As the bar manager at Pod in University City, R. Eric Thomas deals with characters from all over the world — something he incorporates in his other world as a budding playwright. Thomas describes himself as a shy child, but anyone who’s seen him do his rendition of “Proud Mary” at Sisters Twisted Karaoke Thursdays knows he’s managed to overcome that.
PGN: Where are you originally from? RET: I was born in Baltimore, Md. I grew up and went to school there before going to college at Columbia University in New York. I moved to Philadelphia three years ago with my roommate and it was totally on a whim. We were bored, so we loaded up the car and moved. We’d been to Philadelphia once for a concert at World Cafe Live and it seemed like a nice place. Fortunately, it worked out. We were about to sign a lease on this atrocious — I mean atrocious — place in a scary neighborhood and I just couldn’t go through with it. So I looked on Craig’s List and we saw a listing for a really cute apartment and we took it on the spot. It was very ridiculous and kismety. But it’s a story that I can someday tell my kids, as in, “Don’t ever do that.”
PGN: Are you an only child? RET: No, I have two younger brothers. One is a schoolteacher in Charleston, S.C., and the youngest is in the police academy in Baltimore. That’s really exciting — I never would have expected him to go into law enforcement, but he’s graduating in April. Though he always wanted to be a superhero as a kid, so maybe it does fit.
PGN: What do your parents do? RET: My mother is also a schoolteacher; she teaches fourth grade, and my father manages Lexington Market, which is very similar to Reading Terminal. It’s a big open-air market in the heart of Baltimore.
PGN: So did you eat a lot of interesting and fresh food from the market? RET: No! Not at all. He didn’t bring things home. I guess it’s like me now: My roommate is always asking me to bring home food from the restaurant and I never do. I guess you eat enough of the food, the last thing you want to do is bring it home with you, but I need to try to remember that he hasn’t had a chance to get sick of it yet.
PGN: What was it like growing up in Baltimore? I’ve been there twice and had bad experiences both times. RET: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think everyone I know has had terrible experiences in Baltimore. It’s a tough town and it can be a little weird. I mean, it’s where John Waters got his start, after all. It’s very divided, the demographics change very drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, which leads to some definite conflicts. But I liked it and I think it’s a great place to visit. I went to a private school where we studied nature and rode horses and then I’d go home to the ghetto. I lived in the neighborhood where they filmed a lot of the scenes from “The Wire,” so I got a taste of both sides of the city. It was good, though; it gave me a look into the possibilities of what life could be. I always say, if I hadn’t grown up there, I’d probably live there.
PGN: What were you like as a kid? RET: I was an enormous nerd. I was always locked in my room reading books. I was good-natured, but totally awkward socially.
PGN: Do you remember your favorite book as a kid? RET: It was called “Leo the Late Bloomer” by Robert Kraus. I definitely identified with him.
PGN: So as the big brother, did you pick on your siblings? RET: Oh my God, no. I was not a very imposing authority figure. If anything, my middle brother, the teacher, kind of ran things and I was his sidekick.
PGN: What was some of the trouble you got into? RET: None, never, I never ever did anything wrong. I was a really obedient kid. I can’t think of one thing I did that was mischievous. Oh, I remember I broke a mirror once and then two days later, I accidentally broke another mirror. I didn’t even get into trouble — my parents thought 14 years of bad luck was enough for anyone! And I did have 14 years of bad luck after that: I think it was called adolescence …
PGN: What did you study at Columbia? RET: Oh my, I had six different majors during the course of my time in school. I went from urban studies to women’s studies and, at one point, I majored in Portuguese. Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing. I eventually ended up as an English major with the intention of becoming a writer, specifically a playwright. I was in a few musicals and I was in a great group called Late Night Theater, which produced nothing but student-written work. They did some of my work and it was amazing to see my ideas, my words, acted out on stage. It really got me jump-started as a playwright.
PGN: What does it mean to be a writer? RET: Presently? It means poverty. I realized after college that the playwriting store wasn’t really hiring, so I ended up in restaurants. Being a writer also means being open to go wherever life takes you. And in a restaurant, life will take you a thousand different places every day. The other great thing about working in restaurants and being a writer is that you get exposed to so much, so many different scenarios and personalities, so many different addictions and firearms. Being a writer to me right now means being able to escape and to travel and to reach other people and to be reached and understood without leaving the laptop.
PGN: You’re in the bar business; what’s your favorite drink? RET: Well, as the bar manager at Pod, I have the unique privilege of being paid to sample many different juices and spirits, and one of the best parts of my job is playing around with those things to make new drinks. One of our bartenders, Sarah Lockwood, made this incredible Maple Manhattan the other day, which is my favorite drink of the moment. In general, I’m addicted to tomato juice and Frostys. And if I’m in a drinking mood, I prefer a Belvedere, up, twist of lemon. Or a Basil Hayden, two rocks.
PGN: What subject do you most argue about? RET: Emptying the dishwasher. With my roommate, Lisa, who is the most amazing, brilliant human being and yet somehow still believes I’m capable of taking dry dishes and putting them in a cabinet. This is false. I am unable.
PGN: What would your after-school special be about? RET: It’d be some lovely chestnut about being yourself and learning to love yourself for the first 10 minutes and then we’d chuck all that and just make fun of things and do the “Fork in the Garbage Disposal” dance. I wish someone had just said to me at 16, “You, sad boy, snap out of it. One day there’s going to be something called Beyoncé and you’ll be just fine.” It’d be like “High School Musical” meets “Ellen.” Because, really, teenagers are either miserable or vapid and mean and they need to just chill out, cut the emotional nonsense by about 90 percent and realize that in 10 years they’ll all be a lot more interesting. But less hot. I’m just kidding.
