Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
First things first, look at these two adorable videos of people with very expressive cats. It has nothing to do with the subject of this newsletter but I think you need to see it.
See? I told you.
In other news…
Even in normal times, I think a lot about that scene in Contagion where Sanaa Lathan is walking through the supermarket in a city that is about to be closed off completely to contain the virus. She’s the only person who knows about the coming quarantine because she’s engaged to Laurence Fishburne’s character who is, I believe, head of the CDC or something like it. He’s not supposed to tell anyone—if word got out it would cause a panic. But he warns her because he loves her and he wants her to get out while she can. She goes to the supermarket to load up on groceries and supplies so that she can drive from there—Chicago, I think—to where he is—Atlanta maybe. (I suppose I could have rewatched it confirm these details but this is all prologue so just pretend we’re at a party and I’m telling you this over a glass of tea or wine or something and you’re like “Yeah, I remember, go on” or “No, I don’t remember so insert whatever details you need to set the scene” or “what kind of tea is that? Rooibos? I never know how to say that word. It’s one of those words I exclusively read. A silent word. Like God’s name.”)
She’s got an overflowing cart. It’s almost comical, macabre; you go from one scene where she gets the phone call to the next scene where she’s at the Harris Teeter or whatever and she’s doing a slow-motion supermarket sweep. She’s trying not to act suspicious but she’s doing it like Jean-Ralphio and Mona-Lisa on Parks and Rec when they are trying to avoid suspicion, which is to say not successfully.
I had a moment like that in March when I stumbled upon a dilapidated Sav-a-Lot in Baltimore that, unlike all the other grocery stores at the time, had plenty of canned goods and Lysol wipes and all the other things that we were trying to get at the time. I walked through, putting a small number of items in my cart—it was just me and David at home; I wasn’t trying to hoard. I just wanted to do… something to prepare. As I walked, I kept muttering “Normal normal, just shopping,” as if any moment someone was going to accuse me of preparing for the apocalypse and suddenly there’d be a stampede to the canned peas like the scene in Mary Poppins when there’s a run on the bank.
I also went to the bank that day. I felt equally suspect withdrawing some of my own money from my own account. But I did it; just in case. This was at the point when everyone was putting their groceries in the shower and bleaching their mail before reading; we didn’t know what was going on or what was going to happen. “Big plans?” the bank teller asked me, referring to my withdrawal. This was, like, March 22, 2020. I looked back at him sort of incredulously. “No!” I said defensively. Then I said, “Yes!” Because I didn’t know which one sounded less like I was panicking. I considered making up a story about ransom but instead I just folded my hands, still slick with a slathering of the bank’s free knockoff Purell, and waited.
No one else was in the bank. I wondered where all the men in top hats from Mary Poppins were. I wondered what a run on the bank was, really, and how I’d know if I should lace up my trainers. I reminded myself that I did not have the kind of money you run on the bank about. If it came to it, I’d do a stroll on the bank, I guess. “Ahoy mates, society is crumbling; we’re going to saunter on the bank for our supermarket rewards points!”
I thought about how I’d heard that at the expensive grocery stores the shelves were bare, but at the Sav-a-Lot in a neighborhood that looked like the apocalypse hit years ago there was enough to go around. I thought about how the people who might most need to run on a bank, if such a thing needed to happen, wouldn’t be the ones jogging up to the door.
I walked out and got into my car, with a couple bags of groceries and a little bit of cash, and I went back to our apartment and I remained there for months because I was not Sanaa Lathan and I hadn’t received any news.
So, that’s the prologue.
I told myself that I didn’t want to write about the week that we all just lived through in the newsletter because, well, yikes. Yikes is my favorite expression for the hot mess of reality but I only use it when I’m talking about something that is beyond comprehension but also a little bit funny in a “can you believe this shit?” kind of way. This is not that. I wondered if you could say “Yikes” in a deep and serious tone. The most dour, solemn “Yikes”, like you’re pronouncing Rooibos or God’s name.
I thought, that’s not what these people read this email for. But then I started talking about Sanaa Lathan and, well, here we are.
I will say this, however: I cannot get over Trump’s insistence on making playlists for his rallies like he’s the drive-time DJ on a regional LITE station “spinning the best hits of the 80s, 90s, and yesteryear!” There’s a ghoulish video going around of one of the kids—I never learned which son was which and I’m certainly not going to start now—filming inside of a staging tent backstage before the fateful rally. All the usual gargoyles are there and, with the information we now have, it’s too horrific to think about what they were anticipating, what knowledge they shoved into their smooth brains, what bank they thought was about to be run upon. In the background, playing on the loudspeaker for the crowd, you can hear Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” which is an objectively great song with some of the shadiest lyrics put on paper. “If everybody wants you,” Laura tells Gloria, “why isn’t anybody CALLLLLLIN’?” Laura Branigan was the original Iyanla Vanzant. She was like, “I have a friend, Gloria—well, more of an acquaintance, but still—and she needs to fix her life. So, I thought the best way to help her was to write a hit song and sing it for decades.” Before the Red Table, celebrities had to have all of their friend-terventions on the Top 40 charts.
