Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
I’ve never been to an inauguration mostly because I don’t like to stand around in the cold. This is the same reason that I went to one (1) Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting when I was a freshman in college and didn’t know any better and afterward vowed to never, ever spend another evening shivering as I watched Al Roker talk on a large screen. We weren’t even in view of the tree! We were around the corner! We might as well have watched the tree lighting from the Times Square Olive Garden! I immediately demanded a refund of my first semester’s tuition from Columbia on the grounds of “vibes fraud”. I am still waiting to hear back. I’ll let you know!
I haven’t been invited to any inaugurations specifically, of course, but for much of my life I’ve lived close enough to DC that it hasn’t been out of the question to mosey down to see what all is going on down there with the peaceful transfer of power and whatnot. But I never go. Mostly because it always happens at that point in the season when I can’t find my gloves. How am I supposed to vote in a midterm election if I have frostbite? Riddle me that, Ben Franklin.
I think I would go to the inauguration if it was held in June. But they’d have to make sure it didn’t conflict with Pride activities or Juneteenth. Very busy month for being in public and drinking colorful beverages. But a Wednesday in June? I could swing that. Run that up the flagpole both figuratively and literally.
Obviously, I am not going to be anywhere near DC during this Wednesday’s inauguration, but I am very glad that it is going to happen. Like The Masked Dancer, the inauguration will be broadcast around the world as normal but without an audience. I go back and forth about whether the inauguration, in the current climate, is a meeting that should have been an email. Like, can’t Biden and Harris get sworn in in the White House bowling alley by Justice Sotomayor and then immediately pull the lever that rains mRNA vaccine across the land? I like pomp and circumstance but you know what I like more? A $15 minimum wage at the least and being able to leave the house. That said, even though the streets won’t be filled with people. I suppose it is important that in this moment when violent factions within and outside of the government are trying to destroy the nation, we not appear to be shrinking. What we don’t want, then, is an inauguration that looks like a shotgun wedding. We’re holding the inauguration as a vibe check.
During the last inauguration, I was as far from DC as I could get, by which I mean I was in New York, which is not actually very far from DC at all. It was a disgusting day and the weather matched it—gloomy, grey, rainy. As Donald Trump took the oath of office and gave a speech so dark and deranged that even Sauron was like “baby, let’s edit,” I was sitting in the lobby of a SoHo office building between two 12-foot posters, one of the cast of Workaholics and one of Rupaul. The unrelenting ceremony played on TVs all around the lobby in stark contrast to the jarring decorations which all spoke to light and vividness and humor and success. I was there to take a meeting at Comedy Central, which is in a huge brown building with art deco flourishes, that is also home to VH1 and other Viacom offices. I had no idea what was happening nationally or in my personal space.
The day before I’d gotten an email out of the blue from a VP at Comedy Central who’d read this piece on The Young Pope. He’d asked if I’d be interested in swinging by to talk. I really loved that Young Pope piece but I knew it was a little weird so I was particularly thrilled that someone else liked it, too. I’ve since learned, years later, that meetings like this are common industry practice—a general, a meet-and-greet. The objective is to get to know a person, to put a face to a name, to add to one’s Rolodex of future collaborators. The free water bottle as vibe check. I know that now; I cannot impress upon you how much I did not know that then. I got the email which just said “we liked your article, next time you’re in NY swing by” and I thought, what does he want from me?
As luck would have it, I was already due to come to NYC for a meeting at work so I figured at lunch, I’d go down to Comedy Central. Like one does. I was wearing my dress coat, a long taupe wool coat that extends below the knee and looks much more expensive than what I paid for it at Macy’s years earlier ($50, can you believe it?) I rarely have opportunity to wear my dress coat because it’s kind of impractical for doing anything except going to a meeting or being sworn in as president. But I bought it because it reminded me of the camel-colored coat Noah Wylie’s character wore on ER once that ended up getting splattered with blood, I suppose as an object lesson on the folly of looking nice at work.
