THE RISE AND FALL OF AN INTERNET SENSATION
"… it’s interesting to consider the effect mass media can have on an individual, and the process that can reduce a real person’s identity into a three-minute clip. For Bruso, the type of fame YouTube stardom brought him wasn’t something he wanted. Read the full story below."
With Thomas Bruso, known to the internet world as Epic Beard Man, Oakland had a bona fide YouTube sensation, who managed to spark his fair share of controversy. For those who may have missed it, the 67 year-old Bruso’s fifteen minutes of fame were the result of a hail of punches he landed on a younger black man, who tried to fight Bruso after being offended by what he took to be a racist comment. Amid the controversy, there was a lot to talk about: the improbability of Bruso’s impressive fighting ability, the racial dynamics of the situation, and of course, the infamous “I Am a Motherf**ker” t-shirt. Behind the viral video, lies the story of a real person, as foreign as that concept might seem.
The stories about Bruso all seem to conflict with one another: Bruso claims to be a Vietnam vet, and the product of an incredibly fucked up childhood (supposedly his mother put him in the oven). On the other hand, his family insists that he has bipolar disorder and a wildly inventive imagination. However convoluted the background is, the story of Thomas Bruso is a fascinating one, and SF Weekly‘s Lauren Smiley’s article captures the story well. I won’t bullshit like I didn’t laugh at the video, or show it to a bunch of my friends. But I think it’s interesting to consider the effect mass media can have on an individual, and the process that can reduce a real person’s identity into a three-minute clip. For Bruso, the type of fame YouTube stardom brought him wasn’t something he wanted. Read the full story below.
By Lauren Smiley
On Feb. 15, Thomas Bruso’s already unpredictable life took an abrupt detour. It was the day he ceased being Thomas Bruso and became Epic Beard Man, Internet sensation.
That day, Bruso pulled on his custom-made “I am a motherfucker” T-shirt, snapped on his fanny pack, and met the pot-smoking buddy he calls Ugly Bob at the bus stop at Fruitvale and MacArthur in Oakland. They boarded a San Francisco–bound AC Transit bus, planning to buy some weed in the city.
The two sixtysomethings sat near the front of the bus, where Bruso announced his plans to get his Stacy Adams shoes shined by a “brother” for his mom’s funeral in Michigan. The driver would later tell police that Bruso had said that black people are good at shoe shining, but whatever the wording, it surely came out in Bruso’s loud and gruff Chicago tones, and got people to pay attention. As Ugly Bob recalls it (though he says he wasn’t wearing his hearing aid that day), an intoxicated black passenger named Michael Lovette said, “Why don’t you get your own ‘brother’ to shine your shoes?”
Bruso is not one to walk away from a challenge — just ask the North Beach cops who drove up to where he was yelling obscenities at cars on Columbus Avenue one day, and billy-clubbed and pepper-sprayed the 6-foot-1, 225-pound hulk until he cracked up and cried. Or check out the video on YouTube, Bruso’s first taste of Internet infamy, of the police Tasing him after he thumbed his nose at them at an Oakland A’s game last August.
Lovette couldn’t have known all that as Bruso walked to the back of the bus and sat opposite him. The tension was enough for a young black woman named Iyanna Washington sitting beside Bruso to start recording the exchange.
“Let’s get back to business. How much you charge me for a spit-shine?” Bruso asked. Lovette, who is 50 but looks 20 years younger, with braids and wraparound sunglasses, replied in a low voice, “Why a brother gotta spit-shine your shoes?”
“You offered!” Bruso exclaimed, as though he were genuinely confused.
“I didn’t offer you shit,” Lovette answered.
“What did you just say when you walked by me?”
“I said, ‘Why a fuckin’ ‘brother’ gotta spit-shine your shoes?’”
“No, he don’t have to!” Bruso yelled back.
“Why a white man can’t spit-shine — ”
“It could be a Chinaman — it don’t matter!” Bruso shouted. “I ain’t prejudiced! What? You think I’m prejudiced?”
Lovette pointed to the front of the bus, where Ugly Bob still sat. “Look, dude, take yo’ ass back up there and get the fuck out of my face right now,” he said.
Bruso stood up and started walking to the front of the bus, yelling over his shoulder at Lovette: “You ain’t scarin’ this white boy. I’m 67 years old. You ain’t scarin’ me.”
A voice from behind the camera, which many think belongs to Washington, egged them on: “Say it again! Say it again, Pinky! Beat his white ass! Whup his ass!”
Lovette and Bruso continued to talk smack to each other. Bruso grunted, “I’m gonna slap the shit out of ya!”
“What?” Lovette shrieked, striding to the front of the bus. He lunged at Bruso in a sloppy attempt to hit him in the chest. Bruso swatted off the punch, stood up, and loosed a whirlwind of blows with his meaty fists that sent Lovette to the floor, hands up to shield his bleeding nose. Bruso grabbed Lovette’s collar and screamed, “I told you not to fuck with me!” and then told the bus driver and Washington’s camera, “He hit me! He fuckin’ hit me!” before leaving the bus. Lovette lumbered back to his seat, dripping blood, promising to “kill that nigga.”
The next day, Washington uploaded “AC Transit Bus Fight I Am a Motherfucker” to YouTube. The 3 minutes and 21 seconds of explosive footage got more than a million views in 24 hours. Web junkies dubbed Bruso “Epic Beard Man,” and posted fan art re-creating him as a muscular cartoon character, a pimp in a Stacy Adams ad, or getting his shoes shined by Lovette. Others created videos of the fight as Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter parodies; another composed and uploaded an “I Am a Motherfucker” tribute song. Hundreds of people posted response videos breaking down the fight. Comedians used it as skit material, while high schoolers cracked up at the senior citizen’s unlikely fighting prowess.
Epic Beard Man was a phenomenon. Of course, his new “fans” knew little about the man himself. Instead, viewers saw what they wanted to see. Some saw an elderly hero. Some saw a racist. And others — well, they saw dollar signs.
Bruso pulled his Chihuahua, Pinky, close to his face so she could lick him. “Would I ever hurt you, my lovely-dovely?” he cooed. The marijuana smoke was so thick in his room at the Altenheim senior residential home in Oakland — one of the nicer places a Section 8 voucher and $11,000 a year in welfare will get you — that you could get high just by walking in. A TV and radio played simultaneously. A note taped on the wall under a Marilyn Monroe poster read, “Tom, I am a local producer from Nash Entertainment. We had an interview scheduled with you for today. Please call me. I have some money for you.”
The phone rang, and Bruso asked me to answer it. In the month since he became Epic Beard Man, he has become wary, and not just because of the kids who call to ask him how much he’ll charge to shine their shoes. You can’t have a gloves-off racial clash of the kind rarely seen by polite society and expect to avoid the fallout. Dozens of black men posted videos on YouTube taking Bruso’s side, arguing that he was defending himself against a fool who read racism where there was none. Yet white supremacists commenting on message boards saw an all-powerful white man triumphing over a scraggly thug. The far-right Occidental Quarterly referred to Bruso as a “folk hero to hundreds of thousands of White Americans who are tired of being perpetual victims of violent hate crimes in their own land.” Bay Area National Anarchists, which preaches white separatism, attempted to organize a rally to support him.
There’s no doubt Bruso uses wildly politically incorrect terms, but people who know him insist he’s no racist at heart. His best friend, Junior, who is black, will tell you so, and Bruso attends a Baptist church with mostly black parishioners. Even the bus driver, who is also black, told police that she didn’t believe Bruso was making the racial remarks “in a mean way.” According to the police report, she said he “didn’t know his comments were insulting and … appeared to have a mental disorder.” When the cops arrived after the bus fight and arrested Bruso, he was committed for 72 hours to a psychiatric ward at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland. He was charged with battery resulting in injury of a transit passenger, but Lovette told police he wasn’t interested in pressing charges. Yet as soon as Bruso was released from the hospital, white racists started calling to congratulate him, their salutations turning to threats upon finding out he didn’t share their views. Black people called with promises of violence.
Bruso started to worry. In his big-talking moments, he’ll say things like, “You’re welcome to come to the funeral, girl. I’ve been threatened 17 times already. It’s just a matter of time before they sneak up on me and blow me away.” But behind the exaggeration, he got tired of the attention. Soon after the fight, he shaved off his epic beard. But then a video of him without his beard was posted online, too.
I picked up the phone. It was one of Bruso’s sisters, calling from Wisconsin. She demanded that I leave immediately: “It’s all a bunch of lies!” she shouted.
His sister in Minnesota, whom we’ll call Anne because she asked that his family members’ names be withheld, feels the same way. Anne says she could bring herself to watch only a couple of minutes of some of the news, man-on-the-street interviews, and documentary clips on YouTube in which her brother embarked on rants familiar to the North Beachers who know him as Crazy Tom, Vietnam Tom, or Touchdown Tommy, one of the neighborhood’s most infamous unmedicated kooks: He was stuck in an oven by his mom, he beat up his father, he was a vet who turned into a pimp in Chicago.
Anne ripped the stories apart. No, their mom never put him in an oven. He was never a pimp, nor did he beat up his father. And contrary to what everyone believes, including people raising money online for Bruso, Vietnam Tom never went to ‘Nam.
“If he has your attention, he can tell you all types of stories and make himself feel good about who he is for that moment in time,” she says. Yet she’s tired of him spinning and believing his own tall tales. “We’re like, ‘You’re not going to be rich and famous, you’re bullshitting them. And you believe it. You believe you’re Vietnam Tom, that you’re Epic Beard Man.’”
Anne says her brother, who says he is bipolar, gets out of control because he refuses to take his meds. He says the medication turns him into a vegetable, but she has another diagnosis: “If you’re taking meds, and you’re calm, you can’t act out and blame others. … He chooses to be in the limelight of negative attention.”
Obviously he’s getting plenty of it now. “It’s a delusional life he’s living through this media glittery-type attention,” Anne says. “It’s wrong to even pick up on it. I’m asking you not to glorify him.”
To continue reading “The Rise and Fall of an Internet Sensation” at SF Weekly, click here. Check here for the clip that made Thomas Bruso famous, and here for an reintroduction to the man behind the controversy.