Here for It w/ R. Eric Thomas, #172
Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
This week: we have to save the post office now, too! Plus haunting as quarantine in Beetlejuice and Heart and Souls.
Sometimes you need that extra little push to wear an outfit that you like but which might be a little bolder than your usual attire. I need those pushes quite frequently, actually. I get real brazen when I’m going buck-wild on ASOS at 2:30 am, imagining myself some kind of local Billy Porter who will definitely wear a velvet cape and a mesh shirt to quiz night at an Applebee’s in Lutherville. But when the clothes actually arrive and it’s time to put up or shut up, catch me over here in the same hoodie I always wear, pleading the fifth.
So, I suppose it was a good thing, after all, that a series of unrelated, independently escalating events led to me debuting a floral romper that I bought at least two years ago but never wore until this week. And what better place to show off a new look than in a street in the middle of quarquar while your apartment building is briefly catching fire.
Event #1: The Man in the Courtyard
You know that Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror”? “I’m starting with the man in the mirror,” he sings in this ode to self-help. “I’m asking him to change his ways.” Well, that’s me, except the man in my mirror politely declined so I moved on to my next target: the man in the courtyard. I’m starting with him. I’m asking to change his ways.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the combination of a month of isolation, my persistent nosiness, and the set up of our building has quickly turned me into Jimmy Stewart from Rear Window-meets-Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched. Our building is shaped like a C and in the center of the C is a large courtyard. It’s on the second floor so it’s only accessible to residents and to the staff of the medical practice on the second floor. But since social distancing measures went into place, the courtyard has been closed. Allegedly. But from my window I keep catching random residents just strolling through as if it’s the year 2019! This has become an obsession for me. Nashville Rep asked me to write a quarantine monologue for them and I wrote a lightly fictionalized rant about a woman who insists on bringing her dog into the courtyard to film it frolicking even though dogs were never allowed even before the courtyard got closed. This woman is breaking the rules in every time period!
I don’t snitch on these people because, well, we’re all just trying to live and I don’t actually think it’s unsafe to be in the courtyard. I mean, I’m no Dr. Fauci (I’m not even Dr. Fake-chi) but I do read a lot of Twitter and so I have opinions. Anyway, live and let live, I say (while also keeping constant tabs and writing about what you see in your newsletter). My no-snitching resolve really got tested this week, though, because this dude kept showing up in the courtyard multiple times a day and ducking into a little alcove just beyond my view. Like he knew I was watching. WELL. Honey, you can’t shake me that easily. I’m like the camera on your laptop: I see everything.
He would walk into the courtyard, often through the common room (which is also closed!) and step into the alcove, where he would stand for about five minutes, and then he’d leave. I could only presume he was smoking, but that’s outrageous. Like, you’re one floor up from the ground, why not smoke there? Not only is what you’re doing against the rules but it’s against the law! My snitching senses were going wild. It was only a matter of time.
Event #2: The Man in the Phone
Okay, we are experiencing a public crisis of people going Live on Instagram. I do not think this is a bad thing. (I have no opinions about what people do in their own homes unless their homes are in this apartment building.) But I do think it’s a lot. And it exposes how much work goes into creating engaging content. There’s very few people who can just turn on a camera and be interesting for long periods of time. I wrote about Leslie Jordan, who seems to be one of them (although there’s a big caveat in the fact that he’s a trained cabaret artist and I have no way of knowing whether he practices these stories before hand. If he did practice, it wouldn’t diminish his product. I’m just saying sometimes there’s more happening than we think and that’s okay!) Cardi B is another one. The other day I watched Cardi go live while she was eating a mango. She wasn’t talking, she wasn’t responding; she was wearing a blue wig and eating a mango, pausing occasionally to put Old Bay on it. Riveting, truly. Finally, she finished, wiped her hands off, struggled to get a mango thread out of her teeth, burped, and then gave away $7,000. It was the most compelling thing I’ve ever seen.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of people who are putting hours upon hours of prep work into live interviews, performances, and skits. I’m in the latter category for most things (although when I answer questions on my Instagram stories, I’m just shooting the shit and I love it). ELLE.com’s social media editor asked me to host a happy hour on our Instagram Live a few weeks ago, which we dubbed Chaos Happy Hour, and I worked for a whole week to figure out how to be an interesting non-celebrity in my own home with a dearth of wigs. The result was a sort of Muppet Show situation that ended with me covered in flour and confetti all over the floor. Success.
They wanted me to do another one this week, but to partner with Winc, a wine subscription service. I was to interview Bobby D, the company’s winemaker, about four bottles they sent me. I like to talk about wine, so this was fine, but it changed the whole setup. I couldn’t just run around my apartment, screaming and singing whatever song came into my head. And I’ve discovered that regular people don’t really know what to do when presented with a conversation with a Muppet. Like, if I was an actual Muppet, maybe it would have worked. But I am not. So, I toned it down and repeatedly told myself “Just do whatever Gayle King would do.” (This is good advice in all times.)
I did feel, however, that if I was going to ask sane questions and not dump food on my head, I needed to up the ante in another way. So I pulled out all my “he’s trying it” clothes and tested them on camera to determine what would a) look best, b) look best (I’m vain), and c) read as chaotic but attractive. After five outfits, I settled on the romper and started the Live.
Event #3: The Man in the House
So, the Live is going well, if not exactly embracing the chaos that the name suggests. I’m putting on my Gayle King reporter-y seriousness to ask questions like “So, I bought grapes before quarquar; can you tell me how to make wine in my bathtub?” We’re two wines in, and since I’m pouring the glasses myself, that means I’m two full glasses in. It’s 4 pm Eastern Time.
David sneaks into the house during all of this. To make a background for my video, I’ve deconstructed the altar that sits on our sideboard and replaced it with a bunch of wine, which feels like a parable of some sort. I notice David snap a photo of me and then I notice him slink out of the house again. A minute goes by. And then the fire alarm goes off. It is so loud. David pops back into the house; I’m still gabbing about wine. White lights start flashing. I’m momentarily disoriented because my brain is thinking “It’s fascinating that this is happening in reality, but lucky for me I only exist on camera.” I turn to David, still perplexed. It was a moment of cognitive disconnect sort of like when Karen on Smash told her boyfriend that she couldn’t get engaged because she was in tech. “I can’t be on fire; I’m on Live!” David says “Look to your right.” I look out the window and I see a towering pillar of smoke, already a couple stories high, pouring out of the courtyard, like the alcove has just chosen a new pope.
What I didn’t find out until later is that after David snapped my picture, he looked past me and saw the smoke start to rise. So, hero that he is, he tried to sneak down to the courtyard to try to put the fire out before the alarm went off so that it wouldn’t disrupt my Instagram video. I am still screaming about this. David’s like “We must protect the Live!” He was willing to battle an active blaze! Y’all, if I can give you one word of advice it’s to marry and Eagle Scout who does not mind that you are a megalomaniac and frequently covered in flour.
The alarm started before David got down to the courtyard, so he returned to our apartment. In the time between him telling me to look to my right and me looking, he’d rushed into our bedroom, grabbed our important papers box and our safe and came tearing out of the room. We were at full antics. Meanwhile, I am still Live on Instagram, listening to Bobby D talk about wine, while an alarm blares all around me. My first thought, honestly, was “What would Gayle King do?” I was like, well, it’s like the song says “I’m starting with the man in the video screen; I’m asking him to gracefully end the broadcast.”
I turn back from the still-climbing pillar of smoke and casually say “Hey, Bobby. I gotta go. My building is on fire.” There’s a tiny delay in the feed, so for a moment he’s not reacting and I’m like “should I wait?” Meanwhile, David is at the door; the keys are in his hands; he’s packed a lunch; he has even more boxes somehow. Finally, my message goes through; Bobby D looks a little stricken. This is the kind of chaos that you don’t want to spring on a normal during an interview. I was like “Uh, just hang out! I’ll call you right back!” What was my plan? To do an on-the-street wine-tasting from the top of a hook and ladder truck? (Actually, that’s a really good idea.)
