Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
Okay, so I walk into this crowded Szechuan restaurant the other night and I see one of those little restaurant robots coming toward me. Do you know the kind I mean? They look like an air purifier with a face? So the air purifier is smiling at me--it has a screen on the front of it and the screen has a cartoon-y kind of grin. And I immediately start having social anxiety. Like, now I have to engage with this robot? I've just gotten out of the subway; I'm not really on yet. I'm still disentangling myself from my headphones and the audiobook is still playing. And yes, YES, Robot, I still use headphones and not earbuds and I will not switch to earbuds because I get nervous that they're just going to leap out of my ears and fall down the heat vent at my old house that I sold last year like they did that one time. This could happen at any moment and I cannot risk it. And yes, ROBOT, I know what I look like. Walking around looking like Rip Van Winkle, looking like Father Time, with these ancient cords coming out of my head. Call me an artifact! Study me in a museum! I refuse to be peer-pressured!
Anyway, this robot at the restaurant is judging me and it's approaching me and I'm trying to decide if the robot is the host of the restaurant or one of those waiter robots that brings you your food or maybe just some kind of spy. Frankly, I think all of these robots are spies. There's one at the Giant that looks like an untalented child's drawing of a guitar and that one is definitely a spy.
It's always just creeping! Looking around with those sightless eyes! The atrocity. I hate this guy, I'm sorry. The first time I saw one of these, I thought it was there to help me. So I walked up and said "Where is the asparagus?" (I wasn't even sure I wanted asparagus but do I ever really want asparagus? In any case, it was in a spot I couldn't locate.) This robot jerk looked me dead in the face, did not answer, and then kept moving. Almost ran over my toes! I had to jump back! I knocked over a whole thing of clementines! Tiny orange fruit skittering hither and yon!
I asked the cashier (a human, thank GOD!) what these deal with these robots was. She shrugged. "They're just there to tell us if something needs to be cleaned up." I did not accept that explanation. That is not a good cover story. This robot is a narc.
At the Szechuan restaurant, I didn't think the robot was a narc, per se. But I didn't know what its function was. I had actually just written a scene in my new book where two characters go to a restaurant with robot waiters (gave me hives to even conceive of it!) and one characters is like "why am I paying to open a refrigerator and take out food? I already have a refrigerator with food. In my kitchen." And the other character is like "But your refrigerator doesn't roll around." Anyway, I cut the whole scene because who cares, but standing at the Szechuan restaurant, I considered that maybe I'd been hasty. Maybe I was prescient! Maybe that scene would play through my wired earbuds on an audiobook some day in the future!
The robot, still smiling placidly like a sinister Tilda Swinton character, stopped directly in front of me, blocking my path.
This--I'm sorry--felt aggressive.
It was very loud in the restaurant and if it said anything to me, I didn't hear it. I leaned forward and shouted at the air purifier "I am here for my friend Aman's birthday party! He is my Activity Friend, as I've written about previously. When I later write about this exchange I will try to link to the post about him before realizing it was part of my Meta newsletter and that doesn't exist anymore because Meta decided to pivot all their resources into advertising Fair Isle sweaters to me on Instagram. Anyway, Aman is one of the best people in the world and he's brought a big group to this restaurant every year for the last 10 years and I've never been able to make it because I was always out of town. But anyway, I'm here now and I'm so glad but he didn't mention that there was going to be a robot bouncer and now I'm wondering if I'm going to need to pay you or fight you or something so please advise."
The robot kept smiling at me.
And, frankly? Absolutely not. Horror movie vibes. I'm not for it. I don't do spooky season! I don't do it! I do soupy season! That's as far as I good. Less boo; more broth!
The robot and I stared at each other for a while. It didn't move; I didn't move. Colson Whitehead's Crook Manifesto kept playing from my dangling headphones. And then I just... stepped around it. These robots may take over eventually, but not today! Now, if you'll excuse me, my fridge just sprouted googly eyes and asking me for my ATM pin.
See my plays this year!
Mrs. Harrison - Montgomery Theater in Souderton, PA - February 1-25 - More info
The Folks at Home - Alleyway Theater in Buffalo, NY - February 9-March 2 - More info
The Folks at Home - Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis, IN - February 20 - March 16 - More info
An Army of Lovers - Azuka Theater in Philadelphia - May 2-19 - More info
Random thing on the internet
Hadley Vlahos is a hospice nurse and the author of the phenomenal book The In-Between: Unforgettable Encounters During Life's Final Moments. (We share the same incredible editor!) I loved the book and I love her Instagram presence and this great New York Times interview, as well.
Tiny orange fruit skittering hither and yon!,