‘Cliff and Clair’ take a family vacation—without the family

 R. Eric Thomas' father is shown taking a picture of his mother in Crescent City, Calif.

R. Eric Thomas' father is shown taking a picture of his mother in Crescent City, Calif. "What's notable," says Eric, "is that there are literally six cameras in the photo." (Image courtesy of R. Eric Thomas)

Each month, NewsWorks presents a story from the First Person Arts Podcast. In this edition, R. Eric Thomas recalls his favorite childhood vacation … at a motel 10 minutes from home.

As part of a monthly series, NewsWorks presents this story from the First Person Arts Podcast. It was told at an August 2011 story slam, where true-life stories are presented around a theme, no notes allowed. The theme that night was “weird trips.”

Storyteller R. Eric Thomas recalls his favorite childhood vacation … at a motel 10 minutes from home. You can listen to the story in the audio player above. [Audio prouduction by Kimerby Haas.]

My parents went on vacation last month, and they took pictures in a photo booth that combines two people’s photos to show them what their baby would look like. Because my parents were curious what their baby would look like.They’re telling me about this on the phone. They’ve got this banter going on, like this Lucy and Ricky type thing that they do on the phone, and it’s really sort of comforting.They went on two vacations last month, and this is strange to me because we’re not a vacation type of family. My mother asked me if I got the postcard from Mount Rushmore, and I say, ruefully, I did. She sent me a postcard from Mount Rushmore, and on the back it had one line, and it said, “Spending your inheritance!” Exclamation point.She signed it “Cliff and Clair,” which are not my parents’ names. It’s the names of the Huxtables. Because that’s what me and my brother started calling them.I don’t know who my parents are these days. A couple of years ago, they just started treating themselves and going on vacations. And now they know the names of their favorite server in every restaurant in Baltimore.And we’re a family where me and my brother used to share a Happy Meal after little league; there was just no money. We weren’t poor, but that’s what happens when you send three kids to private school. They sacrificed a lot. My mother put herself through grad school while she was working full-time as a schoolteacher, and eventually got her doctorate. Paid for it herself. My father worked three jobs. He would get up at 5 to deliver papers and then go work at his other job on his days off.All this to send me and my brothers to these schools where our minds were expanded. They wanted to redraw the map for us in ways that … maybe it wouldn’t have been for us demographically, and I appreciate that. They had the dream that we’d be Huxtables before we had Huxtable money.But they did take us on trips, once a year, when my dad got his bonus. We lived in downtown Baltimore, and they would take us to Towson, which is about 18 miles outside Baltimore, to the Embassy Suites. And, let me tell you, it was the best trip ever — because we didn’t have central air, and we didn’t have cable, and we didn’t have a pool. So: They had central air, they had cable and they had a pool. And I’m telling you I’ve never been on a better vacation in my entire life. We felt like we were kings!And then—oh my goodness—we had this continental breakfast every morning. (This was before I started eating my emotions, so this was just good, clean fun.) My brothers and I, we would walk up, and we could make our own waffles.Do you know how amazing it is to make your own waffle? You feel like a billionaire!And then there was this dude who—you would tell him what you wanted in your omelette, and he makes it for you! Man, we felt like Scrooge McDuck! And we’re doing the Carlton dance from “Fresh Prince.” We’re ecstatic. It was stunning for us. Eighteen minutes from our house.We got the chance to go on a lot of trips. My brother went to Vienna with his chorus at his school. And I went whale-watching in Provincetown, we went stream-walking—and I’ve seen a lot of things because of the sacrifices my parents made. But the Embassy Suites was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.We went the same weekend every year. And every year there was also a “Star Trek” convention at the hotel at the same time. I swear I’m telling the truth. And this was awesome for me, because I was a little bit of a nerd.So there was a fire drill one night, and—so, it was just me and my little brothers, in our pajamas, and there’s a drunken bride and, like, some sleepy businessmen—and then … Klingons. And it was the best thing ever. And if you haven’t had this experience, I highly recommend it.So I’ve been thinking about these things as my parents are telling me about their latest trips. They went hang-gliding in Honduras, I believe. And then they took pictures of buffalo in the Great Plains. They’ve got this banter thing (It’s so great to have sitcom parents. If you don’t have sitcom parents, I recommend them) my father starts to joke: “Oh yeah, we saw a bunch of prairie dogs.” My mother’s like: “There was one that tried to get into our car, but I wouldn’t let it, because prairie dogs have the plague”—that’s apparently something she saw on the Discovery Channel that may or may not be true.And the next day my mother sends me dozens of photos … out of the thousands that she has taken. She takes photos compulsively. And they’re all gorgeous. And she puts them in these scrap books, which are a heritage for me, an inheritance, a map.My parents sent me a postcard that said, “We’re spending your inheritance.” But that’s just what was written on it. What it really said was, “Look how far we’ve come.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

