Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
A few weeks ago I went to Charleston to visit one of my brothers, my sister-in-law, and their two kids. It had been years since I saw the kids in person, before the pandemic began, and I felt very bad about that but also it's not like I started the pandemic. Still, I missed them and Zoom holidays and exchanging gifts for thank you cards only gets you so far.
(By the by, I love sending gifts to assorted kids in my life but every time I do I remember how much I hated sending thank you cards as a child and I feel very conflicted. It's not that I wasn't grateful--my Uncle Mike gave me a telescope once and I think about it every day to this day. Every single time I look up at the stars, I think about how my father's best friend gifted me the majesty of the universe from my row home in downtown Baltimore. I didn't mind the sentiment of thank you cards, but for some reason as a child I found the process arduous because I'd always do to much. All you have to do is say "Thanks! This is great! I'm nine!" but instead I'd be plumbing the depths of my emotions. I'd sit hunched over my little desk for hours working on these masterpieces. Legit, I looked like this:
Every time I send a gift I think back on that completely self-created trauma and I get stressed. Maybe I should put little notes on the presents that say "No reply required!")
(I have done long parentheticals before but never have I put a picture inside of the parenthetical. My chaotic writing style is mutating. This is a cry for help. This is me writing this newsletter right now:
I was very excited for my trip to Charleston and to prepare I went to a truly wonderful toy store here in Philly called Tildie's Toy Box and said "Help! I need to bribe a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old into finding me charming." My brother and sister-in-law said there was no need to bring them anything, which I knew they would, but let's be serious here. How else are the kids going to know I'm cool? It's not like they read my tweets!
I was using airline miles and I wanted to fly direct so the best way to do that was to take the train to Baltimore and then fly from BWI to Charleston. And I realize, as I write it, that that's not flying direct so much as Carmen Sandiego-ing. But it made sense at the time!
From the train station at BWI you have to take a shuttle to the terminal. It was bitterly cold that night, in the low teens, and I hustled from the platform--gifts bobbing in the tote bag over my shoulder--over to the bus stop. I stepped inside a tiny square lobby, about 15 feet by 15 feet, with four automatic sliding doors, two across from the other two. I kind of spun around like I'd been locked in one of Joe's prisons from You once I got in because there was nowhere to sit and I realized that every time I moved, it activated one or more of the sliding doors and the awful cold would come rushing in.
This was me, texting the group chat about my weird frozen waiting room:
Eventually, I just stood in the center of the room, completely still.
People kept walking by and every time they did, the door would whoosh open and I'd get annoyed that other people exist on the Earth at the same time as I do. One guy, with a backpack, seemed to be confused about where the bus stop was and he kept walking back and forth. Whoosh-brrr-whoosh-brrr. I called the FBI.
Soon enough, he figured it out and stepped inside. He nodded at me and then immediately moved to a respectable distance away, like we were at the urinals. Men are ridiculous. We exchanged a commiserating nod every time someone passed the doors and whooshed them open.
Another guy, a Black man holding a Lego bag, showed up at the doors behind us and kept moving around, whooshing in the misery. I was sympathetic but unfortunately I have resting furious face and I think he caught it because he looked apologetic and stepped inside. He figured out the game of the doors and stood still between me and Backpack. So now we were three, all in a line in the center of the room.
After a moment, an older white man--trench coat, untucked dress shirt, and tennis--came in. He had that one overstuffed leather carryon bag that all business men have sitting top of a rolling suitcase. He situated himself near me in the line, at the center point between the two doors. We stood there, still, in silence.
A final guy--Black, in sweatpants and a hoodie under a black coat--entered. He stood between Backpack and Lego. Now we were all in a line and none of could move or risk mutually assured destruction. I started to imagine this as weird little play but I got stuck trying to figure out how we could reliably and affordably do automatic doors on stage, which is really none of my concern and I really need to stay on my side of the street. Set designers, do your thing!
Here's the set designers reading my stage directions for my play, COLD MEN WAIT FOR BUS:
The doors hadn't opened in minutes and for that we were eternally grateful. Occasionally, we'd meet each other’s gaze and dare to nod almost imperceptibly. Decorum even at the risk of cold.
Suddenly, Businessman says to Lego, "Are those for you?" A friendly joke, about the toys in the bag.
Lego says they’re for his niece and nephew. He’s going to visit. "They forget you," he says by way of explanation.
Businessman laughs. Backpack nods. It’s true they do.
I pipe up and risk moving enough to show the inside of my tote bag, which has six wrapped presents. "I’m doing the same thing!" I say, because my face may be a jerk but I am always desperate to make friends with strangers. "I'm trying to make them think I'm cool! Drosselmeyer!"
"They forget you," Lego says again.
"You have to do it," Businessman says, smiling.
"I have seen them in four years," I say. And then I get a little sad.
Hoodie pipes up, he’s going to a 1-year-old’s birthday party. He just brought a card.
"A what?" Backpack says.
"A card." Now Hoodie is unsure. "Is that okay? It’s for the mom."
We all nod. That’s fine.
"The baby won’t remember." I say.
"They forget you," Lego says. I think he's going through something.
"Give the mom a spa day," Businessman says. "She deserves it."
We all nod enthusiastically, truly having no idea what we're talking about but meaning well. We're thinking of matching the gift to the feeling, the feeling to the need, the need to the memory.
Lego gets agitated. He can't wait for the bus any longer. He tells us he's going to call an Uber, but he says it like a question. We all nod our assent. He whips out his phone and the motion triggers the doors and the cold rushes in and then he rushes out.
When I saw his bag for the first time, I felt a pang of regret that I hadn't gone to the Lego store, because I know my nephew loves Legos. Had I messed it up already, with the little kit that created a car and a rocket and a boat and a water gun out of a simple bottle and a Shel Silverstein book? Had I risked the memory?
We were quiet and still again after Lego left. I was nearest to Businessman and I noticed he had a small smile on his lips. And I didn't know if it was just the permanent expression of a man who travels for a living and has to show up pleasant and genial and full of the endless gift of small talk or whether he was in a memory somewhere. I was in the future, reminding myself to remind the kids that if they didn't like the presents, it was really okay. We could send the toys to space, for all I care. I'm just here to see you, I'll say. Maybe we'll all remember a piece of this.
Let's hang out!
NIGHTBIRD opens this week! This play is a club banger! Check it out at Austin Playhouse til March 26!
And check me out on Wake Up Austin last week, talking about the play and wearing a patterned shirt!
Also coming up:
The Moth at World Cafe Live (I'm hosting!) - March 7
Mrs. Harrison, my play, produced in Lansing, Michigan - March 23-April 23
"Thanks! This is great! I'm nine!",