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Sister in a glass house

The good news is that her brother is a famous writer. The bad news is that David Sedaris keeps putting his family in his stories even though his sister Tiffany prefers her privacy.

Tiffany Sedaris yanks a saucepan out of her freezer and plops it on the floor. Eight ice cubes slosh in a couple quarts of water. She wraps her right hand in a paper towel, reaches into her oven and slowly pulls out a slab of glass. It's asymmetrical, 8 inches wide at its widest, 2 inches thick, and a foot long, and it's been baking at about 250 degrees for five minutes. Tiffany slips the glass into the saucepan.

''Now, you get the hell out of the way . . . and watch."

Long cracks crawl to the tip of the glass, which sounds, when it splits this way, like someone's crumpling paper. It's a tame sound for a planned destruction. With a little human leverage, the glass will break cleanly along the cracks, exposing an entrancing sea-green middle. Tiffany repeats the process a few dozen times before she stacks the pieces on top of each other, green widths exposed, and binds them with silicon. ''I call them pain walls, or love walls," Tiffany says, ''because they're beautiful to look at, hard to handle, and they can really hurt."

She grabs a Q-tips from the counter, dips it into the saucepan, and presses the cold, wet cotton onto the surface of the slab. Dozens of little cracks rush like lightning to ground themselves. She's used this trick before, too: in mosaics in her window, women dance in gowns of this scarred glass.

''I use glass because I like touching it. There's the potential for danger."

The last time a writer visited Tiffany,
who lives in Somerville, he published a story making fun of her dirty floor, her mosaics, her old job baking at the Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge, and her new one, picking through trash for things she can make valuable. But he's got license. He's her older brother, humorist David Sedaris, and he seems to have license -- from his family, and from his readers -- to write about all the things that don't make it into polite conversations.

''I was the only one who told him not to put me in his books," Tiffany, 41, says of her five siblings. ''I don't trust David to have boundaries. Our friends, our shrinks, the guy who gives us our meds, they all think David is incredibly violating. But then everyone says, 'Oh, what, does your brother not like you?' Even when he doesn't write about you, he's writing about you."

David Sedaris fans retell his stories to each other, as if the act of repetition puts them nearer to the story itself. The anonymous throng that crowns a new Sedaris book a bestseller seems to know the whole family, which features prominently in his work. With his latest book, ''Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," out this past June, the family is up for public view once again.

David's older sister, three younger sisters, and his brother, the baby in the family, have appeared in many of his stories, which recast a family history Tiffany feels is filled with pain into funny, often insightful essays that explore what family means. It isn't necessarily a family its members recognize. ''This isn't us," Tiffany says. ''These are cartoons of us."

They're such familiar cartoons to This American Life listeners and GQ readers, who get a frequent dose of David's work, that strangers ask Tiffany, ''So which sister are you, anyway?" They chuckle over family vacations she doesn't remember. Even people who know her, who might never otherwise see Tiffany the way David does, offer her whitewashed pity after reading a new story.

''One time, David wrote that Amy was the most beautiful of the Sedaris women, and I got all these phone calls -- 'You're just as pretty as she is.' Or, 'you're prettier!' Or 'You're so much funnier than he'll ever be.' David doesn't get that what he writes affects us. One story, and I gotta listen to a bunch of people think I feel ugly."

Tiffany is petite, with sculpted arms, bronzed from long bike rides in the sun, a strong brow, auburn hair, and a searching, sympathetic gaze. She remembers her family harassing her for being skinny and an older sister for being fat. These days, she's not up for categorization. ''I look how I look, and that's fine," she says. She concedes: She looks just like her brother.

She values, above all, what she sees and seeks beautiful things in an unlikely place: the bottom of trash cans. Only here can she find what she needs for her mosaics -- rare red and orange glass, pottery from the 1920s or '30s, tiles, plates, even dolls or statues with elegant arms or interesting faces. ''I don't do it because it's cool. If someone took me to a glass or pottery store, I wouldn't complain," she insists.

Then again, Tiffany knows that something happens to stuff nobody wants anymore. Abandoned, already a little broken, it needs context, which her mosaics offer. She picks up sugar bowls, ash trays, and tea pots because she can make them something else. ''Eventually the idea of buying a plate becomes completely ridiculous," she concedes. ''Why use something someone has worked to make beautiful? When you break it, it's just not pretty any more."

At nearly 9 one Tuesday night, Tiffany leads her red Bianchi bicycle and matching wooden cart down the driveway and takes a right. Tuesday nights start on Lowell Street, and end wherever they end. Cars and people have all but disappeared at this hour. Tiffany rides past four houses, U-turns, and hops off her bike almost before it stops moving. She unties a black Hefty bag and prods its contents with a flashlight, which she always carries, with other basic tools, in a duffel bag. Taking nothing, she ties it back up. ''If I'm neat," she says with a grin, ''you can't tell where I started."

Venetian blinds shoot like seedlings from untopped trash cans. Kids' car seats squat demurely at the curb; barbecues, shower doors, ironing boards, and baby strollers await an ordinary end. All of these things still work, but Tiffany leaves them on the curb. Trash picking is a crusade against anonymity, not waste.

When Tiffany goes picking, she's after stories. Sure, she can eat any of the 16 cans of Progresso soup she found one night in July. She can sell some jewelry and furniture. If she likes the buyers, and they're fair, she'll even pick for their needs, carting home Legos or oboes or any other oddity she can trade for marbles or pottery.

The stories, though, she keeps. Portraits and family photos fill file boxes in her stuffed spare room. She organizes the photos by person, even though she rarely learns their names. ''I don't split up lives," she declares.

Tiffany creates principles like this one, which guide her trash picking: Death is the ultimate adjudicator. Letters, pictures, and diaries are fair game only if Tiffany has never met the person who they describe. They don't leave her house again unless their previous owner is surely dead. ''Do I have the right to sell someone's letters, to print them, to give them away?" she asks. ''What if the woman who wrote that love letter as a kid is alive, and her husband beats her? These are real people, which means there are consequences to things."

Irony, above all, is revered: the set of 100 Playboys and 200 potholders, boxed together, is not for sale. The trash is so good, in fact, that it's kept her in Somerville for 17 years.

Tiffany remembers David playing tricks
on her as a kid. He'd stick slugs to matchbooks and hang them over her bed, rouse her from sleep to stand for the national anthem, or tie rocks to her and toss her in the lake. ''He'd do that to me and Paul, especially," she says, '' and we would say, hey, that was fun, let's do it again! Then you spend the rest of your adult life looking for a rock and a rope."

Once, he hired a neighbor to pretend to break into their house. All the kids knew it was a joke, except for her, she says. She looked in each room for the intruder. ''In the kitchen, I just lost it. I'm so afraid that I can't move." Her siblings laughed, and she realized it wasn't real. ''That's how it was in my house -- everything was a joke. It didn't matter how much it hurt, you'd laugh before you did anything about it."

Thousands pick up David's books and laugh, ruefully at times, at his family's folklore. His sister, unsurprisingly, is not one of them. She reads his books indifferently. They are stories about the ''unspeakable things we did to each other," she says. And there are, after all, consequences to things.

Tiffany noticed the same thing most critics did about David's newest volume: ''He seems to be more soul-searching, more sensitive," she concedes. The book is the first of his to acknowledge, if indirectly, the muddiness of bringing shared lives into the spotlight. And the first that Tiffany has allowed David to put her in.

''David has his own version of the truth, and it bumps into my version. His makes mine not true, and mine makes his not true," Tiffany says matter-of-factly. ''He said he wrote about our pain because we weren't doing anything with it. When I die, you can recycle me. Till then, it's mine."

Tonight, like most nights, Tiffany will recycle.
She'll fill the red cart she fashioned herself with bits of other people's lives. She'll take those pieces home, pull out her tile cutters, and break discarded pasts into small pieces. Splinters will fall to her feet; she might step on them later. She'll find the right mosaic for these colors and shapes and press them in. She'll color the grout that holds them together with coffee, chalk, mustard -- whatever she's found nights before. She doesn't leave a piece until it feels finished, which can take a few months, when the trash is good, or several years of looking for just the right shade of rose.

She prices her pieces on a sliding scale. ''It depends on how much I had to hurt myself while I made it, how far I had to drag it, whether it was night or day. Mostly, I make it up," she says. ''It's a made-up price for made-up stuff in a made-up world."

Her finished work hangs in her window, which she likes, or at art shows, which she hates. ''People want some extra bit of you and ask why you made it, or what it means, or what it's supposed to be." She shakes her head. ''There it is. That's all I have to say."

Tiffany is a storyteller, like her brother, looking for a way to share a collected past and make it mean something new. Gardens of glass hang in her window -- big red roses and leafy trees and a deep orange sun. Sunlight rouses magic in the glass, and the mosaics transform. At 6 o'clock, when the light is best, they're sparkling, spellbinding worlds. At 6 o'clock, Tiffany's stories are always true. 

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