We caught up with Eric to see how far he has come. 

Do you save postcards? Describe the best post card you ever sent or received?

I LOVE getting postcards. It’s the most effective way to get in touch with me. I think Sallie Mae would have more success collecting my student loans if they sent postcards. “Wish your money were here.”

My refrigerator is completely covered with postcards from afar and “save the date” cards — just a monument to other people’s happiness and abilities to navigate Priceline. It’s a little intense. Not that I begrudge my friends’ relationships, but really — how many dates can I save? I bought a 2014 calendar and just scribbled: “People you kind-of know are in love. Deal with it. You’ll get cake.”

Where was I? Oh, postcards! I guess the best postcard I’ve ever received is the one mentioned in the story. My parents, apropos of nothing, sent me a postcard from the Grand Canyon with one simple line: “Spending your inheritance! XOXO.” Everyone’s a comedian.

You said your family is not the “vacation type.” That’s changed for your parents. Has it changed for you? Do you travel much? What’s the best trip you took, and why?

Were I independently wealthy, I’d travel all time (or, honestly, if I were dependently wealthy, too; I have no shame). I love the world. I mean, no offense to space. It’s nice. But, you know, zero gravity, astronaut ice cream: sort of a chore. But the world? Gorgeous.

Alas, I work in the performing arts and spend all my money on Groupon yoga classes, so I don’t vacation much.

I think the best trip I’ve taken was a road trip with my brother Elwood. We took off across the country, en route to the boarding school where we were raised. Along the way, we ran into a cavalcade of singers and musicians from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Fantastic time! A mission from God, really. This may also be the plot of the movie “Blues Brothers,” but that’s just a coincidence.

What is your criteria for a “good” vacation photograph?

I’m a sucker for anything with a beach or tropical background. I don’t care if you’re just standing in front of a poster for the movie “Ferngully”—I’m going to like it on Facebook. Palm trees! Waterfalls! Can’t get enough.

Same goes for  pictures of really decadent brunches. Technically, you don’t have to be on vacation to take a picture of your brunch, so I guess it helps if you have a sunburn in the photo. Or include a Euro. Although I hear the Europeans don’t do decadent brunches. Austerity. And, by the by, what is austerity, anyway?

Who are your favorite sitcom parents, and why?

Cliff and Clair Huxtable top my list. They laughed with each other, they danced, they lip-synced, they loved; they were anomalies to me. I mean, they were exactly like my parents in so many ways, yet they were so unlike anything else I saw on television in that they were black and successful. So, they were both inspirational and aspirational. They were familiar and revolutionary. 

R. Eric Thomas is a playwright and stand-up dramedian. He has been called “one of the most talented storytellers in Philly” by Philadelphia Weekly. He is the author of four produced plays, including “The Spectator” (Run of the Mill Theater Company, Baltimore) and “The Affair” (LateNite Theatre, New York City).

First Person Arts is a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to transforming the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art. You can find Diana’s full story and others on the First Person Arts free weekly podcast, which premiers on iTunes on June 25th.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal