Industry: Eric Reads the Week, #19
Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
My first paying job was a voiceover for an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. I was 10 and my favorite book was a paperback tome I'd purchased from a Scholastic book fair titled "How to Be A Child Star!" The book had Neil Patrick Harris and Paula Abdul on the cover. This always confused me because Paula Abdul, objectively, was not a child. I don't want to be ageist but she was literally an adult human person in 1987. I read that book from cover to cover searching for two things: 1) the key to becoming a child star even though I knew, deep down, that I was a terrible actor and kind of shy and 2) what arithmetic they were using that put Paula Adbul and Doogie Howser, actual child doctor, in the same demographic. Hollywood is perplexing to me. I guess that's why I retired from child acting soon after my first voiceover gig. And by "retired" I mean, "insisted on giving strange auditions using monologues from The Piano Lesson and songs from Side Show until midway through college."
Since I was in Baltimore doing The Moth Mainstage, I thought it might be fun to swing by the Museum to give David a quick showing of The Early Works of R. Eric Thomas, 1981-1990. We paid for admission because I don't like to throw my celebrity around. The museum is dedicated to Baltimore's industrial history and the role of innovation in driving commerce and urban development. It's housed in a former oyster cannery and has exhibits detailing life in a cannery (objectively horrifying), old-timey drugstores (quaint but difficult) and early auto shops (exciting and underpaying). David quipped that learning about the ways that people made money in the past and the conditions under which people had to work was a great way to feel better about the grueling task of checking e-mail all day.
We wandered through the exhibits, listening to the audio tour, but it seemed in the 25 years since I first lent them my Paula Abdul-like vocals, they'd gotten rid of my part of the exhibit. I was fascinated by the tour but found it hard to mask my disappointment.
My spirits were lifted, however, by a visit to their print shop. The BMI houses an original Mergenthaler Linotype Machine, an extraordinary, rattling behemoth that replaced the Gutenberg press as the standard for printing for 80 years.
I will, obviously, not be able to explain how it works because my brain operates exclusively in metaphors, GIFs and song lyrics, but I can tell you that when composing a line of text one uses a typerwriter-esque keyboard to release molds for the desired letters, then when you're finished a line, the machine creates a mold for your entire line out of molten metal heated to 500 degrees. The metal sits in a vat inside of the machine and looks just like the T2, so I thought that was very cool. The whole machine runs sort of like a Rube Goldberg, with various pieces falling into place or being ferried about by cranks, pulleys and chains. Anyway, once the metal is cooled, you have a mold with your line printed backwards. You run ink over your mold, place paper on top and bingo-bango, you've got a well-informed public. It was magic.
When you're done with the mold, you drop it back into the vat of melted metal like the Arnold at the end of Terminator 2. More magic!
David and I were enchanted for so many reasons. We love complicated processes. We love the printed word. We love the effort that has gone into producing newspapers, Bibles, books and brunch menus for centuries. David told me about a plaque at Princeton Theological Seminary dedicated to a Elijah Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister who was killed by a pro-slavery mob while defending his printing press. The mob sought to destroy the press because they didn't like what he'd written. I'm humbled by how much work those that came before me put in to create the world in which I write for a living now.
Anyway, the museum offered so much more than I thought it would. Making money is never easy, even if you're just a 10-year-old talking into a microphone about shucking oysters. On my way out, I casually mentioned my glamorous work history to the ticket agent as we returned our audio tours. She looked at me and gasped, "You're Albert?!" I was shocked she remembered. I lamented the fact that the exhibit was gone. "It's not gone," she said. "We show it to every school group that comes in. It's in our education studio!" A special exhibit! Of course! The great works of R. Eric Thomas live on under exclusive curatorial watch and keep. The ticket agent smiled at us. "I'll take you back there after the museum closes," she said. "I can't believe it's you. Say something from the video!" The fans always demand the greatest hits.
Like the museum, this week's columns detailed all manner of industrious enterprises from the successful (the building of Obama's Presidential Library) to the disastrous (LOL Healthcare). But first, Elizabeth Spier is hard at work on a "Breitbart for the left..."
What Would a Left-Leaning Breitbart Look Like?
If you don't know what Breitbart is, just imagine all the problematic things that one gross uncle mutters at Thanksgiving dinner put into all caps on a website that seems to be designed to assault every sense including umami. Breitbart, the product of America's Sweetheart Steve Bannon, is the country's thought leader, if those thoughts are a mix of overt conspiracies, random lies, dog whistle xenophobia, and general misogyny. So, you have to wonder what a Breitbart of the left would look like. What kind of content serves as wild-eyed clickbait for your Reiki instructor or Representative Maxine Waters? Here's a couple of guesses. [READ THE FULL COLUMN]
I've Moved Into the Obama Presidential Library and It's Fabulous
Hello, I'm writing to you from my new home at the Obama Presidential Library. Please update my contact information in all your devices. If you want to reach me, please send correspondence to: 1 Barack Block, Chi-town, You Know It. [READ THE FULL COLUMN]
Exclusive: An Interview with the Only American Eligible for Trumpcare
On Thursday, the House narrowly passed a measure intended to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In an unusual move, it was rushed through without a score from the Congressional Budget Office and locked in a vault that could only be opened by a virgin's kiss. Nevertheless, lawmakers gathered in the Rose Garden of the White House to celebrate in a grouping that can best be described as "A casting call for the bad guy in a workplace harassment video." [READ THE FULL COLUMN]
Ahoy! Trump Calls Andrew Jackson a Swashbuckler!
Avast ye, mateys! Gather round and attend the tale of our 7th president, the swashbuckling plains pirate, Andrew Jackson. Do not be hornswaggled by the fake news history books who may tell of the man's legal career, his war service, or his genocidal mania but leave out the most glimmering of details: the fact that he was also a pirate who could have prevented the Civil War. [READ THE FULL COLUMN]
ERIC READS THE NEWS: Now in video form
Check out video versions of my columns on the ELLE Facebook page and on YouTube. Click below for a video on Emmanuel Macron's soap opera-ready life. Sacre bleu!
Random thing from the internet
Lemonade is being released a collector's edition boxset that includes a 600+ page hardcover book, featuring writing by Michael Eric Dixon and poet Warsan Shire. Honestly, I'm a little confused about why they didn't ask me to contribute. I literally write 600 pages on Beyonce every week. Like, did I miss a text? Did Beyonce leave a voicemail? Is she aware that I do not check my voicemails because they give me anxiety? Can someone please ask Beyonce if she's going to call me, to ring once, hang up, ring twice, hang up, ring the alarm, and then leave the voicemail? It's a pretty simple process. Thanks. Anyway, here's the link to the boxset. It's $300. Girl, you crazy.
To an industrious week!