peeves, despite how different our lives looked.
Whereas Sedaris is one of six kids and gay, I'm the oldest of two and bumblingly straight. He's old enough to be my father by a respectable margin. But he wrote about Cameron Village and Crabtree Valley Mall, places that I, too, hated! I was bushwhacking my way through high school Spanish, and here was David, documenting the same struggles to express himself in another tongue in "See You Again Yesterday" and "Make That a Double." It felt like someone had pulled out my thoughts and untangled them for me on the page.
Something about reading Me Talk Pretty One Day—followed in quick succession by Naked, Barrel Fever, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames—made me understand that North Carolina wasn't a permanent affliction. The revelation doesn't make a ton of sense now, because I had access to the internet and already knew, on some level, that I didn't have to stay here forever. But, as Sedaris demonstrated, I could keep it as an important part of me and carry it anywhere else I wanted. That lightbulb moment was liberating.
Sedaris also offered insight and empathy about feeling out of place, and it was like someone had thrown a rope down the well of dissatisfaction that I'd built myself. As he wrote about his social ineptitude, it shattered the illusion that adulthood was a gleaming promised land in which all my wildest dreams would come true. Through his writing, he revealed the truth that life could be messy, difficult, and weird, and that was just a part of it. Maybe I'd be awkward forever, but I wouldn't be the only one.
His books also led me to his sister, Amy Sedaris, who would teach me a few lessons of her own. I fell in love with her immediately in David's essay "Shiner Like a Diamond," in which Amy, fed up with her father's uninvited commentary about her body, pulls a vicious prank on him. As I learned more about her, the more I wanted her to be my freaky godmother. Here was a woman who has built a successful life out of being a loud, hilarious, brilliant weirdo. If Amy could do it, why couldn't I?
The Raleigh that exists now is dramatically different from the one Sedaris sketches in his books, and even from the one I kicked around in. Cameron Village remains, but with almost none of the same stores, as does the oft-renovated Crabtree Valley Mall. Hillsborough Street is nearly unrecognizable, and perhaps the most tragic monument is the shell of the IHOP on Hillsborough Street. Once an endearingly ramshackle landmark, and a getaway for a young David Sedaris, it now advertises a real estate agency, surrounded by identical, cheaply built apartment buildings.
It'll continue to grow and change, and so will Sedaris, and so will I. I haven't made a long leap away from home yet. But, thanks in large part to Sedaris, when the time comes, I'll know how to find my way out.