Eric From The Internet

How a Park School alum turned the gift of observation into a brand.

Janelle Erlichman Diamond - February 2020

Eric From The Internet

How a Park School alum turned the gift of observation into a brand.

Janelle Erlichman Diamond - February 2020

Writer R. Eric Thomas at home in Remington. -Sean Scheidt

As R. Eric Thomas, a senior staff writer at Elle.com and author of the daily humor column, “Eric Reads the News,” breezes into the To Bean or Not to Bean coffee bar at Baltimore Center Stage, it feels like all pop culture and political gossip should grind to a halt, at least for the two hours he sits here. After all, if something schadenfreude-worthy happens and Thomas isn’t there to report it, did it really even occur? It’s safe to say that Thomas’ reputation—hilarious, quick-witted, dialed in—precedes him. In person, however, he’s chill, polite, and so unindulgent he takes his coffee black.

He apologizes for being a few minutes late, he was on deadline. But then again, he’s always on deadline. One day he’s waxing poetic about the hotness of Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, and another day it’s “George Kent’s Gigantic Impeachment Nalgene Has Me Quid Pro Quenched.” He’s weighed in on The Crown, White House holiday décor, and whether or not Maxine Waters is reclaiming her time. The universe seems to be handing him lots of material these days—and opportunities. His play for Single Carrot Theatre—Safe Space—is being staged at Clifton Mansion, and his book of essays, Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America, just hit bookstores.

Not bad for a kid from Baltimore who, after dropping out of college, bemoaned he’d never make it as a writer and thought opportunity existed only beyond Charm City.

Thomas grew up in Upton, in the western part of the city. If you’ve seen The Wire, you’ll recognize that they filmed Omar’s grandmother’s house right across the street from his childhood home. (That meant extras sitting on his stoop killing time and free bagels from craft services.) But that was just another part of his complicated identity: black, gay, and Christian. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” says Thomas, and it’s something he delves into in his book. Despite communal pressure, he’s always seen his identity more as an intersection than a collision. “People would say, ‘You have to choose,’” he says. But he never saw it that way: “I don’t feel internal conflicts between identities because I’ve never known what it was like not to be all these things.”

That included his school life. Every morning, Thomas would wake up in his blighted neighborhood but spend his days at Park School—a nine-mile jaunt, and a world away. The progressive day school sits on a 100-acre campus, and, as Eric and his mother made that drive from fourth grade until he graduated high school, the landscape would transform from abandoned houses and trash to fields, horses, streams, and woods. The backdrop wasn’t the only thing changing. With so many of his fellow students being Jewish, Thomas started spending weekends attending religious coming-of-age celebrations.

He told his parents, “I would like a Bar Mitzvah, please.” He had his party theme picked out (films) and even knew what the favors would say. (“I Had a Reel Good Time at Eric’s Bar Mitzvah.”) “That’s not a possibility for you,” his parents patiently told him. But all these experiences were shaping him. Thomas was always observing, storing, and note taking. “I don’t think I have the most advanced level of thinking about different societal issues,” he says modestly. “But I have read a lot of people who are very, very smart about those things. I have always believed through storytelling and through the way my parents raised me, you’re allowed to have a perspective, and you are allowed to have an opinion.”

And while that might seem like a direct path to exactly what he is now doing, it wasn’t. During one of Thomas’ darkest times he had dropped out of college, moved back home, and was waiting tables at The Hard Rock Café. He felt despondent.

“I absolutely thought nothing in my life was ever going to go well,” he admits. But even in that dark period, Thomas still noticed points of light: interactions with customers, the flair on his uniform, the walk to and from work. The Hippodrome Theatre had just been built, and there were high hopes of a bustling theater district that would follow. Thomas still views the city as one of unfulfilled promise. “This is a city full of bubbles. I don’t think the bubbles are necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “There is so much magic and activity right at the skin of the bubble where it meets another bubble.” The problem is that the friction between the tension and the magic never seems to create anything, he says. “There are huge separations.” He escaped to Philadelphia, promising himself he would never come back to Baltimore. “Not even to be buried,” he jokes.

“You’re allowed to have a perspective, and you’re allowed to have an opinion.”

It was there that he met his husband, David Johnston Norse, who had received a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and was working as a pastor at Broad Street Ministry through AmeriCorps. They met when Thomas was hosting The Moth, a live storytelling event. Norse thought Thomas was “too famous” for him, and what’s more, he was pretty sure that Thomas didn’t know “how to hit on a pastor,” he cracks. Finally, months later, they went on their first date—closing down a restaurant and then walking around Rittenhouse Square, where Norse mentioned several times what a great time he had and that they should “definitely do it again” just to get the point across that he wanted to see Thomas again.