PGN: You’re a writer; did you ever write to Santa? RET: No, my parents never let us believe in Santa.
PGN: For religious reasons? RET: No. The way my mother explains it, they felt that parents should never deceive children. They never wanted to give us a reason not to believe everything they told us growing up. They felt that it was important to always tell the truth. So even with something as light-hearted as Santa, we were told the truth. If they told one lie, how would we distinguish what was the truth from them and what wasn’t?
PGN: OK, let’s get to some fun stuff. What was your best dance growing up? RET: I don’t know, I was so shy, I didn’t really dance in public. Though I was obsessed with the Ace of Base song “The Sign.” My friends and I made up a dance to the song and pantomimed all the lyrics. It was the worst, but we had fun.
PGN: What’s something you’d do now if you weren’t afraid? RET: Well, this could be a stupid thing to say, but I’d probably quit my job. Not that I don’t love my job. I love my job. So much. I’ve never been more stimulated or challenged or engaged and I love it. I moved here to work for Stephen Starr. Well, actually, I moved here to meet Patti LaBelle. Seriously. But working for Starr Restaurants has been just the most incredible experience. I can’t say enough about the company and I love the perks, like eating for free at Buddakan. But if I wasn’t afraid and completely unable to manage my own personal finances, I’d take a sabbatical and really throw myself into writing and getting some of my work produced. I’d travel a bit and do some research. I’m working on a book that takes place in the Florida Keys, so I’d camp out there with the laptop and a lot of Post-it notes.
PGN: What is one thing you’ll regret if you never do it? RET: Get married. I know. I’m so cheesy. But, for real, I want to get married, even if it’s not legalized. I’ll call myself married any damn way. But I will definitely regret never giving it a try. It’s, for me, a little political, but it’s more a rite of passage that I really crave. To change from a me to a we, a single to a plus one, to make a connection, I think is one of the greatest things you can do with your life. My parents have been married for 30 years. And they work very hard at it. And the rewards their marriage brings are phenomenal.
PGN: Who or what did you want to be when you grew up? RET: Neil Patrick Harris. I’ve always wanted to be Neil Patrick Harris. And now that he’s grown up and cool, I want to be him even more! I don’t want to marry NPH. I want to actually be him. This sounds creepy. I’m not going to, like, wear a suit made of his skin or something, “Silence of the Lambs” style. It’s just an idea. Creepy.
PGN: NPH came out recently; when did you come out? RET: It was an ugly 10-year process. I’m a religious person. I grew up in the church, so I had all those religious misgivings, and I didn’t even really understand what being gay was. I didn’t know anyone else existed who was like me, so I felt like I was some kind of alien for a really long time. Then I went to college in New York, and what a difference. I was around a lot of progressive people and a lot of gay people and it really helped me think of myself in a different light. I joined this coming-out group, which was so undercover they were like a secret society. It was like Fight Club for gays. You weren’t allowed to talk about the group to anyone or mention anything that happened in the group. It was gay AA.
PGN: Ever been gay-bashed or harassed? RET: About two years ago I got attacked outside of the Khyber. My three friends, James, Jeff and Delon, were incredible, though. This guy started harassing me all of the sudden and they sprang into action. I didn’t even know what to do, I was kind of shocked by the whole thing, but they were right beside me immediately. Jeff threw his coat into the gutter like he was ready to seriously throw down. It was really scary but they were awesome and though we got hurt, we survived. They had my back and I’ll always love them for it.
PGN: An early sign you were gay? RET: What wasn’t? I went to a Christian elementary school and I used to skip in the playground making up little songs. I borrowed Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection” from the public library, I’d take it back and then borrow it again week after week, along with the soundtrack from “Beaches.”
PGN: Ever been on TV? RET: Yeah, a few times. The first time was a day after I was born. They were doing some kind of program at the hospital on the baby boom or something and I got on camera, and then after Columbia, I went to University of Maryland for some coursework and I wrote a satire for the student newspaper. Well, I considered it satire but a lot of people apparently didn’t think it was so funny. It was a complete train wreck. I got thousands of e-mails and ended up on the nightly news explaining myself.
PGN: Your house is on fire: What do you take? RET: Um, my laptop, my roommate, my cowboy hat. Is that the gayest answer ever? I need my cell phone and my three journals where I keep all my writing ideas.
PGN: When does inspiration strike you? RET: Three in the morning. Without fail. I lay my head down and it’s like a light goes on. I can work in the mornings, like work work. Numbers, spreadsheets, people, motivating the staff, opening the restaurant. But I am utterly uncreative until late afternoon and rarely inspired until the middle of the night.
PGN: Favorite quote? RET: There are so many, but I love the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s simple, but powerful.
PGN: Best gift you ever gave/received? RET: When I was in college I had the most awesome girlfriend ever. Ever. We’d try to one-up each other with creative gifts for birthdays and holidays. After I wrote the official “least well-received newspaper article ever,” she made me this awesome hate-mail receptacle. I still use it. And one year for her birthday, I made a Monopoly game based on her life. All the pieces were foamcore cutouts of her in different modes. Dancing, speaking, laughing, being serious, shopping, that sort of thing. There were cards, mall diversions, points, all this crazy stuff. I think I won.
PGN: Most unusual job? RET: Well, my first job was at Chuck E. Cheese’s. It was amazing. The best pizza ever. I was Chuck E. sometimes, which was a hot July mess. The rest of the time, I wore that charming rainbow uniform and gave people tokens when the machine messed up. I was very handy. Once a month, I had to crawl through the tubes with a paper towel and a bottle of cleaner and disinfect the whole thing. By the end of it, I was always filthy and a little tipsy from the fumes. But I usually found at least 47 cents. Which was big money! Fortunately I get even better prizes these days.
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