Then, of course, I had to actually end the broadcast—that extraordinarily unglamorous way all Live ends with a person’s face going slack and veering too close to the camera as they search for the tiny x. Ah dystopia! Finally, I was out; I wrestled my phone from the tripod, jumped into some shoes, and started down the staircase with the rest of our building, some of whom were trying to social distance and some of whom were like “I can only do one life-saving action at a time.”
I was so distracted, it wasn’t until I was standing on the street outside my house, six feet from anyone else, whilst four fire trucks came charging from all directions, and thinking about how nice it was to hang out with other people, that I even remembered that I was still in costume from my Live. It was about 55 degrees outside and I’m dressed like I’m going to an ironic frat party in 2017. I kept wanting to explain to people but what is there to say? Or, more precisely, what is there to shout from a safe distance over sirens? That’s the name of my next book. And on the cover will be me definitely day drunk, toting a fireproof safe, and waving cheerfully to my neighbors like we’re at a Victory Over Covid Block Party.
I hadn’t intended it, but somehow I’d ended up in the perfect for situation my love of chaos, my unrepentant nosiness about my neighbors, and my hesitation about turning a lewk. Just goes to show you: sometimes the man in the mirror is doing just fine.
(BTW, the fire got put out quickly and there was no damage to my apartment or most of the building, thankfully!)
This week: revisiting movies with a skewed view of mortality like Death Becomes Her, Beetlejuice, and Heart and Souls. But first, mail time!
Apparently It's Up To Us To Save The Concept Of Mail
I know you're busy right now and there's a lot of news happening at once but unfortunately you, personally, are going to have to save the Post Office. You know the place where mail and packages come from? Letters from Grandma? Publisher's Clearing House checks? Yeah, apparently that is a thing that can go away. And it will unless you do something. It's like Andy Warhol said, "In the future every part of a functioning nation will get its own GoFundMe for 15 minutes."
'Now A Warning?!' The Joy Of Petty Grievances In Death Becomes Her
One of the joys of rewatching Death Becomes Her at a time when an answer—any answer—about the future would be a relief is how cavalier the film is about little matters like life, death, and the fragility of the human body. Yes, I am having my daily existential crisis, but Madeline Ashton's mannequin paint is peeling on her clavicle and Helen Sharp has a giant hole in her abdomen. We're all dealing with something right now, okay?
Heart And Souls Will Make You Feel Differently About Quarantine Productivity
In my 9,000th rewatch of Heart and Souls, I'm thinking about the terrifying dullness of ghost life. Sure, the four spirits travel with Thomas everywhere he goes and witness his life like they're binge-watching a show for eternity, but without the possibility of engaging (or even turning the show off), the meaning of existence starts to ebb away. Personally, this is my worst-case scenario. I do not want to be a ghost and I especially do not want to be a ghost that doesn't even have a job to do.
In Beetlejuice, A Haunting Is Another Kind Of Quarantine
“I’m just so glad we're spending our vacation at home," newlywed Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) declares at the beginning of Tim Burton’s 1988 horror-comedy Beetlejuice. She means it, too. This isn't someone who's making the best of a bad situation: She likes the house she shares with Adam (Alec Baldwin); she's happy with the way they've decorated it; she seems to be really into cleaning; and there's a model of the town they live in sitting in the attic waiting to be tinkered with. The Maitlands have what so many of us wish for: the time and space to sit around the house, pursuing little side projects and hanging out with a significant other. Or, I should say, they have what so many of us wished for. But things look different on the other side.
Let’s Hang Out
Just a reminder: if you’d like me to join your book club discussion of Here for It, let us know at this link.
Thanks to everyone who is still buying the book! And posting about it on social media! And writing me about it! I really appreciate it, all of it.
Random Thing on the Internet
I am so impressed by Mary Neely, who is performing lip-syncs to all the parts in classic musical theater duets and love songs while in isolation. Just one woman, a lot of time on her hands, and an abundance of wigs. It’s astounding, especially her latest: “Helpless” from Hamilton. Trust me, you want to fall down this rabbit hole.
What is there to shout from a safe distance over sirens?