Here for It w/ R. Eric Thomas #136

Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?

This week: Some oldies but goodies!

I am pleased to announce that my hypochondria has leveled up and now happily manifests itself in every thought I have about my car. This is not to say I am no longer a hypochondriac about my body. Heavens no! I am definitely pretty sure that every mosquito bite is Zika and every muscle ache is The Big One (the big what? That’s a case for the coroner, I’m afraid). But, because I don’t have enough to fret about, I’ve decided to be very weird about every bump, rattle, and oddity in my car as well. It’s nice to have hobbies!

My car is a 2014 Ford C-Max Energi, which is, by far, the worst name for a car. It’s not even a name; it’s a random assemblage of letters, abbreviations, and misspelled words. My car is not so much a car but a robot character on a bad sci-fi show. I don’t know cars, like what they look like, but I know car names. Why? Because commercials. I didn’t have a license until the age of 36 but I’ve been consuming pop culture like it was my job, my religion, and the thing that was keeping The Big One at bay for decades. So, back when I watched network television live when it aired, my brain filled up with car names. I’ve always felt the best car names are words that feel familiar but which you’re pretty sure you’ve never heard before. They should not sound like prescriptions. It’s best if they remind you a bit of the names of fancy  paint swatches for a color that you would probably just label “blue.” These are the rules of car-naming, abbreviated. Do I know what an Elantra looks like? No. But can I wax rhapsodic about the feeling that the word “Elantra” calls to mind? For hours, my love. Hours.

Anyway, I drive a bootleg C-3PO and I like it well enough. I wanted a hybrid (you’re welcome EARTH), and I wanted to pay like zero dollars and zero cents. And I wanted something that I’d feel comfortable driving a kid in at some point. And that’s literally all I knew going in. My brother, Stephen, is a pro at doing consumer research, DIY adulting projects, and finding impossible deals and I briefly thought about trying to be like him as I began the process of buying my first car two years ago but it turns out I don’t actually care that much about research and I get bored easily and I like spending money. So, I googled “hybrid car that’s good for going to Trader Joe’s and the beach and that’s pretty much it. OH, and it has a backup camera because I don’t parallel park well lol” and this car came up. Well, it was this car and one other hybrid, the name of which escapes me. (Maybe it was an Escape?) I texted Stephen to ask him which of the two options he thought was better. He told me to buy the other car. And I promptly did the opposite of what he said because he is my brother and that’s how these things work. “He thinks he’s such an expert,” I said to no one, “well, I’ll show him. I will ask him for his advice and then I will ignore that expert advice to the detriment of absolutely no one but myself!” Siblings! What a concept!

The car is pretty good although it has no turn radius whatsoever. I did not know this until David drove it maybe a month after we bought it and came back complaining about how hard it is to turn. I was so relieved! Because I was a new driver I just assumed the fault was my own (a great way to go through life in general, btw) and resigned myself to years of running into cement columns in parking garages at low speeds. Beyond the turn issue, there were no technical problems for a while. And I lived in blissful ignorance. I assumed my car would live forever and I’d never have to do any maintenance or fix anything. Which is why a minuscule cut in one of my tires nearly destroyed me.

The tire kept losing air! The low tire pressure warning would come on! I’d figure out where to fill the tire up! I sometimes had to get quarters for this task! I had to figure out where quarters could be procured! This went on for a couple of weeks and during that time I diagnosed my car with a very serious ailment like “flat tire disease” or “pressure-itis.” I found that if you google symptoms for your car, the wide world of bad news opens up for you just like when you search human symptoms on WebMD. I found a new home for my anxiety and boy howdy did it love it!

David told me to put soapy water on my tire to see if it bubbled, indicating a cut, but that sounded like something that would make my hands dirty and doing nothing while worrying is much cleaner. Later, I took my car to the dealership (the equivalent, for me, of sucking it up and going to Urgent Care after the combination of Mucinex, Emergen-C, raw honey, and reading GOOP doesn’t work). They changed my tire and the problem went away. But not my car hypochondria! (Hybrid-chondria? PERHAPS!) Every time I hit a bump on the street, I decided that the tire had blown or my car’s gasket had fallen out or something. The entertainment system is a little wonky and doesn’t always play nice with my phone so, of course, every time I can’t get a podcast to play on the speakers, it’s The Big One.

All of this is to say that, of course, this morning when I discovered that my car wouldn’t start due to what’s probably either a dead battery or an alternator issue or a massive catastrophic system failure, I felt that familiar mix of dread and the satisfied thrill of all your anxieties actually being real. David and I were at a gay campground in the Poconos for the weekend. Well, it’s more of a glampground. I definitely did not cook any of my own food and I spent most of the day in the pool so I’m not exactly going to get a merit badge. But whatevs, it’s beautiful and remote and lovely but, turns out, the middle of the woods is not the easiest place to get roadside assistance on a Sunday. “Turn left at the bear and then turn right at the other bear. I’m the guy in the floral Aussiebum swimsuit that fits very well, thanks, next to a hybrid that is used exclusively for going to brunch and holding an expensive yoga mat I use once a year.” So, I did what Stephen does when he needs to solve a problem: I taught myself how to do it myself by watching YouTube videos. Did I know how to open my own hood? Honey what? Is that a euphemism? No. Have I ever jumped a car before? Again, please don’t ask ridiculous questions. Was I certain I was going to blow myself up? Yup, but at least I’d go looking cute. But after five minutes on YouTube, I basically had an automotive maintenance degree from ITT Tech and was ready to go.

