Author David Sedaris visits San Diego Zoo primates.

Comedian in the mist

David Sedaris at the San Diego Zoo. "What exactly does he want to write about monkeys?" Jennifer was getting testy.
  • David Sedaris at the San Diego Zoo. "What exactly does he want to write about monkeys?" Jennifer was getting testy.

Jennifer at the San Diego Zoo's media relations office adopted a strident tone. "Well, if you can't tell me exactly what Mr. Sedaris will be writing — I mean, if you can't give me a clear idea of exactly what he's going to do, then I'm afraid we can't help you."

I'd explained to Jennifer that Mr. Sedaris, David Sedaris, was a well-known humorist, a New York Times best-selling author, a frequent contributor to Esquire, a commentator on National Public Radio. I'd explained that he was coming to town to lecture at UCSD and that, while here, he'd wanted to work on a piece about monkeys, that he wanted to interview someone at the zoo who worked with monkeys.

"What exactly does he want to write about monkeys?" Jennifer was getting testy.

I knew that Sedaris planned to include several pieces on monkeys in his new book, Primates on the Seine, and that, as a child, he'd fantasized about traveling America with a proboscis monkey sidekick. I also knew that in Paris, where he now lives, he'd interviewed many people who'd kept monkeys as pets.

"Oh, no," said Jennifer. "No. No. No. We'd absolutely want nothing at all to do with anything about people keeping monkeys as pets. We're all about animal conservation."

I thought it useless to explain to Jennifer that Mr. Sedaris's approach to monkey ownership was not one of advocacy. I thanked Jennifer for her time and hung up.

Sedaris was smoking a Kool near the entrance to the La Jolla Marriott when I broke the news to him about Jennifer. I explained that the zoo was probably touchy because the feds had recently nailed the zoo's reptile curator for dealing snakes on the side.

"I understand." Sedaris shrugged and studied his cigarette. "There's a convention of dermatologists here at the hotel. Only one of the three elevators work. It took me less time to fly from Portland to San Diego than it took me to get from my room to the lobby. The dermatologists are attending a seminar titled 'Unknown Skin Diseases.' "

Sedaris was tired. His visit to San Diego came at the tail end of a weeks-long lecture tour around the United States.

"I just got off the phone with Little, Brown, my publisher. On the cover of Primates on the Seine they want to use a picture of a chimp smoking a cigarette. The chimp is wearing clothes. I hate chimps wearing clothes. I reminded my publisher that my contract gives me cover approval. My publisher said, 'Everyone here loves the cover.' My thinking is, 'Well, then, let everyone at Little, Brown go on a book tour and sign it.'"

Last summer I'd gone with Sedaris to the zoo in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris, where we'd watched an adult chimp pick up a stone and beat a diseased infant chimp. The infant chimp screamed halfheartedly. "I can't understand," said Sedaris, "why parents take their children to the zoo. It's like taking them to visit a hospital for the criminally insane."

Sedaris was anxious to visit what he kept calling the "World- Famous San Diego Zoo." We decided that, Jennifer's anxiety notwithstanding, we'd go ahead and go. When we got to the entrance, Sedaris looked relieved.

"I thought it was going to be one of those safari-type places."

Inside, Sedaris began describing the zoo as a "nervous place." He was amazed by the signs announcing that smoking was prohibited in the zoo and that, because of the newborn panda, visitors should keep their voices down, even while on the Skyfari, hundreds of feet in the air.

The first animal Sedaris stopped to study was something called Vernay's Ratel, an animal that looks like a huge, tail-less skunk. Sedaris read aloud from the sign posted in front of the cage, "Ratels kill bees by spraying them with their anal gland secretions."

A woman standing beside Sedaris turned to him and said, "Doesn't everyone?"

Scanning the zoo's map for monkeys, Sedaris noticed that the zoo had an unusually high number of meerkat and pig exhibits.