I love “Gloria”. Who doesn’t love “Gloria”? It’s just that, if you’re planning on storming the Capitol and doing all the horrendous things that they did and all of the horrendous things that they didn’t get a chance to do but clearly stated an intention to, why are you prepping by jamming out to an up-tempo platinum single from 1982 like it’s the third hour of a wedding reception? On top of all their felonies, these people have a musical dramaturgy problem.
Of course, the Branigan estate did not grant permission to use the music, as is the case with most musicians that Trump adds to his playlist titled “Sowing and Definitely Not Reaping We Hope!”
First of all, I would like a Legacy Manager. Like right now. I have no legacy to speak of but I’d still like someone who goes around reminding people that I exist and telling people I don’t like to keep my name out of their mouths. Second of all, I would like a Legacy Manager who is as badass as Kathy. Kathy Golik woke up in a cold sweat and said “ABSOLUTELY NOT.” Kathy marched into the DJ booth and turned the knob down so swiftly that it broke off. Then she handed the broken knob to Kayleigh and was like “Your machinery is cheap.”
I can’t wrap my mind around trying to overthrow the government with the soundtrack to a karaoke night at Chili’s. But what I can grasp is this: they think it belongs to them—not just the Capitol Building, and the government, and the country, but any part of culture they want as well. It’s not a novel thought, I guess—that’s kind of the whole supremacist thing.
But it’s still such a strange impulse—to say, “I enjoyed listening to this song at a 4th of July barbecue or blasting from a stereo on the way to the beach so it’s clearly mine to repurpose for a little light sedition.” I understand where the line of thinking comes from even though it’s not true. What about “Gloria” says “destroy America”? This is why we need arts education in schools. They’re pillaging a fantasy world, never stopping to ask, Why isn’t anybody Parrrrlerin’?
I think the reason I latch on to the petty grievances around song choice is that they’re a tether out of this atrocious space we find ourselves and into a world that makes a little more sense. My impulse is to say “Wait, no, ‘Gloria’ isn’t for you to take. Not because I own pop culture (though I do) but because you’re wrong. Both musicologically and morally.” And it’s a kind of a relief to get word back from the world that my impulse is true. Kathy the Legacy Manager is looking at me over the crowd going “WTF?”
It can be hard to be sure which reality is accurate without those kinds of tethers. Pop culture is one of the ways we locate ourselves, our stories, and take the temperature of reality. The weirdness of this song choice is a clue that I haven’t completely misunderstood what it is to be part of this culture, this time, but rather that these people are completely untethered. It’s a mighty cold comfort but the alternative—that I’m just someone who hasn’t gotten the word—is much worse. So, when I hear that song it pulls me slightly back from the brink; it reminds me of some small nugget of truth in the midst of utter confusion. Laura Branigan is like “Eric! I think I got your number!” and I’m like “Oh, thank Rooibos!”
The day before the 2020 election I took myself on another slow-motion supermarket sweep. Just in case. I bought a bunch of battery-operated lamps and made up some inane story about a tree falling on our wires for the cashier who did not care at all. I bought an axe (babe, I’ve lost it. What am I going to do with an axe? Chop down a cherry tree? And waste all those cherries I use for cheesecake? I think not!). Afterward, I went to the market to stock up on food. Because we didn’t know!
I was in a different supermarket this time, having moved to a purple district. I used the self checkout and across from my kiosk, in the magazine rack, right next to the People was a magazine called Prepper Survival Guide. IN PUBLIC. I looked around like, “Oh, sorry, I think I stepped into the wrong Caucasian room.” No one was paying me any attention. Caucasian negligence! On the cover, the magazine had a photo of scary-looking white guy with a beard and tactical gear. Survival always seems like a mixed bag, to be honest. On one hand, this magazine was terrifying, but on the other it sort of confirmed everything I thought, I’ve been thinking, and I continue to think about what people are up to. Before someone could catch me being Black in public, I snatched it off the shelf, scanned it quickly, and shoved it in the bottom of the bag, under the hummus. I paid and I walked out—receipt in hand as always—not knowing if I was Sanaa Lathan en route to Atlanta or if I was just an addled American with an axe in the trunk of his hybrid car, trying to stay tethered to reality while Laura Branigan plays on the store radio.
The first three episodes of season 2 of Dickinson are out now on AppleTV+; it’s so good! I can say that objectively because I’ve seen the whole thing and I didn’t write on this season (I did, however, write on season 3 ::eyes emoji on the future::). If you don’t believe me, read this great review by James Poniewozik in the New York Times.
“Apple TV+’s first great series, created by Alena Smith, has the challenge of many a high school English teacher: to try to convince a new generation that a name from staid American Lit syllabuses was a fleshly person, with passions as urgent as our own, living in an unruly time of cultural ferment and political upheaval.
This kind of effort inevitably risks making you sound like the instructor pulling up a chair backward and telling the kids, “Let’s rap.” But Smith and company produced a work that, like poetry itself, risks risibility to produce something dazzling — a literary superheroine’s origin story that’s heady, funny and full-feeling, dead serious about its subject yet unserious about itself.”
I took some pictures around Baltimore for a project I’m working on and found myself really looking forward to being able to be back in this weird, beautiful, hard city. Here’s one that didn’t make the cut but which I thought was pretty.
Random Thing on the Internet
Everybody now! (Well, almost everybody.)
Normal normal, just shopping,