Like all great Sedaris stories, “The Smoking Section” ricochets between present and past, with flashbacks to Sedaris’s childhood in North Carolina. Growing up in tobacco country, his fourth-grade class toured a cigarette factory and were given packs to take home to their parents. When, at age 20, he took up the habit, smoking served as a sort of bonding agent with his acerbic, chain-smoking mother, Sharon, who often put cartons in his Christmas stockings and Easter baskets. She died of lung cancer in 1991.
Though Sedaris has always written matter-of-factly about being gay, he never wrote a big coming-out story (“Everyone’s got their coming-out story,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s any good”), perhaps because he never had a “TV-movie-of-the-week moment” of telling his family. Instead, he simply referred casually to a “guy I’m seeing,” at which his parents did a double take and then dropped it. “We’re not very direct people,” he explains. “My dad, he’s a product of his generation. For him to have become as accepting as he has is really something. For me to expect more would be greedy.”
Shortly after this discussion, the door opens and in comes Hamrick. Born in Kentucky, he has boyish all-American looks, though he grew up in Congo, Somalia and other countries where his father worked for the State Department. A frequent theme in Sedaris’s writing is Hamrick’s handiness: He’s up chopping wood at dawn, for example, while Sedaris slumbers till noon. And true to form, Hamrick proceeds to whip up a delicious dinner of roast chicken and vegetables while Sedaris uncorks a Bordeaux—from which he, of course, abstains.
Amazingly, living with a memoirist has not made Hamrick self-conscious. “David cuts me out sometimes. He’ll say I am not ‘intrinsic’ to the story,” says the painter with a grin. “And he rarely writes about the stuff I think he’s going to. He writes about things I didn’t give a second thought to.” To which Sedaris says he always has the same reply: “Why would I not write about that? That’s gold.”