"On Hoof and Horn Mesa alone there are three pig exhibits. More pigs near the small carnivores. Even more pigs near the bongos, whatever they are. There have to be at least three different meerkat exhibits. Pigs and meerkats. They just use them as fill. The zoo has an empty space and it's, 'Hey, I know! Let's put some pigs in there!' Or, 'I think some meerkats would look wonderful next to the Kiwi House!' They just use the pigs and meerkats as fill."

Sedaris was unmoved by Primate Mesa. To him, the animals were disappointing.

"They just sit there and fidget, or they stare into space. I worked once at a psychiatric hospital, and I'm telling you, looking at these monkeys reminds me of the psychiatric hospital. The same aimlessness. The same fidgeting. The same staring into space. The only difference is that the monkeys don't chain smoke."

Sedaris was pleased, however, with Gorilla Tropics. The animals were active and playful.

"It's their enclosure," Sedaris said. "The waterfall. The trees. The grass. Plenty of dead trees to swing from. I could be happy there, too. Provided I could smoke."

On our way out of the exhibit we stopped to examine several life-size gorilla statues made of bronze. Posted beside the statues was a sign that seemed to confirm Sedaris's initial impression of the zoo as a "nervous place."

He read the sign aloud, "'Caution: Gorilla statues may be hot.' How hot can they be?"

He touched one, the largest, cautiously.

"It seems pretty cool to me, but I guess they're worried about the summer when these gorillas can really heat up. This is the sort of thing that reminds me I'm in America, where people fear lawsuits."

Sedaris wanted coffee, and we walked to a little cappuccino stand where a woman standing in front of us in line spent several minutes questioning the girl behind the counter. "Which has more coffee in it, a cappuccino or a latte? Which is hotter? Which has more sugar in it?"

The girl behind the counter told the woman that neither the cappuccino nor the latte contained sugar.

"Okay," the woman sighed, "I'll take the one that has less sugar."

"I can see why," Sedaris whispered, "the zoo has to put up signs warning people about hot bronze gorillas."

As we left the zoo, Sedaris said that in Paris the only thing he missed about living in America was being able to understand "banal conversations."

"Like the woman ordering coffee. That'd go right over my head in Paris. I miss that. 'Which is hotter? Which is sweeter?' Of course, I don't think you'd find many people in Paris who ask questions like 'Which kind of coffee is hotter?' "

Sedaris decided he wanted wrap up his visit to San Diego with a trip to Tijuana. That evening we walked across the border to Avenida Revolución, where every ten steps we were stopped by young men.

"You want titty? You want pussy?"

"Hey, dog, you want to party? I got pussy. 18, 19, 20 years old. You want pussy?"

"Hey, dog, check it out. You want pussy?"

"You want to party?"

Sedaris politely declined their offers. He said he was hungry, so we took a taxi to the Gran Hotel Tijuana. A convention of Mexican allergists thronged the lobby. Some were crowding into a symposium entitled "Emerging Allergies in the New Millennium." Others were eating and dancing at a party sponsored by a Mexican pharmaceutical company. A banner announcing a new sinus medication swayed high above the dance floor.

Peeking in, Sedaris observed, "We can definitely say Mexican allergists dance better than ours in America."

Our dinner at the Gran Bistro wasn't very good. The fried squid Sedaris ordered came floating in a pool of brown gravy. His prime rib, which he ordered rare, came well done. His baked potato was almost raw. A pianist played "The Shadow of Your Smile" and "Misty" while we picked at our food. Neither of us had dessert.

To get back to the border we took a collectivo, one of those taxis that travels a specific route and carries as many people as can fit in. Our collectivo was an old station wagon, and we sat in the seat at the very back. As our collectivo weaved erratically through traffic, Sedaris grew pensive.

"I've been to nine countries over the course of this past year: France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the United States, Slovenia, Croatia, and now Mexico. On the whole, San Diego and Tijuana were a lot more pleasant than Croatia."

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