I tell you, fixing your own car problems feels even better than curing the tickle in your throat that will probably either turn into a cold or The Big One. My car sprang to life at my touch like it was a pumpkin becoming a carriage in Cinderella and I was Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother! It feels very on brand that I think of all car mechanics as Whitney. I learned this at ITT Tech. Obviously, I felt quite butch and adult even as the battery-related lyrics to the song “The Call” by the Backstreet Boys played on repeat in my head. (That’s the song that goes “Don't stay up and wait for me/ I said again, you’re dropping out/ My battery is low/ Just so you know/ We're going to a place nearby/ Gotta go.” Yes, it is about cell phone batteries but you take what you can get.)

I am still very certain that my car is not long for this world, because as I was in the middle of writing this, it died again, temporarily stranding us at a McDonald’s in York, Pennsylvania. Can you imagine?! My constant sense of dread was like “YES! This is what I LIVE FOR!” Also ,when I opened the hood (BUTCH!) I noticed that the coolant was very low and I don’t really know what to do about that because I can only watch one instructional YouTube video a day. So I am taking it to the dealership tomorrow so the Whitneys there can tell me if Houston, I have a problem. I would not call this successful adulting but it is very fun and full of adventure and isn’t that better?

This week I took off at ELLE so that I could go to Maine with InterAct Theatre Company to work on a new play called Nightbird about a black artist in Baltimore who decides to figure out what can go in place of a Confederate statue. I’m very excited about this play, particularly after a week of invigorating work and revision, and I’m hoping you’ll get to see it on stage soon!

However, this means, of course, that I did not write any columns this week (which is just as well because from the little checking in I did on Twitter it looks like this week was very Yikes.) So, here’s a couple of columns from earlier in the year that you might enjoy! See you next week in our very Yikes present!

An Ode to Jennifer Hudson Singing 'The Jeffersons' Theme Song

CAN YOU BELIEVE YOU ARE ALIVE TO SEE THIS?! There are so many perfect things about this one-minute video starting with the selection of Hudson. Jennifer Hudson is not the only person who could tear the roof off with this song; Cynthia Erivo, Heather Headley, Jazmine Sullivan, and Patti Labelle also come to mind, among many others. But JHud seems to have built a comfortable melismatic niche out of showing up just when you needed her most, singing her face off (and your face, everyone's face; no faces!), and then bopping on out of there.


Your Guide to the Dogs of the 2020 Presidential Race

We're over a year away from the election, but the 2020 campaign is already ruff. Fur is flying in the dog-eat-dog world of contemporary politics, as the barrage of candidates try to convince the American public to throw them a bone. It all seems a little much, which is why it's important to pause for a moment and recognize what's really important here. Yes, you should research the positions of the candidates and review their tax returns and read a thousand tepid hot takes about the way they move through the world, but the most important criteria for a potential future president is "Do you like their dog?"


Actually, Maxine Waters Will Tell You When You're Done Speaking

And now a reading from the Book of He Tried It.

Rep. Maxine Waters, chair of House Financial Services Committee and the person who travels the globe during Daylight Savings Time, reclaiming the lost hour like a temporal Santa Claus, had another run-in with Treasury Secretary and part-time robber baron, Steve Mnuchin. Much like their previous encounters, it went so poorly for the Secretary that sources say he is currently holed up in the basement of the Mint trying to erase his name from every dollar so he can start a new life free from shame.


Cardi B Looks So Good in Court It Makes Me Want to Do Crimes

What I love most about Cardi B is that she dresses exactly like the "Cardi B-esque character" on a Law & Order episode would dress. You know what I'm talking about. There's an altercation at the Barclays Center and Olivia Benson and Ice-T are called out to investigate. They're interviewing a security guard and Ice-T is looking at the concessions stand. He can't believe a hot dog costs $14. He is really flabbergasted by this. The security guard leads to a backup dancer who goes to Hudson University and that leads to a bodyguard who moonlights as an unlicensed horse carriage driver who leads to the "Cardi B-esque character" herself, who in this show is named Miz Vodka or something and is so busy and glamorous that she can only talk to the detectives from her bathtub.


LOL, I just remembered that after we published this article, I got like 5 angry tweets from people who were upset that I was encouraging the impressionable young ELLE readers to commit crimes and misdemeanors. The internet is wild.

Random Thing on the Internet

I’m about 20 years late on Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but I read it this week after hearing Laura Lippman talk about it on The Maris Review podcast and I fell head-over-heels in love with Kate and with the book. I also enjoyed this entry from The Guardian newspaper book club about it.



Pre-order Here for It, or How to Save Your Soul in America, my memoir-in-essays coming February 2020 from Ballantine Books!