Here for It
I am awake because everything is hilarious. And also terrifying. And also embarrassing.
Don’t pick up the phone, I tell myself as I lie in bed on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, 2016. Go to sleep, my brain hisses, as I slip my hand out from beneath the sheet and unlock my phone. I open the Notes app and my bedroom is suddenly illuminated by garish, gray-blue light, like I’m in a reboot of Poltergeist. Well, I think to myself, it’s not like I have a choice now. I hitch myself up in bed and start to type. There is a joke emergency.
I don’t realize it at the time, but I am entering a season of sleepless nights. It’s the middle of July and I am three weeks into my new job as a person who contributes to this great democracy by making fun of politics online for money. It’s immensely enjoyable but it does have the strange side effect of forcing me to know more about what’s happening in the world, particularly in the political world, and as I said, that’s hilarious and terrifying and deeply embarrassing. So, perfect for the internet. I’ve never been a particularly internet-y person. I like a good meme like the rest of the youths, but I’m never on the cutting edge of internet culture. Though I’ve had a couple of lackluster blogs, I’ve never been a blogger. I read television recaps on the legendary site Television Without Pity for years but never commented or engaged in any meaningful way beyond wishing that they’d miraculously email me and ask me to join the team. I must admit I know what Tumblr is but every time I think I know how to search for something on it I am proven wrong. I am a consumer on the internet, a regular, a normal. And, suddenly, recently, a viral creator. Clearly, the internet is broken.
Four weeks earlier, I’d come across a photo of President Obama, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto grinning as they strode down a red-carpeted walkway in bespoke suits. I was immediately deeply shewk. So I told the internet about it. I fired up my aging computer, posted the shot on Facebook, and wrote, “Whoever took this photo deserves a GD Pulitzer Prize. We may be two minutes from doomsday but thank the Lord we still live in a universe where three world leaders can strut into a room like they’re the new interracial male cast of Sex and the City. Like I have ALREADY pre-purchased tickets to this film. Out here in these streets looking like Career Day Ken. Looking like Destiny’s DILF. Looking like the Alternate Universe version of our Current Political Universe. Looking like Tom Ford presents The Avengers.” It went on like that for a while. As I said, I was deeply shewk.
At this time, I had about 1,500 Facebook friends, almost exclusively people I’d actually met. I had, on occasion, posted something funny online that friends shared with their friends who shared with their friends, eventually giving whatever I’d written a temporary social lift. That’s how the internet works, and the first time it happened on Facebook—when my blog post about how expensive Beyoncé concert tickets were got 100,000 page views—I thought I was famous. The internet will quickly remind you that you are not famous; you just did this one thing this one time and that was yesterday so why are we still talking about it?
The world leaders photo was different, though. My crazed-thirst rant about the president and his hot friends zigzagged across the internet with a speed that shocked me. It was liked 77,000 times, generated almost 6,000 comments (some of them not terrible!), and was shared 17,000 times. The great aggregation machine of the internet whirred to life and articles started popping up with headlines like “Internet User Has Hilarious Reaction to Obama Photo.” I was an Internet User! People started friending me on Facebook by the hundreds—strangers! And, a few days after the post, Leah Chernikoff, the site director of ELLE, sent me a Facebook message. “I saw your post shared by so many acquaintances. Would you consider doing more of this kind of writing?” she wrote.
That message, to which I responded with a level of overzealous exuberance that still sends shivers of embarrassment down my spine, would lead to a daily freelance humor column, called Eric Reads the News, and, later, a full-time, salaried position at ELLE. It would also eventually bring me to the attention of editors at The New York Times, provoke theater makers to express interest in reading my plays, and pave the way for this book. Publicly thirsting after a sitting president would, it turns out, change my life.
“My husband was called to his profession by God,” I would later tell people at parties or mumble to my houseplants. “I was called to my profession by a very accomplished woman in Manhattan.”
I should be asleep. It is the responsible thing to do. Although I am writing the daily column—for three weeks now!—on ELLE, I am also holding down a day job as a program director at an LGBTQ community center. Every day, I wake a few hours early, chat with Leah on Facebook Messenger about what’s happening in the news, decide on something to write about, and attempt to fire it off before running to the center. Sometimes that actually works. Other times, I am squeezing writing into my lunch breaks or carving out a quiet half hour in which I can type madly into my phone before jumping back into my day. I have never freelanced at this level before—I’ve written a couple of hyperbole-filled concert reviews for Philadelphia Magazine (“Ms. Ross’s third costume change was into a king-size periwinkle duvet cover”), but those were the kinds of things I could dash off on a Saturday morning at a coffee shop, or spend an evening after work on.
This column is a whole different animal. It feels like the already lightning-fast news cycle is speeding up. The presidential campaign is kicking into high gear now that, improbably, C-list grifter Donald Trump has made an ascent in the Republican Party and it seems clear that Hillary Clinton will not face any obstruction to her nomination in a few days from Bernie Sanders. We are in a moment where the news is, blessedly, fairly predictable, which makes it easier to make fun of. But I find that you have to be quick about it. If something happened last night, you have until maybe midday to write about it. Otherwise, the world—and the internet—will have moved on. As a spectator on the internet, someone who lives in Philadelphia and whose only understanding of the New York fashion media world of which the column is tangentially a part comes from The Devil Wears Prada, I understand the speed and the drive but I don’t really know what to do with it yet.
I am still trying to figure out what this column is, and if it will continue past, say, tomorrow. I am convinced that everyone will realize they have made a mistake in giving me money to make jokes. I am writing summaries of happenings or “reads” of newsworthy photos that, I hope, have the tone of a late night comedy monologue screamed through a bullhorn by a very excited gay black person. There are moments when I wonder if this is problematic—the audience I’m writing for is largely straight-identified, so my use of my communities’ vernaculars might read as a performance rather than a genuine expression. But this is how I was writing before—Diana’s duvet ain’t gonna describe itself, honey—and that writing was for my friends. Even the Obama thirst was, ostensibly, for people who knew me, a little note dashed off to a small community that also happens to be the entire internet. So when I wonder about the column and the hyperbole I find works well for it, I have to ask if everything about myself is minstrelsy and whether there is any part of me that actually exists in reality, and I don’t have time to sort through that. I am an Internet User and I am trying my best!
I have to get this column up and get to work. Which is why I should be asleep. I can’t be burning the midnight oil when I need to wake up in three hours, figure out what to say about the Democratic National Convention or Jeff Goldblum’s hair or Idris Elba’s absolutely everything, and then hop on the subway to my job where I am trying to make community for LGBTQ people. In reality.
I scan the darkened bedroom—the window with a view of the South Philly stadium where the convention is currently being held, the two copies of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that I keep meaning to read, the armchair that I bought from a thrift store because it was on sale but that I will never sit in because I am afraid it is haunted, and my phone, now in my hand, waiting.
Don’t do it, I tell myself. Close your eyes, go to sleep, wake up, show up to work on time for once in your life, do a good job, answer all of your unread emails, donate to charity, vote, care about the world, raise a good kid or a dog (tbd), yell at fewer strangers on Facebook, smile more (unless someone on the street tells you to, in which case don’t smile), have hope (shoutout to Barack!) but also be realistic about what you can expect out of this life (shoutout to systemic oppression!), figure out what a realistic expectation for hope in this life is, be a better person, die eventually.
You know, the usual.