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August 25, 2019

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Naked’ essays reflect life of house-cleaning author

RALEIGH, N.C. -- David Sedaris, author, prefers life as David Sedaris, house cleaner.

"My job kind of got ruined for me," says Sedaris, author of "Naked," a collection of essays that includes many about growing up as part of a family of six children.

He blames the attention given "Barrel Fever," his first collection of essays, for ruining his cleaning business. He gained fame with a commentary on National Public Radio on an essay about life as Crumpet the elf in a department store. That essay was turned into an off-Broadway play, and now Sedaris says he's "sick to death of it."

Thanks to the notoriety, some customers call to say they heard him on public radio and decided that he and his cleaning would make a great birthday gift for a relative or a friend.

But they want him, not just his cleaning ability.

"I get there and they would be there," says Sedaris. "They say, 'Let me tell you a little story and you can use it on the radio.' They wanted me to entertain them. I didn't want to entertain them."

No, indeed. The 40-year-old Sedaris is a man born to clean.

When his sister, Tiffany, called to say she was cleaning her Boston home to prepare for his visit, he asked: "Please save the refrigerator and freezer for me."

After reading "Naked," published by Little, Brown and Company, those who didn't already know will learn about Sedaris' years suffering from obsessive tics and about his family's love for his mother, who died of cancer in 1991.

"I just got an enormous kick out of her," he says of the woman who smoked, drank and protected him from the outside world. "I just thought she was very, very funny. And she taught us a lot about telling stories."

Sedaris, the second of the six children, was the only neatnik in the family, which moved to Raleigh in the mid-1960s from upstate New York when IBM transferred his father.

He used to come home from school and clean house, only to see it messed up again when the rest of the children arrived. He put a lock with an alarm on his bedroom door.

"I would vacuum my room every day. I just loved those tracks on my carpet. I have never, ever not made my bed. I made my crib," he says.

His bedroom "was like a shrine," says his sister, Lisa Evans, 41, to whom the book is dedicated. "You could not cross the threshold of his room. You would have to stand in the hallway and peer through the door at him."

He even makes his hotel room beds, unable to stand its unkempt state until the maid arrives.

Cleaning houses gives a feeling of accomplishment that writing lacks, he says. "It's something I do, and I've done for 20 years, but to call it (writing) my living, I'm not really comfortable with that," says Sedaris, who also writes plays with his sister, Amy.

In "A Plague of Tics," Sedaris writes of the years he suffered an obsessive routine of touching, licking and counting steps on his way home from school, and of another routine once he arrived in the house. The obsessions began in the third grade and ended in college, when he began to smoke.

"I spent all my time alone in my room, admiring my cleanliness, rocking in my bed, jerking my head and rolling my eyes and making little noises in my throat," he says.

Cigarettes eased his obsessions, Sedaris writes. "Everything's fine as long as I know there's a cigarette in my immediate future. The people who ask me not to smoke in their cars have no idea what they're in for."

After he read the story on the radio, the head of a support group for Tourette syndrome called and said the story was a textbook example of the disease, which manifests itself in physical and verbal tics. She also told him that many people wear nicotine patches to supplement their medication.

She suggested he come to the group's treatment center. "I said, 'Oh, I don't do that anymore.'"

She asked him who was kidding whom. "You've cleared your throat seven times in the last minute," she told him.

"It's like being someone who thinks their cancer is in remission and being told, 'Oh no, the tumor's right there, big as it always was,'" he says.

He never visited the center.

With the exception of his bout of tics, Sedaris is really no odder than the rest of the family, Evans says. Neither he nor Tiffany has a driver's license; he and a third sister collect taxidermy; and Evans once brought home a prostitute whom she met while working in a cafeteria.

"I just heard that one of my sisters (Tiffany) quit her job, a good job, because she could make more money picking through trash in Boston," Evans says.

"It's just amazing what people in Boston will throw away," she says. "Some people find that kind of odd. But she's having a blast."

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