The two married in October of 2016, and Norse began job hunting using what Thomas describes as a Tinder-esque website where pastors and churches are matched. “He was coming up with matches from Ohio and a Dakota,” says Thomas. “I’m all about an adventure but had never thought about what I looked like in another space. I didn’t want to be a unicorn. I didn’t want to be the only gay people on our block. I didn’t want to be the only interracial couple we knew.”

Then Norse matched with the Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson. And Thomas was going home. He was skeptical, but he also knew they had to do it. Even he had to admit the timing was uncanny. His part-time writing gig for Elle.com—born out of a Facebook post during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that went viral—was becoming more frequent. They wanted him on staff full-time—so he wouldn’t have to look for a new job. He could write from anywhere, and New York was still a quick train ride away.

Thomas and Norse moved back to Baltimore in September of 2018. By November, Thomas had landed his book deal. He still can’t believe where life has taken him. “The column was this beautiful, happy surprise for me—because, all of a sudden, people were not only saying, ‘I can see you and I can hear you,’” says Thomas. “But they were saying, ‘The things that you think, I also think.’” It was a level of acceptance that had been missing from his existence.

And even though he sees the voice of his writing as a heightened version of himself (he compares it to a late-night television monologue), “I see the column as a step toward authentic relationships with strangers who don’t want to feel alone.”

And while self-worth certainly shouldn’t be weighed in “likes” and shares, his words and style caught on. Strangers would approach him on the Amtrak train as he made his way to New York to check in with his editor. “We have a group chat where we talk about your columns,” someone gushed once, pulling out his phone to show him (and, of course, ask for a selfie). At opening night of Center Stage’s Miss You Like Hell, a fellow theatergoer approached him, “You’re Eric from the internet, right?” It’s remarkable to Thomas. “I sit in our house”—they now live in Remington—“alone most of the time, so my lived experience is sort of isolated.”

To go places and have people know you is a “strange experience,” he admits. It’s one he loves but has grappled with. “Particularly after the election, I had a dim view of people who tried to capitalize on ‘resistance culture.’ I don’t ever want to be somebody who is profiting off this idea that we have to participate civically,” he bemoans. “But I do think there is a space for writing humor in this time. There’s always been a space for writing humor about the news even in the worst times.” The difference now, he says, is that “there’s also a space for making a community.”

That’s also the idea behind his book: relatable, honest, funny essays with a tinge of sadness (he speaks honestly about having had suicidal thoughts in a chapter that also touches on Kanye West and a car barreling through his parents’ house like the Kool-Aid man) but with a happy ending because that is Thomas’ life right now. The teen who swore he’d never return to Baltimore is now living his best life here: married and working as a full-time writer.

“What’s so beautiful about this book is a reclamation of what it means to be ‘other.’”

While his family—parents, siblings—read advance manuscripts of Here for It, Norse waited until the galley was out, until it felt like a real book. “He just kept laughing,” says Thomas, who had to force himself to stop asking, “What part are you on?” over and over again. Says Norse, “I know he’s hilarious and I know his depth, and in his column there are so many references to literature and pop culture and music and theater and television—but there’s also these other depths of a more serious or more intellectual Eric that folks are going to experience through the book.” His book editor, Sara Weiss, agrees, anointing him “David Sedaris-esque.”

This book, says Weiss, is a new side of him. “He’s just as funny and just as joyful, but he’s showing himself off in a vulnerable and richer way than what his Elle columns allowed,” she says. Thomas dives deep into “otherness and redefining what otherness is,” says Weiss. “Eric has always been in a space where he has felt ‘other.’” But he always makes a choice to choose hope and find joy. “What’s so beautiful about this book,” says Weiss, “is a reclamation of what it means to be ‘other.’”

And while there is no crystal ball for what the future holds for politics and all the voices that have benefited—Randy Rainbow, Andy Borowitz, and, yes, Thomas—it seems that his influence has longevity. (From Project Runway recaps to Peloton ad shaming to the Kardashians, whatever you’re hearing about, Thomas has already dissected with expert precision and the perfect meme to have you cackling in your office.)

And that staying power will continue as long as he continues to keep it real. After he turned in an early draft of his book, Weiss returned it with a simple note: “You are writing toward a specific reader who doesn’t understand you. You don’t have to do that.” Says Thomas, “That was stunning to me.” There were places where he was holding back or overexplaining himself. With that burden gone, he was able to just be himself. “I am really glad to not have to explain myself anymore,” he says, “I spent a lot of life explaining myself. Why I was real. Why I exist.” He’s over that. Now he’s able to take all those tidbits—big and little—from 37 years of being an observer and use them for good.

All of those lifelong intersections mean he’s relatable to a wide swath of humans. But his face is gentle, and his hands are steady when he smiles and says, “I don’t have to represent everything. I just have to represent myself.”





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