I carried with me my old laptop, which weighed roughly 77 pounds, in my old laptop bag that I’d thrifted and which had bright coloring and sporty insulation that made it look more like a rock climbing accessory. Instead of being full of climbing chalk and carabiners, the bag was stuffed to the gills with the laptop, the cords, my phone charger, deodorant, and a book because the train from Philly (where I was living at the time) to New York is long and I needed to work while I travelled.
I always feel like I am carrying my entire life on my back when I visit New York and I get quite self-conscious about it, as I huff and puff through the streets, sweating through my impractical coat and switching my bag to the other arm because it’s starting to ache. The thing that I never connect, however, is that everyone in New York is carrying their lives on their backs. Everyone has giant backpacks or Mary Poppins purses overflowing with stuff because for a lot of New Yorkers their commute is as long as my trip from Philly to Manhattan was. I always feel like I stick out like a sore thumb in my overcoat and with my “I am fleeing a disaster up a mountain” bag, but it’s probably the things that make me seem most at home.
(One time, literally decades ago, in New York I went on a date with someone who was late meeting me because he was sneakily stuffing a couple of reams of computer paper from his internship at a broadcast network into his backpack. We walked around New York arguing about various things—it was not a successful date, per se—while he shifted his hulking backpack containing his whole life including hundreds of blank pages that he was going to print a manuscript on. I used to tell people about this all the time, scandalized about the gaucheness of the paper theft. But people would always be like “who cares? The network can afford to lose a couple of reams of paper to an unpaid intern.” I’d be like “but on a date?” and they’d be like “Well, were you wearing your fancy coat?” and I’d say “No, this is before I had it.” And they’d say, “well there you go.” Anyway, the guy I went on one date with has since gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize, so what do I know?)
At Comedy Central, I was led into a smallish conference room with an enormous round table and a cloud chandelier made out of tiny lights and huge tufts of cotton. I was surprised to look outside and see that the weather in New York was clearing up a bit. On the TVs in the lobby, DC still looked dire. Everyone in the conference room—maybe 6 people—was impossibly young but extremely nice. I didn’t take off my coat because I felt like there’d been an opportunity but I missed it and now I was trapped. I sat there, with a rock climbing bag weighing more than a Buick on my lap and a Noah Wylie coat on my shoulders, talking to a bunch of young execs and interns about The Young Pope and jokes and politics as Trump finished up his speech and George W. Bush reportedly commented “That was some weird shit.” Which is his way of accusing the administration of “vibes fraud.”
I spent a long time frustrated with myself about that meeting even though it went pretty well. I was like “Is Trevor Noah behind the two-way mirror?” I didn’t really understand the purpose or what I was supposed to do or, more broadly, what I wanted. I did not go on to work at Comedy Central but I didn’t know that that wasn’t the point of the meeting. The meeting is the beginning. It’s potential. And potential can be frustrating for me because sometimes it turns into something and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a stack of paper in a backpack that will get printed with the first draft of a Pulitzer Prize-winning work and sometimes it’s just some weird shit. But more often it’s the wide gulf in between. I’m looking forward to the potential in front of us. I hope we don’t squander it. I’m looking forward to what happens after this Wednesday’s inauguration. I am looking forward to new vibes. I’m looking forward to rushing through the streets of New York again, sweating through my coat, having no idea what I’m doing.
Today is Michelle Obama’s birthday 🎉 and I once again pledge allegiance to her iridescent gold Balenciaga boots and to the ELLE.com article I wrote for which I had to learn how to spell iridescent, Balenciaga, and allegiance correctly.
Random Thing on the Internet
I’ve been listening to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God on audiobook on Libro.fm and it’s just phenomenal. It’s one of my favorite books, but I’d never heard the audiobook performance, which is by actor and activist Ruby Dee. I love Ruby Dee; I think of her all the time screaming “burn it down!” at the end of Do the Right Thing. She is extraordinary on this recording. I cannot overstate how great she is.
Is Trevor Noah behind the two-way mirror?